Scholar-Practitioners at GGU: Dr. Jeffrey Yergler of the School of Undergraduate Studies

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Credit: Jenny LeMaster
A Series of Interviews with Scholar-Practitioners
For over 100 years, Golden Gate University has focused on teaching students hard skills they can use in their chosen business field rather than taking an exclusively “book based approach.” The Scholar-Practitioner Model is one in which professors — in addition to researching, writing, and teaching — bring in fresh ideas from their business experience to create a better outcome for students. About 80% of GGU instructors are working professionals that can teach up-to-the-day skills that are required in a business world that demands leaders who can thrive in chaotic organizations that have to rapidly innovate — as well as deal with trends such as AI, automation of jobs, and globalization. The GGU blog is offering a series of interviews designed to show how the Scholar-Practitioner Model is put into practice at Golden Gate University. The first post in this series is a “Q&A” with Dr. Jeffrey Yergler.

Q&A with Dr. Jeffrey Yergler Associate Professor, Management & Department Chair, Management at GGU’s School of Undergraduate Studies


Would you please describe your academic and professional experience?

I spent the first 22 years of my professional career working in large sectarian non-profits where the central focus was finding ways to strengthen organizational performance where the only goal was to support, empower, and care for human beings through all the stages of their lives. There was indeed a spiritual component that ran as a strong undercurrent in this entire work. For me, every human being with whom I interacted possessed infinite value and dignity. This was especially important in light of the fact that so many of the people with whom I interacted on a daily basis had been demoralized, dehumanized, and had lost their dignity, sense of value and worth as a result of their daily interactions in the world of work, relationships, and the daily challenges of simply being alive.

The most incredible part of my work for these 22 years was investing in the well-being of people and building the type of organizations that could serve the needs of others locally, nationally, and around the world. This work brought with it the opportunity to travel widely and interact with leaders in their indigenous contexts (Kenya, The Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Uganda, Egypt, Israel, Switzerland, France, the United Kingdom, India, Central America, and South America).

…my research revealed that many managers do not know how to build and sustain engagement.

What are employers looking for in managers & leaders?

Every employer is looking for something different in his or her managers. However, the one thing that most employers are looking for in their managers is the capacity or ability to engage followers. This means that employers want managers to get their followers…their teams…to deliver results and to get the work of the organization “out the door.” My research focuses on two specific areas: identifying the drivers that fuel and sustain employee engagement and the cultural values that create an environment where engagement is valued and championed.

First, the findings of my research revealed that many managers do not know how to build and sustain engagement. What most managers know how to do is to use a position of authority and power to get compliance and generate performance from followers. The worst-case anecdotal data provided by my research participants describes managers who in their attempts to get followers to perform and comply do significant harm and damage by dismantling dignity, destroying value, esteem, and eroding confidence and morale. In fact, managers can be so destructive that they can create a psychologically traumatic impact on certain followers. But, unfortunately, this is not the whole story. Toxic, dysfunctional, and ill-prepared managers are put into management positions by organizational leaders who have given little-to-no thought regarding how these managers will impact engagement levels. Additionally, many organizations provide little-to-no management training around how to build and sustain engagement.

…senior leaders are stewards of the well-being and empowerment of employees and, as a result, should be putting the absolute brightest and best managers in front of the people they pay tens of thousands of dollars to get in the door.

What this points to is the following: show me managers who do not know how to build and sustain engagement; and I’ll most likely show you a larger organizational system where leaders and the culture in which those leaders operate have not thought through their responsibility to the people they hire…that the organization and senior leaders are stewards of the well-being and empowerment of employees and, as a result, should be putting the absolute brightest and best managers in front of the people they pay tens of thousands of dollars to get in the door. Instead, these organizations and their leaders use employees as tools and only as a means to what they believe is a much greater end…making money…even when that pursuit destroys human dignity and leaves women and men fractured and often empty and disillusioned. I have come to believe that much of the massive dislocation and disorientation experienced by so many people in our Western culture today is, in part, the result of the way organizations and business practices have used, manipulated, and oppressed the human will and spirit.

What do managers who understand engagement actually do?

My research pointed to six different areas that are addressed by managers who understand engagement and are trained to (and, yes, evaluated on) build and sustain engagement:

  1. Ensure that followers are spending most of their time doing work that aligns with their interests and strengths.
  2. Provide ongoing information that helps followers know how their unique contribution adds value to the total team effort. Moreover, give them ongoing opportunities to make new contributions and bring new ideas to team projects and initiatives.
  3. Give opportunities for professional development that aligns with the follower’s interests, with the needs of the team, and reflects the longer-term professional development goals for the follower.
  4. Provide sufficient and appropriate amounts of autonomy for followers that foster creativity, innovation, and problem-solving.
  5. Offer targeted and timely recognition of contributions that are both scheduled and spontaneous. This includes communicating “deep value” to the follower which has nothing to do with what they produce or how they perform but who they are as human beings…as persons.
  6. Connect work to meaning and purpose beyond the paycheck. Managers know how to take the day-to-day work and build linkages to the company’s mission and the contribution to the local, national, and global community.

...leaders must be especially clear on who they are, why they are leading, how they will lead, and the impact and legacy of their leadership upon people and institutions.

Why is choosing a leadership style important?

In the leadership courses I teach, I consistently communicate that while many people think they are leaders simply by calling themselves “a leader,” this in no way makes them either a leader or an effective leader. In fact, it can often mean the opposite. The most dangerous and toxic leaders can be people who think they know and then act on what they think they know. As a corrective to this, I make the point that if one aspires to lead, then one must carefully define the following three areas:

• The Leader
• The work of Leading
• The impact and legacy of Leadership

In today’s business, political, economic, and geo-global climate, leaders must be especially clear on who they are, why they are leading, how they will lead, and the impact and legacy of their leadership upon people and institutions. These choices must be intentional, conscious, strategic, and global.

Being someone who can adjust to, learn from, and move with this ongoing state of disruption on multiple levels is what I would call a leader being adaptable to change.

Many instructors here say “adapting to change” is a critical business skill.

We make a big deal in the Bay Area about “adapting.” In general, it means the ability to flex and adjust to changing environmental, relational, or personal dynamics. When it comes to change, adapting means to lean into, rather than away from, the change itself. We live in a constant state of turbulence or “permanent white water” (a metaphor first introduced by Peter Vaill). Another widely popular acronym first developed in the 1990s and first developed by the U.S. Army War College is VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). VUCA is often used today to describe the ever-shifting state of change that can create a very real or perceived sense of dislocation and disorientation. Being someone who can adjust to, learn from, and move with this ongoing state of disruption on multiple levels is what I would call a leader being adaptable to change.

What three things can or should a leader say when getting up to speak to a group of employees that is effective?

  1. “We value who you are and are grateful for what you bring to this organization.”
  2. “One of our most important goals is to ensure that in this place you will be supported, resourced, encouraged, challenged, and given the opportunity to bring your best every day.”
  3. “I am available to you as is every one of our leaders and managers. We are here to serve you, to partner together, and to succeed together.”

Companies have people with different world-views and cultural backgrounds. How do leaders adapt to this reality?

San Francisco is known as ground-zero for diversity, and one area of diversity would be cultural background. Because of this rich diversity connected to culture, it is imperative that leaders and managers develop cultural competence which is the ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures. Developing cultural competence requires that leaders and managers are curious to know, understand, appreciate, and value the cultural differences and uniqueness of others. Part of this competence connects to the diversity of world-views that people across cultures bring with them into a workplace context. I am convinced that if any leader or manager is to be effective in working with cultural differences, they must be eager to know every day the values and experiences of others. This necessarily means that leaders and managers must abandon any hint of exceptionalism or ethnocentrism.

The best instruction, in my opinion, leverages who the student is, where the student has been, what the student has learned, where the student is going, and the new insights and knowledge that can transform and help to create a new engaging future.

You have mentioned a “utilitarian” view of employees in other contexts.

Leaders and organizations who fail to understand the meaning and value of engagement will tend to treat employees as a means to an end (where the means would be defined as “labor units” and the ends would be defined as profitability). In this approach, people will be treated as tools, as resources, as cost centers, as overhead, as assets that are required and necessary to get to the real bottom line or end which is profitability. Conversely, organizations that treat people as humans, with dignity, respect, and value on their own as the first priority for the organization view this end just as important as the “end” of being profitable. These companies realize that performance and profit are outcomes or results of an engaged and thriving workforce. Moreover, these companies see engagement as a primary comes from their understanding of stewardship (see Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership). This concept and practice will more than likely be absent from organizations who “say” people are their most important asset and then turn around and treat people in an instrumental way.###


Teaching Leadership Courses in the School of Undergraduate Studies at Golden Gate University


What kind of impact does your leadership experience have on students?

In many ways, what I did for 22 years was preparation for my work as a University Professor. In fact, I would say that being a professor was what I was meant to do with my life. I view students in much the same way as I did those with whom I worked for 22 years — that is, doing what I can to build resilience and the capacity to thrive, cultivate a curiosity that leads to knowledge and a hunger to practice; and demonstrate competency that makes an impact and difference in the world of business. I also understand that behind every “student” is a life, a network of relationships, a history filled with highs and lows, successes, tragedies, and hopeful beginnings and possibilities. The best instruction, in my opinion, leverages who the student is, where the student has been, what the student has learned, where the student is going, and the new insights and knowledge that can transform and help to create a new engaging future.

Golden Gate University is an ideal place for a working adult to complete his or her undergraduate degree because our instructors are active specialists and leaders in their careers and professions…

Would you please give examples of one or two things you teach that are most important?

In my courses, I work to ensure that most class discussions, papers, and/or discussion forums are in some way connected to one’s sense of self, the importance of thriving, and the ability to make a contribution to organizational performance, the morale and well-being of others, and the importance of being connected to a community. As it relates to employee engagement, there are many times during a course that one or more of the 6 areas that build and fuel engagement (noted above) are linked to the course curriculum. Whether a class on management principles or organizational leadership, both courses connect firmly to the manager and leader as persons who can have a profound impact on those who are managed and those who are led.

How is the undergraduate program relevant to the student (over 25) who already has some experience as a manager?

Golden Gate University is an ideal place for a working adult to complete his or her undergraduate degree because our instructors are active specialists and leaders in their careers and professions who know how to take theory and methodology and convert both into professional practice in the field. For someone who has some industry experience in business, or, for veterans who are bringing their knowledge and experience gained from their military service, there is incredible benefit to working with a business leader who is also an adept practitioner who understands how to “make it work” typically from a management perspective. One of the best ways to learn the practices of effective managers is to have an effective manager as one’s instructor. As a full-time faculty member and Department Chair, I always make that one of my highest priorities when choosing the best instructors for our students who bring different levels of experience into the classroom.

You are very high energy! How does that fit with leadership or is it just disposition?

A leader is someone who comes to know his or her disposition (psychological makeup/personality) over time. This then is coupled with leadership knowledge, which includes making the right choices about choosing the optimum leadership style to match the people, situation, and environment.

Read Jeffrey Yergler’s articles on leading situationally and soft skills by on the GGU Blog.


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