Executive Director of Graduate Business Programs Rachel Foxhoven: Leadership and conflict resolution in business

When I graduated from The Portland MBA in June 2020, I felt proud of all the new things I had learned, from economics to operations and sustainability strategy. However, I didn’t feel that I had learned about conflict resolution. It didn’t feel like an omission; rather, it felt out of scope in a traditional business degree.

I was excited to speak with Rachel Foxhoven, executive director of Graduate Business Programs at The School of Business. I knew she had a background in conflict resolution, which I found fascinating — and unusual — for someone in business.

But as Foxhoven pointed out to me, so much of my MBA training was about conflict resolution, even if we don’t use that terminology. Leadership, influence, self-awareness, power: these are all tools for managing the self and others. “At the core of my interest is motivating people and systems to change,” said Foxhoven. I realized these values were at the core of my education, too.

Foxhoven may have a unique background, but our conversation reinforced my delight with her role as a leader and decision-maker for The Portland MBA. Her compassion, thought leadership and influence make The Graduate Business Programs the unique, well-rounded programs that they are — programs that focus on serving the community by solving problems in business and society.

Career trajectory

Foxhoven’s career path was unexpected. After working at The School of Business as a student employee, Foxhoven continued to find opportunities to advance. Her timing was good. She’d had an international focus in her master’s degree, so The School of Business hired her to help implement new international programs.

A career in higher education administration was a shift for Foxhoven, who had initially preferred conducting research. However, animated by her purpose of changing systems, Foxhoven began to consider how being a practitioner, rather than a researcher, was truer to her values. She viewed education as “a place where we drive change.”

While Foxhoven finished her degree and started her career, she spent ten years volunteering in the prison system. During our conversation, she reflected on time spent with “the folks inside, who taught me about how personal transformation can happen.” Foxhoven had the opportunity to eventually watch some of them attend Portland State University, graduate and even receive honors. This experience strengthened Foxhoven’s appreciation for the power of education, restorative justice and crossing cultural boundaries to spur transformation.

Role at The School of Business

In her day-to-day role, Foxhoven oversees the services side of Graduate Business Programs. These services include recruitment, admissions, advising and career services for seven graduate programs. 

Conflict resolution is still very much a part of her job. She describes it as “a set of skills and frameworks that can be used anywhere.” Foxhoven adds that her training means that she is not “shy about leaning into some of the harder conversations, either for coaching or for conflicts on campus.”

Foxhoven’s goal for big picture conflict resolution is utilitarian — to meet the maximum number of student needs and produce the greatest impact possible — but working with a diverse set of stakeholders means conflict is inevitable. She often must find common ground, at times even mediating conflict between staff members. She reflected with a smile that her team occasionally must remind her that not every conflict is an opportunity for change. But Foxhoven is adamant that “leaning into conflict pays dividends down the line.”

COVID-19 brought a shift in Foxhoven’s view of her role. Suddenly, circumstances beyond her control were preventing her from using traditional conflict resolution tools to solve the emerging challenges posed by the pandemic. In these times, Foxhoven says, all she can do is create a space where employees and students can feel heard, seen and understood. “Transparency has become the biggest tool in my belt,” she explains.

Foxhoven plans to build a framework to help students identify the difference between conflict and harm and understand the avenues available to them in either situation. She hopes to engage faculty and students in this conversation to promote awareness-building and richer conversations.

Takeaways for students

Foxhoven feels strongly about the private sector’s power to transform systems. She cites internal examples, like the way businesses choose to compensate employees, and external examples, like business’ influence in politics. She wants to equip future business leaders with the knowledge that they drive massive change.

She also wants students to stop thinking of conflict resolution as simply an HR process or managerial skill, and understand the role it plays in negotiations, mergers and acquisitions, and a slew of other business purviews. She reiterates that conflict resolution offers simple tools to help with any role.

Above all, Foxhoven wants students in The Portland MBA to learn about themselves, their leadership styles and how they work on teams. She describes the highly teamwork-oriented approach of the degree as “meta learning” that is built into the program, to help students learn about these aspects of themselves and experiment in a supportive environment. This setting gives students the space to practice being a leader on teams when conflict arises. Even when they do not feel they have formal power, there are many “soft and skillful ways” of influencing others and resolving conflict, Foxhoven says.

For her part, Foxhoven models her own values: fostering a work culture where employees feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback and having conversations about topics that are important and meaningful to students, faculty and staff.

“Why do we do any work if it is not for the benefit of people or the planet?” asks Foxhoven. My Portland MBA cohort and I feel the same way.

Karen Lowe is a 2020 graduate of The Portland MBA. She manages marketing and strategic partnerships for The Give Bin and writes regularly for Portland State’s Graduate Business Blog.

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