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Retiring SCF president's teachable moments: Lead with your heart, have fun

Carol Probstfeld took over a school in crisis a decade ago. It has turned out, she says, to be the best job she's ever had.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 5:00 a.m. May 23, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
SCF completed 292 major capital projects worth $72.3 million during Carol Probstfeld's tenure as president.
SCF completed 292 major capital projects worth $72.3 million during Carol Probstfeld's tenure as president.
Courtesy image
  • Manatee-Sarasota
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Carol Probstfeld took over a school in crisis a decade ago. It’s turned out, she says, to be the best job she’s ever had. 

A trendy leadership saying in the past few years, courtesy of fictional TV soccer coach Ted Lasso, is to “have the memory of a goldfish.” The message? When you, or the team, messes up or something doesn’t go your way you have to quickly forget it and move on, just like the tiny orange fish in the tank does. Flush it (the memory, not the fish) and get ready for the next game or meeting or obstacle.

Carol Probstfeld, the soon-to-be-retired president of State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota in Bradenton, has a different kind of leadership memory story. That of an elephant. It’s a theme that comes up regularly when listening to people talk about Probstfeld or read about her career. The college administrator, known to many as Dr. P, is said to have the memory of an elephant because it’s long and she can readily recall conversations with many people — students, staff and faculty.

Jamie Smith, a spokesperson and associate vice president of communications and government relations for SCF, who has worked alongside Probstfeld for nearly a decade, raves not only about Probstfeld’s memory and accomplishments but her understated yet significant leadership approach. “She’s the real deal,” Smith says. “She's all about leadership development. She takes every opportunity she can to ask questions, which you don't always see in leadership. And she really is about developing the students or faculty or staff. And when she could take the easy way out, she's always fighting for us. It's not just the students, she fights for her faculty, too.” 

In a recent conversation in her office on SCF’s main campus, Probstfeld reflected back on her memories and leadership lessons learned over the past 21 years at SCF — 10 as vice president of finance and administration and the past 11 as president. Probstfeld’s last day at SCF is July 1. The next SCF president will be U.S. Air Force veteran and former State Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Lakewood Ranch. 

Town and gown

Probstfeld was named president of SCF in 2012 and inaugurated in January 2013. The beginning of her term came at a transitional time for the college, home of the Manatees. In March 2009 the school began offering four-year degrees, going, for the first time since it was founded in 1957 as Manatee Junior College, beyond associate degrees. By July 2009 the school, which became Manatee Community College in 1985, had changed its name to SCF Manatee-Sarasota. 

Carol Probstfeld says a key lesson she learned from being SCF president was to remember it's ok to have fun. She attended many events at tyhe school.
Courtesy image

Also, the president prior to Probstfeld, former State Rep. Lars Hafner, D-St. Petersburg, left the college after a public dispute with the board. Some of the controversy stemmed from then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s mission to get state colleges to “run more like a business.” (An acting SCF president, in the role for less than a week, resigned with a blistering note to the board saying running higher education like a business would be like “someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Probstefeld recalled that challenging start in her retirement letter, saying she was named president of SCF “following a sustained period of upheaval that had disrupted the College's connectiveness with our constituents and weakened the deep well of respect and confidence that had been built over 55 years.” Probstfeld enhanced that in our interview saying repairing “town and gown” relations early, and quickly, was essential. 

“Then, community and legislative relationships were strained, fundraising was difficult, employee morale was low and general confusion prevailed about our role and purpose,” Probstfeld continues in her retirement note. “Turning it around took bold leadership and the courage to make sweeping changes that were creative, thoughtful and unapologetically ambitious. Not only did we turn it around, but we did not pause or settle for status quo — we kept reaching higher and making stronger connections.”

Some other key leadership moments of Probstfeld’s tenure as SCF president include:

Make me cry

Lead with heart

Probstfeld majored in accounting in college (and marketing) and held several financial leadership positions, both in and out SCF. But a big takeaway from her stint as president is something less analytical, which comes up often in leadership conversations today: embrace leading with empathy. 

Probstfeld recalls a recent day when she received two documents. One was a $1 million check from a donor. One was a letter of gratitude from a student who graduated five years earlier. “This was the best day ever in my life at the college,” Probstfeld says. “But these two things, in terms of how it touched your heart, the letter meant so much more. Not that $1 million dollars isn't gratifying. But that sort of takes care of itself in a way, like you obviously have fundraisers and good departments that do that.”

Carol Probstfeld was inaugurated as president of SCF in January 2013.
Photo by Dick Dickinson
More heart

More recently, in late April at what would be her last graduation ceremony as president, Probstfeld says a student came up to talk to her. This student had worked three jobs while at SCF, and he and his family had overcome significant adversity. So much so the student was a keynote speaker during an SCF fundraiser earlier this year to talk about his life story. “As he was coming through the line, graduating, he walks over and I shake his hand. And he puts his arm around me. And he said, ‘you know, my family and I've been through a lot in our lives. You're the best leader I've ever seen. And I was like, oh are you going to make me cry?’”

Example A

Several people who know Probstfeld say she’s a strong lead-by-example leader. She took that on early in her tenure, when the controversy over “run it like a business” remained simmering. “I think one of the things that was really most eye opening to me is, as the chief business officer, it was really easy for me to see and understand our college as a business. But then you come into the role as a president and realize there's a lot of reluctance for people, particularly internally, to think of us or view us as a business that wants to make sure we have enough resources to continue to expand what we can do for our faculty, our staff and our students,” she says. “And trying to work through that with the idea that we have to look at how we spend our money, we have to maximize the return on every dollar we get for investment so we can continue to build and grow our institution. So I found myself that I, too, was in a teaching position and teaching people to think about how we do business differently.”

Have the chat

Within teaching and talking about the changes, Probstefled says one lesson was to both never assume people know what you are doing or why you did it, but, instead, to talk face to face. “A real learning experience for me is to always have the conversation. And now one of the things I tell people who work for me is the harder the conversation, the more you need to have it and the more frequently you need to have it. I find we're so afraid of these things, but nine times out of 10 in my experience they're much more positive at the end (than) you would have ever guessed they would be. 

FleetForce, a truck driving training school, is one of many partnerships Carol Probstfeld cultivated while president of SCF.
Courtesy image

The right thing 

Don’t forget the fun

Another Probstfeld lesson is akin to “enjoy the ride,” even amid challenges. That’s one piece of advice she will give to Gregory. “(This job is) fun, I have to admit. It’s the greatest thing I've ever done in my life, being able to be there for students at their concerts and go to the volleyball games — and, by the way, our beach team is third in the nation. There are a lot of things you have to do. But those are the things you get to do.” (An article in the latest issue of the State College of Florida Foundation’s Inspire magazine says Probstfeld “attempted and was 99.9% successful in attending at least one of every performance, game or competition (often incognito) each semester.”

Mission stick

Another lesson is to lead with a north star in mind. “The No. 1 most important advice is regardless of how challenging things can be, whether politically or financially or this or that, you have to look at everything through the lens of ‘is this the right thing to do for our students?’ Because I have found that if it's the right thing to do for students, you will always be able to look in the mirror and say I'm doing the right thing.”

For others

The leadership advice Probstfeld gives most often to students is a good reminder for any up-and-coming leader. Jump, she says, at any and all opportunities. “Take advantage of the opportunity to get to know your faculty members and as you get out of school, take advantage in that job. Maybe there's a project that needs to be done, so volunteer for it. Even if you don't think you're completely ready, volunteer for any door that opens. You really need to take advantage of those opportunities because you never know where they're going to lead you.”



Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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