The New Portrait Of Leadership: Dr Alicia Harvey-Smith Of Pittsburgh Technical College On Which Legacy Ideas About Leadership Need To Be Discarded, And Which New Approaches To Leadership Should Be Embraced

An Interview with Karen Mangia

Karen Mangia
Authority Magazine
11 min readFeb 26, 2024

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…It is my opinion that leadership is a calling to serve, and this service must be effective. In order to remain effective, change is required because times and people have changed. I would advise those who are stuck and embracing outdated playbooks and/or patterns to look closely at these playbooks and the strategies they contain, and to especially look at current outcomes. If they are working — great. But if they are not delivering effectively on the outcomes, stop! It is ok to rewrite your playbook based on where you are now and the vision of where you want to go. Strong leaders must face these challenges and not be afraid to take a fresh look at how their organizations operate…

We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Alicia Harvey-Smith.

Dr. Alicia Harvey-Smith has served in a variety of senior level positions across higher education, including president, executive vice chancellor, vice president, dean, and executive director. With 30 years of experience in instruction, senior leadership, and administration, she currently serves as president and CEO of Pittsburgh Technical College in southwestern Pennsylvania. Dr. Harvey-Smith is also an author of several books, through which she shares her expertise and commitment to organizational excellence, peak institutional performance, and operational and student success. Her most recent is Higher Education on the Brink: Reimagining Strategic Enrollment Management in Colleges and Universities.

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?

In addition to my teaching and administrative leadership experience, I have a background in counseling, with a Masters in Guidance and Counseling from Johns Hopkins and a Ph.D. in Counseling and Personnel Services from the University of Maryland.

Recently I have been able to lean into this experience and engage in ongoing dialogue with our Pittsburgh Technical College students. The world of higher education is undergoing tremendous transformation, and with that comes many questions from our College community. I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to have conversations with students in my office or in the hallways throughout campus, often 1-on-1 or in small groups, where we discuss the “why” behind our decisions and help them understand our efforts to strengthen PTC for their benefit.

This level and frequency of engagement with students is unusual for a college president, but it’s a priority for me and it’s one of the most rewarding elements of my role. I learn as much from them as I hope they learn from me.

We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?

When I reflect on my own leadership journey, I can honestly say that I have learned a tremendous amount both from those who have been actively involved in my life and those whom I have studied from afar. Interestingly, I have also learned a great deal from those who could be deemed bad leaders, including what not to do, which is vitally important in leadership.

I have had a number of personal and professional influences, and I am so grateful to each of them for investing in my success, whether it was a single conversation, email, text of encouragement, or extended mentorship.

I am most influenced by my mother, the late Zelma Marie Harvey, who had amazing faith and simply never gave up, no matter the odds. I rely on those lessons and faith daily, particularly during tough times, which will certainly come to leaders striving for continuous change and success.

Professionally, I have been influenced by great educators and leaders such as Dr. Ruth Simmons, the first Black president of an Ivy League institution. A graduate from both Dillard and Harvard Universities, she led Brown University from 2001 to 2012. I am inspired by her story and commitment to excel against the odds. I had the pleasure of meeting with her multiple times during my time in Texas as Executive Vice Chancellor at Lone Star College. She is amazing.

Another big influence and mentor of mine is Dr. Terry O’Banion. Terry, who has provided constant professional guidance, currently serves as Senior Professor of Practice, Kansas State University, and President Emeritus, League for Innovation in the Community College. He is one of the most prolific and provocative writers about issues affecting community colleges.

Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?

I have always believed there is a lesson in every challenge, and a testimony in every test. As leaders, we must take the necessary time to find the lesson and apply it going forward. It’s very hard to do, at times, given the situation, but necessary, nevertheless.

It is critical for leaders to fully understand that they cannot do it all — or at least do it all well — nor should they. Thus, it is essential to take the appropriate time to build a strong and committed team that you can trust to achieve the stated goals.

One of my biggest mistakes was not building the type of leadership team needed to deliver critical outcomes. The lesson learned was to build a strong team with the pre-requisite experience, skills, and trust to work together to excel.

For example, as our Pittsburgh Technical College team collaborates to navigate challenges facing the field of higher education, we have assembled a joint accountability task force. This innovative and committed team, comprised of a cross-section of faculty, staff, students, and outside partners, is centered on solutions, examining everything from processes to infrastructure to communication.

I have learned to evaluate often, and to not hesitate to jettison and start anew.

How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?

First, what has remained the same: I have always found CARE: compassion, appreciation, respect, and empowerment, to be essential leadership standards. I am actually writing a book on this now. So, my definition of leadership has encompassed these elements, while also expanding over the years.

I have learned that leaders must ensure they are adequately prepared prior to assuming a leadership role, and that every step matters: from credentialing to relevant positions, to the respective training. Lifelong learning is critical for exceptional leaders, and each experience serves to make you a stronger, more effective leader.

Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?

Leaders are busy people, and sometimes we are busy without clear purpose and benefit. So, one leadership behavior that I am far more conscious of these days, and that I have limited, is the constant motion that keeps us busy without movement.

I strive for greater work-life balance, taking the time to plan and focus on those things that are most critical, prioritizing the others, and eliminating those that only serve to fill the calendar.

It is critical that leaders, and everyone, for that matter, be more intentional about achieving this balance and living life on purpose.

What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?

In light of the demands on my schedule, one of the most lasting leadership behaviors I have cultivated and that I offer to other leaders is taking more time to care for yourself — mind, body, and spirit. Eating a balanced diet, exercising, and finding time to reflect and breathe are necessary to maintain the stamina and vitality to keep up with the pace of the role.

Higher education leaders today face amplified scrutiny and sustained, unprecedented challenges while being expected to successfully influence and inspire. Given these pressures, we are seeing increased threats to mental health. We must create space for dialogue, provide support, and offer real solutions.

This is one of the most valuable and critical pieces of advice that I can provide, and it is something I discuss often with colleagues who lead other higher education institutions across the country.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?

It is my opinion that leadership is a calling to serve, and this service must be effective.

In order to remain effective, change is required because times and people have changed. I would advise those who are stuck and embracing outdated playbooks and/or patterns to look closely at these playbooks and the strategies they contain, and to especially look at current outcomes. If they are working — great. But if they are not delivering effectively on the outcomes, stop! It is ok to rewrite your playbook based on where you are now and the vision of where you want to go. Strong leaders must face these challenges and not be afraid to take a fresh look at how their organizations operate.

At Pittsburgh Technical College, we are continuously adding new offerings and forging partnerships based on our students’ needs as well as those of the region’s workforce. Take, for example, Service Engineer Technicians (SETs), the in-demand, skilled doers who maintain and customize robotic or autonomous systems — they are indispensable, from engineering all the way to the manufacturing site. At PTC, we established new and innovative programming via our 18-month robotics and autonomous engineering technology program, which was designed in partnership with Pittsburgh-based self-driving leader Aurora to help train the next generation of skilled workers in the region.

Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?

It is a challenging time for new leaders as markets become more and more competitive. Leaders must not only create strategy — they must pivot quickly to grow. Preparation and having a strong team around them will help them exude confidence in executing their roles.

Most importantly, new leaders must commit to consistent and transparent communication with their teams and stakeholders across their organizations. In my role, I host ongoing community meetings with faculty and staff that we use as strategy sessions. I also send weekly emails to our internal team, sharing plans and campus updates, and I offer weekly open office hours for students and others to ask questions and bring ideas.

I think new leaders will find that two-way communication goes quite a long way in building trust and driving successful outcomes.

Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now?

Harvard Business Review released an article by Dr. Sunny Giles, entitled The Most Important Competencies, According to Leaders Around the World.

According to the article, research over several decades has shown that the most important leadership qualities are centered around soft skills and emotional intelligence, and I couldn’t agree more.

The research revealed five major themes of competencies exhibited by strong leaders, as shared below:

  • High ethical standards and providing a safe environment

I believe the best leaders subscribe to a higher standard of behavior and employ the golden rule in supervision.

  • Empowering individuals to self-organize.

The idea here is that good leaders are comfortable with empowering others to be their best selves. I have always believed that successful leaders surround themselves with strong, competent teams and empower those they have entrusted to make decisions and take ownership.

I’ve seen this at Pittsburgh Technical College as an outcome of my open office hours with students. One group in particular attends every week and we have created a guild of those students who want to collaborate with College leadership to engage students, faculty, and staff to help carry out our priorities. The President’s Student Advisory Guild meets to discuss issues and identify solutions to ensure the student experience is as strong as possible.

  • Promoting connection and belonging among employees

We spend a significant amount of time at work and with those in our various organizations. Continuously building a supportive and connected culture and community is key to overall success.

  • Open to new ideas and experimentation

This is so important because it allows continuous innovation and creativity to guide the organization.

  • Committed to the professional and intellectual growth of employees

This is critical to organizational sustainability and will ensure continued evolution.

One of our PTC Electronics instructors, for example, recently obtained a highly sought-after robotics certification that incorporates hands-on learning into the school’s standard curriculum and gives students the unique opportunity to become trained in the safety and operational skills of state-of-the-art industry equipment. Our commitment to professional growth for students, faculty, and staff benefits everyone and is critical to enhancing the PTC learning experience.

I would also add that leaders must also be committed to their own continued professional and intellectual growth. This is essential for long-term success and effectiveness.

American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.

I love this quote as it is a reminder that today is all we have, and that each day we should deliver our very best selves. This quote, along with my desire to seize each day, are embodied by my passion and optimism to make a difference in the lives of those around me.

I believe that education is truly transformational, and this transformational power can level the playing field for so many. I embody Wooden’s quote by the way I view the world and show up to deliver a higher standard of excellence and commitment in my personal and professional encounters.

What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?

The most important legacy I wish to leave is my passion for making a difference authentically, and a belief that women are powerful leaders. I hope to inspire a higher standard of preparation, excellence, commitment, and compassion. Ultimately, faith and hard work make a true difference.

How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?

I am passionate about leadership and building strong leaders and would welcome an email at HarveySmith.Alicia@PTCollege.edu. Readers can also connect with me on LinkedIn and follow Pittsburgh Technical College on social media:

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!

About The Interviewer: Karen Mangia is one of the most sought-after keynote speakers in the world, sharing her thought leadership with over 10,000 organizations during the course of her career. As Vice President of Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce, she helps individuals and organizations define, design and deliver the future. Discover her proven strategies to access your own success in her fourth book Success from Anywhere and by connecting with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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