Mugunth Vaithylingam, Chief Experience Officer at College of Southern Nevada (CSN), has worked in higher education for over 20 years, and in his current role, he oversees a variety of areas at the college including information technology, marketing, public relations, communication, events, and more. Mugunth explains that he intentionally puts his hands on everything possible, as he feels it is important to continuously learn, and he does so by getting involved in various industries and utilizing varying skills. As a leader, Mugunth not only learns from those who have more experience than him, but he takes every opportunity to learn from everybody around him, including his team. In addition to constantly learning, Mugunth’s empathetic leadership style is known to positively influence the lives of those around him.
Evolving from an eager boy to an empathetic leader
Mugunth was born in Sri Lanka, where he lived until age 11, when he moved to India to continue his education. Finding himself in a new country at a young age, created the need for Mugunth to adapt and adjust to his new life. Mugunth soon found himself eager to take on new responsibilities and explore various opportunities within the classroom, in sports, working on events, and more.
Mugunth obtained his bachelor’s degree in Applied Electronics in India and then moved to the United States to pursue new opportunities. He earned his MBA from the University of Hartford, while also pursuing more opportunities and engaging in new activities that expanded his growth. Reflecting, Mugunth states that “Every situation has been a learning experience and all the people along the way have had a great effect on my life.”
After completing his MBA, he worked as a business analyst at a casino before returning to the University of Hartford to work as an analyst. While he did not intend to work in higher education, the challenging position, combined with making a real difference in students’ lives is what drew him in, and kept him in the field. Mugunth later went on to complete the Emerging Leaders Program at Harvard University.
In addition to the University of Hartford, Mugunth spent close to three years at Valencia College, where he worked for a company named Ellucian. During his time with Ellucian, he learned a lot about IT leadership and how to best leverage managed services. As he advanced through higher positions during his 15 years with the company, he developed his progressive outlook on learning and education. Mugunth believes that “Every person deserves an education and technology can help create dynamic ecosystems making the future of learning more equitable.”
Leadership in action
Anybody who knows Mugunth knows his passion for helping others, which is evident in his work at the College of Southern Nevada. Every year, Mugunth and his team host a holiday event that recognizes team members and partners that contribute to CSN’s success. Mugunth has leveraged this event to promote opportunities to give back to the community, including collecting toys for those in need, donating to food banks, and raising money for scholarships for homeless students.
Mugunth is also passionate about helping students acquire practical experience, which prompted him to provide work-study opportunities to the college’s students. This enables the student employees to gain valuable real-world experiences, coupled with mentoring by professionals while they finish their education. This opportunity has helped students get more organized, develop employable skills, and network with professionals. So far, 100% of the students that have gone through this program have graduated, which is a significant accomplishment when considering the graduation rates at a two-year college.
Creating opportunities and transforming lives
Because of his strong advocacy of diversity and inclusion within the technology community, Mugunth is one of the founding members of TechPACT (TechPact.org), an organization whose mission is to reduce the digital divide, foster diversity, and provide equal opportunity to everyone with an aptitude and passion for technology. This organization is focused on providing developmental opportunities and a platform for underrepresented communities to engage through partnerships and programs. They also seek to advance inclusion, diversity, and equity within the technology sector. When asked what prompted him to be a part of this pioneering group, Mugunth explains how it started with a group of friends who are senior CIOs, many from Fortune 500 companies, who sat down and began a conversation around the George Floyd incident, which led to discussions on how they wanted to represent minorities in technology leadership. They desired to ensure that diversity and inclusion were not buzz words being tossed around, but that action was being taken to truly make a difference and have an impact on lives.
As Mugunth seeks a more equitable world, he remains committed to giving back to society. Mugunth himself has been fortunate to learn from others, so he is passionate about giving the same opportunities to others. He feels that the only way to truly make a difference and bring about lasting change is to reach back and lift others up. “I think that we have the power to wisely choose our philanthropic strategies and actively engage with stakeholders within that community to further our cause in a more holistic and meaningful manner and alleviate the risk of insularity,” he says. Mugunth emphasizes how important it is to develop a better understanding of the role diversity plays in fostering innovation and gaining a competitive advantage. In a global economy, where we operate in multiple markets and target different demographics of various cultures, having a diverse set of perspectives and experiences is pivotal to developing new ideas. You can read more of Mugunth’s thoughts on this here.
What it takes to lead today
Mugunth acknowledges that there are many leadership styles. He does not believe that one style is the right way, but that leaders should consider all leadership styles and evaluate how they can adapt and blend various styles to guide and inspire the modern workforce.
Despite the different leadership styles, Mugunth believes that ultimately, employees respond to authenticity and emphasizes how important it is that leaders are the same person inside and outside of the office. While leadership styles may change, and a leader may need to adjust their style to keep up with the evolving workplace, authenticity is a trait that should remain constant amongst all leaders. Mugunth explains that for him, “how a person treats their loved ones is a window into how they are as a leader.”
As Mugunth explains it, an authentic leader is aware of their limitations, vulnerabilities, strengths, and emotions; and self-awareness is crucial. He believes a great leader is empathetic and can effectively and productively communicate with their employees.
Mugunth is the same person inside and outside the workplace, having and living by the same values no matter where he is and who is around. He explains how this holistic approach has helped him gain a better understanding of himself and his surroundings while navigating the complexities that come in any large, diverse organization.
Solving complex problems and reaching success as a business leader
aims to positively influence the community and lives of anybody he encounters;
like any leader, he is often faced with complex problems. Mugunth credits his
willingness and desire to continue to learn from others
something that helps him address problems he encounters as a leader. Life
experiences and lessons he has learned along the way help guide him, but he is
also never afraid to ask anybody for help. If he needs help, he asks and always
consults with others he believes can offer insight into his life and situations
he is facing.
When reflecting on his accomplishments and his views on success, Mugunth states that success is a moving target. He believes that goals can be achieved along the way, but we must continue to set new goals and strive to do more. Success is not a final destination but is something we continue to move towards. He believes there is always something we can learn, so as we learn and grow every day, we continuously set higher goals and strive for new achievements.
A day in the life of a leader
In addition to meetings, Mugunth takes the opportunity to spend time with this team each day to learn as much as possible from them. Although his day is often filled with several appointments, he is very intentional with each meeting. He does not like long meetings and believes in trying to keep all of them to 30 minutes or less. He views the purpose of meetings as a platform to resolve problems, so he pre-plans what he wants out of the meeting and believes in getting straight to the point and working towards a resolution. He often thinks of Nelson Mandela, somebody he looks up to. When asked how he became such a great leader, Mandela replied, “I learned to speak last.” Taking that into consideration, Mugunth practices being the last one to speak, spending more time listening to his team and others, and providing his feedback only once everybody else has had an opportunity to speak.
Apart from the meetings, Mugunth attends social events where he represents the college, meets people, and gets more opportunities to learn from others. Throughout his years at CSN, his role has evolved from a CIO to Chief Digital Experience Officer, where he is focused more on transformational learning. He sleeps well at night, knowing that he and his team have contributed to someone’s success. Transforming lives and contributing to others, is something he strives to do each day.
Influencing change in this generation
There is no doubt that Mugunth has influenced changed and inspired others throughout his life. When asked about continuing to influence change in this generation, he states that he does not believe it is possible or even helpful to try and change this generation. He explains that this generation is smart, and we cannot impose anything on them by telling them how we used to do things. Instead, we need to adapt to the current generation. More than influencing, we need to look at how we can learn from them. If you tell this generation to do things a certain way, because that is how it has always been done, they will push back. It is best to share ideas and let them decide if it is a good or bad idea. Mugunth encourages others to allow this generation to make their own decisions and be open to learning from them.
Message to aspiring business leaders
If Mugunth could give a message to aspiring business leaders, he would tell him what his father told him, which is “make an impact and change lives. Always be willing to help others, and never give up.” Mugunth emphasizes the importance of taking risks. He does not compare himself to others, and focuses on creating personal benchmarks, rather than following the benchmarks set by others. He continues to transform higher education, as he seeks to impact student lives, while paving the way as a leader.
Mugunth emphasizes that he lives by a simple principle, “I am in competition with no one. I have no desire to play the game of being better than anyone. I am simply trying to be better than the person I was yesterday.” This kind of positivity and growth mindset has inspired many around him. As an empathetic leader, Mugunth continues to drive his team through his enthusiasm, passion, and guidance, helping those around him to uncover their full potential, meet their individual and common goals, and reach higher ground.