New Alpha Profile: Cathy Casserly, Aspen Institute Fellow, EdCast Adviser, Open Education Strategist, Former Creative Commons CEO
Catherine M. Casserly is devoted to supporting learning opportunities for all through openness and knowledge sharing. She focuses on leveraging the emerging opportunities afforded by the Internet to develop new pathways for lifelong learning. Cathy is a Fellow with the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and an Adviser to EdCast, a next generation digital learning ecosystem.
Through February 2014 Cathy was CEO of Creative Commons, a global non-profit that empowers people and institutions to share their creative, scholarly, and other knowledge assets. Previously, she directed the Open Educational Resources Initiative at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and spearheaded work in transparency and technology as Vice President at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Early in her career Cathy was a teacher of mathematics in Kingston, Jamaica. She earned her Ph.D. in the Economics of Education from Stanford University and holds a B.A. in Mathematics from Boston College. Cathy is a founding board member of the Digital Public Library of America and Peer-2-Peer University.
For this profile, Cathy talks with Danielle Harlan at the Center for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential about the importance of respecting and honoring people, being fully present, and creating generative impact.
The most important thing that I’ve learned is to respect people and treat them well. It makes the day go better, and the job go better—and it increases the impact of the work. In the past, there was this notion that top-down, command and control structures were the way to get results from people, but really, that’s not true at all. In fact, even the research shows that you need to empower people if you want to get strong, lasting results.
The agency and power that you give people enables them to step up and take on big, important problems. If you give people the space to be the best that they can be, they will step up—and if they need support, then you support them as well. If they make mistakes, you don’t hammer them over the head for it—instead, you say, “What can we learn from this and how do we move in the right direction?” Learning to make that space has been a good lesson for me.
That’s not to say that there aren’t mismatches between the requirements of a position and the skills of people—and it might be the case that someone can’t contribute to the work because it’s not a good match for their skill set. When that happens you need to move them on so that they can contribute to what they’re really good at—but you have to do it honorably and with respect, and in a way that creates a positive path for them. This is a hard thing to learn, and it can be tricky and messy, but it’s ultimately best for the team and for the individual.
Above all, you need to honor people if you want to achieve your goal. A lot of this is about leadership—if you don’t create a healthy environment where people enjoy coming into work every day, then people will eventually find a role where that is true—and they should! Everyone deserves to feel great about the work that they’re doing.
Being born into a family where there were already four children had a huge impact on who I am today. With five kids, ours was a house where you had to figure out how to make things work, you couldn’t have a lot of needs, you learned from the mistakes of those who went ahead of you, you learned about the ecosystem, and you learned how to maneuver and optimize—and you had to do well to get noticed.
I also had to work. I was a work-study student, working 20 hours a week throughout college, and I babysat from a young age. I came from a middle class background, but we also had a lot of kids—so I learned to work for what I wanted. I also had a supportive network—parents, siblings, aunts and close friends—it was a good environment to try things and make mistakes, and observe what others did—and I did this from an early age.
Also, I think I’m a good listener. I’m an introvert by nature and I think this helps; I’m good at listening to other people’s ideas, and taking time to really synthesize the information—not just telling my ideas to everyone else all the time. This, along with the fact that I like to move fast, has been a good combination for me—I like to think deeply on things, but I also like to move and get things done!
Perhaps because of my introversion and tendency toward observation, I find qualities in other people that I admire. But I also look at people’s lives realistically and acknowledge that no one has the perfect life in every way—they may be inspirational and great at one thing or another, but they also have challenges. So I never dream of some other perfect life, I don’t want to be anyone other than me—and I think everyone should feel that way—I am this unique person and so are you.
That said, one thing that I always admire in others is a curious mind—I love that! I also admire those people, who after I walk away from them, I feel really fulfilled and positive—those rare people who are really present and not distracted during a conversation, and who are just being themselves without an agenda. And it’s not often that you meet these people—maybe you see bits and pieces of it in others, but it’s hard to find someone who’s really mastered this.
Fundamentally, I think these people are balanced at their very core—balanced in how they spend their hours, how they live their life, the beliefs they have, the passions they follow. It doesn’t have to be people who’ve had amazing opportunities—it can be anyone who has this set of characteristics—a VIP at a meeting or a barista in a coffee shop—it’s more about how they live their life and less about what they “do” or some external measure of success.
It’s an endless list! I think right now it’s about getting myself more to a place of being really present—and having all of these pieces of my life aligned—I think I have a lot of it, and I think I have a really blessed life, but I want to avoid being so distracted because I’m trying to do so much because I’m so attracted to all of these great ideas. I want to help people—but I really can’t help my community around me unless I am in a good place—and if you get too tired and try to jam too much in, you’re hindered; this is something I’ve struggled with my whole life—even going back to high school; it seems to be part of my DNA.
Interestingly, one of the times when I did my best at being present and balanced was when my kids were young. I cut back on work, and really committed to just a few small projects and them. It’s interesting that I hadn’t planned to do this, but it worked out that way, and I did a really good job of sticking to just those commitments. It’s something that I really yearn for again.
I don’t want to be remembered for my legacy—because my legacy will end. I think my actual legacy will be the generative impact of my work—building whatever the team is building, helping individuals to be the best that they can be, and continuing to touch people in positive ways. Nothing that any of us do any more is individual—we are a collective world. Maybe the concept of “personal legacy” is out of date; maybe we should be thinking about “community legacy” instead…
I think [living a good life] is all about following your passion and being true to that, and not necessarily doing what others want you to do—or what you’re good at, but not passionate about. Some people also just know what they want to do and they always know this. For me, however, I’m the type of person who never knew, but just kind of trusted that my path would unfold for me—I’ve had so many interesting and positive experiences—like teaching in Jamaica—and all of these opportunities led me to where I am today. But if you’d asked someone to chart my path beforehand, they never would have been able to do it; it would have been impossible to see beforehand how everything connected in the way that it did—ultimately, you just have to follow your heart and trust that things will work out.
For more information on Cathy Casserly, please visit the Aspen Institute website.
Fellow New Alphas: We welcome your comments, insights, questions, and feedback on the topics that Cathy discusses in this profile. Please leave your wisdom and ideas below!