Shockley-Zalabak the UCCS change agent

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Pam Shockley-Zalabak wrote the book on strategic communication.

In fact, she wrote eight books.

Shockley-Zalabak is a small-town Oklahoma girl who studied organizational communication and then put her research into practice at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where she has been chancellor for 10 years. In that time, UCCS has transformed from a tiny commuter campus, hardly a blip on anyone’s radar, to a regional economic force.

She’s led the university to mega growth in new buildings and record student enrollment. She’s ushered in millions in private donations and kept the university growing, even as state funding dwindled.

She’s an academic who studies and practices the idea that organizations are able to successfully change when people trust each other. She started as an adjunct professor at UCCS 35 years ago. She’s been an assistant professor, associate professor, vice chancellor and interim chancellor. In 2002, she was named chancellor.

She grew up in the farming town of Drummond, Okla., and said it gave her a strong work ethic and a belief in the power of education. She earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in communication from Oklahoma State University; and a Ph.D in organizational communication from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

She’s competitive and likes to win.

“If they tell her ‘no,’ all it means to her is that the way she is approaching things won’t work and she’ll do it another way,” said Jerry Rutledge, who served on the CU Board of Regents from 1995 to 2007and still counts himself as one of her go-to guys.

When local community leaders and UCCS faculty are asked about the university’s turning point — when did it transform from a small commuter campus to a player in the region’s economic development? The answer is the same.

“In my opinion, when Pam Shockley became chancellor,” said Doug Quimby, chairman of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC and president of La Plata Communities.

“Somebody’s got to test the boundaries, push the limits and have some vision. I think she’s got that,” he said.

In her books, including her 2010 book Building the High Trust Organizations, Shockley-Zalabak writes about building organizational trust. One of the drivers, she writes, is openness and honesty. It’s how Colorado Springs community leaders describe her.

“I have a genuine belief that comes out of the research in my field that we will be stronger and better if you put these teams of people together,” she said. “This is not something I can do by myself and it never was.”

Shockley-Zalabak inherited a university built on its relationship with the business community, she said. That is the culture she has continued. Her driving philosophy has been “we can be smart together” and she created public-private partnerships long before the idea became a catch phrase. She likes to talk about future plans, but she like action more, she said

“It’s not a secret,” she said about her success. “It comes from my academic background. I focused as an organizational communications specialist on not just thinking about collaboration, but how specifically do I get people to the table to work on issues?” she said. “And, then I try genuinely to be inclusive, but intentional — I don’t just expect it to happen.”