Brandon Busteed, Chief Partnership Officer and Global Head, Learn-Work Innovation, Kaplan

Brandon Busteed is the Chief Partnership Officer and Global Head of Learn-Work Innovation at Kaplan. He was previously Executive Director of Education and Workforce Development at Gallup and the founder and former CEO of Outside The Classroom. He currently serves on the boards of the American Association of Colleges & Universities and the Business-Higher Ed Forum. Busteed is a frequent contributor to and is a Top Voice in Education on LinkedIn. He is among the most sought-after speakers and thought leaders on the future of education and work.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with Higher Education Digest, Brandon shared his insights on how higher education institutions should prepare their students for the future of work, his career trajectory, current roles and responsibilities at Kaplan, career milestones, future plans, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

In your opinion, how should higher education institutions prepare their students for the future of work?

There are a handful of secret ingredients in the student experience that are linked to career success for graduates. Briefly summarized, it’s about having a relationship-rich and work-integrated college experience. Examples of those experiences include having a mentor who encourages students’ goals and dreams, having a job or internship where they can apply what they are learning in the classroom, and working on a long-term project that requires a semester or more to complete. The problem isn’t that these things aren’t happening. They’re just not happening at scale and – with few exceptions – they are not being made a priority. For example, the Gallup-Purdue Index showed us that only ⅓ of college graduates in the U.S. worked on a long-term project or had an internship during college. Only 2 out of 10 had a mentor. We know the ingredients of success. We have not prioritized or scaled them.

Brandon, please tell us a bit about yourself, background, and areas of interest.

I’ve been in the education and workforce development space my entire career, but I would have never predicted that, even as late as my senior year in college. I was born in a tiny coal-mining town in southwestern Virginia in the heart of Appalachia. I was fortunate to have parents that prioritized education – I was the first on my mother’s side of the family to get a college degree. All of my mentors and heroes have been teachers or coaches. And I feel I owe a great debt of gratitude to the incredible people who have helped me become successful. As a public policy major, I can’t think of any public policies more important than education and jobs. I’ve been an ed tech entrepreneur (long before the term ‘ed tech’ was used), helped build the education and workforce development practice at Gallup, and for the past five years I’ve been able to serve as a leader at Kaplan – arguably the world’s most diversified and successful education organization.

Brief us about your current roles and responsibilities as the Chief Partnership Officer and Global Head, Learn-Work Innovation at Kaplan.

I wear two hats – which many days are one in the same. I lead all of our university and corporate partnerships while also serving as a thought leader around the future of work and learning. The most exciting space in the world is the one between education and work. I see a future where it becomes almost impossible to tell the difference between an educational institution and a place of work. There will be so much work-integrated learning taking place in education and so much learning-integrated work taking place in our jobs that we won’t distinguish between the two. They will simply become synonymous with one another. That is the future that needs to be built and Kaplan is helping our partner universities and employers build that future.

How do you describe your leadership style? What values are important to you as a leader?

I lead through energy, ideas, and ideals. I believe very much in the saying ‘fortune to the bold.’ Being bold in thinking, action, and ambition. I seek university and corporate leaders who want to be the pioneers building that big, bold future for education and work. And I have the unique advantage at Kaplan of being able to do “cathedral building.” We don’t judge our success quarterly – like most publicly-traded and private-equity backed companies do. We think and operate in decades – because that is what it will take for us to be successful in education and talent development. The world’s great cathedrals were built over decades and, in some cases, centuries. Most of the artisans who worked on them never saw the finished product. But they contributed to something great and lasting. That’s how I think about our work at Kaplan and that’s how we think about the partnerships we support with universities and companies.  While we are certainly making tangible and meaningful contributions today, I can’t wait to see what we do over the next few generations.

How do you motivate your team?

In one word, hope. But let me expand on its definition. My late colleague, Dr. Shane Lopez, was the world’s foremost authority on hope. He described hope as having “ideas and energy for the future.” And the key to “making hope happen” lies in helping people find pathways to accomplishing their goals. You have goals, you see multiple pathways to accomplishing them and you have a belief in your ability to make it so.

You are a Board Member of Business-Higher Education Forum and American Association of Colleges and Universities. Can you tell us about these organizations and their missions?

I’ve become involved in both of these organizations because I believe deeply in their mission, and I see them as key bridges to the future I described earlier. Business-Higher Ed Forum is a group of committed corporate and university leaders who are trying to build more efficacious partnerships between higher ed and employers. AAC&U is the preeminent organization focused on promoting liberal arts education. Anyone who has followed my writing in Forbes, posts on LinkedIn or speeches at various conferences knows that I believe in the “both/and” not the “either/or” when it comes to ensuring students are both broadly educated and specifically-skilled. These are not mutually exclusive.

Where or whom do you seek motivation and inspiration from? How?

I seek motivation from the people I work with – both my colleagues at Kaplan, as well as our partners and the broader ecosystem of education and workforce development folks out there. I also seek motivation from the students – of all ages, all around the world – that we serve. I find motivation knowing that we need to work to bring in all those who are still left out of the current system of education and work opportunities.

Which one of your accomplishments makes you the proudest till date?

I’m proud of signature initiatives I’ve helped bring to life. Through the company I founded out of college (Outside The Classroom, acquired by EverFi), we built online courses that have been taken by more students than any in the world (12 million and counting) – with efficacy data showing they helped reduce drunk driving, alcohol fatalities, and sexual assaults. At Gallup, I helped lead one of the most influential studies in higher ed history: the Gallup-Purdue Index. At Kaplan, I have helped launch a new access initiative called All Access that is changing the game on graduate school and professional outcomes for underserved students.

You have had a remarkable career trajectory over the years. What is the secret mantra behind your success?

Well, thank you. I’m the product of a lot of luck and fortune and hard work, and I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the magnitude of my great fortune in having many amazing mentors throughout my education and professional career. Without mentors, hard work would have only taken me so far. Those mentors have helped give me confidence to take risks, knowing that I have people to fall back on and support me.

What is your biggest goal? Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?

My biggest goal is what I articulated earlier. I want to build a future where learning and work are one and the same. I don’t see myself 5 years from now; I see myself 50 years from now. Perhaps still alive, but statistically unlikely. Knowing that I helped contribute to a movement that changed the trajectory of human development would be incredibly gratifying.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in higher education?

If you don’t have one, find a mentor. If you’re not already mentoring someone else, do it.

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