Before answering higher education’s calling, resulting in a 20-plus-year journey culminating in the presidency of the George Washington University, Ellen M. Granberg worked for 11 years in the business sector at the Pacific Bell Telephone Company in California.
Speaking as the guest of honor at Wednesday’s George Talks Business episode, moderated by GW Business Dean Anuj Mehrotra, Granberg told the an audience of GW Business students, faculty, staff, leadership and alumni at Jack Morton Auditorium that those business and communications skills she learned at a Fortune 500 company have been plenty transferable to her career arc in higher-ed leadership, whether that’s dealing with budgets, HR or collaborative problem solving.
“I got a chance to see some of those best practices,” said Granberg, who on Friday was formally inaugurated as the university’s 19th president. “And that’s been extremely helpful.”
With that in mind, Granberg outlined for the GW community on Wednesday how the university can capitalize on its proximity in the nation’s capital, which she believes is the university’s most “unfair” advantage to other institutions.
She mentioned how GW’s proximity attracts faculty with professional qualifications that other universities would long for, and one of her goals as president is to foster more cross-collaborative research across the university, especially given that GW recently earned membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU).
“How do we stay there [AAU] and how do we get better? In terms of research, I see a couple of things. One is shoring up the infrastructure that supports faculty research so we can get more and larger grants out and do more ambitious projects,” Granberg said. “Part of what that involves is breaking down the silos between colleges. There’s so much interest and so much excitement and potential about working across colleges.”
Granberg has also prioritized more attention to measuring and quantifying the value of a GW education, highlighting the cutting-edge innovation leading to some bold experiments that meet society’s fast-moving trends.
“We have so much opportunity in that space,” she said.
Having a strong sense of business acumen needed to get things done is only part of the equation. Strong leadership and communication skills also account for large pieces of the puzzle.
Granberg also said that building relationships and trust with critical constituencies are key components to both problem solving and leadership. As the leader of an institution, where many issues requiring tough decisions fall on her desk, Granberg said it is important to be collaborative and willing to listen, better leading to a calm and measured approach to decision making.
“If the leader is getting angry or short or panicky, then it destabilizes everything and so maintaining calm personal demeanor is actually an important part of leading,” Granberg said.
She also said that leaders must be willing to move boulders out of the way so the students, faculty and staff have a navigable path to achieving what they wish to achieve.
As the president of GW, Granberg said her first and most important priority is to always ensure the safety and well-being of the community, including students, faculty, staff, family and alumni. Earlier in the week, Granberg outlined campus safety, security and the road ahead for the GW community, especially as the Israel-Hamas conflict enters a new phase at home and abroad.
“This is a moment where safety is especially salient,” Granberg said. “It’s always important, but especially now.”
She also believes a president’s responsibility is to be the chief catalyst and cheerleader, and that a leader of an institution should always be its greatest advocate. In addition to increasing cross-disciplinary collaboration and building an even stronger philanthropic program, one of her main measures of success during her GW tenure is to embed even more pride and confidence among those in the university community.
The school, GW Business, Granberg addressed on Wednesday, for instance, was ranked No. 1 by Financial Times for the percentage of women enrolled in full-time M.B.A. programs among U.S. institutions and tied for No. 2 worldwide. Bloomberg BusinessWeek also ranked GW Business No. 3 for diversity in its 2023-2024 best business schools rankings.In addition, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that GW Business, at 65%, had the highest share of female enrollment.
That’s just at one school. There is a lot to both celebrate and to build upon, and Granberg looks forward to sharing past and future accomplishments with the community she now leads.
“We are a very, very special institution,” Granberg said. “Part of what builds a sense of community is that shared sense of excellence and that shared understanding that we together are a part of something very special.”