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Leading Anyway: Lessons from a New Director

258 days. That’s how many days into it I am as the Executive Director of the Career Center at Villanova University. What an incredible ride!

While thinking about my own hopeful transition into this role, I sought out advice from other new leaders. How did they get going? What were their early wins and setbacks? Where would they recommend investing time and energy if they could go back and start it all over again? The conversations about what the start of their roles entailed illuminated my excitement and shed light on concerns. How would I handle the challenge? By the end of it all, one mantra became clear to me.

Be smart enough to know you don’t know it all, but courageous enough take a run at it anyway.

Career services is always evolving, and so are we as professionals within the field. It’s important to document these changes in order to continuously learn and grow. Because writing helps solidify learning, I wrote down notes throughout these days of learning and transition. Here are some of my expectations and developments that resulted from my less than 300 days as Executive Director.

What I Expected, and How I Handled It

Expectation 1: A steep learning curve and potential for discomfort.

Knowing that there’d be a lot of trying-it-for-the-first-times and never-seen-this-befores meant upping my game on one thing: self-care. Keeping my own tank full would not be a luxury; it would be a necessity.

That’s different for everybody, but here are some things I did for myself:

  • Committed to a fitness routine. For me, that’s 4x per week of high-intensity interval training. Exercise has big brain benefits, so this is a must.

  • Thought ahead about busy days and busy weeks. On the evenings before those days or the weekends before those weeks, I clear out some time to charge my batteries. An extra walk, uninterrupted fun time with family, meditation, etc.

  • Finally booked a long-saved-for vacation. Almost exactly to the date that I will be 1 year in this role, I will be on the plane to Ireland. The timing was right to take this trip for a lot of reasons, but it’s true - and I’ve personally felt it - that anticipation of a vacation can even bring joy in the present moment.

Expectation 2: Building the team and appreciating the team is my number one priority.

Before I stepped into this position, I had always wanted to make sure my coworkers felt appreciated. As a new leader, I knew that would become even more important in different ways.

In this position, I will be successful when there is room for everyone on the team to be successful.

Realizing immediately that my ability to appreciate everyone is limited by time and resources, here are some notes I took on building up a team:

  • Hand-written thank you notes for a job well done are meaningful, no matter the generation of the receiver. In fact, here’s some evidence that a hard-earned compliment (or pizza) can go further in showing appreciation than a cash bonus.

  • Show praise and appreciation in the way valued by the individual receiving it. Some folks like appreciation in the form of public recognition. For others, private conversations are better places to receive high remarks. Preference for the way praise is delivered and received should rest with the person receiving it.

  • Authenticity matters in showing appreciation. Try to show appreciation using your natural gifts. I make a mean from-scratch cupcake in a variety of flavors. So, from time-to-time, those make their way into the office.

Where I’m Developing, and What I’m Learning About It

Development Area 1: Outside of the office, my primary role is to be the campus career services advocate.

As the leader of the career services function, especially the new one, there are lots of people you want to meet with and lots of people who want to meet with you. This is exciting and productive, and I recommend doing everything you can get to get to know them all.

What I’m finding is that my skills in public speaking are being tested more than ever. I’m regularly thinking about ways to synthesize tons of information, use data to deliver a message and playing a lot with graphics to demonstrate that in PowerPoint. Even if I am not in front of a big audience, that skill set is critical in every conversation. In the era of demand for ROI in education, the career services function is “out there” often. I need to be an advocate for our office and our university in a way that helps everyone - most importantly, our students - win.

Development Area 2: Sometimes the best decision is to wait.

Knowing when it’s better to wait to speak and wait to act are extremely important. In previous roles, my primary modus operandi was a preference for doing things both right and right away. While there are times when it is absolutely necessary to take quick action, there are many more cases now where waiting is the better approach. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” is essential when the decisions you make are bigger and have broader impact as the leader. As a leader, there is often wisdom in waiting.

Becoming the leader of a career services function is an awesome experience and an awesome responsibility. For those who aspire to lead and those who are new to leading, I’ll leave you with the below statements I wrote and keep nearby for times when I need a reminder of my leadership lessons learned so far, composed in the spirit of a famous Mother Teresa writing.

You might find that the road ahead is unclear. Lead anyway.

You might find that right way is the also the hard way. Lead anyway.

You might be questioning if you’re capable of this. Lead anyway.

You might not know what to do at all. Lead anyway.

Nobody has all the answers. Success comes after a long time of leading anyway.

I would like to give a special shout out to everyone at Villanova who is reading this. I am very fortunate to work with such supportive and creative people, especially those in the Career Center. No matter what’s ahead of me on any given day, I walk in every morning with a feeling of joy – working with you is awesome. And, Nancy Dudak, thank you for the guidance and wisdom you gave and for all that you’re still giving. Lunch is always on me.

Kevin Grubb is the Executive Director of the Villanova University Career Center, where he has been working since 2010. In 2013, he was the lead author of the Career Counselor’s Guide to Social Media in the Job Search, published by the National Association of Colleges & Employers (NACE). Kevin was named the “Rising Star” by NACE in 2015 and by the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) in 2014. Kevin also writes and speaks on the subject of career services for local and national media, including keynote addresses and featured interviews. He holds a BS in Psychology from St. Joseph's University and an MA in Higher Education Administration from New York University. Connect with Kevin on LinkedIn.

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