Leading Through Change as an AVP
Leadership transitions are nothing new in higher education and they are becoming more common at the senior leadership level. Across the country, Deans, Provosts, Vice Presidents, and Presidents are transitioning into retirement and new positions, leaving institutions in a place of uncertainty that can affect campus culture and priorities, the delivery of programs and services, and staff/faculty morale. AVPs can serve a unique role during this time of transition due to their direct connections to both senior leadership and the members of middle management who often feel the brunt of the uncertainty.
I have been in my current AVP role for approximately 5 ½ years, and in that time I have reported to four different Vice Presidents (including interims), with a fifth on the way soon. These transitions have been a part of the regular cycle of turnover in our profession, but any change still causes uncertainty across all levels of staff. Throughout these changes, I have learned some tips that have helped me navigate the changing organization and culture and allowed me to (hopefully) be a consistent voice and resource for my team and colleagues.
- Remember that each new leader is just that, new. Your new supervisor is a human being (ideally) and they are experiencing their own work and life changes. They may be moving with their family, leaving a place that they desperately loved, or missing their personal & professional networks. But they also need a new dry cleaner, a new Thai restaurant, and a new place to find decent coffee. Take the time to view them as a person going through huge changes and help by orienting them to campus as well as the incredible resources and opportunities in their new city.
- Try to provide stability for your team. Many early or mid-level staff members may not be as comfortable with change as we are as AVPs. Frankly, I’d be surprised if anyone can be successful in the role of AVP if they weren’t extremely flexible. For most of us, the only constant in our positions is change. So check in on your team; meet with them in larger, formal settings but also take the time to drop by their offices and events. Have individual conversations with the team members that you know may be feeling more trepidation about the road ahead. Your team should have a healthy level of trust with you, so use that trust to help relieve fears, provide support, and keep everyone on mission and message. Let your team know how vital their work is in moving the Division forward, especially during times of transition, and be sure to share their great work with your new VP.
- Hopefully you have a great relationship with your other colleagues at the AVP level, so pull together as a leadership team and help prioritize information, appearances, and challenges/opportunities for your new VP. It benefits everybody to present a united front for your new VP, focused on serving students, staff, and your new VP during the transition.
- As an AVP, you may struggle with the transition (as you may also be a human being). I have worked for radically different VPs in my time, with varying backgrounds, styles, and priorities. I view my primary role as serving the VP in implementing their vision, and sometimes that meant a change in reporting structures, a change in my duties or portfolio, or merely a change in personalities that affected communication. You can help yourself (and your team and colleagues), by finding out what your VP values, what they prioritize and need right away, and offer how you can best help them in achieving that vision. In addition to being helpful to your new VP, it will also potentially provide some development opportunities for yourself and help you remain nimble and challenged in your career.
- And finally, don’t take it personally. Even if it starts to feel like maybe you are the reason for all of these supervisor transitions, its just a normal cycle of higher ed leadership (or at least that’s what I’ve been telling myself).
Adam Sterritt, Ed.D.
Assistant Vice President for Student Success & Engagement
The University of Alabama
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