The Art of Managing from above the Middle

naspa avp steering committee

Daniel Maxwell

November 9, 2017

I have had the distinct pleasure of serving as the Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs for the University of Houston System and the Associate Vice President for the University of Houston since January 2012.  I have learned much about what it means to be in this role to support the Vice Chancellor/Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Services (VC/VPSAES), while also providing support and oversight for the directors and programs that report to me. Interestingly, I have also learned what it means to be on a team of Associate/Assistant Vice Presidents (AVP) in a very large division.  There are six of us with distinct portfolios that cover all 29 departments and 425+ staff along with 1200 student employees. The art of managing from above the middle includes managing up with my supervisor, the VC/VPSAES, along with both my peers, the other AVPs, and my team of directors.  There are some common non-negotiables and very clear distinctions that all contribute to my ability to serve effectively as an AVP and the number two in the division. 

Managing Up

Over the course of my 30-year career post graduate school, I have always reported to someone.  In each role that I have had in housing, greek life, student activities, student unions, and student affairs administration, there is always someone that I report to and am considered a member of their team.  I have done a pretty good job over the years observing my respective supervisors in respect to what they are needing from their direct reports.  A couple of common themes include:

·         Open and timely communication.

·        Sense of confidence in myself to do my job and to be willing to ask for help when it is needed.

·         To be the content expert.

·         To understand the bigger picture of the unit, department, and/or division.

·       Prevent as many surprises as possible and to keep them informed.

As I began to progress as a student affairs professional and my duties expanded to include supervision of graduate assistants to program coordinators and eventually to directors, I have always been pretty clear about what I expected from my team members.  It should be no surprise, but all five of the themes listed above are on my list.  It is important to develop a trusting relationship with your supervisor and to understand your respective expectations on what will contribute to a healthy and productive working relationship.  In managing up, you are trying to anticipate what your supervisor may need and this skill is not impossible to develop. 

You need to engage with your supervisor to determine how she/he may want to receive information, in what format, and, most importantly, the timing.  You need to remember that you were hired to do your job because you are the content expert; you need to demonstrate your knowledge of your functional area, maintain a command of your duties, and be willing to acknowledge what you may not know.  It is also helpful to your supervisor if you have more than just a curiosity of the bigger picture.  Meaning, do you have a general understanding of your supervisor’s scope of duties and where your functional area fits within the totality of his/her position.  In managing up, I have learned that no one likes surprises. While some supervisors are more gifted than others in rolling with what comes along, the surprise factor should never be too high if at all controllable. 

Always remember that everyone reports to someone. 

Managing Side to Side

Depending on the size of your institution and, likewise, your division, there may be more than one Associate Vice President (AVP) or Assistant Vice President (AVP). When there are multiple direct reports to the Vice President (VP) at the AVP level, there is also the reality of managing expectations between this second level of leadership in support of the VP.  Although one of you may be considered the “number two” for the division, there could be more than one of you with the same title. 

In your role as a member of your VP’s leadership team, each AVP is responsible for guiding the departments in their respective portfolios with the assistance of the division’s overarching goals and/or its strategic plan. In doing so, I have found it helpful to have strong working relationships with my AVP peers.  This is what I call managing side to side.  Make the time to discuss clear expectations among your AVP peers in regard to sharing of information, collaboration among directors, collective efforts in assessment and planning, and respecting one another’s role and scope on the VP’s team.  It is critical in supporting the VP and her/his vision to have the AVPs working alongside one another in a way that role models open and timely communication, confidence as a generalist with some specific content expertise, and the ability to solve problems and bring solutions to the table.  The same can be said of directors working together across a division in support of the VP and her/his vision. 

Managing from above the Middle

An interesting phenomenon at the AVP level is to understand that your function is somewhat ambiguous.  Prior to serving as an AVP, you were the director of a specific function for the division. You were the content expert and may have been known as the “housing gal”, the “student union guy” or the “diversity guru”.  However, as the AVP, more times than not, you are overseeing multiple functional areas while also serving on the VP’s leadership team.  You may feel a little like a nomad, but you to embrace your larger role, for example, of enrollment services, or health and wellness, or student life, or student support services.  While you may have an expertise in one of the areas you are overseeing, you are no longer a department director.

As an AVP, you will serve as a supervisor to a department director or two or more.  This is an awesome responsibility and it requires strong skills in the area of supervision.  I refer to this as managing from above the middle as you are no longer leading the teams on the campus level, but providing oversight and leadership to those who are leading.  You are above the middle of the organization chart and you do not have direct responsibilities at the department level.  You are supervising supervisors.  I go back to the five themes I identified in the beginning of my blog. To be successful in supervising all the individuals responsible for the delivery of programs and services, you need to trust and believe that  your direct reports are confident in the work expected from them and have positioned themselves to be the content expert on behalf of the division and the institution.  You also need to trust that they will keep you informed, updated, and prevent you from being surprised so that you, in turn, can do the same for your supervisor, the VP. 

Closing Thoughts

The art of managing from above the middle is to understand that you are managing up, side to side, and to your direct reports.  You are creating a set of clear expectations on how you will contribute to one another’s success and being the best student affairs professional that you can in that moment in time.  Establish your own non-negotiables with those who you supervise, your peers, and your VP and then live up to them each and every day.  As I like to say, “While we are not curing cancer, we are intentional, purposeful, and knowledgeable about what and how we do our work as student affairs professionals.”

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