A photo of a man standing in between two tables and talking. The table behind the man has four people sitting at it while watching him speak.
VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., shared lessons on leadership with master’s health administration students as the co-teacher of a class in the College of Health Professions. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

VCU president revels in compelling conversations with students during his return to teaching

Michael Rao teams with Paula Song in the College of Health Professions to co-lead a graduate course on executive skills, incorporating his years of experience and commitment to ‘compassionate leadership.’

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Michael Rao stands at the front of a large classroom and digs into the details of a complex challenge he faced years ago. Rao, Ph.D., president of Virginia Commonwealth University since 2009, explains the intricacies of the issues at play and the choices he needed to consider. He is careful not to give away how he ultimately handled the matter, which occurred at a previous job. His audience, master’s health administration students in the VCU College of Health Professions, are seated at tables spread around the room. They nod and take notes, their minds already working through how they would approach the situation. Rao wants them to put themselves in his shoes and make the hard choices they would have to make in his position – the kinds of hard choices that every leader must encounter.

“Now,” Rao says, wrapping up the scenario, “what questions do you have for me?”

Hands shoot up. Rao smiles, points to a student and moves to their table, leaning in to hear their question. He takes notes as the student talks, then pauses and provides his answer – being careful not to give clues as to how he responded to the scenario at the time. He makes sure his response satisfies the student and that there are no follow-up questions and then moves on to another upraised hand. Over the course of the next five minutes, he moves throughout the room, giving his full, undivided attention to every question, occasionally sitting down at the table where the student sits to close the space between them and to make clear his interest in their every word.

Once all the questions are satisfied, the students confer among themselves at their tables, going through the scenario and their reaction to it. Rao visits each table, seeing how the discussions are going and making sure there are no more lingering questions. Anyone can see how energized he is by the conversations – and how enthusiastic the students are about his presence. They are here because they want to be leaders, and Rao’s experiences are illuminating and exciting in their ambiguity and complexity. There are no simple “correct” solutions. A desire to embrace these thorny issues is why these students have chosen this class and this line of study in the first place.

“It's amazing to see someone who's in such a big role come and relate to us on our level and give us incredible insight and be extremely humble while he’s doing it,” said student Ireland Miller.

A photo of a man reaching out to another man who is sitting down. There are five people sitting at a table and they are all smaling up at the man who is standing.
VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said co-teaching a course in the spring was another way of ensuring that he stays connected with students and understands their interests and needs. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Rao co-taught the Executive Skills II course this spring semester with Paula Song, Ph.D., interim dean and Richard M. Bracken Chair and professor of health administration. Rao, who has a faculty appointment in the College of Health Professions, has given guest lectures in the college in the past, but he approached Song last year and shared his interest in being involved in the ongoing teaching of a class. Song thought this course, which focuses on executive skills and professional development, would be a perfect fit.

Rao taught three two-hour class sessions with Song, and the two collaborated on the development of the curriculum. Song said Rao’s lessons naturally complemented the rest of the course.

“The students really love hearing firsthand from leaders, their stories and their insights,” Song said. “It's a nice balance of the stuff that we were doing in my sessions, which might be more tactical or technical, and then bringing in some more of the real-world experience and hearing directly from the leader of this university.”

The scenarios based on Rao’s own experiences are only part of his instruction to the students, but they made for particularly compelling classroom time. Once the students had exhausted their questions for Rao and debated their approach, a representative from each table would share with the class how their group would have navigated the situation.

After all the students finished making their cases, Rao would then explain what he did and why. He also shared with the students what he learned at the time and how it helped to shape him as a leader going forward. Song said she and Rao were focused on finding ways to “bring his experience into the classroom.”

A photo of a mand and a woman speaking to each other in a room full of tables with people sitting at them.
VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., co-taught the Executive Skills II course this spring semester with Paula Song, Ph.D., interim dean and Richard M. Bracken Chair and professor of health administration. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

“It was Dr. Song's idea to do the scenarios, and it was a brilliant idea because it enables them to think through how they'd handle something,” Rao said. “It also encourages them to ask more questions. That's why I went from table to table to say, ‘Do you have any more questions?’ Some asked some really good ones. And some frankly didn't ask enough, and I think they found that out when I laid out what I really ended up doing. It's really a dimension of experiential learning. Our students go out into the field to learn, and this is a way to bring a kind of experiential learning into the classroom.”

Miller, who recently completed her first year in the Master of Health Administration program, said she appreciated the conversational way the case studies were discussed and the nuanced discussions that emerged from them.

“It was interesting to see all the different ways people would have handled the situation, how he handled it, and him giving insight about how he had handled it at the time versus how he would handle it now with the knowledge he has,” Miller said. “That was probably my favorite part of the class.”

Song said the case studies helped show the human side of leadership as Rao discussed his emotions in tough moments, as well as some decisions he would have made differently. The scenarios happened early in Rao’s career when he was not much older than the students.

“I think they could really relate to those stories,” Song said. “It was a good example of the president of a university showing what his own career trajectory has looked like and what some of his successes and failures might have looked like. And then what do you take from those? How do you continue to develop as a leader? The energy in the room was very high for those conversations, and I’m positive it led to a lot of conversation afterward, too.”

Song said the students initially seemed unsure at the prospect of having VCU’s president as an instructor, but that wariness passed as a series of rich discussions developed. Miller said that stemmed in part from Rao’s efforts to put them at ease. She said he expressed nervousness at the outset of the first class, which drew a laugh from the students and helped to make him quickly relatable to them.

“He tried to make us feel comfortable,” Miller said. “We were all nervous, but he pushed us to ask questions. He said, ‘Does anyone not agree with what I said?’ And obviously no one was really wanting to answer, but he was like, ‘I want it to be a conversation. I want to help you and make sure you get the most out of this experience that you possibly can.’ That's why he sort of tailored the class to what we needed to learn and opened it up for recommendations.”

In the final class session, students navigated mock residency interviews with Rao and Song. Miller said she appreciated the opportunity to interview with Rao, noting that he provided real-time feedback to her responses that helped her understand the effect that her answers had – as well as the effect that they would have on a real interviewer.

A photo of a man speaking in front of two blurred out people
A primary focus of VCU President Michael Rao’s classroom lessons was the importance of compassionate leadership. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Throughout Rao’s classroom time, Miller said he showed her and her peers how to be a compassionate leader – the subject of his lecture in his first class session – in part through his openness about the lessons he had learned.

“He told us, ‘I want y’all to do better than I ever could,”” Miller said. “His authenticity showed through in the way that he taught the class and the way he talked to us about things that he wished he had done better. He didn’t say, ‘This was what I did, and it was the right way to do it.’ Instead, he said, ‘This is how I did it. And if I could do it differently now, this is what I’d do.’ He told us there’s always ways to learn and improve and get better.”

Rao said teaching the course was another way of ensuring that he stays connected with students and continues to understand their interests and needs and how they are changing, while also digging deeply into his thoughts on leadership. The whole experience, he said, was “rejuvenating.”

“It's been a wonderful, wonderful experience. It's a mission-centered experience,” Rao said. “I saw again just how brilliant our students are, and I have enjoyed it tremendously.”