Sylvia Gaffney, Organizational Systems

Photograph of Sylvia Gaffney

Sylvia Gaffney

Organizational Systems Alumni 2007

Sylvia opened her first business in 1985. Since then she's opened – and sold – four more businesses, and become a leading consultant to companies trying to adjust to new technology and global culture.

She didn't mean to do it – she was just trying to put food on the table after her husband died.

"I had a master's degree in Curriculum and Supervision and I was Director of Educational Services for two counties in Illinois," she says. "The counties were going broke and my job was eliminated at the same time my husband passed away. At that time there was no such thing as guaranteed health insurance, so I had no insurance, lots of bills, and three little kids. That's a really big motivator."

Needing more salary than a job in education could provide she started designing corporate training programs. She impressed her employer so much that he helped her start her own business.

"I chose to do a very risky thing and convinced a bank to back me for a little bit of time," she remembers. "Because I didn't know much about business I broke all kinds of rules and became successful."

Today she can laugh about it, and she does. But back then it was a matter of life and death. "It was out of need: a real challenge that came up in my life and the choices that I made."

Since then she's run a staffing company, a computer school for temporary staff, and an outplacement company helping laid off workers transition into new lives. She also got a master's in Organizational Development from Pepperdine University.

She came to Saybrook because she wanted to study systems theory – it was an emphasis that many of her clients were looking for – and Saybrook was one of the top schools with that focus. She also needed a PhD to expand her consulting business: it was important to the companies she wanted to work for.

"People are looking for that right now," she says. "They want the personal experience and the academic degree to give it credibility."

She admits that her impressive qualifications made her jaded when she began her studies. "I had a really good consulting background both as a practitioner and as an academic when I came to Saybrook, and I was even a little cocky about ‘well, what are they going to teach me?' "

She soon found out. "I was humbled … humbled significantly … by what they could teach me. I know a heck of a lot more now than I did when I started all this."

Most importantly, she said, was the way in which Saybrook challenged her assumptions about how people and organizations are connected. "I'd thought I'd understood that everything we do is relational, and interconnected, but it was at a surface level," she said. "But all through the coursework I was challenged to go deeper, investigate connections, assumptions, and the way that interconnectivity actually works."

Saybrook also challenged her personally. "I learned a lot about me as an individual," she said. "I took a course at the beginning about dreams and personal mythology – things that were both fascinating to me but that made me feel a little guilty, because I wondered ‘Will this be useful? Will this be silly?' Well, oh my god, it just knocked me for a loop. It opened my world. Another course I took on appreciative inquiry was a double whammy that changed me forever."

She had her 60th birthday while studying at Saybrook, and was delighted to learn there was still more to discover about herself and the world. "For somebody like me, who has spent a lot of time working and doing interesting things, to make that statement is significant I think."

She's found the experience to be life changing and practical. One of her major projects right now is designing web-based learning courses for the staff and managers of recruiting firms. "I was approached because of my knowledge in the industry and because I had a PhD. They wanted to have that little title after the title of the program."

Another project involves working with a major international company that's trying to open American offices: they need to be in compliance with a host of U.S. policies on discrimination, sexual harassment, equal opportunity hiring, and hundreds of other issues. Just as importantly, they need their employees to understand the new business culture they're working in. They turned to Sylvia, and she said her PhD in Organizational Systems from Saybrook is crucial.

"My PhD expanded considerably the approach I would have taken," she said. "It became a bigger and greater thing for the work that I do."