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Learning from Our Leaders: Cynthia Banks 2010 EAKC Chair

By Bradley Titus posted 30 days ago


Tell us a little about your journey in education abroad.

Like so many of us, I found myself in global education not by design, but rather by circumstance.  In 1989, I graduated with my undergraduate degree and was asked to be the graduate assistant with a study abroad group headed to Australia.  It was an exhilarating time to be there as the higher education landscape was not yet fully aware of Australia as a study abroad destination.  We had a wonderful experience and I was asked by our host university to come back to the USA and complete a research project about “study abroad”.  After the exploration, we could see the opportunity to help more student visit the Land Down Under and created a company called AustraLearn.  I was the CEO and later owner.  This little gem became well-known for immersive programs at almost all the Australian universities.  We added exciting pre-program adventures on the Great Barrier Reef and also internships and graduate programs.  Along the years, we opened new programs in Asia, Europe and South America I had over 100 staff working with us worldwide and one of the most dedicated and personable teams in our USA Colorado headquarters.  We sent over 35,000 students before we sold the company in 2014. 

After the sale, I went on to work closer with the Foundation for Global Scholars, a non-profit we created during the AustraLearn years and then shortly after I became the Faculty Director for Global Initiatives at the Leeds Business School at University of Colorado Boulder alongside a teaching role in Entrepreneurship & Strategy. 

Is there more to do?  Definitely.  In 2016/17, I co-founded The Global Leadership League with an amazing group of female-leaders in the field.  This robust organization is now a 501C6 membership group with a mission to bring people in the field closer together to learn and support each other with our work-life realities. It has been the most fun to bring this to life and we hope the coming years will strengthen the connections we all so desperately need to manage the diverse and vibrant global space.


What is your definition of leadership and how was it created/has it changed?

I used to think of Leadership as the synonym for Manager and that Managers needed to be instructing “others” in the way of work.   I thought of it more in a functional way such as output or results.  Leadership (as in Leader) was talked about in my first degree as the pinnacle of hard work –i.e..  become the BOSS. 

Having created and led a diverse global company, I feel different.  For 25 years, I hired so many incredible people and watched them grow and become more than they ever thought they could do.  I also hired a few who did not fit our culture or who had other expectations for the workplace.  It was by far a 25-year experiment in trying to figure out how to get the best from the team while giving them the best for themselves.  Was it higher salaries, more flexible days, new challenges?  Sometimes it meant tough love.   I can’t say we always got it right.  But in some ways, we got enough of it right to get the work done well. 

Good leadership is the most humbling, most punishing, most intriguing and most challenging thing that a “manager” will go through with their people. But hey, if it were easy, we wouldn’t talk about it like such an aspiration.


Who was/is your role model and/or leadership mentor?

I used to express my dissatisfaction being a CEO at such a young age because I seemed to bypass all those good years where someone took me under their wing and taught me the ropes about leadership.  Most of my lessons about business and leadership had to be learned in the moment because I started my company when I was 24 years old.

However, I did find strong support from others (often outside of global education) such as an old boss from my summer at a communications company.  She was/is a wise woman who is incredibly strong and also personably warm which, in my opinion, was the right combination to get people to take you seriously and still do business with you. 

Through the years, I learned as much or more from women I hired at my company predominantly because we became friends and I could witness our style differences and adapt. 

However, if you want my all-time unattainable never-to-meet role model, it will be Michelle Obama. I have listened to her, read her material, and paid attention to own version of strength and warmth.  She is brilliant.  

What are some things you learned from your leadership roles in NAFSA and in the field?

 NAFSA is by far one of the best training organizations.  Through the years I held many roles including Colorado State Representative, Colorado Treasurer, Academy Mentor, co-Chair Local Arrangements for a national conference, EAKC Chair, MDP Trainer, and on the corporate Board of Directors.  Along the way, I volunteered to write parts of publications, give hundreds of presentations, and did other oddball duties at conferences so I could show my support.

During my tenure with NAFSA I learned SO much about the field of global education.  It was a wonderful way to meet colleagues who worked on university campuses and from those in the other KC networks.  It took me years to get the lingo and even longer to appreciate the vast ways in which global educators construct their work worldwide. 

The top things I learned from my volunteer time with NAFSA include how to manage the complexities of such a large organization which, in turn, gave me empathy when I grew my company and expanded my other volunteer work.  I gained critical public speaking experience which helped prepare me for eventually speaking to 300+ people at events for my company.  I learned the value of keeping agendas (and notes) and eventually experienced the challenges of managing a volunteer team.  I still think I have more to learn in this area.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a leadership role with NAFSA?

I was no different than most people who didn’t feel qualified for the role, so they sat on the sidelines.  It took me years to recognize that everyone who starts a role is not qualified!  NAFSA is well structured with entry-roles in our regions and then we graduate to roles at the national level and even the international level.  Start small but start somewhere.  Be open to learning from your colleagues and do your best to attend events and stay engaged.  My best advice is to remember that Leaders are not born or tapped for duty – they usually just had their hand up first. And, if you are a leader who already has a seat at the table, invite a newbie to join you so they don’t have to reach that hand so high.


What is on your calendar today?

Today is a good day!  I had a meeting for The Global Leadership League and will be completing a new consultancy project to help an organization with their sales strategy.  For fun, we plan to see a play at the local theater.