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MARTIN WILLOUGHBY: Millsaps’ Pearigen developing tomorrow’s leaders

Up Close With ... Dr. Robert Pearigen Title: President, Millsaps College  Favorite Books: I enjoy the classics such as William Shakespeare, John Milton, Leo Tolstoy, and Eudora Welty.  If I could only choose one book it would be the Bible.   First Job: My father was an independent pharmacist in Memphis. From the time I could reach the counter, I was there helping him.  Proudest Moment as a Leader:  My wife Phoebe and I were able to take a two-week vacation last summer. I learned upon my return that when the team was confronted with challenging situations they would not say “What would Rob do? Instead, they would say “What questions would Rob ask?” I was encouraged that my team was focused on asking important questions to solve challenging problems.

Up Close With … Dr. Robert Pearigen
Title: President, Millsaps College
Favorite Books: I enjoy the classics such as William Shakespeare, John Milton, Leo Tolstoy, and Eudora Welty. If I could only choose one book it would be the Bible.
First Job: My father was an independent pharmacist in Memphis. From the time I could reach the counter, I was there helping him.
Proudest Moment as a Leader: My wife Phoebe and I were able to take a two-week vacation last summer. I learned upon my return that when the team was confronted with challenging situations they would not say “What would Rob do? Instead, they would say “What questions would Rob ask?” I was encouraged that my team was focused on asking important questions to solve challenging problems.

Management guru Peter Drucker used to relentlessly ask executives – “What business are you in?”  Drucker wrote, “That the question is so rarely asked—at least in a clear and sharp form—and so rarely given adequate study and thought, is perhaps the most important single cause of business failure.” Great leaders consider such questions and make sure their organization has a clear purpose and mission.  It is important to not just understand what you do, but why you do it.  Simon Sinek, author of the bestseller Start With Why, noted, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.”  I recently interviewed Dr. Robert Pearigen, President of Millsaps College, and I was struck by his keen sense of the importance of mission and purpose for an organization.

Pearigen, a Memphis native, is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he earned a bachelor of arts in political science. He went on to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from Duke University.  After teaching for several years, he returned to The University of the South in 1987 as dean of men.  Pearigen spent 23 years on the faculty at Sewanee and served as dean of students and vice president for University Relations.  In 2010, he was named the eleventh president of Millsaps College.  Interestingly, while Pearigen made the transition early in his career from teaching to administration, he has maintained a passion for the classroom and interacting with students.  Throughout his career, he has continued to teach and that tradition has continued at Millsaps where he teaches courses in constitutional law, civil rights and liberties and political theory.

Joining an organization as a new leader is always challenging, and so I was curious about the   approach he took to his new job.  He noted, “Leadership is a fundamentally relational matter and occurs only in the context of relationships within an organization.”  He emphasized the importance of hiring great people and of building trust and providing support within his team.  Pearigen took the time early on to reach out and get to know his different stakeholders.  He also shared, “It is important to understand the core mission and values of the organization that you are leading.  You then need to have a clear minded and aspirational vision for the organization in the future.”

We discussed the importance of asking the question –

What is your vision of success for the future?  Once you have that in mind, then you need a clear plan to go forward to achieve the vision.

Pearigen and the leaders at Millsaps followed that path.  They had a comprehensive strategic planning process which resulted in a plan entitled Across the Street and Around the Globe: Partnerships and Influence at Millsaps College.   This aligns with the institution’s key location in the heart of the capital city of Mississippi and its vision which states in part, “Millsaps engages students in a transformative learning and leadership experience that results in personal and intellectual growth, commitment to good citizenship in our global society, and a desire to succeed and make a positive difference in every community they touch.”

Pearigen is guided by his faith and strong sense of the importance of a liberal arts education in developing tomorrow’s leaders.  Millsaps has a long and important 125 year history in Mississippi and is one of the state’s real assets.  Under Dr. Pearigen’s leadership, I know that the school, its administration, faculty, students, and alumni will continue to make a positive contribution both locally and around the world.

» Martin Willoughby is a business consultant and regular contributing columnist for the Mississippi Business Journal. He serves as Chief Operating Officer of Butler Snow Advisory Services, LLC and can be reached at martin.willoughby@ butlersnow.com.

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