An early passion for science, a PhD in Organizational Leadership, and a life-changing Peloton class – how Chautauqua Institution’s Senior Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations and Lindauer placement, Maya Holt-Brockenbrough, PhD, sees the tapestry of her life.
Interviewed by Megan Abbett, Lindauer Senior Consultant.
Let’s talk a little bit about your career and how you got to Chautauqua Institution.
It really all started for me in seventh grade – I was always very interested in science and we did a series on dissections in my science class and when we got to the brain, I just fell in love with it. I came home and told my mom, “I’m going to be a neurosurgeon.”
At Wellesley College, I studied neuroscience and Spanish and unfortunately, physics changed my plans! I still wanted to make an impact and be of service to people, so I went to Johns Hopkins School of Public Health for my Master’s. I went into healthcare consulting shortly thereafter but it wasn’t as fulfilling as I had hoped it would be.
My working at Howard University started somewhat serendipitously. A friend of a friend knew there was going to be an opening at the Women’s Health Institute for the Deputy Director and that was my foray into higher education. I started doing grant writing and some ad hoc projects and ultimately provided a more centralized support system for Health Sciences faculty and their grants and research ideas. The Senior VP of Health Sciences became the provost of Howard University and decided he was going to take what we had created in health sciences and expand that to the entire university. That’s how I became the director of research for the university. That provost, Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, is now the president of Howard University. I was in that position for about five years and wanted to learn about other areas within higher education so I spoke with President Frederick about this. He was willing to grow staff across the institution, and he mentioned development. There hadn’t been anyone in the corporate and foundation relations area for a few years so I moved into that role and stayed for quite some time. I reached a point where I wanted a larger system, different people to learn from. That took me to Johns Hopkins, where I began the process of getting my Ph.D. Over the course of time there, I started to wonder what was beyond higher education.
I really didn’t know exactly where I wanted to land but I knew I wanted to be at a mission-driven organization. I didn’t know if that meant going back to healthcare or going to a smaller institution or an advocacy nonprofit somewhere. It was at that point that Lindauer reached out to me. I had never heard of Chautauqua Institution before but quickly fell in love with their mission.
How did the pandemic influence your readiness to move on?
Having gone through the pandemic and having gone through staff changes and conversations at the organizational level really gave me a different arsenal of questions to ask. Questions like “how soon did you send people home? What provisions did you give people?” Things you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of pre-pandemic but questions that got me a deeper understanding of what work-life balance and integration looks like for them.
How are you feeling about onboarding and your first few weeks/months?
Right now, I’m three days in the office, two days at home. They sent me a plan about how things were sanitized, how they rotated people in and out, very comprehensive. From that standpoint, it’s been great. The other piece of it though, of course, is I haven’t yet been up to Chautauqua. We’ve made use of Zoom, and I think that’s wonderful but I’m anxious to go up there and see it in person.
What do you see as the biggest opportunity? When you daydream about the impact you can have through your work with Chautauqua Institution, what do you think that is?
My biggest opportunity is being able to take what I’ve learned at my two previous institutions and build out a program to make a lasting impact for Chautauqua Institution. To really get us in front of national foundations and additional corporations.
What is Chautauqua Institution doing to demonstrate its commitment to DEI?
It starts with leadership and Michael [E. Hill, Chautauqua Institution’s president] has been adamant that he wants Chautauqua Institution to be diverse, inclusive, and accessible to all. That work started with diversifying the board. Once we have our newest members on board, I think we’ll be one-third people of color and LGBTQIA individuals. To me that signals us wanting to not just talk the talk, but actually walk the walk. He and I had a very candid conversation when I came in, and he wants to make the environment more inclusive. It’s not just about the diversity piece, it’s about making Chautauqua Institution feel inclusive so that everyone sees it as an attractive place to be.
When you think about the expanse of your career, what do you see as the biggest challenge?
Actually finding a direction was one of the biggest challenges for me. I started working with a career coach I met in an online Peloton class of all places and we started with personal values. I found that what I really loved was service with a sense of justice and equity and personal development/self-improvement. We took those things and looked for organizations that matched those values. We didn’t look at positions, we looked at missions.
In the midst of that process, Maureen [Huminik, Lindauer Vice President] popped into my universe with Chautauqua Institution. The mission had that service piece, and the DEI element spoke to justice and the whole self-improvement/personal development piece. Chautauqua Institution is about lifelong learning. My immediate thought was “this seems too perfect for me not to throw my hat in the ring.”
Your PhD is in Organizational Leadership and your dissertation was titled, “The Effects of Organizational Culture and Leadership Styles on Women Presidents: A Quantitative Study of Gendered Leadership in Higher Education”, what led you to that topic?
When I started the program, I knew I had been under some great leaders and some less so. I started to understand how much a leader could make or break an organization as well as the people working there. I looked at gender leadership in higher education as I had spent a significant portion of my life working there. I saw some women leaders in the room but there were a lot of men. In my research, I saw a lot of women presidents particularly in community colleges and wondered if there was something different between a community college vs. a four-year institution vs. a major research university. I saw more women leading community colleges than at 200-year old major research institutions and I wondered if there were cultural differences at these institutions (Community Colleges) that may be more accommodating to women than others? It got me to that question of why is it when woman does something, it is “bossy” yet when a man does it, it is “assertive”? It was fascinating to explore the questions women often face in all aspects of leadership and life.
Is there anything else about your career experience that you’d like to share?
I used to be insecure because my experience had been so varied. I wondered how I would position myself for the future. During one of our talks, Maureen helped me see my life as a tapestry. To ask, what are those common threads? To think not in terms of the positions I’ve held, but the skills that I’ve acquired and how those can translate into future positions. It took me a while where I felt comfortable talking about myself like that. Otherwise, it looks like I did a little work in healthcare, and a little work in higher education, and wasn’t focused when, in reality, the common thread is research and building programs, and that transfers across all sectors.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Throw out the “should” – do what feels right for you – and don’t have timelines for yourself. Sometimes those five year plans can be too rigid and actually limit your opportunities.
Interviewed by Megan Abbett, Lindauer Senior Consultant.