Purpose, process and the power of authenticity

Oct 14, 2020, 10:29 AM

For nearly a decade, Kari Keating was a teaching assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of ACES, where she helped coordinate the school’s minor in leadership studies. Now she’s bringing that experience a few blocks west, where she hopes to help the next generation of business professionals find their purpose by giving them something everyone needs — the freedom to be themselves.

“I want to bring my own sense of authenticity, so that students feel like they have the permission to do the same,” said Keating. “In my courses, I like to talk about my own backstory so students realize professors and business people are just people. It’s not like they’re auditioning to play a role.”

For Keating, that backstory starts in the Midwest. Originally from Taylorville, Illinois, she completed a bachelor’s in marketing from Bradley University. That was followed by a master’s in educational psychology from the University of Iowa. But it wasn’t until her first post-graduate job in Florida that her education really became complete.

“I grew up in Illinois, but professionally, I grew up in Florida,” said Keating, who spent a decade working for the St. John’s County Chamber of Commerce. Home to the city of St. Augustine, it’s a popular destination for tourists, who are drawn by both the climate and the culture of America’s oldest settlement. “That’s where I learned my real-world business acumen and how non-profits work, how communities develop, and how local and state leadership works. It’s also where I really got turned onto leadership development and collaboration across territorial bounds.”

She loved everything about the job, but two years after the birth of her twins, she decided it was time for a change of pace. “My long-range plan was always to get back to academia,” she said. “Because that’s where I felt most at home.” So, with her family in tow, she moved back to Illinois, where she completed a PhD in human and community development at the College of ACES in 2011.

Her timing couldn’t have been better. Just as her studies at ACES were winding up, a new, campus-wide minor in leadership was just starting up. That’s when Keating made the leap to the front of the classroom. For the next nine years, she honed her skills as an instructor, teaching Intro to Leadership, Leadership Communications, and a capstone course call Collaborative Leadership.

There are echoes of all that in the courses she’ll be teaching at Gies, which are part of the new undergraduate core. In Business 201-Business Dynamics, she’ll lead students as they work in teams to manage a simulated manufacturing business. Business 301-Business in Action, follows a similar roadmap. Students will continue working in groups; only here, they’ll up their game, working with real clients as they hone their professional skills.

Keating says she loves teaching, because she likes connecting with students, especially those who are just starting to find their place in life. “I think that’s part of the reason I’m so drawn to Gies is the heavy focus on purpose,” said Keating. “As a teacher, I want them to know I see you and I hear you. Whether you’re going to pursue something in the private sector, non-profit advocacy, or you want to be a public servant, I see all your stories and they’re all worthy.”

Through her courses, she also hopes to help her students learn another important fact of life in the business world — that process is often more important than product. “The way they express themselves and the way that they work with others will have the biggest impact on their life.”