I was 26, an entry-level hall director, and I was being scolded by a senior-level administrator because my list of goals and professional development plan was deemed as too ambitious.
I paused and then asked a clarifying question. “Are there concerns about my performance or ability to do the job?”
She frowned at me. “No. But your list doesn’t look like everyone else’s list. You want to attend three conferences, present five programs, serve on a leadership role in an association and write for publication?”
I was confused. Isn’t this what we were supposed to do? Go above and beyond? Give 110%?
I realized she was looking at me, waiting for my answer.
“Um, yes, I do want to do those things. I know I can manage it all,” I said carefully.
That was clearly the wrong answer.
We ended the conversation and I agreed to revisit my goals, per her request.
“Ann Marie…?” she said her voice trailing off.
“I know, I know” I said. “Worker Bee.”
Ten years after that conversation I am still baffled by it. I believe we send entry level practitioners mixed messages about what it means to truly have a career, a vocation in higher education as compared to a job. That conversation was a critical moment for me, because although I did pair down my goals per her request, it didn’t feel like the right thing to do but I didn’t have the words to accurately explain why. I do now. Here’s what I want entry-level people to know.
- Same Title Does Not Equal Same Talent: It’s not about being better or worse than anyone else, but we all have different gifts. When we are held to the standard that all entry-level people have the same level of talent, drive, ambition and ability, we do a disservice to everyone.
I worked in an honors residence hall which had significantly less student behavioral issues. This freed up my time to do different things while some of my colleagues had 20 conduct hearings each week. Despite this situational difference the expectation was still that we all did the same things and no one person could stray too far from the standard duties of the role. This makes no sense to me.
It is the responsibility of each supervisor to figure out how to squeeze the most out of each employee so that they are ready for whatever their next opportunity may be. Good supervision requires knowing the talents of each staff member and challenging them to do their best even if it looks different from other people at their role. Treat each person equitably, not equally.
- Work for a Hungry Person: At the six institutions I have worked at, I have mostly been employed by hungry supervisors. These are those driven, always making you step up your game, email you at all hours of the day and night, ambitious people. I love them. I learned to supervise by watching them. They got the most out of me and pushed me to do more and be more at work. The number one determining factor of your success at work is your boss. This doesn’t mean you can’t be successful if you have a bad boss—hard work still trumps crazy—but it does mean that you can advance your skills and your position quicker with an exceptional one.
So, how do you know if your future boss is hungry? Do your homework. My current boss gave me a list of five people who used to work for them. He encouraged me to call them and find out what they liked and didn’t like about working for him. I called all five. I had to know what I was getting into because I need him to help me to accomplish my goals as much as he needs me to deliver every single day at work. If your future boss lacks aspiration, they may struggle to support your own professional objectives.
- Don’t Let Anyone Define Your Professional Timeline: You don’t have to spend 3-6 years at entry-level, 5-7 in mid-level, etc. You rise when you are called to do so. Because we are not all the same (see #1) some people will be a Director at 26 and some at 46. What we can’t do is allow other people to define that for us. You choose. Take the “I’m not ready” crap out of your vocabulary. When are we ever really ready for anything (going back to school, marriage, kids, etc.?)
Because I came up through traditional ranks, I too was susceptible to this kind of thinking. It took mentors really challenging me to consider the talents of my staff and how to elevate them as quickly as their talents would allow. I recognized that I moved up quickly because people believed I could—even if it wasn’t convenient for the department, or typical based on my age or tenure with the university.
While I still scratch my head at the conversation from ten years ago it did give me clarity on the kind of people I want to hire—Worker Queens. These are people who get the work done every single day and are still looking for innovative ways to lead within their own little locus of control. They are a little rebellious, prefer to ask for forgiveness than permission, and work really freaking hard every single day. So go ahead and claim your crown!
This post is part of our #SAevolve series, a variety of first-person views of the ongoing evolution of Higher Education from pros who have been in the field for a long time. The goal is to explain how some critical matters in higher ed have evolved over time, to explain the greater context, and to inspire younger professionals to realize that they too are part of the great movement of higher education. All of us more “senior” folks were once junior folks. We were toiling, contributing and observing at critical moments, but perhaps we didn’t realize what we were seeing until we had more experience. For more information check out the intro post by Lynette Cook-Francis. Be sure to read the other posts in this series too!