“I will cheer for the rest of my life from the sidelines, loudly and unabashedly”
Dr. Glenn Feltham’s parting gift for nine years of service as NAIT’s president and CEO was absolutely perfect but also somewhat incongruous.
For the man who proudly called himself as “cheerleader-in-chief,” the polytechnic’s School of Skilled Trades built and painted an old-fashioned megaphone and decorated it with his name, the NAIT shield, and his favourite nickname.
But Feltham’s approach to cheerleading was unusual. It was never from the sidelines as one might expect of the role. It happened midfield, where plays were called, the ball was advanced and points were scored.
While that megaphone will soon have been set upon a shelf at home, it’s unlikely to collect dust. Feltham is retiring, but he still sees himself as the polytechnic’s biggest fan. For praise and encouragement, NAIT hasn’t heard the last of its sixth president.
Before he steps off the field, we spoke with Feltham about the highlights and challenges of being captain of both players and pom-pom wavers, and where that experience now points him.
techilifetoday.ca: First of all, why are you leaving?
Dr. Glenn Feltham: Leaders usually stay too long. When I was thinking about when to leave, I considered where NAIT was and the incredible leadership across NAIT. We had completed many transformational projects, including having set our direction, the construction of the Centre for Applied Technology and the Productivity and Innovation Centre, and securing our long-term future with the acquisition of the Blatchford lands. I fundamentally believe that we're in a good place.
When you arrived here, what were your hopes?
NAIT had never lost its way. We have grown; we've become more sophisticated. But there was always this fundamental notion of NAIT being a polytechnic, meeting the needs of this province. So my aspirations were, “How do I help in the journey to make NAIT that world-leading polytechnic that continues in that direction, but just becomes stronger?”
Polytechnic. Why was it important to attach that term to NAIT?
When I came to NAIT, it wasn’t clear to me that the reason we exist and how we educate was [broadly] understood. Many referred to NAIT as a trades school. While I deeply appreciate and am passionate about the skilled trades, it is only one aspect of what we do. So how we defined and talked about NAIT was important.
The word that seemed to make the most sense was polytechnic. But there were no good definitions of what a polytechnic is. So a large part of [my] first months were spent thinking about the core elements: the nature of our programs being technology based; the nature of our education being hands on and experiential; our relationship [with] industry; and applied research.
Those four elements, for me, really defined what it means for NAIT to be a polytechnic.
What were some of your most important leadership principles and practices?
If I'm not out wandering the hallways I don't feel grounded. It always gave me a sense as to where things were and what's working well at the institute. It's the ability to understand the organization.
If I'm not out wandering the hallways I don't feel grounded.
That's why Project President was so important for me. [Participating in nearly 40 programs over nine weeks and blogging about it] when I arrived let me get to know NAIT in a way that was really deep in a short period of time. But what made me most proud of that was that NAIT came to know NAIT by following what I was doing.
Did you do everything you wanted to do?
Heck no. If you've done everything you've needed to do, you have stayed way too long.
One of the elements of my leadership style is that I'm a huge believer in serendipity. We didn't say we're only looking to do one thing. We said, “There is a whole host of things that would move us in the direction of achieving our vision of being one of the world's leading polytechnics.”
So you start a number of those and the time will be right for some and not others. When a door opened, we just walked straight through. That’s why we have the Productivity and Innovation Centre and the Spruce Grove Campus, for example.
But certain doors haven't fully opened yet. For example, I would have loved to see a centre devoted entirely to the skilled trades and the [NAIT Grade 9-12] collegiate built. I would’ve loved to see student housing on Blatchford. I could be here for another 20 years and you could ask, “Glenn, are there things that you really wish we'd been able to finish?” The answer would always be yes.
Are you happy with what you're handing over?
I am thrilled. But I understand that these will be challenging times. We know that how we operate in the future will be very different. I believe we have the foundation [and] the leadership in place to not only weather the changes but to thrive. We’re going into a difficult time from a position of significant strength.
You once said that this is the best job you’ve ever had.
Absolutely. I feel very humbled to have had the opportunity to work in this amazing institution with such incredible people. The opportunity to be NAIT's cheerleader-in-chief is something that I will never forget and never give up. I will cheer for the rest of my life from the sidelines, loudly and unabashedly.
We’re going into a difficult time from a position of significant strength.
What are you going to do next?
I want to help transform our province and our country through focusing on policy. Right now I'm serving on two task forces. I’m co-chairing the Skills for Jobs Task Force, which is re-imagining the skilled trades system for the province, and I'm also on a kindergarten through grade 12 curriculum task force.
I also intend to do a lot of writing, again to try and stimulate discussion and change perceptions about our economy, the skilled trades, and the nature of our post-secondary system and whether the system is truly meeting the needs of Alberta and Canada.
Also, my wife and I are going to travel. We are going to sell our house. We will live our life not by possessions but through experiences.
Finally, I’m going to see if I can become a mediocre golfer. I'm not sure that I ever want to be more than that. I want to get to a level where I just enjoy being on the course. I don't care what my score is but, gosh darn it, I want to swing hard.