The Primitive Podcast: Kendra Burris

Posted by Buffy the Bison | March 8, 2021

Kendra Burris on the Primitive Podcast

There’s no doubt about it. Kendra Burris, Deputy Chancellor of Texas Tech University, bleeds black and red.


But when you spend almost your entire life (not just your career) appreciating a large system like Texas Tech University, you gain a whole new appreciation on leadership and what makes the greats truly great. 


Learn firsthand about Kendra’s knowledge on motivation, discipline, and daily habits, along with the leaders she surrounds herself with on a daily basis.

Connect with the folks behind the episode: Kendra Burris and Kade Wilcox

Kade Wilcox: Hey guys, Kade Wilcox here, host of The Primitive Podcast. Thanks for listening to this week's episode with Kendra Burris. Kendra is the Deputy Chancellor of Texas Tech University. I enjoyed having her on the podcast and listening to her insights about leadership and her work background.

Kendra Burris: At the Health Sciences Center, I did have a very tight-knit team. So you get very invested, you know, their kids, what troubles they're having, when their husband passes, when they have grandbabies. And so when we have to have hard conversations when their performance isn't there, I remember having this thought process when I was working out one morning: “Okay, so do I start putting up a wall? Am I not being professional? Do I know too much about them? Am I too invested with them as people that when it's this hard to have uncomfortable conversations, what am I doing wrong? What can I do to change this?” And I finally decided, you know what, that's who I am. I'm still going to their kid's weddings. I'm still going to go up to the hospital when they have babies. I'm still going to be there in their personal life because that's who I am as a person. And just lean into how that makes the uncomfortable part of it when you have to have those conversations.

Kade Wilcox: Kendra, thanks so much for joining The Primitive Podcast. I really appreciate you being on. So for those who don't know who Kendra Burris is, tell us about your background and the work you do now, and all that good stuff.


Who is Kendra Burris?

Kendra Burris: Thanks for having me, Kade. I'm very excited to be here. I grew up locally. I'm from Idalou.

Kade Wilcox: Go Wildcats!

Kendra Burris: Go Wildcats! And grew up on a farm there; I have a pretty large family. And then went to [Texas] Tech - ag economics major. So, I kind of thought I'd always be in the agricultural world. And I guess you always are; anything you do around here you're going to be agriculturally based. But that's kind of who I am and that's my backbone.


I've been married 23 years to my husband, Scott, and have two girls, both in college right now. So we're empty nesting; a senior at the University of Arkansas and a freshman at the University of Arkansas. They did not stay and go to Tech. They wanted to get away.

Kade Wilcox: Did Scott go to Tech as well?

Kendra Burris: Yeah, Scott went to Tech. I mean, everybody in my family's gone to Tech. And we love it. And, obviously, it's who we are. We bleed red and black. But it might've been a little different because my husband's a professor at Tech. My mom works at Tech. You know, I have a good role at Tech. And so the fact that we can call professors and check grades…


No, they have come to realize, though, when you're in trouble, it's nice to have your mom.

Kade Wilcox: Yeah. That's great. Has it been hard being an empty nester?

Kendra Burris: You know, it was really hard [having] your first child leave. And then you realize how, you know, each stage of your kids' life is so cool. Like baby, toddler, junior high, high school; the hard parts. But the college years are so fun. Because that's when you're meeting your lifelong friends and experiencing all this new stuff. So to watch my older daughter go through that and share that with her, it makes it a lot easier for your second one to go away. And it was hard. It's quiet when they first leave. But after a couple of weeks, it's really great.


She came home for Christmas, and I was like, "Oh, okay. When did we go back?"

Kade Wilcox: We have a 10 and eight-year-old. And like Lacey's (my wife) convinced, you know, if they go to college, I'm like, "Skip college, start a business, grow your wealth, skip the whole college thing." But Lacey's like, "Wherever they go to college, I'm going to have an apartment and I'm going to be in their hair all the time." And I'm like, "Nope, we're not, we're going to travel the country and let them go grow up."

Kendra Burris: It's an awesome time to watch them.

Kade Wilcox: So how long have you been at Tech? And have you always been at Tech?

Kendra Burris: So my husband and I moved to Missouri for him to get his Ph.D. I got a job on faculty back here and I started actually at Covenant Health System at their foundation and worked there for a few years. And then I went and moved to Tech and I've been at Tech, I think, like 12 years now. I started as a development officer in fundraising and moved over to the Health Sciences Center and did fundraising there for the School of Medicine and kind of worked my way up. And eventually, at the Health Sciences Center, I ran the fundraising for all of our campuses. We have five campuses across the whole half of the state and then, eventually, Vice President of External Relations. So communications, marketing, governmental relations, alumni fundraising, and that operation. And then now I'm in the chancellor's office at the system level.

Kade Wilcox: So what is your role now?

Kendra Burris: So that's such a good question. My title is Deputy Chancellor and it's up to anyone else to define what that is. Basically, it's really just to make sure that what, you know, Chancellor Dr. Mitchell's vision is and how he wants things to run; just to make sure that all of that happens and happens in the manner in which you want it to do. So it's yeah. I'm just so lucky and blessed every day. It's a great job.

Kade Wilcox: Yeah, he was on our podcast some months ago and it was awesome. It was like, it could have been a two-hour episode if it were up to me; it was really fun. He's so down to earth, but what a great, great leader.

Kendra Burris: Easy to talk to you and such a great leader. I have many, many of those in my life, but he's definitely one to learn from and works really, really different, which is awesome. Dailey Fuller's also in our office and we all are very, very different, but complement [each other] in the work environment.


Pinpointing Leadership When Surrounded by Greatness

Kade Wilcox: So, my question for you about leadership —and you can answer it however you want. You can answer it, like, how you see your role as a leader. But I would love to hear, I want to hear you talk about your role as a leader. But I also want to hear, if you don't mind, kind of what you've learned, being around so many great leaders. Leaders that you've raised money from. Leaders like Chancellor Mitchell. Board of Regents. Like, all of these. You're surrounded by great leaders. And so I'd love to just kind of hear what you think leadership is.

Kendra Burris: It's almost too hard to take in. Because I get to experience so many amazing leaders, and honestly, some that aren't that great. (Not currently.) You know, so learning from both, I wanted to learn how to do that, or I want to not do that. That's not how I want to be perceived. So I think, personally, how I see my personal leadership is A) if you're not working on it every day, then you're not a leader, B) it changes. I think your leadership and how you lead can change from meeting to meeting of what role you're in, and you have to know to be flexible and adjust. You know, some meetings they're, you know, to make sure something gets done. And it may not be, you know, what people like to hear or want to hear. Where the very next meeting is just to listen and just to be supportive.

So currently, you know, the Texas Tech system has four universities with obviously our undergrad Texas Tech and the Health Sciences Center. We have Health Sciences Center, El Paso, and then Angelo State in San Angelo. And I'm sure Dr. Mitchell covered this on his podcast. So I don't want to recap all of that. But, you know, we are not a system and we are not there if our students aren't being successful, and we don't get our students in and our faculty. So he's really been in the servant leadership mode. And we've been working with that a lot at work on the difference of a servant leadership mentality when we're talking about our universities and our students and our faculty. And so that's personally what I'm working on, right now, every day.

Kade Wilcox: Equipping others to be successful. I mean, it's like y'all's role is to equip the students, the faculty, you know, the department chairs, the people at each of those institutions. It makes a lot of sense. You mentioned, you know, observing bad leadership throughout the years as well. What are a few things that stick out to you that you just kind of remember going, you know, "That's not good for people," or "That's not the way it should be done." Do you have anything that sticks out in your mind?

Kendra Burris: Well, I think it's hard. In fact, I think I've come to a job or a situation where things don't usually get to me unless it's a problem that can't be solved. And so making those decisions. So, you know, in fact, last week I went into Dr. Mitchell's office and I said, "I don't feel like I'm solving problems." I, I like to have someone bring something; I'll fix it. I go to him, like, okay, X, Y, and Z happened. And this is what I did. This is the future. And I feel like I'm coming to you with more problems not being solved. But that's kind of the nature of where we are right now. There are hard problems. And I want to be kind, and I want to treat people with respect, but in a lot of situations, I'm there to give news or to have conversations that aren't comfortable, you know? So it's a really difficult balance. And so I've watched chairman Huckabee, Chris Huckabee, as our last board chairman that just rotated off as board chairman, and actually rotating off as a Board of Regent, as soon as the governor reappoints Regents. But, man, he's good at those. He's really good at having those conversations and being clear and sincere and quick, and it's like, you get yourself worked up, and then it's really actually not that big of a deal.


Balancing Humanity and Practicality

Kade Wilcox: So this is an interesting perspective. I can imagine an organization that's the size of a Texas Tech system. It's working with and in government. That is a whole different level and flavor of challenge, maybe? So do you find it difficult (and you mentioned your desire to solve problems)? Do you find it difficult to balance the human side of leadership with just getting things done and the effectiveness side of leadership?

Kendra Burris: Very much so.

Kade Wilcox: And how have you tried to grow in that and wrestle with it and balance the human and the practical, if you will?

Kendra Burris: You know, so we do a lot of leadership growth. I do it personally. And then Dr. Mitchell also does that as a leader of our office. So two things: I think that probably we listened to a lot. We've been on Patrick Lencioni a lot lately. But, probably, the most influential, as far as tangible things I've put in practice in my leadership and in my work role is a lot from what Brene Brown did on Dare to Lead. I had so many "Aha!" moments listening and reading that book. Like when she talks about not having an uncomfortable conversation, because you're uncomfortable is the definition of privilege. You being uncomfortable is not part of this decision or this conversation. Like why are we even considering it? And all of a sudden I'm like, "Oh my gosh, that's such an entitled thought process that I'm gonna change something just because of me being uncomfortable.”


So there's a lot of that that I try to balance, you know? Years ago– I don't know, it's probably been five years ago, maybe – I had my own kind of "Aha!" moment when I was having a really hard [time]; I get very invested in my people. And so at the Health Sciences Center, which was kind of different here at the system; it's a much larger group. I don't have really any direct reports, but kind of trying to make sure everybody's doing well. At the Health Sciences Center, I did have a very tight-knit group/team. And so you get very invested, you know, their kids, what troubles they are having, when their husband passes, when they have grandbabies. And so then you have to have hard conversations when their performance isn't there. And I remember having this thought process when I was working out one morning of, "Okay, so do I start putting up a wall?"


Do Walls Need to be Built?

“Am I not being professional? Do I know too much about them? Am I too invested with them as people that when it's this hard to have uncomfortable conversations...what am I doing wrong? What can I do to change this?” And I finally decided, you know what, that's not who I am. So I'm going to still have people over to stay at my house when they're in town visiting and they are employees. I'm still going to their kid's weddings. I'm still going to go up to the hospital when they have babies. I'm still going to be there in their personal life. Because that's who I am as a person and just lean into how that makes the uncomfortable part of it when you have to have those conversations.

Kade Wilcox: Yeah. That's good. One of my favorite things Brene Brown has ever said is "clear is kind." Clear is kind. Clear is kind. And yeah, we've been really influenced by it.

Kendra Burris: That's, what's so interesting about her book. Because even not like in all of Lencioni's books, even all these other books you read, you get philosophically what they're doing. That book, more than any that I've read, we actually put into place practices from it on a daily basis. She changes how we talk in meetings and staff meetings, like "ready to rumble" and "clear is kind." And it was fascinating. We had two people from her team actually come out and do a whole workshop with us.


Being Nimble

Kade Wilcox: Yeah, it's been good. Yeah. Really powerful. How do you treat failure? Like when y'all are working as a team and as an organization and something doesn't go the way it needs to, or supposed to, like, what's your approach to failure?

Kendra Burris: Failure's not something that I do well with. I think acknowledging that you don't know why it's happening right now, but you will in three to six months. Like if you look back on all of what I consider major failures or things that didn't happen the way I thought they should happen, usually, within six months, you're like, "Oh, that's why. Oh, okay. This is why this didn't work the way it was supposed to." I have had to work on myself (as far as, you know, when you get something in your mind, this is how it's going to work; this is what it's going to do) to be flexible. And maybe winning, as I would say, just looks different. And I think that I've gotten better at that. I have been able to be a little more flexible and a little more nimble when it comes to my thought process and defining what I think success looks like maybe a little different in the end.

Kade Wilcox: Not being flexible at an organization of y'all's size probably creates a lot of challenges for you. Have you ever done a Clifton StrengthsFinders or anything like that?


Providing for Others = Working on Yourself

Kendra Burris: So we just did. I've done a lot of them and I don't remember everything that I am on the colors or the strings or Myers-Briggs. So we just did, actually, Patrick Lencioni came out most recently with Six Working Geniuses. So our whole team (vice-chancellors, the presidents) are doing it with Dr. Mitchell next week. And tenacity and galvanizing are my two strengths.

Kade Wilcox: We’re really big on Clifton StrengthFinders. And I would almost bet a hundred bucks that you have competition in your top five. How do you approach your own personal growth? You know, you're responsible for supporting and equipping a lot of others, you know, serving all your department chairs and all the people in your organization. So how do you intentionally focus on your growth so that you're capable and prepared to support your team?

Kendra Burris: Right. I do think if, much like being a mom, a wife, a leader, anything, if you're not working on yourself on a daily basis, then you can't do that and provide for others. So, you know, I'm a huge podcast person. Much like you, I know you run and work out. (I can't believe you ran this morning.) I like to run when it's cold; this morning was a little too much, Kade.

Kade Wilcox: I tell you what. I got back and I told Lacey, "I feel like I'm freezer burned."

Kendra Burris: I can't imagine. I've run in the snow. Like the last time it was really cold we went out to Mae Simmons [park] and ran on the trails and it was beautiful. But this morning...

Kade Wilcox: was chilly. I was layered up and my eight-year-old got into my beard and it was completely, like, frozen. And he was pretty enamored with that.

Kendra Burris: But working out for me and moving is a key. Sherry, who was my assistant in the Health Sciences Center and my right-hand person, used to tell me when I walked in if I had worked out. She said, “It's crazy.” She's like, “Your demeanor when you walk in, your body language, how you walk, is completely different on the days you work out than the days you don't.” And I thought that was such an interesting perspective on her part. So I do try very hard in the mornings to get up and move and to work out to clear my head. And it helps me think and be the best that I can be. Right now I'm into listening to Eric Thomas. I don't know if you've listened to Eric Thomas. He's awesome. He's pretty intense, but he's really great.


Motivation, Discipline, and Habits

Kade Wilcox: Is that a podcast?

Kendra Burris: It's a podcast and his podcasts are kind of long. So he also has short clips on Spotify, like a radio station. And so I kind of put his clips in my workout playlist. But he really calls you out. He works a lot with athletic teams. But what I've been listening to, probably the last month (I get on kicks. And then once I feel like I'm off of it, then I'll move on.) is "What you are to be, you are becoming now." And so he talks about everything you do today is what you're going to be in 10 years, what you're going to be in five years. And so, no opportunity wasted. So every day what you're doing is what you're becoming. He talks about drawing this line.


And so this is now all of my mirrors. My bathroom mirror is usually covered up with stuff. I'm like, "Oh, that's good." I gotta be able to see this every morning before I go to work. So I have a big line down my mirror, on my bathroom wall, and every decision or habit that's bad for that day you write below the line. And every decision or habit or person, I mean, he even talks about the people in your life that encourage you or push you to be better, you write above the line. He talks about, over time, you need to have less things below the line than you have above the line. And so Eric Thomas is really part of my morning playlist for my personal growth and really pushing me. He also, which I've been thinking a lot about lately too, talks about how you take on every day.


He said, so you get up and you're ready to take on every day. And you're just like this machine gun and you're just going to fire away. And he talks about (gun-related) do you have a scope on your gun? Are you intentional in your day? How are you doing this? And so I've been really trying to think through that and my day and how I'm growing every day and becoming a better person. That's been interesting. And then there's another podcast I'll listen to. I think it's called, "Bad-ass motivational speaking" and it's like your top speakers. It's a lot of different people. And one of the ones I listened to last week that I'm still thinking about and processing is, motivation is the by-product of action, not the cause of action. Which was kind of an "Aha!" moment for me. Because, you think about it, it's true. I'm not motivated in the morning to get up, but after I get up and work out, then I'm motivated. And so it just was, I don't know, it was a lightbulb for me on the action is what motivates you. So if you're waiting around to be motivated to have action, you're missing the boat. If you get up and you do something, you will be motivated to do more.

Kade Wilcox: That's really good. I've never heard it put that way, but it makes a ton of sense. I would rather not run more often than  I want to run. But by running, you end up running more.

Kendra Burris: Exactly. Well, and you never get up and work out and think, "Man, I shouldn't have done that." Why is it still hard to get up every morning? Like every morning I'm like, "God, why do I gotta...?" This morning I did not want to get up. But then you get up and you're never like, "Oh, that was a bad choice."

Kade Wilcox: Yeah, no, this is right. It's my daily habits. These daily disciplines, these daily deposits actually are the thing that ended up actually propelling you forward and creating success.

Kendra Burris: Right. And your strength is your routine.

Kade Wilcox: Have you read Atomic Habits yet? It's something you would probably really enjoy listening to. It's a great audiobook. But it talks about a lot of these things you're sharing and it's really powerful in terms of just how to create habits. And it's nothing like most of us think in terms of creating habits. And so I think you would really, really enjoy that.

Kendra Burris: Well, and it's, you know, I pick these, and I have them in my playlist and listen over and over. Because I think if you just listen once and you don't listen over; like, I need it over and over. I need to re-remind myself and continue to challenge myself on those thought processes. And then the other one that I'm listening to, it's called, "Abraham thinking." I have no idea who it is or where it's coming from, and it's the weird voices, but they talk about this law of attraction. So what you are thinking you then speak and then you act. And so it talks so much about your thoughts and kind of like birds of a feather flock together. But it's so much of what you think is what you put out, and are you controlled in what your thoughts are.


So anyway, that's kind of where I am right now in my personal growth. You can come to look at my bathroom and figure out everything. Everywhere I'm struggling [with] and where I'm trying to be better, it's pretty much on my bathroom mirror.


The Profound Leadership at Texas Tech University

Kade Wilcox: When you said that I thought, "Man, I'd run out of bathroom mirror on the bottom. You know, if I listed every single mistake I'm making a day. So I probably shouldn't start that practice. You've worked with Dr. Mitchell for a long time, right? Because he was at the Health Sciences center. You were with him there and then you moved to the chancellor’s office. I was saying earlier how much I enjoyed having him on our podcast. What would you say are a couple of distinguishing marks of his leadership that you believe make him so effective?

Kendra Burris: Well, he connects. He can totally sit down with anyone at any time and listens and is engaged and really cares about people. You know, obviously, if I'm choosing to spend my career working for someone, I don't want him to be an asshole. And I like working for Dr. Mitchell. So he's well-spoken, he's well-read, but then he's just so humble and kind. And he does not like to be bragged on.


But very early in working for him when I knew, hey, this is a leader – this is someone that I want to work for – was when you travel. The way he treats the wait staff at the restaurants. I can't even tell you how many people walk away, and then they see like his tip or the note that he's left. And they come back so nice and give him a hug. I am not that way. I mean, I do tip well, but I'm usually like onto something, writing down my notes, onto the next thing. I think it's an admirable, abnormal quality.

Kade Wilcox: Yeah. It seems to be really fitting for the role he has. Again, just so many stakeholders, alumni, you know, government officials, students, professors, all different backgrounds. I mean, it's a lot of moving parts.

Kendra Burris: Yeah. And you know, that's what's so cool. And if I sit back and think about where I am and what I get to experience with it. Because you have Dr. Mitchell who obviously is awesome. But then you have Dr. Schovanec who, in himself, is a completely different leader. But he's so cool. And so great. And then you have Dr. Rice-Spearman, our first female president in the Texas Tech system. And her leadership skills are, like, so fine-tuned and honed-in (also completely different than the other two guys). And then we've just hired a Lieutenant General of the Air Force, retired General Hawkins at ASU, the first African-American president for ASU. So it's just, like, I just can't learn enough from these people. Yeah. I just can't take it in fast enough. Because they're all so unique, separately, in their leadership. Which is a cool thing to witness because they're all amazing leaders and they're all really, really different. So there's not a cookie-cutter way to be a leader.

Kade Wilcox: I'd like to volunteer to be your assistant for a week. Unpaid.

Kendra Burris: You should! And we have so much fun. That's what's so awesome about them is that, you know, yeah, it's a very big job. All of them have huge jobs. Our system, across the system, it's a $2.2 billion company or business, you know? We have 57,000 students across the system, not 10,000 employees. So it's such a huge thing. But then they always also have so much fun. There's not one single meeting, maybe some, if it's really intense, especially the pandemic, but I would say 80% of the time that we laugh and we have a really, really good time. And then you throw Kirby in there as athletic director. And what a crazy cool leader he is. I mean, his ability, and this is what I've learned from Kirby, his ability, I mean, the stuff he deals with (his kids and personalities and people) it's just a lot. His ability to listen and to stay calm and not get worked up.


But then when he talks, he's very clear in what he says. That's one thing that I'm like, okay, that's, that's what Kirby does well that I want to do. And then Schovanec is so sincere. He reads every freaking email people send him and he tries to respond and some of them he shouldn't be responding to. He wants to respond to everyone, and his sincerity and his likeness, just wanting to do the right thing, is so impressive. And then you go to Dr. Rice-Spearman, her ability to make hard decisions and follow through with them and be clear in what those decisions are. It's just like, I'm living a leadership podcast every day.


Advice to Kendra’s Younger Self

Kade Wilcox: Yeah. That's great. That's why I want to become your assistant. Just absorb it. This has been really good. My last question for you is probably my favorite, which is: if you could go back 20, 30 years knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self.

Kendra Burris: To read more.

Kade Wilcox: Read more?

Kendra Burris: I did not read enough, still do not read enough. It is an area that I've got to challenge. Knowledge is power, and I'm not talking about what you learn in a classroom or in a textbook. But I'm always, like, for instance, we're in a meeting the other day. And Dr. Schovanec said he had just finished reading Team of Rivals and everything he learned from it. I was like, okay, that's great. I'm gonna put this on my list. I Amazoned it and I texted him a picture of him like, “Good grief. This is going to take me two years to read this freaking book." And he probably read it on a weekend. But I do like watching Dr. Schovanec, and watching Dr. Mitchell, and listening to their conversations. So much of what they reflect on and how they think comes from books. It's something that I fall very short on. So that's what I'm working on right now. I'd much rather listen to a book, but I make myself at least have two books going at one time.

Kade Wilcox: My wife is a reader. I think in 2020 she read like 137 books.

Kendra Burris: Oh geez, I probably haven't done that in my life.

Kade Wilcox:I know me too. That's what I'm saying. I listen to a lot of stuff. So like all my long runs are audiobooks. If audiobooks count I'm in a good place. But reading? There is something really powerful though about the tangible touching, and feeling, and underlining, and thinking, and going slower. And so I can resonate with that a lot. Well, thanks for all your time. Really, really generous of you. Yeah. Glad to have you.

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