MLD Director Susan Decker brings real world experience, connections to the classroom

News | 06.29.2017

The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, l but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.”

– Jim Rohn

Susan Decker giving WVLI lecture
Susan Decker, director of the Master of Leadership Development program at SMWC, speaking to participants of the Wabash Valley Leadership Institute in April.

Students and faculty members of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College’s Master of Leadership Development (MLD) program received these words one Monday morning this summer in an e-mail from director Susan Decker.

Sending inspirational messages to the students is a weekly ritual for Decker. She calls these e-mails “Thought for the week.”

“Leadership is based upon relationships,” Decker said. “We have to make deposits into our relationships before we can make withdrawals.”

“Thought for the week” is one of the “deposits” Decker makes regularly. This lets students know she is thinking about them; by example, she is essentially teaching them the kind of leader she wants them to be.

“They have to invest in people they’re meeting. If they walk away with nothing else in terms of leadership, I want them to walk away with that,” Decker said.

Decker — who holds a master’s degree in educational administration from Indiana State University and a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education/science education from St. Joseph’s College — began directing the MLD program six years ago, approximately three years after it was created. She is responsible for advising, scheduling classes, orientation, recruitment, as well as teaching courses and seeing students through completion.

MLD is a one-year hybrid business and leadership program; it boasts graduates who are now in leadership positions in non-profit organizations and private companies including Finish Line, Old National Bank, Indiana Reparatory Theatre, Vectren, St. Vincent’s Health System and Duke Energy. Decker works tirelessly toward her goals for MLD: keeping it relevant and meeting the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s students and businesses.

“For me, the beauty of this program is so many of the faculty have been with the program since inception,” Decker said. The creators, D.J. Wasmer, Ph.D., professor of business and chairperson of the Department of Business and Leadership, and Jennie Mitchell, Ph.D., an adjunct professor, still teach in the program.

“When I came into this, the program was solid. … The biggest thing that I brought was the non-profit perspective. I helped really strengthen that focus area,” said Decker, a Terre Haute native.

Decker contributes extensive experience in education and non-profit to her current position. From 2000-2005, she was national director of Race for the Cure and the Domestic Affiliate Network of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in Dallas, Texas. This was followed by five years as executive director of field management at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously taught in K-12 and college levels.

Aside from directing MLD, she currently serves as senior governance consultant for BoardSource, a national non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., focusing on non-profit governance. She also does consulting work on her own.

Her consulting work has given her the opportunity to travel frequently to provide governance training to board of directors and senior staff of a variety of organizations including the Smithsonian Institution, Annenberg Foundation, United Way, as well as several chambers of commerce, colleges and universities, private organizations, among others.

Decker, a former college basketball coach, enthusiastically lists ESPN as one of her clients. She provides training to ESPN senior staff who are about to serve on non-profit boards three times a year at its Connecticut headquarters.

These are the experiences Decker brings into her classroom, and she ensures her students can also benefit from this, as well.  For example, when she conducts a strategic planning process, one of the things she asks from her clients is permission to share the information with her graduate students. Because of this, her students have previously provided input to the strategic plans of some of the organizations she serves.

“It gives our students a real life experience,” Decker said of the value of this experience. “Because BoardSource is a research-based organization and creates more non-profit books than any other organization, I have access to the newest information and our students get it immediately.”

Her passion for the work is obvious in the way she talks about MLD and consulting. Because she loves her work, there really is no hard line between work and leisure, she said. In both her consulting work and at SMWC, she enjoys spending time with people who are choosing to better themselves.

“I love this program,” Decker said of MLD. “I had gotten so much out of this program both professionally and personally. I love watching young and not-so-young professionals follow a dream. It’s been awesome.”