Today ends my six year tenure as the Director of the Rondileau Campus Center (RCC) at Bridgewater State University (BSU) as I assume my new role as Assistant to the Vice President in Student Affairs. I started working at BSU in 2006 as the Associate Director of RCC (leaving Tufts University after a six-year tenure in Student Activities and management of the Mayer Campus Center) and was promoted to Director in 2008. Personally and professionally, I’ve grown much these last 8 years and as I make my way out of the RCC and up to BSU’s administration building (Boyden Hall), I wanted to share 8 leadership lessons that hopefully help you, regardless of where you are in your higher education career.
1. Cross Divisional Partnerships Matter
Managing a student union/center required an important balance of cross divisional partnerships since our work often affected multiple areas of the institution. Key relationships with staff in Facilities Management and Planning, Conference and Event Services and Information Technology along with faculty in the Theater and Dance, Music, and Communication Studies areas gave meaning to our work beyond the walls of the building. For each area of Student Affairs, these cross-divisional partnerships often mean the difference between doing what’s necessary and creating meaningful institutional change. Who do you partner with, outside of your division, especially in the faculty to collaborate with?
2. The Change Process is All About Relationships
It’s true that change in Higher Education takes more time than in other industries. While the reasons are debatable based on the type of institution one works at, building and sustaining relationships with the right people are what move the change process forward. This means gaining a true understanding of how others see you and your area; strategically partnering on win-win projects; and communicating inclusively so everyone is on the same page. Yes, I’ve completely oversimplified this… but, if you’re wondering why things may not be moving as fast for you or your area, consider the quality of your relationships with campus partners and what can be done to make them better.
3. Pay Attention to What ISN’T Being Said
Often, I would sit in meetings and listen to folks report out information, provide updates, and ask for feedback and support. During these, and other interactions, its important to note what pieces of information are missing and why (in other words, what isn’t being said?) These missing pieces may be important to ask about during the meeting or through follow up conversations with those facilitating the conversation. If you are acting on information that is just being shared in meetings, over email, or in passing conversations, understand that you only have part of the story. As campus administrators, our role is to explore the rest of the story through asking the right questions… at the right time… with the right people. For example, when you hear that “There is no budget to do that”, what might be the full picture may be is, “You have not convinced us why we should spend money on that.” There is no exact science to this, but I refer back to point #2 as a starting point. Before reacting to what you hear and see, do you pause and ask yourself what other information you may be missing?
4. Be the Most Prepared in the Room.
Most of the time, its not about being the smartest or even the hardest working, its being the most prepared. This means having done your homework prior to participating in decision-making meetings, submitting proposals for budgets, programs, services, and/or communicating with colleagues. “Being prepared” takes many different forms, but gathering as much data as possible and interpreting it with others are important steps. This is an ongoing process that should result in bringing your own recommendations to the table, instead of asking how to do it. More often than not, are you asking how something should get done or making the recommendations?
5. Treat Meetings as Networking Opportunities.
Some administrators in Higher Education dread the volume and length of scheduled meetings, as it takes them away from the work on their desks. However, its important to consider that meetings are opportunities to meet new people, grow partnerships, and ask for help. Additionally, you can learn a lot by watching where people sit (particularly next to who); who consistently comes on time or is late; and what they contribute to the business of the meeting. It is important to speak in meetings when you can add value to the conversation and be a catalyst for action. How can you be a stronger connector of people and information during meetings?
6. Articulate Vision, Give Staff Resources, and Get Out of the Way
As a Director, I was judged by many things both internally and externally. However, I judged my work on how well my staff achieved. Once they know your area’s vision and goals and have allocated resources available to them, get out of their way and let them do their job. Too often, I see new managers in the details of their staff’s day to day work, stifling creativity and undermining their staff’s development along the way. In order to know what your staff is capable of is to allow them to do their work and make mistakes along the way… its going to happen. Building a strong staff requires patience, understanding, and the type of challenge and support that inspires staff members to do and be better. How does your leadership and management style help or hinder the staff that work with you? How do you really know?
7. Think Big, Act Small
We need more big thinkers in Student Affairs, who are willing to act small (initially) to gather the evidence needed for those big, audacious ideas. Big thinking requires thick skin, in the ability to take critical feedback, along with the courage to ask important questions that expand the status quo. As the nature of higher education continues to shift, student affairs professionals must continue to explore new ways to connect and engage students outside the classroom, beyond traditional measures. What are some big ideas for your area and why haven’t they happened yet?
8. Develop a Digital Mindset
While it may be unrealistic to expect colleagues to have all the skills in technology and social media communication, it is important to have a digital mindset around our student affairs work. At minimum, this means asking yourself and your staff members how they integrate the use of technology and social media communication in their work, how they are learning these skills, and sharing examples of other institutions doing this work well. Old systems that satisfy only 20th century methods need to be reconsidered as they may not be serving students well… and if engaging students is our work, then holding on to those old systems creates a service deficiency that should not be ignored. Does your division’s leadership have a digital mindset? If not, what will you do to help foster and grow it?
As a member of our division’s senior leadership, I’m looking forward to the challenges and opportunities ahead, as I work closely with our directors on marketing, communication, technology and budget areas. I hope that the work we do together fully engages our students, makes them feel more connected to the institution, and creates opportunities to tell meaningful stories of their lives at BSU.
Student Affairs directors and division leaders, what other leadership advice do you have for others in administrative positions? What advice do you have for me as I enter this new role?