Bryan Brenner

Lessons from Entrepreneurial Leaders Featuring Jim Danko

Picture of Bryan Brenner

Bryan Brenner

Jim Danko is marking his eighth year as president of Butler University. He’s been a leader in higher education in a variety of settings: University of Michigan, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Dartmouth College, and Villanova University. As a 19-year-old student at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Jim launched his career as a small business owner. He learned first-hand the importance of personal relationships to success.

BKB: How has your early experience in business impacted your leadership style at Butler University?

JMD: Starting and managing my own company taught me the importance of positive and responsive customer service. There is often a “moment of truth” in customer interactions that are fundamentally enhanced when your front-line people are empowered to make decisions and solve problems. I’ve tried to carry forth my “service” experience into my higher education career, whether it’s how well we treat students or employees. It’s important that everyone understands their role in fulfilling our mission no matter their role, whether it be a faculty member in a classroom and our groundskeepers who keep our campus beautiful. Everyone has an impact on the quality of our institution and how well we support our students.

Of course, in my small company, communication and personal engagement was easier. It’s more difficult as leader of a large university, say at Butler with 1000 employees. I have to depend more on multiple forms of communication as well as collaboration across our leadership team.

BKB: I’m curious about how you articulate Butler’s mission to today’s world. The school is 164 years old!

JMD: When he founded the school in 1855, Ovid Butler was an abolitionist with a strong belief that everyone deserved an excellent education regardless of race or gender. This was a bold idea in pre-Civil-War America. Bold decisions, outstanding academics, and social responsibility remain in Butler’s DNA today.

When communicating this background and our values, my emphasis is on how we can provide access to strong, high quality education, no matter a person’s background, culture, or even economic status. Even middle class families are struggling today to afford private college tuition. How do we provide access to a great education, such as at Butler, and how do we as a university challenge ourselves to create more efficient and inclusive ways to deliver education?

BKB: That speaks to a common vision. How do you get your team on board?

JMD: The goal is to achieve alignment around a philosophy, a common set of values, and a vision for the coming years. You need to constantly energize people and remind them of the greater good. To value leaders who are aware not only of their successes, but their opportunities to improve. I find that leadership self-awareness—part of a high EQ—is often more important than experience.

Something I have learned over the years, managing in various roles, is that you can never overcommunicate the vision and strategy of the organization. You must keep it in the forefront for people who are caught up in the day-to-day work. As a leader, my goal is to live our mission every day.

Read more about Jim Danko and the Butler 2020 strategic plan at  Join us next time to meet Karen Alter, principal of Borshoff.