Leadership Lens: Marquette president Michael Lovell on leading amid disruption, being vulnerable and following a strategic vision

Last updated on May 11th, 2022 at 01:51 pm

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, leaders in higher education were faced with a tremendous amount of uncertainty. Since few, if any, leaders in the sector had experience dealing with that level of disruption, Marquette University president Michael Lovell turned to current and former members of the university’s board of trustees from industries that have dealt with disruption.

“They said when you’re going through the disruption, make the hard and difficult decisions that you need to make because of the disruption as early as possible and then start moving forward,” Lovell said. “The sooner you can make those difficult decisions and the sooner you start moving forward, the better you’ll be positioned once the disruption is over.”

Lovell was a guest on Leadership Lens on the BizTimes MKE Podcast, a new monthly podcast featuring Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin business leaders discussing how they lead their organization and offering insights to help others grow their own businesses. Lovell will also return for future episodes to bring his perspective to conversations with area leaders.

In addition to discussing how Marquette has navigated through the pandemic and how he chose to communicate about his own cancer diagnosis, Lovell shared what prompted him to take on leadership opportunities and how he approaches making decisions.

Lovell, who holds a PhD in mechanical engineering, initially worked at a software startup before moving into higher education and teaching. He spent the first years of his career in academia teaching and doing research, but saw there were limits on how ideas could move forward at lower levels of the organization.

“I decided to start moving up the ladder a little bit just because the higher I went the more impact my ideas would have and the more change I could make, hopefully, that would positively impact students, ultimately,” Lovell said.

But moving up, first as an associate dean at the University of Pittsburgh and then as dean and eventually chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, came with its own challenges.

“As I started to move up the ranks, I learned number one, people connect through your weaknesses rather than your strengths and so you have to be willing to share more of yourself and be vulnerable if you want to be a leader, particularly at the higher levels,” Lovell said.

A self-described introvert with an engineering background, Lovell also saw the need to improve his oral communication skills, going as far as working with theater faculty at UWM to get better.

As for decisions he makes in his current role, Lovell said much of his work is about setting a direction and vision and determining if ideas match where the university is trying go.

“We have some very good ideas, but sometimes we just don’t have either the people or the infrastructure to execute on those ideas and so it’s really a matter of determining what are the good ideas, what’s our ability to execute on them, how do they fit who we are and where we’re trying to go as a university,” he said.

Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.