AVP for What? Strategic Initiatives and Cross-divisional Support Within Divisions of Student Affairs

naspa avp steering committee

Jennifer Meyers Pickard

February 13, 2018

I’m an optimist.  The glass is always half full in my world.  Positivity is in my top five of CliftonStrenghts.  Yet recently when greeted by colleagues with the typical, “How are things? How’s work?” I found myself letting out a somewhat defeated sigh, slumping my shoulders and responding, “Busy. Just busy.”

As these words lingered in the air and my body returned to its normal posture, I felt instant guilt.  Guilt because I had burdened someone else with my negative feelings.  Even more guilt that my reaction implied a level of dissatisfaction with my role as Assistant Vice President for Divisional Initiatives and Planning.  In the last weeks of the fall semester, I was feeling scattered, unfocused, unable to think any further ahead than the next day or even the next meeting which is very unusual for my arranger brain.  In truth, I can’t imagine a better professional fit for me in Student Affairs than my current position so what had me feeling so blech? After 2 ½ years in the role, had the honeymoon phase ended? Was I going to feel overwhelmed for the rest of my professional life?!?

AVP for what? What do you do exactly?

We’ve all been at that cocktail party where introductions to new people are made. They ask what you do and you say you work in higher education. “Oh, you are a professor?” “No, I work in student affairs.” [Insert blank stare here.] 

Each of us has our canned elevator speech to describe the world of student affairs, but when it comes to describing my specific role, I say that while my senior leadership team colleagues oversee elements of the student experience (i.e., enrollment, retention efforts, student life, marketing, auxiliaries), I work with the units and initiatives that cross-cut the division and institution.  In the University of Arizona context, this means direct oversight of Assessment & Research, Faculty Programs, divisional pro devo, and the SVP’s Central Office.  At other institutions, AVPs in roles similar to mine might supervise fund development, divisional marketing and communications, budget management, and the ombudsperson.  And their titles might vary too – Assistant to the CSAO, AVP or Director for Administration, Chief of Staff. 

But one final element that I would bet my 403(b) Plan on is that 60% or more of these roles’ time (including mine) are spent on strategic initiatives.  This is anything that extends the strategic capacity of my Senior Vice President and leadership team colleagues to help us all achieve our divisional and institutional goals.  Recent examples from my world include coordinating requests from the Arizona Board of Regents; benchmarking, analysis, and recommendations on programmatic, administrative, and policy issues; facilitating national studies, unit reviews, and task forces; strategic planning; and leading and consulting on talent acquisition of divisional leadership. 

That last paragraph makes my administrative geek heart flutter with excitement.  Love.  Love.  Love.  Some of you dear readers might be thinking I live the life of an administrative schizophrenic.  Which I do, but come on, don’t we all?!?!  But truly, my role is to jump in where needed and serve as the catch-all.  Hunt down answers related to national trends.  Shepherd the projects that involve many constituents or significant organizational change.  My Senior Vice President has dubbed me the “ultimate utility player”.

Specialist vs. Generalist – The Pros and Cons

New AVPs quickly learn it is a big professional shift moving from overseeing one or two specific functional areas to leading multiple functional areas.  An AVP is usually a specialist or expert in at least one of the core functional areas in their purview and often the additional functional areas added to their AVP portfolio have a common thread running between them creating as sense of cohesion for the whole.  Utility player AVPs on the other hand operate as generalists, but despite lacking the unifying thread, generalist roles have exciting benefits and opportunities:

·         Each day brings new and exciting professional challenges.  Student affairs professionals are always handling the unexpected, but there is no typical annual or even semester cycle for utility player AVPs (Except perhaps for governing board meetings.  Those are as constant as the sun.)  Every day, I walk into work with a sense of what will happen that day or week, but it is often hijacked by a new request or initiative.  To some that would be frustrating.  I find it thrilling.  I envision each project as a ball in a line – some of the balls are larger than others but regardless of size, I have to determine which ball gets moved forward that day based on the strategic timing and value.

·         Building trust and partnerships.  The initiatives that are tasked to utility player AVPs almost always involve variety of constituents, each of whom has some sort of stake in the game and therefore could easily view the utility player AVP as a threat.  For example, conducting a unit review with external experts that may result in a significant leadership overhaul – that might freak some people out.  But it is the role of the utility player AVP to build and maintain strong partnerships and trust with the key players and to understand the institutional, divisional, and unit context so that everyone feels comfortable that the utility player AVP has everyone’s best interests at heart.  If there is no trust or confidence in the AVP, their work will struggle to succeed. 

·         Always learning something new.  The generalist AVP role helps you develop a working knowledge of all student affairs functional areas as well as academic affairs and highlights how higher education operates as an enterprise in the national and international context.  Utility player AVPs develop enough knowledge to lean in, contribute to the conversation at hand and connect the dots, but they do not have to be the definitive expert. 

The biggest challenge to being a utility player, ironically, is the same pro I just listed above.  You know a little bit of everything, but are no longer zeroed in on a specific functional area day in and day out.  You might not track functional area trends and updates in quite the same way.  You lose your specific niche which can feel isolating at both a campus and a national/professional association level.  It’s a big shift in your professional mental model and challenging to find individuals who have a job that looks like yours, so outlets for professional connection and reflection are limited.  As an extrovert, I have found this shift to be rough at times.  Ultimately, self-confidence and knowing your role’s value to the division and the institution is critical.

 So back to my guilty conscience….

 Despite some of the pitfalls, the above narrative paints a clear picture – as a utility player AVP, I strive to be the ultimate dot connector across the division and institution. X is happening over here which connects to Y over there.  With a bird’s eye view of the division, I use my vantage point to help my Senior Vice President make connections that divisional leadership cannot always see given their angle of their vantage point.  That is a pretty cool gig that always has room for growth and change.  I truly love it.  So why the case of the blahs

I shared my feelings with a trusted colleague and friend who, after listening, said, “I think you are struggling on being ‘in the work’ versus being ‘on the work’.”  In it vs. on it.  Simple brilliance that is so obvious in lots of ways but sometimes requires a conscious reminder.  All AVPs have long lists of priorities that they need to negotiate each day, but we must be cognizant to not be pulled too deeply into each and every priority.  We all have to wade into the weeds on a daily basis, but the critical key is to pull back out of those weeds quickly to maintain the bird’s eye view or else the result are the demoralizing feelings of being overwhelmed and scattered.  Utility AVPs will successfully navigate these dives in and out if they surround themselves with a small but mighty team with whom they can collaborate, bounce ideas, and delegate to where possible. 

Winter break offered me the headspace to step back and extract myself from the details to see the wider scope of our upcoming priorities for the semester ahead.  How’s work this week, you ask?  All sorts of great initiatives and opportunities are coming into focus.  Let’s go make them happen.

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