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Solving the Talent Shortage in Career Services: Leadership for Organizational Effectiveness

There’s a leadership shortage in higher education and career services departments are not immune to this shortage. Though we spend countless hours talking about the need for talented, innovative, change agents, it appears little is being done to actually identify, hire and retain these superstars. How can career services do their part to change this?

A basic search on yields hundreds of vacant leadership positions across the US. Today alone, I counted over 800 executive openings, over 23K administrative vacancies, and another nearly 19K faculty opportunities. Yes, the economy is bright, yes colleges and universities are growing in service need, and yes, it is higher ed’s peak hiring season. Yet, these are not the only reasons why competition for top talent is fierce and nowhere to be found.

So, what are the reasons?

Some of this has to do with the talent challenges impacting all industries, including career services. Challenges such as the dual responsibilities many professionals now face in caring for both children and aging family members. Now that the economy has rebounded and confidence is high, we also have experienced leaders with long tenure retiring. These uncontrollable natural change factors are part of the 21st century workplace realities, and career services feels these realities right alongside many other industries.

But there are other factors in play we have control over. Factors we can change. And they all point to leadership development.

The good news is that since career services remains at the forefront of a college’s ROI, our argument for leadership development support is strong.

Over the past decade or so, the scope of job duties in most, if not all senior leadership positions across career services have ballooned. When I started as a leader in the field, my primary day-to-day responsibility included … hold your breath … career coaching! Now it is fundraising, meetings, event attendance, meetings, admissions recruiting, meetings, employer outreach, and wait, did I mention meetings? This is on top of the need to remain knowledgeable of best practices in the field; learning and adopting innovative ways to meet our constituents’ needs; and collecting and analyzing data trends so we can spend the summer strategizing how we are going to do more with less and deliver better services in the fall. Did you notice, I didn’t even mention career coaching?

Manny Contomanolis, Christine Cruzvergara, Farouk Dey, and Trudy Steinfeld capture this well in their 2015 article, The Future of Career Services is Now,

“For leaders of career services today, the primary role is no longer just running the operation. It is also about being externally focused, visionary leaders who can engage and connect with stakeholders, provide thought leadership concerning the efforts of their organizations, and connect the activities and outcomes of our work to institutional priorities, goals, and mission. Leadership in career services today requires individuals who are highly effective communicators who can build momentum and foster buy-in for needed strategic initiatives.”

Fortunately, we have identified what we need, and our industry has evolved in many necessary ways, and to be at the forefront of these conversations has been exciting and educational. Yet, we are at a crucial junction with leadership shortages, and as career service professionals, we must advocate for career services and higher education as an industry to

  1. Identify competent leaders

  2. Deliver the support these leaders need to actually do their new jobs well.

I’ve found people inherently want to do a good job and feel good about their contribution. This can’t happen if there are unnecessary barriers present. Leaders leave when they aren’t given the support they need to succeed - and new one’s don’t materialize for the very same reason. Many internal employees with leadership potential realize the best way to advance – and be compensated for - their leadership skills is to leave their current institution. And for institutions short on talent, this hurts students, staff, and succession planning, not to mention immediate growth and stabilization needed in this rapidly changing landscape.

Whether drawing from internal or external sources of training and support, increasing leadership development in career services will not only help retain top talent, but it will provide support for less experienced or emerging leaders who are being asked to step into leadership roles and assume greater responsibility before they are ready. Focusing on leadership development takes effort and commitment.

Here are eight leadership development strategies that may help fill the talent gaps in career services:

  1. Go after the Best! Tight budgets are not a reason to skimp on top talent. If career services is to remain a significant ROI unit, institutions are going to have to start compensating the talent charged with meeting these expectations. There are many leaders with the vision and skillset we need currently working in private industry being compensated at a much higher rate. To find the volume of great talent needed to keep the ship afloat, looking outside of the academy to recruit will be necessary. Internal or external, once you’ve identified the best leader for the position, offer compensation that entices them to see a career in higher education as upward mobility.

  2. Pay for valuable training. Our industry is riddled with free training, most of which only skim the surface and seldom supply the information needed to offer scalable change solutions. There is a proven ROI in hiring competent, qualified leaders and then supporting these leaders – and their teams - with top-shelf training…training that has built in follow-up and expert check-ins to ensure implementation and sustainment. Career offices who invest in leadership development for organizational effectiveness not only produce qualified leaders who retain at a higher rate, but also indirectly build a succession plan for their institution’s future. In addition, don’t deplete your professional development budget line at the end of the fiscal year or in times of economic stress. I assure you, the cost of needing to replace an employee far exceeds the amount spent to develop the ones you currently have. But even greater is the impact that skilled and multi-dimensionally trained leaders have on your mission and your students.

  3. Engage leadership at all levels. Leadership is present at all levels of the organization, not just the top. A clear, compelling purpose where everyone throughout the organization understands that they contribute to something aspirational and meaningful is a strong indicator there is a powerful leader at the helm, and that this leader recognizes the power of grass roots leadership. Leaders need to use their teams to empower – even embolden – their efforts. This team approach will yield more impressive results, especially if the leader surrounds themselves with the right people – people who have the talent and the experience to make a lasting contribution. These people will eventually transition into senior leadership roles themselves.

  4. Find an informal or formal executive/career/leadership coach. Working with a leadership coach helps people understand their strengths and identify areas for growth, increasing the richness of their contribution and productivity. At the most basic level, an executive or career coach can supply honest and straightforward feedback and improvement solutions to nourish progress. Executive or career coaching should be accessible at all levels of the institution, not just at the most senior level. Career Services Directors should consider this, and they should empower their mid-managers and emerging leaders to work with a coach as they advance within the ranks.

  5. Get rid of PIP’s. Performance improvement plans aren’t effective. This 1970’s Transactional Model focuses more on gaps in performance rather than strength of contribution. Not to mention, putting someone on probation for poor performance isn’t the best motivator for increasing their impact and productivity. Instead, define and map out visible career paths within and across divisions. This allows leaders to see where employing not only their own strengths, but the strengths of their emerging leaders can lead to forward growth and development.

  6. Hire more support staff. Yes, I said it. We need more administrative staff. Really what we need is more operational implementers to be able to let leaders do the work of leadership. I get that higher education is constantly criticized for being too administrative heavy, but we cannot respond to this criticism by creating a hiring freeze or adopting a lean staff model. The demands placed on leaders to deliver to our customers a flawless product requires them to actually have time to solve problems and come up with innovative solutions. This ensures the organization can execute! If necessary, scale your support by investing in pilot initiatives that allow the organization to test out new ideas and initiatives with the right staff and resources, but on a smaller scale. Once you’ve proven success and generated a return for the institution, go all in!

  7. Supplement with Local Resources. Many institutions offer degree programs and stand-alone courses in leadership, change management, and organizational development to name a few. Encourage and support leaders who want to take advantage of these learning opportunities right in their own back yard at, usually, a cheaper cost.

  8. Pay attention. If you are in a supervisory role, you have a responsibility to develop your employees, not only for the health and vitality of your institution, but also for yourself. Being known as a supportive leader who invests in people will attract top talent. Carve out time – even if it is a small amount – to listen to your staff’s needs, and encourage and support their desire to grow. And as an aside, No one wants or respects a stale leader. A strong leader develops himself right alongside his staff.

And finally, as a bonus thought, don’t be afraid to actively look outside of higher education to find your talent. Our industry is steeped in tradition and slow to change, causing us to fall prey to antiquated hiring practices, such as requiring new hires to have years of experience working in higher education. Not necessary! Some of the best employees I’ve hired came from industries outside of higher education. The fresh perspective and unspoiled approach to problem-solving and chance management strengthened my leadership team ten-fold.

As Betts, Urias, Chavez, and Betts suggested back in 2009 regarding our shifting demographics:

“With increasing attention on the need for current and future leaders, it is imperative that colleges and universities re-examine recruitment, professional development, and succession plans currently in place to attract candidates seeking new careers or transitioning into higher education, as well as, to develop leaders internally.”

2009! It’s 2017. How are we doing so far?

Dr. Heather Maietta is owner of Career In Progress, a coaching and consulting practice dedicated to improving the 21st century workplace by bringing out the best in professionals. Heather has published and presented nationally on a variety of leadership topics in higher education.

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