How to get to the top

Reformed workaholic John Fry, executive vice president of the University, now keeps his work life and his family life strictly separated, and he thinks everyone else should be able to as well.

“Those who are the most successful [on the job] are … those with the best balance between work and family,” Fry told a lunchtime audience of about 50 aspiring go-getters May 15.

The question-and-answer session was the second in a series of three “career chats” sponsored by the Penn Professional Staff Assembly, featuring top University administrators talking about the career decisions they made. Fry not only talked about his career decisions; he also talked about the things working at Penn has taught him.

One of the biggies, he said, was learning that there is no “magic wand” that can fix all institutional problems simply and easily, and that change is an inherently messy process. “All that stuff in the books about ‘change management’ was a bunch of baloney,” he admitted.

He has also learned to be flexible while keeping focused on the main goals. “You may have visions that you think are logical and make a lot of sense, but boy, do they change a lot on the way there,” he said.

And he has learned the importance of both building strong relationships and not taking criticism personally. “A lot of people who had threatened me [in the wake of the decision to contract out facilities management], I still have good relations with,” he said.

Fry did have some concrete career advice for the audience. To a staffer who asked when the right time was to consider going beyond one’s “comfort zone” and taking a career risk, he said, “Within five minutes of feeling comfortable.”

One of his goals for the University as a whole is to make it easier for staffers to take that risk, by encouraging administrators to look toward its great pool of internal talent when filling positions.

He also advised those aiming for the top in university administration to get their Ph.D.s. “It’s not necessarily right, it’s not necessarily what should be important, but it’s what’s expected,” he said.

Fry thinks he might be ready to do just that himself, having put it off earlier. Might this be because he’d like to grab the brass ring? After demurring on his own career goals, he later said, “Would I like to run my own institution some day? Sure.”


Originally published on June 1, 2000