Creating a Brand Through Collaboration
USD’s Conversation with the Freibergs
Insights on 30+ years of sharing a marriage and a business.
Alumni Kevin (EdD class of ’87) and Jackie (EdD class of ’94) recently sat down with Amanda Gonzales from USD’s School of Leadership and Education Science for a look inside the Freiberg’s successful personal and professional relationship and USD’s lasting imprint upon both.
Please tell us how you met, and how that shaped your decision(s) to attend SOLES:
I was in the doctoral program at the School of Education at USD, and Jackie was in the master’s program I was teaching in at San Diego State, that’s kind of how we met. I think one of the cool things, though, is after I finished the doctoral degree and we got married, Jackie was a little disenchanted with education in general, I guess, but specifically with her experience at San Diego State. I said, “You know, this is such a phenomenal program (at USD), you’ve got to go do it. It’ll restore and renew your faith.” She can tell you whether it did or not.
Yes. So he was working on his dissertation and he was teaching both at San Diego State and at USD. I was working on a master’s degree at San Diego State and teaching at San Diego State. We had mutual friends so we met through that experience, but I would say “yes”, after having been through the master’s thesis experience at San Diego State, with a thesis chair that was really about trying to push his students through some sort of “academic prove yourself” kind of experience. I then decided to apply for the USD doctoral degree and it was a really rewarding experience. Not only professionally, but personally. It really did redeem my appreciation for the journey of education and where it is not an experience of right or wrong, but an experience for exploring the next level of good. So yes, USD did redeem the process of education for me.
Did you have a favorite professor while studying at the School of Education?
I have two favorites…well, no I probably have one. Dr. Joe Rost, who was instrumental in founding the doctoral program at USD, was a big powerful influence in my life. And then a very close second would be Bill Foster, both of whom have passed, unfortunately. But both those guys were just a beautiful combination of hard-core passionate about what they believed in and giving their students the freedom to discover and explore what we believed in and then they communicated, in no uncertain terms, that they believed in us. I really felt like what was communicated to us is that we can go out and change the world–with leadership and transformational leadership, to be specific. So those guys had a huge influence on my life and they were not push-overs; they were academically rigorous, you’re going to work for it, but it was done in a collegial way. So I think we were made to believe we could go do something significant with our lives and with our degree.
I’d say the very same professors were also my favorite. Kevin and I both had great relationships and learning experiences with both Bill Foster and Joe Rost. And to add to what Kevin said, both Joe and Bill were two really intellectually bright/brilliant people who were for their students–in empowering them, and enabling them, and engaging them to explore their own insights and ideas around leadership. You know Bill and Joe certainly had an intellectual capacity that was beyond most, but they never judged you, and they never made a student feel like they were less than. They always wanted to draw something more, better and enriching out of all those that they engaged. They created seminars…in the very beginning they were threatening because, “Oh gosh, you had to talk. Or if you state your claim, then you have to be able to defend it.” They created an arena within which it was risky, you were intellectually and emotionally exposed, but it also made you more thoughtful and more intentional about how you actually articulated leadership, how leadership could be practiced, and then trained in others and modeled for others in a generative way. They were really great examples of what they wanted us to become.
They weren’t afraid to bust your chops, but it was always done in a kind way that’ll make you better. It was never done out of academic arrogance, if that makes sense. You went in with both those; Foster would do it in a more passive way and Rost was more in your face, but both of them…You went into seminar prepared or you… suffered isn’t the right word, but you didn’t want to be in that position again, and I loved that.
And I think the experience as a doctoral student at USD really gave me an understanding of education as a whole. You go through a bachelor’s degree and a bachelor’s degree is really about trying to understand and absorb the knowledge that is in your knowledge tower. You’re supposed to absorb it, and maybe understand it to the degree that you can in four years. Then the master’s degree is an opportunity to see that there are differing perspectives, there are fractions, there are polarized opinions, how do you blend those and come to an understanding of what you believe? Then the doctoral level is the level where you take all that’s out there and you want to take it to the next stage of growing information and understanding; I think USD did a remarkable job of helping their doctoral students do that.
Did you have a favorite place on campus?
I think the favorite places that we had are radically different than the favorite places that are available now. The campus has grown.
It’s changed! We’re old! The School of Education was at the other end of campus, on the very far end of campus near where the current Alumni Center is. We were in a building called Harmon Hall.
I don’t know that I would say I have a “favorite place” on campus; I would say the campus itself, for me, is a sacred place. It’s a very special university. We’ve maintained ties; I still teach a graduate class in SOLES. I very much feel like USD is a place that allows you to, as you’re going up the hill to get to campus, enter another world. I think that world for us, in a general sense, really helped us launch our careers. We both wrote dissertations about the same company (Southwest Airlines), but we each took different directions with our dissertations. And our dissertations led us into an international bestselling book, NUTS! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe For Business and Personal Success. So I think the campus itself is a sacred place in our personal lives and in our professional lives. USD influenced our past and who we are right now.
Personally, I’m with Jackie, I think the whole campus is just incredibly special. If I had a place, it might be Founders Chapel–just because it’s old, it’s quaint, it’s rustic, and it’s elegant…
Not me, I like O’Toole’s. Ha ha.
Yes, but that didn’t exist while we were there. We were married by a Jesuit that I think was teaching there at the time, Ray Ryland. So we have a personal tie to the university, as well. We didn’t get married at Founders Chapel, but we went through premarital counseling on campus. He was unique because he was one of forty-five Catholic priests at that time that was married–converted from Episcopal. You know, you look at all those memories and all those things and it all is really anchored at USD.
What are some of your fondest memories from your time at the School of Education?
You know, there’s so many. Teaching at USD, I loved meeting eccentric renegades like Dr. Larry Williamson, who has been in the Communication’s Department for a long time. But I suppose, you wouldn’t think of this as a great memory but it really was for me, defending my doctoral dissertation was a pretty cool thing. That’s always high stakes, right? You think it is at least, because “you’ve got to get through this,” but I spent a lot of time with a really close friend at the time that went through the program with me, ramping up for that. It was just a great experience.
I’d say, again, I would affirm that there were a number of great experiences; I worked at USD for quite a while, I worked at the School of Continuing Education so I was in the Manchester Executive Center–I was the director of all their corporate and professional programs, so I was the liaison between campus and anything that we offered the business community in Southern California. And there were so many great experiences being able to create business programs, market those programs, and then deliver programs and have people attending benefit. I co-founded the Institute for Family Businesses, it was a remarkable program for quite a while, helped one of the faculty in the business school design a certificate in international business–so there were a lot of really innovative things that we were able to do here on campus. I loved that experience, but I’d say my experience in the doctoral program…there’s nothing more rewarding than defending a dissertation and being given a platform within which you can articulate and communicate, and really share the knowledge you have been working on and writing about, and to be able to defend it with a group of people who are for you! So that was a remarkable, “WOW,” experience. “It’s very rewarding to have contributed important thoughts to the world, to the grow our knowledge base.” I loved that! And then the other thing that was important, I wasn’t going to walk, I was not going to participate in graduation because I think Aubrey (one of our daughters) was brand new! So we had a brand new baby, and I just decided it wasn’t a big deal to walk. And Kevin said, “No, you need to do this!” And so I showed up kind of on a whim, with my family there to support me, and I went to graduation and it was…I am so grateful that I did that because it really was the closure and the celebration of something that was a life-altering journey. So I’m grateful I did that.
I have two others that are really, now that you made me think about it for a minute, one for both of us, I am most certain, when Mother Theresa came and spoke on campus–that was just a really cool experience because we were both huge fans, I mean who wasn’t. But to see her command the presence of an entire stadium, and with her life and her example and her words. What was really special about that day was, as we were leaving the stadium, walking back up toward, I guess we were right about at Harmon Hall, and a motorhome pulled up with Mother Theresa in it. All these kids started to congregate around it, and they weren’t going to let her out because she was headed to Mexico to do some work, but all these kids would come up and put their hand on the window of the door and she would put her hand… and they just wanted a touch. That’ll forever be etched in my mind.
The other experience that I had forgotten was giving a commencement address to the graduating class in 2009. Just to be honored, to be in a profession where that’s what you do and to have your alma mater invite you to come back and do that, you don’t take that lightly. That was something really significant that SOLES and the university gave me.
Let’s talk about what you two have been up to since graduating from the School of Education at USD.
Well, Jackie alluded to it, our doctoral dissertations turned into a bestselling book on Southwest Airlines. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on one of the founders, Herb Kelleher, an incredible and iconic leader. Jackie had a different view and is every bit as passionate about that view today, maybe even more so than then. We were taught in the doctoral program that leadership is not a great man, or a great woman, it’s a collaborative episodic, “you lead, I’ll follow; I follow, you lead” sort of deal. So Jackie came in and did a doctoral dissertation on the collaborative leadership that wasn’t just about the highest level executives, but existed throughout the organization. I think that really opened the door for us to start speaking to and consulting with companies all over the globe. People wanted to know the story, and our passion for the story really came out of transformational leadership in the doctoral program. We asked ourselves, “Are there any examples out there of leaders/companies/cultures that literally talk about love in business, have a hell of a lot of fun doing what they do, are incredibly disciplined (you can’t run an on-time performance airline in a highly competitive industry without being disciplined), and were making money when everyone else was going bankrupt and getting rid of employees?”
Southwest became the shining example of values that were dear to us and were instilled in us in the transformational leadership program at USD. Companies, literally all over the globe, started to invite us to come share that story and talk about what they’ve done and how they’ve done it. The doctoral dissertations and then the book were the springboard to what we’ve been doing for thirty years.
That company was an iconic example of what we believe transformational leadership is designed to do–it’s about people, honoring and celebrating people, and allowing people to perform at their highest levels so that you can ultimately create profitable and purpose driven organization. Ideally we need more courageous and transformative leaders creating a best places to work—places where the best people are doing their best work to make the world better.
Southwest Airlines said early on, “We’re not just trying to make a buck and put cheeks in seats to fly people from one place to another. We want to democratize the skies.” When Southwest Airlines started, flying was not affordable to ordinary people–it was for the privileged who were either flying for some sort of business reason, or they were wealthy. And Southwest said, “No, we want to make flying affordable for ordinary people so they go places and do things and see things that they never dreamed or never could before.” Southwest has always been a company on a mission to make people’s lives better. Who can’t get behind that?
The people of Southwest got behind that and they became an iconic example of how you can actually make money, make a difference in the communities you serve, and give people employment opportunities where they can rise to the occasion, solve problems that matter, and drive cost down without compromising service, safety and security. Everybody wanted to know their story, wondering geeze, “how do you do that?” Our dissertations and our friendship with Southwest’s founders became incredible stepping stones and in turn granted us access to a lot of other courageous leaders and cool companies. We then embarked upon a thirty-three year career journey together speaking about the iconic companies we work with and write about. We’re eight books in now, Souhtwest was our first.
We write to be creative and express what we’re passionate about, but we also write to keep relevant. I would say our business is in three primary areas now. The majority of what we do is keynoting and lecturing to companies all over the globe. We’ve written a book about a company in India; we’ve spent a lot of time in India which has been interesting because as it’s such an exotic country, full of dichotomies–you walk out of a five star hotel and there’s a tent community right there. My point is that that launching pad from USD to what we are doing has allowed us to travel the world and see and experience things we probably wouldn’t have been able to do had it not originated as an embryo in that doctoral program. We do a lot of long-term consulting work with organizations that are really interested in building the kind of cultures we are passionate about. We do some coaching with executives and people who are really serious about wanting to affect change.
Jackie, you have a class at SOLES. Tell us about the class.
I teach a presentations skills class. It’s during the winter intersession so we’ve found a way (my travel doesn’t allow me to do a semester class at USD) to do it during the winter intersession. It’s an accelerated course and the capstone is a TedTalk-like experience where each student delivers a ten minute presentation to an audience of close to 70 people. “I get students on their feet and in front of a camera immediately. There’s no time for procrastination, and there’s no time to overthink it.”
I’m very available to coach each student. I help them rework content, re-think flow and impact and just when they think they can’t, or say, “no way, I need more time.” They can and they do. They all rise to the occasion and for the most part, they all do a really terrific job, some even surprise themselves. Everyone is expected to invite ten friends and family or colleagues or members from the cohort–so usually we have an audience of, you know, 50-60 people, maybe a little bit more, each speech is videotaped and each speaker has the chance to answer questions, and then they’re finished. The videotape is critiqued by me, evaluated by me, and then they get a copy of that so that they can look at their performance with an eye for it and with a critique from me.
I have friends who say “And why do you still do this?” My response is, “because, you have to experience what happens after these students literally accomplish a ten minute presentation that they’ve worked on for less than seven days. The course is hard work, yet it’s also an opportunity to be honored and celebrated when they’ve crushed it and hit it out of the park. Students are more empowered and more confident after they do something like that. They walk on a cloud.” If I can do that for ten students every year at USD, I’m in! Actually, they do it for themselves, they have to want to step into the “arena.” I simply serve as a cheerleader and facilitator in their transformation.
Do either of you have any advice that you would give to a current student at SOLES?
My advice is learn how to learn and develop a passion for learning, because you’re going to need it for the rest of your life. What you’re getting from this university are tools and methodologies that are going to take you through the rest of your life–honor it, respect it, love it, cherish it, use it. I think we would both say that if USD gave us anything, it gave us the tools with which to learn. In a graduate program you are asked to go out, collect data, connect that data, make sense of that data, and then bring that data back to somebody in some sort of a useful form that enriches their life, their business, their world. USD gave us that.
I think all of us have to be learners. Kevin is fond of saying, “Yes, we have doctorate degrees, but that just tells you we used to know something,” and you don’t want that to come true. I recently delivered a keynote for what we’re being recognized as the 50 top women difference-makers in the state of Oklahoma–so the state honors 50 women a year who are making a difference in their respective profession. The way I ended this presentation is also sound advice for anyone working toward a degree, whether it’s an undergrad or graduate degree. Look, the degree is a badge of honor. It’s something that’s a cool thing to have, but in essence, if you look back at the beginning of our life, we cannot change the beginning. We came into this world in a certain way and now when you think about where you are today, you’re a part of an epic story. We’re landing at some place in this story and right now that place happens to be a place where you can say, “Wow, I got this degree, and now what?” Well, this is your next chapter, say, “Okay, based upon the fact that I’m in this story, I have the chance right now to use this degree, use my information, look ahead and say, ‘how will I enrich this story and add value to this next chapter?’.” And if you wake up every day and say, “I want to do something to enrich and impact the circle of influence that I have control of”, you’re going to put your head on your pillow at the end of the day and say, “I might not have changed the world, I might not have even made a dent in the world, but I did make a dent and I did enrich my own circle of influence”. And if every single person, in a world that is so fractional and so polarized and so divided, if everyone of us chose to do that we’d each be doing our part to make this world a little better–one person, one act at a time. And that’s what leaders do.
What about advice for a successful marriage?
Well, we’ve tried to live, and we’ve coached our three children, that marriage is not so much about finding the right person, it’s about being the right person. When you show up, who do you choose to be? Because every day it’s a choice. And it’s more complicated when you work together, and when you write together. Writing is, for some people, a joy and is easy, but for us it’s hard work. So taking blank computer screens and turning them into chapters means you really have to manage the creative tension of working differently–Jackie has a very different style than I do and it took us a while, and we’re just starting to figure it out after 31 years of marriage how to let our differences become strengths, rather than annoyances. That goes back to when you enter that relationship, who are you going to choose to be? We’ve told our kids, outside of knowing God (because the grace of God is what sustains you to be the right person), who you choose as a lifetime partner is the most important decision you’re ever going to make in your life because that can make your life really, really wonderful, or it could really “fudge” it up.
When Kevin was teaching here at USD, he’d say to students who were thinking about engagement, marriage is not about finding the right person, it’s about being the right person. I think once you decide that you’ve found that person, then I think it’s really about shifting your perspective. We are influenced by a society that suggests, with men and women in relationships, or women and women, or men and men, whatever the relationship happens to be, one person tends to subordinate themselves to the other, and I don’t think we should think of relationships in that way. We need to think about relationships and partnerships as opportunities to strengthen each other. So when we come together, I don’t want to subordinate myself to Kevin, I don’t want him to subordinate himself to me, I want to strengthen one another. I don’t want to compete with him, I want to complement him. I don’t want to compare myself to him, instead I want to collaborate with him. It’s so much more fulfilling when we are in relationships in which we strengthen, complement, and complete each other. That’s just so much healthier than subordinating, competing, and comparing. But our world tells us to subordinate, it tells us to compete with each other, and our world tells us to compare ourselves–it’s everywhere. So shed those tired and unhealthy perspectives and say, “together let’s unify and commit to enriching each other.”
The thing that I think is true about all of that is, marriage takes work. Marriage has an enemy, and it’s one of the most powerful forces on the face of the earth: inertia. When you get busy, life is going, you’re trying to pay bills, you’re doing your job, you have a few weekends you’re living for, but it’s easy to fall into routine and inertia that attack your relationship, right? You have to be really intentional about growing your marriage just like you would grow anything else. You’re either growing or you’re slipping, because there’s really not much in-between. You might think you’re in a plateau, but most people who are on a plateau are just slowly slipping backwards. So I think, especially when you’re working together, the vibrancy comes from being intentional about, “Are we going to grow this?” I’m a work in progress, okay? Jackie will ratify that, for sure. After 31 years, I can look at her and say, “You know, I’ve got her wired. I know her inside and out.” Or I can look at her and say, “She’s constantly changing, growing, evolving, and she is a treasure chest full of drawers,” And if I see her as constantly growing, then I can go on an adventure and open some new drawers and see what I find. That keeps it exciting.
What can you do?
Here’s a list of 10 Business Dinner Conversation starters designed to shift focus, add some flavor and include others:
- What is the craziest thing a boss has ever asked you to do?
- What was your first job and the best lesson you learned from it?
- What is the best business advice you’ve been given? And what was the worst?
- Who at work would you pick to be your Amazing Race partner?
- What would you do for a work-cation or sabbatical and where would you go?
- What is the most unbelievable thing that has ever happened to you?
- Who is the most impactful mentor/role model in your life to date?
- If you could teach a college course, what would it be?
- What would you choose as a superpower?
- What career move do you wish you’d said YES to? Or NO to?