Nuno Fernandes of American Public University System On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Measure What You Treasure — Metrics work and incentives work. As a leader you should have the incentives perfectly aligned with the metrics you are trying to promote. Everything can, and should, be measured and every successful organization is obsessed with improving its performance.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Nuno Fernandes.
Nuno Fernandes is the fifth President of American Public University System (APUS), a role he has held since Sept. 1, 2022. He is a visionary leader who has been successful in making online higher education more affordable and accessible, while focused on delivering high-quality education and favorable student outcomes. Mr. Fernandes brings to APUS a wealth of experience across higher education, technology and business, most recently as serving president and CEO of Ilumno, the largest online program manager in Latin America and among the Top 3 globally (in the number of managed students).
Born in Porto, Portugal, Mr. Fernandes holds a Master of Business Administration from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of Porto. He has also participated in several executive education programs at Harvard Business School and Carnegie Mellon University, among others.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thanks for the opportunity. I’ve been fortunate to have grown my career by working in roles of increasing responsibility for several leading-edge, consumer goods and higher education-focused companies that are innovative and taking new approaches in a dynamic landscape. This includes, among others, a SVP role for a global leader of consumer goods, and a CEO role for an international EdTech company focused on expanding access to quality online education. Today, I am the president of American Public University System, which comprises American Public University and American Military University.
I was born in Portugal and, throughout my career, was fortunate to live in nine different countries. Thanks to my family history, I quickly realized the value of an education and a family as a young man. My strong family upbringing and life experiences have helped shape my collaborative and enabling leadership style, as well as my business acumen.
I have now been living in the United States for over 14 years and prior to taking on the Presidency at APUS in September 2022, my career path has always been international. This is my first position where I am solely focused on a single country, and I am very excited about it.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early in my career, I was in charge of product management for a very large department at a global company. We had a new product launch planned and it keep getting delayed because of engineering and development issues. When the product was ready and it was time to launch it, we didn’t have time to test and listen to the customers feedback prior to go-to market.
Still, we were convinced that this product was what the market wanted, so we launched it anyway. It failed miserably. Arrogance and thinking, “I know it better” never works. I learned that the market always wins.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am grateful for both of my parents. But first, let me share some history that dates further back in time: my grandparents lived in a small Portuguese village of 200 people and worked as farmers. They did not know how to read or write. My parents were the first in the family to obtain a college education. My father became a lawyer, and my mother became a university teacher. They both had successful lives that helped instill the value of hard work and determination in me.
Because my parents had access to higher education, they transformed themselves. They moved to a large city, and consequently, they transformed my life as well, even before I was born. The point is that education is very powerful. I am living proof of that, and it’s also the reason why I’m committed and passionate about our mission at APUS. We are enabling learners of all backgrounds to harness the power of education in their lives.
On a professional level, I am grateful to so many people that it is hard to mention specific names. I believe one of the greatest leadership traits is the ability to listen and learn. In my experience you can, and you should, learn from everyone, and you should always surround yourself with people who are better than you at what they do. Talent and creativity are two amazing gifts, and as a leader you should always surround yourself with people from whom you can learn.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Since our beginnings, American Public University System has always been laser-focused on providing high-quality, affordable higher education to service-minded students, via online learning. Our vision has always been making higher education more accessible through a flexible online delivery model.
We are a fully accredited institution and truly have an undying commitment to low-cost, high-quality education. We meet the students where they are, and on their terms.
This approach is validated by our relevant, workforce-ready programs that are taught by well-established industry practitioners, and a favorable placement in highly followed academic reports. In fact, American Public University System is in the top 11% for return on educational investment compared to 4,500 colleges and universities nationwide, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce report, Ranking 4,500 Colleges by ROI (2022). We were also recently named one of the top 10 online institutions for working adults in the United States by the ZDNet ranking, and are very proud of it.
Even though we were founded some 31 years ago, and have grown significantly, today we still focus on the same mission, as one of the leading online higher education providers globally.
We continue to have a strong commitment to our students by being a digital university with a full suite of high-quality, relevant programs offered at affordable tuition rates. We pride ourselves in being an open, inclusive institution that educates learners of all backgrounds. That includes a robust amount of student services and career services that are provided at no cost, and some of which span past the student’s graduation.
Over 125,000 alumni have entrusted their education to us, and today, we have almost 90,000 active students pursuing bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I believe that, unless you operate in a monopolistic environment, every day will be challenging. Competition is a great thing because it forces you to improve and it motivates you to keep pursuing new ways of serving your students better and more efficiently.
I pride myself on being a leader who empowers colleagues. Steve Jobs said something like “you don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do.” I concur. I see my job as someone who provides guidance, vision, and one who creates the proper conditions for leadership to prosper and flourish.
I believe everyone has a talent and that most employees, with the right environment and conditions, are motivated to perform. The greatest trait in leadership is to help people find their talent and develop it as best as they can. This in turn helps make people better; by doing that, your team is going to be better — and consequently, your organization is going to be better.
But it’s not always easy and the most challenging situations are always the ones involving restructuring processes. I’ve been involved with a few heavy ones in the past, and they are very complicated from an emotional perspective. However, as a leader, one must do what is best for the future of the organization, but you always have to do it with respect, dignity, and a strong moral compass. And, most importantly, you always have to ensure that there is a shared vision and that leadership believes in it.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Giving up is not an option, ever. However, sometimes you must realize that a project, or an idea, can’t move forward. If the reasons are correct, realigning your direction is a sign of intelligence.
I believe that in a successful career, you are your biggest competitor. Not anybody else. In my career, I never had the feeling I was competing against someone else. It’s really a race against yourself. Sure, there were times where I didn’t get a role I was pursuing, but I used that as motivation to do better and prove myself.
I look back at the bumps in my career and realize they were all important and, had they not happened, I probably wouldn’t be here today. Sometimes, things only make sense when you look backwards. My advice is to stay focused on the client and stay focused on creating value; if you do these two things, most likely all else will be fine.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
There is a book called Nuts! which I read when I was doing my MBA that really impacted me. It is about the story of Southwest and, in particular, its founder, Herb Kelleher. What really inspired me was realizing that Herb created a successful company based on the fact that he didn’t know it could not be done. It is a very powerful thing.
What I mean by this is that, back in the day, one of the most expensive costs for an airline was when the plane was on the ground. And, I don’t remember the exact time, but planes used to be on the ground for, let’s say 4 hours. Herb quickly realized that his low-cost model would not work with the planes being on the ground for so long. So, he said, let’s turn them around in 20 minutes! (I don’t recall the exact time.)
Every industry expert said that is impossible, but Southwest did it! And when asked about how he did it, Herb said something like “because I didn’t know it could not be done.” It is very powerful, and I try to apply the same logic when making strategic decisions. Am I really making a decision based on tradition and the status quo, or am I challenging myself and the team in disruptive ways?
I also enjoyed reading several other books, including these:
- Empire of the Summer Moon
- Boys in the Boat
- In the Garden of Beasts
- Kingdom of Ice
- The Pirate Coast
- Empires of the Sea
- The Lost City of the Monkey God
- The Most Powerful Idea in the World
- Citizens of London
- Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
- Justinian’s Flea.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
As we’ve recently seen, even very large companies face difficult moments, deep value erosion, and massive layoffs. And, usually, the night is darkest right before the dawn.
For a leader, it is critical to remain focused under pressure, to remain executing on the vision, on serving the clients of the enterprise and in keeping the leadership team engaged and motivated. Challenging times are part of life, just as good times are part of life. You have to manage both.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
It is important to put things in context. I don’t think the future today is necessarily more uncertain than, let’s say, 20 years ago. Surely, there are new challenges, but uncertainty has been a constant for many decades (and even centuries).
The first step is to always be transparent and honest with your leadership team. If they are not aware of the real challenges, they won’t be able to help.
Secondly, as a leader you need to have a bold and ambitious vision, and you need to surround yourself with other leaders who truly believe in that vision.
Thirdly, you need a team of doers. Great things are achieved by doers and, just like Thomas Edison said, “Vision without execution is hallucination.”
And finally, your leaders need to know you’ve got their back so they can be fully engaged in creating and trying new things, even if, at times, they won’t work.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I pride myself in being an upfront and direct communicator who, like many other university presidents, has a high set of expectations for the institution. This means holding one another to high standards, just as my peers are doing at other institutions. I believe in giving and getting direct feedback, participating in candid conversations and being an active listener. I think that helps guide our strategy, whether we’re discussing positive or negative topics.
My preference when having to communicate difficult news is by starting to explain why we got there andwhat happened along the way. It is very important for the team and customers to understand the context because, most of the time, there is a rationale behind it.
After explaining the why to the team and/or customers, I then usually start elaborating on the options we have and the strengths and weaknesses of each one of them. If possible, make them part of the decision-making process, as it will increase engagement and commitment to the solution.
When communicating difficult things, it is critical to also communicate what you are doing to fix them and an expected timeline for fixing the challenge(s) you are dealing with.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Being a good leader requires you to have several positive attributes, plus a winning mentality that you’ll reach your goals, regardless of what lies ahead. The key to this is having a strong vision, a strong team who is aligned with the vision, and a “fearless” attitude and conviction. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think the future today is necessarily more uncertain than it was in the past. Challenges are part of life and that is ok.
I see business planning almost like a GPS. You know where you are and you know where you want to go but, along the way, things might happen and the routes might change depending on traffic, accidents, construction, etc. But if you know where you’re heading, most likely you will get there.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Always stay focused on your customer and provide great products and services. Everything, and everyone, in a company is there to serve your customers in memorable ways. During turbulent times, you can adjust everything, and you can make all the changes that are eventually needed, but never ever risk the quality of your deliverables to your customers.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Lack of a clear strategy incentivizes acting without really measuring the consequences.
- Overreacting and affecting the customer experience.
- Focusing on small-impact solutions while avoiding the really big and bold moves.
- Leadership’s inability to keep the management team aligned and focused.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Play to Win — Success rarely takes a direct, upwards trajectory, but successful leaders are never satisfied with the status quo. If you’re going to play, you need to play to win. Being deeply convinced, almost on a cellular level, that your team can achieve spectacular results, is the first step for success.
- Take Risks — If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks. Sure, this must be within reason, but I’ve found that the most successful leaders are willing to take appropriate risks and capitalize on gaps that have been created — either by customers or neglectful competition. It’s important to tolerate mistakes — and I encourage employees to take on bigger things. When you are being creative and disruptive, making mistakes is ok, as long as you don’t make the same mistake twice.
- Play the Long Game — Creating a long-term vision and path for how to get to your destination is key to being a leader in today’s digital world. Seeing the forest and not the trees is harder than it sounds. Success works like a GPS.
- Talent is Everything — Great organizations have great people. Period. You are not going to win the Super Bowl with average players as you are not going to be the market leader with average talent. If you want to win, you need to surround yourself with amazing talent and you need to create an environment where they can strive.
- Measure What You Treasure — Metrics work and incentives work. As a leader you should have the incentives perfectly aligned with the metrics you are trying to promote. Everything can, and should, be measured and every successful organization is obsessed with improving its performance.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s not necessarily a quote, but, in my opinion, striving to be the best at what you do is the only way to find true fulfillment in your career. Being proud of your work is very important. This sentiment resonates because I really appreciate people wanting to be the best at what they do in the workplace.
For me personally, I most likely will never be the very best, but I will strive to do my level best in everything I do, because that is who I am. This is important to me as a leader. And it is important that my leaders share the same concept.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I encourage readers to connect with me on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nuno-a-s-fernandes/ and check out American Public University if they’re considering pursuing a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees: https://start.apu.apus.edu/degrees/overview.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Nuno Fernandes of American Public University System On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.