I started thinking about this topic about 10 years ago when I was a newly minted associate director. I was trying to figure out our office’s role on our campus. I was trying to understand why our team was a footnote on the student experience and maybe not as relevant as we could be to the work being done in student affairs, advancement or within academics. We were going through a leadership transition of huge proportions at the institution and there was an opportunity. A window. At this point we had a choice. We could be passive and sit idly by, hoping for something good to happen to us with these transitions. Or, we could step-up and go after what we thought was best for our students.
So was born the idea of lions v. gazelles.
We had to be the lions.
And everything else was just gazelles.
We had to fight for a vision of what we could be. For the impact we thought we could have on our community. As I moved from this role to a director role at two other institutions, I realized that the need to fight for my team and what we could do for our communities persisted. I refined my approach and how to fight for my vision. I learned from the lessons and experiences I had in these positions. But my belief in a vision that my team and I could help our students and improve our communities through our work did not waiver.
Your will must be greater than others
I’ve been called many things in my career (I can probably write a completely different blog post about that) but being passive or lacking passion were not among those things. I know I can be stubborn and maybe even bullish on some topics. The reality is this: I am passionate about my work and making a difference in the lives of the students, the communities I serve, and the institutions at which I have worked. I believe in the process of strategic planning and it being a collective effort of many people and perspectives. And while the specifics of our strategic plan are born through collaboration and intense discussions, the vision I always bring is that we can make a difference and it is incumbent upon us to bring that vision to fruition. In order to achieve that requires a certain amount of perseverance and taking the “long view” on the work we are undertaking. And what has kept me moving forward is that I believe my will to accomplish that is greater than those who maybe half-heartedly approach their work and pursue their ideas. Do you believe that you can have a positive impact on the students you serve? On your community? That is what drives me or motivates me. Bad things will happen. Problems will arise. Projects will get derailed. Staffing issues will occur. People will come and go. But the constant has to be that your will is greater than all of that. And the will of your team must be developed. I saw the need to instill that in my teams so that these obstacles - that undoubtedly arise - can be overcome with agility, critical thinking, and the sheer will that they believe the work that they are doing supports the stakeholders in a profound way.
Be aggressive. (this does not mean “don’t be collaborative")
We matter. Our work matters. We do good work. We won’t apologize for being good AND talking about what we need or what we’ve done. It was important for me that I build the confidence of my team and work to build allies. I wanted to go after “wins” for our team. Chip and Dan Heath talk about getting early wins in their book Switch which has been so influential in how I think about change in our organization. Getting the early wins built confidence. Provided proof that our vision and values were relevant to the community. Showcased that when we believed in our work and efforts that good results would happen. And part of those wins had to do with building partnerships.
I would often celebrate the “win” of getting a group of people on board with an idea or a concept. The people within our institution had to begin to believe and see that we had the will to impart the change we talked about and the perseverance to see it through. But we had to aggressively pursue those relationships and invest time in them. Go after the ones we thought would allow us to craft and execute on a vision to support our students and our overall community. I did this in a few different ways:
Develop a target list of people based on a listening tour, interview process, reading reports and other documents, and mind mapping of all the issues, problems and topics we connect with.
Evaluate the history of relationships we had but, more importantly, those we didn’t have.
Think about the short-term possibilities and the long-term possibilities – not all the relationships will mature immediately nor did I need or want them to.
Listen. Who do other people talk about? Who makes decisions? Who influences decisions?
Who is fun and interesting? I know that I needed people that were just great to be around. And that I could trust.
So obviously being aggressive and going after what we wanted did not mean being alone or disassociating ourselves from others. Quite the opposite. I wanted to bring people into our way of thinking. Convert them and show them what I saw and how they played an integral role in that vision. But we had to take the initiative to do that. It would not magically happen. Shoot, I am an ENFJ on the MBTI – the “counselor,” the “protagonist,” the “teacher” or “adviser” – relationships are at the core of how I think I should approach my work.
A fresh way of nurturing your vision & your team
So I would be naïve to think I could do this on my own. Developing a team is the only way that any of the work can actually be done and a vision can be achieved. I wanted to create a team of lions and nurture them to become independent yet still understanding that they are part of a larger team – one cannot exist without the other and we all have a role in the health of the organization. I watched a video a few years back based upon Daniel Pink’s book Drive and the concept of what motivates us in the workplace. The primary tenets of his perspective were that mastery, purpose, and autonomy motivates most people way more than financial incentives or other types of “carrots” or “sticks.” I adopted this as how I wanted to lead my teams and motivate them to help achieve a vision of what could be for our office, students and community. In short, mastery addressed the “urge to get better at stuff,” autonomy was the “desire to be self-directed” and purpose addressed a growing need for people to make a contribution. I believed that investing in these elements with my people and on my teams would motivate them individually but also create a culture or environment where their voices were part of the vision and thereby created a deeper investment in that vision. They were then more apt to aggressively pursue the vision. And persevere when things went sideways. To nurture their agility and curiosity because the goal was larger than the day-to-day activities that we sometimes get mired in.
Fighting and Nurturing result in growth. Yet, growth is a process, and I have learned that different people are more ready than others to embrace this. However, most of the people will join you in the good fight, if given the right tools and support. More importantly, the cycle continues as fighting and nurturing also attracts amazing talent to our organization, which only accelerates the process of building towards our goals. I truly believe that investing in our people is the key to our success and continuing to motivate them in these ways also empowers them to take on the responsibility for growing and evolving. This is not an easy endeavor and takes an inordinate amount of time but the outcomes can be transformative for our stakeholders and communities.
Joe Testani currently serves as Assistant Dean and Executive Director of the Gwen M. Greene Career & Internship Center at the University of Rochester. His writing and work typically revolves around connecting data to storytelling and change management. He has been working in higher education since 1998 within a wide variety of institutions including Indiana University, Yale University, Franklin College, and proprietary schools in New York City. He was awarded the Fulbright International Education Administrators Program in Germany and also serves on multiple committees and boards for the National Association of Colleges & Employers (NACE) and the Council for the Advancement of Standards (CAS). Joe has also been involved with consulting projects domestically and internationally in order to support the continual development of career services. LinkedIn