December 15, 2003

Managing Allison

By Eric Rangus

Many sources of information about Allison Dykes, associate vice president of alumni development in the Association of Emory Alumni (AEA), exist, but probably one of the best is Bob Pennington, vice president for alumni affairs and special development programs.

After all, when Pennington came to Emory in 2002, Dykes played a major role in acclimating him to his new job. Prior to his arrival, she had served as AEA's interim co-director, and when Pennington moved into the Miller-Ward Alumni House, she moved to her current position, one created out of necessity. Dykes no longer was responsible for external alumni relations--that was Pennington's job--she would focus on AEA operations. Essentially, Dykes is AEA's chief of staff.

So, since Dykes works in tandem with Pennington all the time, he knows a great deal about her. So, Bob, what is Allison like?

"Pushy," Pennington said, without skipping a beat. "Insensitive. Contrary."

Thanks, Bob.

Were Dykes, a Type A personality to the bone, privy to Pennington's comments, she most likely would dive under the nearest conference table. Fortunately she is not, and even more fortunately Pennington quickly turns serious.

"I've never worked with a professional that I find more competent than Allison," Pennington said. "She is an exemplary leader, and she is totally committed to this place. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that she is beloved here."

Dykes is a casual conversation waiting to happen. She's one of the top people in AEA, yet she didn't graduate from Emory. She graduated from the University of Georgia, and that little bit of trivia often has been a subject of discussion at the many Emory alumni functions she has attended over the years.

"Not going to school here was never an issue," said Dykes, who earned a bachelor's in French at UGA and was certified in global policy studies. "But people are interested. They always ask why I got into this line of work."

Good question. Why?

"I knew when I was in college that I wanted to make a difference," Dykes said. "I wanted to work for an organization that I could become passionate about."

Dykes' parents, owners of a business that distributes materials to the electronics industry, wanted her to join their company (her first job out of school, in fact, was as the company's inside sales coordinator and office manager), but Dykes wanted to move into nonprofits. She did so in 1994, when she was hired as special events coordinator for the Fernbank Museum of Natural History.

From there, Dykes worked a couple other jobs in event planning and corporate relations. In summer 1997, a friend encouraged Dykes to look into Emory, specifically into a job with the office of regional programs.

As office director, Dykes jetted across the country meeting with alumni groups, forging stronger ties between them and their alma mater and helping develop future alumni leaders. The work was fulfilling--to a point.

"I'm an introvert," she said. "All my life, people have said, 'Oh, you should be in sales, you should do fundraising, you have the personality for it.' I started doing that, but now I'm much happier."

In 1999, regional programs merged with AEA. As part of the restructuring, Dykes was named AEA's executive director for programs and budget. She took on a managerial role and inherited a staff of 17, with the responsibility of making the alumni association run right.

"What she really relishes is the behind-the-scenes, back-of-the-house work," Pennington said.

Prior to Dykes' arrival, the department was a personnel sieve (its annual retention rate was below 50 percent) and frequently in the red. After the 2000-01 fiscal year, the deficit was eliminated and retention was 100 percent.

"I love the management part of my job," Dykes said. "To me, the relationships are pretty significant. Also, I got burned out in regional programs. I was on the road all the time, going to a million different events."

Dykes still attends occasional alumni functions but no longer is required to be there. Instead her responsibility is to help her staff make sure they run smoothly. To do that, she usually can work the levers from her office. The most prominent task on her current plate is an office technology conversion; transparent to outsiders and wonkish through and through, the project is exactly the type Dykes relishes.

"Emory provides an environment where I feel like I'm contributing to something important every day, and the people it attracts have become my closest friends," Dykes said.

"I saw Allison doing backflips at the pool over on the Clairmont campus," said one of those friends, Sarah Cook, director of young alumni and student development. "She kept practicing it until she perfected it. She's very competitive."

She also is very supportive of her staff's development. For instance, Cook was hired in 2001 to work on alumni programming for AEA. In addition to that, she has expanded her role to include career networking and alumni services, two more in-depth tasks, simply because she was interested in doing more. Dykes made it happen.

"She is unique as a manager," Cook said. "Not only is she a natural leader, but she creates opportunities for people like me to develop.

"Allison is usually the first one in and the last one to leave," Cook continued. "She sets an example of being committed to her job, but not begrudgingly. She has a passion for it and that rubs off on the staff."

Dykes fills her plate with more than just alumni issues. She recently began her fourth year on the President's Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) and now chairs a standing committee on women and leadership.

A couple years ago, under the auspices of the PCSW, Dykes worked with the Board of Trustees to support its diversity efforts. That led to similar efforts with AEA's Board of Governors and Emory's professional schools, all of which were working to identify more women in fundraising and leadership. Last year she formed an ad hoc committee in Institutional Advancement (IA) to delve further into the issue.

"Philanthropy has changed so much over the years," Dykes said. "More women are controlling giving, and we needed to get more in touch with that."

When PCSW formed its standing committee on women and leadership last spring, Dykes, one of the drivers behind its creation, was asked to lead it.

"We couldn't have gotten anyone better," said PCSW Chair Kim Smith. "I trust Allison's judgment on just about anything she comments on. When she says something, she does it. I can't say enough good things about her."

The committee, which has received funding from the Office of the President, isn't so much interested in fundraising as it is in advancing women in leadership.

"We are focusing both on the external leadership groups our division is interested in like the Board of Trustees, Board of Governors, Board of Visitors and school-based leadership groups," Dykes said.

Recently a graduate student was hired to help collect data on similar women-in-leadership programs at peer institutions to see where Emory falls in the mix. From there, the committee can move forward, hopefully toward partnerships with the various boards in focusing on the nomination and recruitment of women.

"I hope that we'll find some best practices out there--some interesting things other schools are doing that we can adopt here at Emory," Dykes said. "And I hope we'll get enough exposure to the decision makers at Emory where they will see us as important and help us achieve some of our goals. We're not going to see big changes this year. But hopefully we're setting the stage in years to come for women moving into leadership roles."

Dykes has no shortage of activities to keep her busy. In addition to her regular workload and PCSW membership, she is on the Women's Center advisory board, chair of the employee recognition committee of the IA task force on employee retention and a member of IA's comprehensive campaign planning committee, a role that will increase in importance as the campaign ramps up.

"Allison is incredibly creative," said Jane DiFolco Parker, senior associate vice president for IA services and a fellow committee member. "She is absolutely one of the most talented people I've ever had the pleasure to work with."