A quick glance at the Transitions section of The Chronicle for Higher Education or the ‘New Presidents and Provosts’ in InsideHigherEd reveals that, while a handful of academic leaders transition to new roles after serving as interims or being successful in a search, it is more common for new leaders to change institutions to advance their academic careers. Thus, seeking an administrative role can involve two important decisions—whether to assume a new role and whether to leave an institution where one may have been employed for a decade or more with no intention of ever leaving.
About five years ago I faced these decisions after serving for 16 years at my first professional academic home. In this article, I share the process that I used then and still use today when contemplating my professional future. It involves what I call “conscious working,” as well as an awareness of my location along my leadership trajectory and maturity as an academic leader.
Conscious working involves making deliberate career choices and constantly affirming whether these choices are aligned with my personal and professional desires. Because my desires and the needs of my family change over time, this requires continual self-examination of the priorities of my whole self: a person, a mother and wife, and a professional.
With respect to personal values, it is very important to me to be fulfilled by what I do. In A Leadership Guide for Women in Higher Education, Marjorie Hass writes that “the happiest leaders are those that find a higher purpose.” I agree. I know I want to spend my days doing something with meaning that allows me to make a positive difference in the lives of those around me. This clear sense of purpose drives much of my professional decision making.
To ensure my career choices align with personal priorities, I ask myself the following questions. What do I value: Offering a high-quality educational experience? A mission-driven institution? A fast-paced environment? Earning high compensation? How do I want to work? How many hours per week and months of the year? Am I willing to work typical office hours or at night and on the weekends if necessary? And am I willing to commute, and if so, how far?
For family considerations, I ask myself: What stage are my children at in their lives? Is this a good time in their lives to move or for me to work longer hours? If I am considering moving, are there good job opportunities for my partner and quality schools in the area for my children?
Financial considerations I ask include: Will my current position allow me to retire at a reasonable age? Will I be able to pay for my children to attend college? Am I being appropriately compensated for the work I do or am I carrying a large invisible workload?
As a professional, I ask myself: At what institutional level do I want to have an impact (e.g. departmental, institutional or somewhere in between)? How much responsibility do I want? These considerations are especially important when moving into a leadership role, because becoming an administrator is not just a matter of changing the scale of one’s work, the type of work you do will change. For example, as you move into leadership, you lose personal autonomy and must learn to lead a team. In moving from a faculty position to an administrative role, you will have to leave professional parts of yourself behind and it is important to ask yourself if you are ready to do this. For example, I experienced some grief associated with giving up my role as a researcher and mentor of undergraduate research to become an administrator.
Some questions are more institutional in nature and can be key to deciding whether to change institutions. These include: Am I strategically aligned with the mission of the institution and the vision of the current leadership? While the institutional mission should not change, the culture and focus of institutions can change significantly when the executive leadership changes, and if one finds oneself not strategically aligned with the leadership, that can be a very strong indication that it may be time to seek other opportunities. Another important question to ask is: Do I have access to the resources, especially time and funding, that I need to accomplish what I’m being asked to do? In the years before I took on a senior leadership role, my children were not yet school age. That was not the time for me work longer hours and throughout the summer. Budgetary considerations are important as well, but the more control you have over a budget, the more you can be creative and use it strategically so it’s not just the hard number that is important. Flexible thinking can stretch dollars. Another important resource is the support of your supervisor to allow you to take initiative, be innovative, or simply do what the role requires.
And the last question I always ask myself professionally is: Am I still learning from the institution and is it learning from me? I believe it is best for that relationship to be reciprocal.
While asking these questions is important, it is just as important to understand your leadership trajectory and maturity as a leader. For this discussion, I’ll describe three phases of leadership as I see them. They are somewhat chronological but not completely linear and include the learning, leading, and lending/leaving phase.
During the learning phase, it’s vitally important to become clear about the requirements and responsibilities of the role, to learn how to communicate professionally and to start to understand how the organization functions. For example, observe how policies and procedures are put into place and their impacts. It is important during this phase to be responsive, responsible, and an active participant in service. But as faculty, first focus your attention towards excellent teaching and maintaining your scholarship.
With respect to leading, I believe you can’t give away that which you don’t have. So, until you finish the learning phase and become established in your primary role, it is difficult to assume leadership roles. I’m not suggesting that faculty can’t participate in leadership of any kind until they are tenured, but reaching the point where positional authority becomes an option usually takes time because senior leadership roles require expertise, knowledge, skills, and wisdom that come with experience. Once you’ve established yourself in your primary role, whether that is achieving tenure and promotion or winning your supervisor’s confidence, you start to move into the leading phase.
Your first leadership role may or may not be positional. Mine was not, and it was what I call ideological leading. During this time, I shared my ideas with those with positional authority and asked for their support. I was very fortunate to have supportive department chairs, deans, and a supportive provost. Being an ideological leader led to the recognition of skills and abilities that I could bring to other areas of the university and I was asked to take on some positional leadership roles. In my case, my first leadership roles, such as being a department chair, had weak positional authority. While department chairs have some strategic tools, such as scheduling, budgeting, and hiring, they lead from the middle. An important lesson I learned about weak positional authority is that being successful in this kind of role depends very strongly on relationships. As a result, when in leadership roles, I try to always treat my colleague as I would want to be treated if our positions were reversed.
The learning and leading phases can be very exciting times filled with new experiences and engaging projects. Your budding expertise may be recognized within the institution and at conferences and meetings of all sorts.
The last phase of leadership is the lending or leaving phase. The lending part of this phase is what happens when a decision is made to stay at the same institution. In this stage, one reaches a point where there are opportunities to move on to a on but instead one stays in place and lends their expertise to their current institution either through continued ideological leading or new leadership roles. A few words of caution about moving into an administrative position at your current institution. First, it is often easier to lead faculty with whom you don’t have a history. Second, think carefully about your ability to deal with rejection as an internal candidate. It will require you to continue working with who colleagues who did not see you in a role that you saw for yourself. For most people, the aftermath is harder than they think.
Fortunately, there are other ways to stay in place and lend your expertise that don’t involve searches. You can mentor early career colleagues directly (formally or informally) and work with the center for professional development to offer professional development workshops. Off campus, you can take on leadership roles in professional or community organizations.
In other situations, as you continue to ask yourself the questions listed above, the answer to enough of them might be no, leading to a decision to enter the leaving phase and move on to a new opportunity at a different institution.
A few comments about the decision to leave: There are advantages and disadvantages to making this choice. Some of the advantages include having no baggage. For a little while you get to be the new voice in the room although be careful not to criticize too much about how you’ve seen things done better elsewhere (particularly where you just came from). Another advantage is that you don’t have a long history at the new institution, which can make it easier to leave the next time if you are seeking more career opportunities. A move after 5 years just doesn’t have the same heft as a move after 15.
However, having no baggage also means that you don’t know how the institution operates and will have to learn new processes. It will also take some time to figure out who are your allies are who to trust.
Another thing to keep in mind is that moving to another institution does not mean you will leave all your problems behind. Wherever you go, you are going to encounter a new set of issues and you won’t know what they are until you get there. Thus, it is important to do your homework on the institution and be clear about the kind of institution that resonates with you and your values and where you think you can do good work. Every institution has its own idiosyncrasies and is very influenced by its leadership, the chancellor or president, the provost, and board of trustees.
Though these leadership phases are not chronological or linear, I have found that they start over when taking on a new position. One of the best pieces of advice I have received is to build a network of mentors external to the institution who know me but are objective about its inner workings. I have also found tremendous benefit in having a leadership coach, who helps me to be clear-eyed about how I work and the choices that I make.
For me, leadership has been as much about an inner journey of self-discovery as it has been about my career itself. Whatever, choices you make, I believe that you can’t go wrong if they are grounded in your values and priorities mixed with a good dose of reality.