Michael Plater mixes business and academia

September 23, 2012

Position: The new president of Strayer University, a for-profit higher education institution.

Raised in Southeast Washington, Plater said his life changed after he received a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy preparatory school in New Hampshire. That set him on a path to attend Harvard University, and and then the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He then started consulting for businesses ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies. Plater soon felt called to academia, and after receiving a doctoral degree, he held a series of leadership posts at universities until coming to Strayer University in 2010.

Being the president of a for-profit university can be like having a foot in two worlds, business and education. Are those worlds hard to mesh?

There are some aspects of education that are not quantifiable. One struggles with that. For instance, how do you quantify advising? We all know it’s something we have to have and it is vital to students being successful, but the advice you offer might be to step out [of a program] right now. Is that a success or a failure from a quantitative standpoint? So you have to work with your value system — those things that you are comfortable with because you believe in them and they are the right things at the right time. Whether on the business or education side, you have to be comfortable sleeping at night.

Where have you grown most as a leader in your career?

Believing more and more in my people and allowing them to blossom and not allowing my ego to get in the way. It’s very important for people who work for me to have ownership over what they do. They need to feel comfortable that I’m going to support them to achieve their potential. Also, I’m very comfortable with having people smarter than me around. If you’re not intimidated by having smart people around you, then you and your organization can achieve so much more.

What business books are you reading?

I’m a historian by training. I will read more historical types and may get leadership lessons from that. I love Horatio Hornblower and naval fiction.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

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