May 5, 2023

Woo to focus on collective excellence and collaboration as Butler Center chair

pt-butler-woo Sang Eun Woo, the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center Chair for Leadership Excellence Download image

For Sang Eun Woo, leading the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership and Excellence is not just the opportunity of a lifetime but a role she feels destined to take on.

“Juggling life with two kids and a spouse who works full time, I often have to say ‘no’ to exciting work opportunities,” Woo says. “However, when I first heard about the opportunity to apply for the chair position, I had zero sense of conflict in my mind. That strong sense of calling doesn’t happen a lot in my life, so it was clear that this was something I could be really good at and enjoy immensely. I feel like my whole academic career up to this point was preparing me for this position.”

As far back as she can remember, Woo always wanted to be a psychologist. Her passion for learning about and helping others led her to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a doctorate in industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology, which is the scientific study of people at work. In 2009 she arrived on Purdue’s West Lafayette campus to step into the first faculty position of her career. 

Now a professor in Purdue’s top-ranked I-O psychology program in the College of Health and Human Sciences, Woo focuses her research on explaining how individuals’ personality and motivation are connected to various psychological phenomena in the workplace such as career success, job mobility, and professional relationship development and networking. A highlight of Woo’s academic career has been connecting with others to build a community of student mentees and early-career faculty colleagues, and she began to wonder if she could accomplish that at a larger scale.

“As a scholar whose primary work revolves around doing research, writing papers and teaching, once you go through that tenure and promotion process and become a full professor, people say you have arrived,” Woo says. “They ask, ‘What’s next?’ I was asking that question for myself, and the idea of leadership was on my mind a lot.”

In December, a search advisory committee selected Woo to succeed Mangala Subramaniam as the Butler Center chair, a half-time, two-year appointment with the option to renew. Woo stepped into the role on Jan. 3 and plans to use her expertise in I-O concepts like openness and humility to foster new relationships with campus units and create a universitywide culture of collective excellence. 

Woo is already working hard to organize lectures, workshops, panel discussions, conferences and other events focusing on inclusivity and collaboration, including the center’s 14th Annual Conference for Assistant Professors. Set for Sept. 27-28, this year’s event is titled “Thriving and Growing Together: Building a Vibrant, Healthy, and Impactful Community for Women’s Academic Success.”

“I want to find a way to create a truly inclusive and welcoming environment where people can come together and say, ‘Here are the problems I see. How can we find solutions?’” Woo says. “In my mind, that’s what academic leadership needs to do to promote the greater good. You need multiple people folding into the mix to create a culture of collective excellence and a vibrant, healthy and impactful community.”

During the center’s events, Woo plans to back best-practice recommendations and strategies for enhancing women’s leadership in academia by distributing knowledge supported by existing and emerging research. Under her leadership, the center has begun to assemble a team of researchers who will offer insight into improving Purdue employees' effectiveness and psychological experiences. Woo says the team’s members are recognized for their expertise in workplace relationships, leadership, work-life balance, career attitudes and behaviors, and psychological well-being.

The team isn’t stopping there. In the coming years, Woo aims to publish new research in top-tier academic journals to further the center’s role as a catalyst for developing leadership capacity. She says she wants to implement new leadership assessment and development strategies at the center that go beyond one-on-one, in-person interviews and traditional coaching techniques.  

“I want to find ways to incorporate key psychological principles and cutting-edge AI technology into what the center offers. We can bring something scientific to the table for those who want to grow and develop as leaders but aren’t sure where to start. This whole thing can be mapped out very rigorously, validly and reliably. That’s the beauty of I-O psychology, and I’m just excited to bring all of that into this space.”

Since January, Woo has been engaging with faculty, staff, graduate students, campus leaders and colleges to generate new ideas, build unique relationships and prepare to propel the center toward its future. Although she’s excited to use her expertise to support the larger campus community, Woo is most looking forward to celebrating the contributions, persistence and accomplishments of faculty and staff across Purdue’s campus. 

“I’ve gained so much joy from seeing other people’s excellence and their victories, and I’m inspired by their stories of rebuilding, hardship and persistence,” Woo says. “I think we need to do more celebrating of those people who have gone through a lot and come out all the stronger and more beautiful than ever. I look forward to celebrating some amazing women making history here at Purdue.”

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