“If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
Part 1: What’s in Your Leadership Toolkit?
As Student Affairs professionals we are constantly provided with the latest information on the best and promising student affairs practices, policies that impact our work, and other useful tips and tricks to better support our students. And while many of these insights create a sense of excitement (or anxiety depending on the topic) and urgency to implement, they may also leave us scratching our heads, asking ourselves, “How can we create such a program, policy, or practice at our institutions AND be successful?”
With this in mind, NASPA is launching a five-part blog series titled Success in Action, which will be featured on the RPI Blog page. The Success in Action series is designed to help institutions answer the “How” questions that may arise when we want to create change or have been asked to lead a new initiative. “How can we improve our Black Male Success initiative?” “How should we revise and successfully implement a new student conduct policy?” “How will we establish stronger practices to better support our LGBTQIA students?” The overall intent of the series is to help student affairs professionals build their capacity to successfully plan, lead, and support institutional policy, program, and/or practices efforts. We will cover topics such as “effectively using data to drive progress” and “building and sustaining momentum throughout your efforts.”
For our first part of the series we will focus on building our capacity to lead and manage an institutional change effort. Whether you are a VPSA or a new professional there are essential skills that we all should build and continue to refine as we take on such roles at our institutions. We all must have these skills in our toolkit so that we can deploy them when necessary.
Below I highlight just a few skills that can come in handy when leading a project at your institution that goes beyond the fundamental project management.
Influencing without Authority: In a perfect world people will do exactly what we ask them to do, without any questions – but we all know this is not the case. More importantly, we also know that in order to create a new policy, program, or practice that is strong and has buy-in from leaders across the campus we must collaborate, partner, and seek input from our colleagues. And in most cases, we are in roles where we do not have the authority to “make” someone do anything. This is why relationship building is so important. If you want people to work with you, you must develop trust and understand what motivates them. Once this is achieved, especially the latter, you can identify the best way to help them understand the work underway and bring them onto your team. For some this process may be simple, such as using rational persuasion, where you use facts, data, and logic to bring them on board. Additionally, you can appeal to their emotions by highlighting the moral imperative of the work or showing how the work intersects with their values. Other campus staff may require you to use a more strategic approach. For example, if you want to get more faculty or a specific department/area involved, it may be helpful to form a coalition of eager and willing staff to motivate others to act or leverage the influence of senior leadership to encourage engagement.
Data Analysis: No, you don’t need to have a PhD in Statistics and/or know the ends and outs of regression analyses, but a fundamental understanding of how to interpret, present, use data is critical. Whether you’re looking at overall retention rates, persistence, program attendance, GPA, etc.) it is important to: 1) identify an achievable goal, 2) establish a baseline to know where you are starting from; 3) Disaggregate the data (i.e. race, gender, class standing, socioeconomic status, majors, etc.) to better understand patterns; and 4) routinely share data with relevant staff to create a shared understanding of progress and group problem-solve when needed.
Conflict Management: As much as we hate to admit it, even despite our best efforts, conflict is inevitable. But not all conflict is bad – even though dealing with conflict can be a very challenging experience, if handled properly it can strengthen relationships and make the work better. When leading a project at your institution, you may encounter situations such as a team member not meeting a critical deadline, working with a colleague that disagrees with a decision that you made, or even dealing with staff that may not be 100% sold on the work that you’re doing. Conflicts such as these require us to put on our problem-solving hat on. We must become comfortable having difficult conversations, facilitating fruitful discussions, and breaking down the “problem” into manageable pieces to seek a mutually agreed upon solution.
Bringing the “Woo”: There will be instances in your work where you are frustrated, tired, anxious, or all of the above! And the same may be for the people that are down in the trenches with you. However, despite these feelings it is important that we find ways to remain positive, maintain a high-level of energy, and identify ways to keep the momentum going for ourselves, our colleagues, and the students we are supporting.