“Leadership Is Really an Orientation Toward Action”: Dr. Dena P. Maloney

Written by
Lisa Mednick Takami

Oct 3, 2016

Oct 3, 2016 • by Lisa Mednick Takami

Dr. Dena P. Maloney is the first woman superintendent/ president of the El Camino Community College CA district where she began her tenure in February 2016. I have had the opportunity to become acquainted with Dr. Maloney through my work managing the professional development and learning department at El Camino College.

Describe your job in one sentence.

I’m an educational leader and a collaborator and I have to set the environment for the college to have the creativity and innovation it requires to respond to the needs of students. As leaders, we have to be very genuinely enthusiastic about what we’re doing and who we’re serving. We need to create systems that support delivering on our mission to our students and our communities.

What is the role of these “systems”?

Systems are not only the organizational structures that enable us to support student learning, but also the communication systems, the collaboration systems, the cross-functional teams that might be needed to start something new.

Systems have to be established, maintained and evaluated to see if they’re working and what else is needed to bring this whole enterprise, this academy, this institution together to function effectively and produce the outcomes we’re seeking for students to achieve their goals.

There’s an inherent decency to your leadership approach. Who or what has been significant in influencing your leadership style?

I often talk about my mother as my role model. My mother is an amazing person. She instilled in me the values of commitment, dedication, and the willingness to work hard. My mother was the Camp Fire Girls leader and the PTA president.

Much of what I did growing up had to do with giving service, always being aware that there are those who need more than you do and that you are blessed to be able to contribute to others. My mother and father shaped who I am as a person and therefore how I view leadership.

What do you see as the connection between this ethos of service and your pursuit of leadership?

Leadership is really an orientation toward action in the service of some goal or some group. From my mother, I can remember my Camp Fire Girl troop going and being in convalescent homes and entertaining the patients by singing. My mother helped us to see that serving others is a privilege.

There’s a whole body of literature and theory about servant leadership, and in the context of my upbringing, this is where my leadership perspective falls.

You discuss the notion of “leading from where you are.” Describe what you mean and how women in higher education might learn from your example.

We all have the opportunity to positively influence those around us in our work setting. When we truly own our work and we take responsibility for solving operational problems or improving what we do, we’re exercising leadership. Leadership really stems from a state of mind rather than—although it’s important sometimes—a position of authority.

You can lead from wherever you are if you have the mindset of being accountable and responsible for your work and helping your team. The other component needed is an environment that supports “leading from where you are.” Absent the environment, this orientation would be difficult.

You’re a first-generation student. How does your educational journey impact your role as a community college president?

As a first-generation college student, I have an appreciation for the challenges that come from not having role models who have navigated higher education.

In high school, I remember not being clear on my goals and believing I had to know what I wanted to become to go to college. That was the thinking at the time; you go to college because you want to be an engineer, or you go to college because you want to be a nurse. I decided to attend a community college, and it’s the best thing I ever did!

In an environment where knowledge and studying were valued, I realized I didn’t have to know exactly what I wanted to become, but rather what I wanted to study.

Within that first year, I applied for and got a scholarship and transferred, but I was always thankful that I had that first year at a community college. I went on and earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and ultimately a doctorate.

We all have the capacity as staff, administrators or faculty to help students who don’t have clear-cut goals to get through that first year. El Camino’s campus community has a long tradition of helping students persist and achieve their goals.

What was your educational and career path leading to your appointment as El Camino College’s superintendent/president?

My career path followed the economic workforce and development route, which is not typical for college presidents. After I got my master’s degree in government, I went to work in the private sector and then I joined the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California.

My first position was to link the community college with the surrounding business community. In the course of that first position, I came to know more deeply the mission of the California Community Colleges, which I embraced. (Note: The mission of the California Community Colleges comprises academic transfer to four-year institutions, basic skills education and economic and workforce development.)

I found the college to be a very exciting and invigorating environment in which to work. After serving as the dean of economic and workforce development and earning my doctoral degree in educational leadership, I was selected to be the founding dean of the Canyon Country Campus. This new position took me out of the economic and workforce development niche and helped to broaden my scope of responsibilities.

I led a team that was starting a brand-new campus and helped develop its spirit and culture. From there, I became the superintendent/president at Taft College in the Central Valley. Taft is a small, rural college with an economic environment and industry base different from where I’d been. Then, I came to El Camino.

My background has prepared me well to serve at El Camino College. We’re situated in a very diverse economy and community where my strengths in economic and workforce development can be leveraged. My progression has been different from the path of a traditional presidency, but more and more, the kinds of experiences needed of a president are changing. Often presidents are the chief fundraiser, chief advancement officer and chief relationship-builder for their institution.

You are an inclusive leader. How do you impart your approach to leadership to other campus leaders?

My approach to leadership is self-evident. I model the kind of behavior and actions I expect the leadership team to adopt and provide opportunities for leaders to develop their skills and facilitate team development. Recently, we undertook a management training program called “Partnership Forward” to help our leadership team understand each other in the context of working as partners to design the future of the institution.

Professional development is a critical function in any organization. People need to be armed with the skills, knowledge and experiences that will help them contribute fully to the institution. There’s a clear link between professional development and the health of the college in such areas as enrollment. We need to have the opportunity to develop ourselves professionally and move the college forward.

Forty-two percent of CEOs in the California Community Colleges System are women versus the 26% higher education national average. How do you explain this better success rate in California?

California’s diversity has helped the success of women leaders. Because women have attained leadership positions as CEOs in the community college system, they’ve been visionary in creating professional development programs.

Many opportunities exist to develop professionally. One is the Asilomar Leadership Skills Seminar. Dr. Dianne G. Van Hook, a wonderful mentor, recommended that I attend and indicated that I had the potential to be a college president. I will always be indebted to Dr. Van Hook for her unwavering confidence in me.

One of the things I picked up on from women CEOs who spoke at Asilomar was the joy they had for their work. The Association of California Community College Administrators also has a mentor program to help develop women (and men) leaders. Dr. Nicki Harrington became my mentor. She suggested I review job announcements for presidential positions to identify gaps in my experience and then seek opportunities to develop expertise in these areas. This was invaluable advice.

What would you like to accomplish during your tenure at El Camino College?

I would like to continue the great tradition that El Camino College has in academic and learning support programs that help students achieve their goals with equitable outcomes. I hope that we can become even more engaged with our community and the campus culture evolves so that we have innovation and creativity to a greater extent than perhaps we can even envision right now.

The world around us is changing so much. Institutions need to be flexible and adaptable and embrace change.

Lisa Mednick Takami manages the professional development and learning department at El Camino College and is a doctoral candidate in educational leadership at CSU Long Beach. She can be reached at lmednick@elcamino.edu or on Twitter at @equitywriter.

Takama, Lisa Mednick.  “Leadership Is Really an Orientation Toward Action”: Dr. Dena P. Maloney. Women in Higher Education. 25 (10), 1-2.