What It Takes to Be an Effective Leader: A Chat with IES Abroad’s CEO Named Notable Woman Executive by Crain’s Chicago Business

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What does it actually take to be a leader?

Is there a secret to it all? A foolproof plan? Is it merely hard work and perseverance? Is it being in the right place at the right time? It is about adaptability or popularity? Is it all of the above? None of the above?

As an organization devoted to working towards a better future through study abroad, we think about leadership and the next generation of global citizens every single day. We really do—and we have Mary M. Dwyer, Ph.D., our CEO and President of more than 23 years, to thank for that.

Dr. Dwyer knows a thing or two about getting things done, staying true to a mission, and making an impact. She was recently recognized as one of the top “Notable Women Executives Over 50” by Crain’s Chicago Business, one of the top business news outlets in the U.S., alongside 74 exceptional C-level female executives who are leading successful businesses across industries in Chicago. 

It is no surprise that Dr. Dwyer has been honored by Crain’s for her impactful career. Dr. Dwyer is a change maker, a mission-driven CEO, and a problem solver, and is celebrated for her powerful combination of intellect, energy, and strategic decision-making.

We sat down with Dr. Dwyer to discuss how the path to being a successful leader is anything but linear, and how having a tolerance for ambiguity is a must. And we bet you’ll never guess her favorite international destination that changed her life, and her career, forever!

Also, be sure to check out Mary's interview with WGN Radio Chicago where she's featured as the "CEO Spotlight" on "The Opening Bell with Steve Grzanish" show


IES Abroad: What does this award mean to you?

Dr. Dwyer: I am honored to be recognized alongside these distinguished, successful female leaders who are paving the way for the next generation.

Careers can be defined by individual wins, but in my more than 23 years at IES Abroad, the greatest successes have been collaborative. My colleagues and I are dedicated to the fight for a better future through study abroad, and the work it takes to make it a reality. We’ve greatly increased the number of students we send abroad each year, but there’s still work to be done to ensure as many students as possible have the opportunity to broaden their worldviews, become empathetic global citizens, and be the leaders in a globalized workforce to create meaningful change.


IES Abroad: What does it take to be a leader?

Dr Dwyer: Leadership matters. First, the person must have a passion for the mission of their organization. Otherwise, they cannot get up in the morning and feel motivated to give it their all. Secondly, and related, they must have huge physical and mental stamina. I cannot emphasize this enough. Regardless of what others may think of leaders and CEOs, in today’s world these jobs are physically grueling. They also require a great deal of mental focus, and they involve working many hours a week. It would be unusual for me, for example, in my position, to work less than 65-75 hours a week and that requires being healthy, which means you have to take care of yourself! Thirdly, they must have highly developed skills and experiences

Tolerating ambiguity is a number one quality of every effective leader regardless of what field they are in. Because of today’s changing circumstances, it is particularly important not to be rigid, and to have a high tolerance for change and ambiguity. Leaders also have to be creative.

And most important, they have to be strategic and always on point, always keeping the organization focused. It’s very easy for organizations to attempt to be comfortable and lose sight of their mission, lose sight of who they’re here to serve, and ultimately lose track of being successful. The leader keeps the organization focused. 


IES Abroad: How do you define success?

Dr. Dwyer: It’s very easy in the complex organizational worlds, that all leaders operate in now, to get lost. I would say the most important ways that I define success are having advocacy for the mission of the organization, and building an innovative, always improving, growing, and thriving organization. I am not naïve to the fact that people measure success by awards, prizes, promotions and so forth, but that wasn’t my priority, and still isn’t my priority. It’s hard for me to accept awards because I like to shine the light on others … If I shine a light on others then they’re more likely to succeed and the organizations are more likely to succeed. Therefore, my entire focus is on helping the entire organization to succeed.


IES Abroad: What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned in your career?

Dr. Dwyer: I learned early on, when I was placed in a leadership position at the age of 25, that being popular is not an appropriate goal for a leader. It renders you ineffective as a leader because it positions you to always be reactive and lose your focus on the mission and direction. 


IES Abroad: What would you say to the next generation of global citizens?

Dr. Dwyer: Their contributions are vital. We are going through a generational shift in leadership because the baby boomers are retiring, and we’re a huge bubble of the current population worldwide. Therefore, there’s great demand for future leaders and their role is extremely important.

I would suggest to them that first and foremost establish a very strong work ethic and stay focused on their priorities. Also, don’t feel entitled to career advancement. Career growth occurs for many reasons, but a strong work ethic makes a big difference. Also, be extremely flexible in the ability to move across careers and organizations.

Experiences come together no matter where you end up, or what job or industry you end up in. You have to view it as building blocks and realize that at some point it may not look like a straight line because it isn’t. Straight career lines don’t always take you to a higher place, or a better place.

dr dwyer with a student

IES Abroad: Any advice to young professionals who are in a role that isn't in their career path?

Dr. Dwyer: I think, understandably, students and young professionals have invested large amounts of money in higher education, which presumably leads to a very good job. As a result, they expect an immediate return on investment financially, and that their original career goals will occur.

My career is the perfect example of the fact that this is not what happens.I have always been in education, but I’ve been in education at different levels. Two of the most impactful jobs I had were overseeing an intellectual property office and a TV studio. Studying literature and economics paid off the most. 

I have worked across a variety of sectors and areas of responsibility within education and all of them have informed my success because it was all valuable experience. Thinking about one’s career in a rigid, narrow way doesn’t actually pay off. I think that they should look at it as getting valuable experience that will expand their skillset and expand the kinds of positions that they will be eligible for in terms of building their career advancement.


IES Abroad: What is your favorite place that you've traveled to outside of the United States?

Dr. Dwyer: Very early on in my career in higher education, simply because the academic department was internationally focused, I was given an international consulting experience at the age of 26, and I found myself in Egypt. I might have landed on an entirely different planet as far as I knew. Unlike the kind of preparation our students receive and deserve to receive before they go anywhere in the world, I received nothing at the time. I really had to figure it out myself.

I loved Egypt. I still love Egypt. I get concerned for the welfare of Egypt having worked there three times, but it was a dramatic experience. It basically changed my entire career trajectory because after Egypt there were six other developing countries that I taught in or consulted for and as a result Egypt and the Egyptian people hold a special place in my heart.

“Experiences come together no matter where you end up, or what job or industry you end up in. You have to view it as building blocks and realize that at some point it may not look like a straight line because it isn’t.

Straight career lines don’t always take you to a higher place, or a better place.”
Mary M. Dwyer • Ph.D • CEO and President, IES Abroad

Are you looking to hone your leadership skills? Learn more about the career benefits of studying and interning abroad.

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