Emory Report
December 11, 2006
Volume 59, Number 14




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December 11 , 2006
Remembering Paula Carabelli: A maker of leaders

By paige parvin

One person can have a tremendous impact — even at a university the size of Emory. Paula Carabelli was just such a person.

Carabelli, an executive search consultant, has been credited with shaping Emory’s leadership over the past decade. She has led more then 20 critical searches, including those that brought the University President Jim Wagner, Executive Vice President for Finance Mike Mandl, Vice President for Health Affairs Michael Johns, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Earl Lewis, and many of Emory’s deans.

“When we talk about institution-building, we often talk about the faculty and the trustees,” Lewis said. “But what is often ignored is the individual’s role — particularly the role of someone whose job it is to appoint major administrators.”

A partner with the firm Spencer Stuart, Carabelli had a longstanding connection to Emory that ended this year. She died on July 28, 2006, just weeks after she was diagnosed with a tumor in her brain.

Carabelli’s loss shook many University leaders who had come to rely on her judgment, including Ben F. Johnson III, chair of the Board of Trustees. In the wake of her death, Johnson wrote to her husband, Thomas Fallo of Torrance, California, and her daughter, Emily Rose Wing (C’96) of Laguna Beach, calling Carabelli “a partner and friend upon whom I was totally dependent.”

Carabelli’s death also caused those who knew and worked with her to reflect on the creation of leadership and the special talent she had for it.

“Paula had a very gentle and quiet way about her. Yet she was perceptive — deeply perceptive,” said Wagner, who worked with Carabelli both as a candidate and a client. “She could perceive the needs of a client and the concerns of a candidate and speak right to those needs and concerns. There was never any question about her integrity or her ability to keep confidences. She was genuinely interested in the success of her placements.”

Although she worked with many colleges and universities over nearly two decades in the business, Carabelli had a particular fondness for Emory, probably because the University played a special role for her family: Wing introduced Carabelli to Emory when she entered as a first-year student in 1992.

When Carabelli began to explore the executive search field in the mid-1980s, it quickly became apparent she had a natural talent for it — and that higher education would be one of her special strengths. She worked in the education sector with two major search firms before joining Spencer Stuart as co-leader of its Education, Non-Profit and Public Policy Practice. Carabelli had a gift for nurturing relationships and making good matches between candidate and institution.

Described as gentle, elegant, and a keen listener, Carabelli also had a lively style. She drove a sporty BMW convertible, loved red wine and Italian food, and wore fashionable suits and a purple watch — her favorite color. She also was a beautiful writer, according to Jennifer Bol, who leads the practice she and Carabelli built together at Spencer Stuart.

Bol remembers the first project the two worked on together, when Carabelli had to write a presentation on a tight deadline — while on vacation. She wrote it longhand and faxed it to the office. “I am not kidding, I could have sent it to The New Yorker,” Bol said. “I read four sentences and said, it’s ready to go.”

Since Carabelli’s death, Bol said, hardly a week has gone by that a grown man or woman has not called her in tears. “The sense of loss is really incredible,” she said.

Carabelli’s daughter claims her mother turned her family into “total foodies.” Carabelli was an adventurous cook, trying ambitious new recipes with mostly good results.

A former painter, Carabelli loved to travel — especially to Italy — and explore art museums and local restaurants. She also wanted to learn to fly.

“She always instilled in me that I could do whatever I wanted to do,” said Wing, now director of development and marketing for the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.

In addition to more than 20 key leadership searches for Emory, Carabelli led searches for the new president of Agnes Scott College and the president of Woodward Academy.

“Paula was an extraordinary professional in part because she was an extraordinary human being,” said Elizabeth Kiss of Agnes Scott. “She was enormously influential in my decision to throw my hat in the ring for the Agnes Scott presidency because she grasped the institution’s distinctive strengths and culture and conveyed them with eloquence, and because you felt she truly understood and empathized with the personal complexities of figuring out ‘is this the right time to move on and would this be a good fit for me?’ She had a subtle and sophisticated grasp of leadership, of what it takes to hold a complex institution and mobilize people’s energies.”

Many who worked with Carabelli agree she had qualities perfectly suited to her role. One of these was patience, combined with a long memory and astute judgment. Several Emory leaders remarked that she called them “out of the blue,” after several years without regular contact, to tell them about a particular position.

When the search began for a provost at Emory, Lewis said, Carabelli called him and said, “Four years ago you said it was not the time to move. Are you ready to move now?”

Her knowledge of Emory grew over the years, enabling her to represent the institution candidly to top candidates and provide an in-depth view of both its present and its future.

“Paula was the search consultant who convinced me that I should look at the job I currently hold,” said Dean Marla Salmon of the School of Nursing. “This was not a job that I would have even considered had she not gently convinced me that I should.”

Carabelli’s influence at Emory helped shape what many leaders believe is a distinctive leadership team — marked not only by its diverse talents and experience, but also by its collegiality.

“In a complex social organization like a university, it’s rare that you have senior leadership teams where the people actually like each other,” Lewis said. “We all like each other and have respect and regard for one another, although we are quite different people. Paula was astute enough to find people who are comfortable in their own skin and able to coexist with one another, and who are sold on moving Emory beyond a position of having ‘potential.’”

Carabelli’s close relationship with Emory was a rare phenomenon in higher education, and although largely successful, it was not in every case. One search — for the law school — did ultimately result in failure.

Another question was whether University leadership is diverse enough. While strides have been made toward racial diversity, many administrators and faculty are concerned about a lopsided gender balance. Carabelli was well aware of this and worked hard to make sure the candidate pool was balanced in every case.

A special memorial service for Carabelli was held at Emory in September. Both her daughter and husband acknowledged her abiding affection for Emory.

“We truly appreciated the honor of the memorial service offered by Emory,” said her husband, Tom Fallo. “Paula always shared her love for her Emory experiences during and after each visit. She felt each contact with the University was a return to her second family. As thankful as we are for the service, we are more deeply moved by the love that everyone in the Emory community gave to Paula during her lifetime.”