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Scaling Career Services (Part 2 of 7): The Problem

I have asked over a thousand career services professionals to tell me about the problems we face on a regular basis in our field. Rightly so, the groans come before words, then sometimes laughter (because there are things we just can't change), but there has never once been a hesitation for people to speak freely about our challenges. I love the honestly of our colleagues, and the fact that they pursue hope in the midst of these realities. When facing the topic of how to scale career services, we must outline the problems we face, and the items preventing us from scaling.

As mentioned in Part 1 of the series, we hosted 135 diverse colleagues from 5 countries at our Summer of 2017 Think Tanks in the on How to Scale Career Services. In our Pre-Think Tank Survey on Scaling Career Services, we asked (among others) these two questions, and then synthesized the following themes:

What keeps career centers from scaling career services?

  1. We have never taken the time

  2. It feels like more work

  3. It feels less personalized

  4. It would change job responsibilities

  5. We don’t know how

  6. We need more money

  7. Senior leadership in the career center lacks the ability

  8. We can’t say no to other things

And, as an extra bonus to this question, here is one direct quote, that will perhaps add animated dimension to the other answers: "We are stuck in the dark ages and too many staff like it". Wow! Fair enough.

The beautiful thing to note about the above themes is that all of them are reconcilable. Every one of our common fears, realities, or scarce mindsets mentioned above can be changed or eliminated if career leaders and career staff commit to doing so. That is good news. However, you may not feel the same way regarding the next question we asked:

Of the following, what do you believe is the most significant barrier to scaling career services at colleges and universities? (Choose one).

Are there others you would add to this list? Perhaps, but none of them are easy to overcome.

Anyone fixed Silo's recently? Who has the magic bullet on leading change and keeping quality high in the midst of it? These are tough realities and constraints that we have to deal with when trying to scale. Verizon could continually make more money to manufacture more towers and get us 'more bars in more places'. We have monetary constraints, and can't just keep growing and adding. Thus, the need for scale with the same or fewer resources. Further, changing staff job descriptions, or (heaven forbid) firing people, is probably 10 times easier in the private sector. At a later part in this series, we will discuss what we noted as the elephant in the room during our think tanks, 'staff must change in order for us to scale, so therefore, how do we lead staff through change?' (You can also join us in Chicago for a deep-dive on that topic in September, 2017).

At this point, we might be tempted to simply wallow in our misery, fold for another round, and keep the chips we have. So, let's deal with the mindset needed for addressing our problems. And let's start by playing 'Name that Tune'. Sing this:

'Sunny day; Sweepin' the clouds away; On my way to where the air is sweet; Can you tell me how to get; How to get to... '

You guessed it...Sesame Street!

Solution #1: Start with Empathy

In Malcolm Gladwell's best seller, The Tipping Point, he discusses the stickiness factor in the television industry and poses this question: 'what is it that made Sesame Street so successful?' I have asked quite a number of groups this question and the answers always range from puppets to music to basics, to parents get a break - as a parent of four young children - all of those are spectacular and spot-on! Yet none are the x-factor that made them truly successful. I am over-simplifying the complex thinking behind this, but in essence, the sesame street production leadership spent loads of hours in focus groups for an extended period of time trying to figure out this question: 'at what point do children lose their attention?' Or better yet, what will keep their attention for 20+ minutes without them zoning out? What they did was start with the feelings of their customer, and test something very specific. They started with Empathy.

I have heard this too many times from career staff around the globe. 'We have great information to share, so why are our workshops so poorly attended?' Never forget that your how can kill your what and your why can get lost! Let me say that again: HOW can kill WHAT, and then WHY gets lost.

Solution #2: Get to the Heart of the Problem You are trying to Solve?

Did you notice how specific Sesame Street was with their problem definition. This take some brain power. But please don't underestimate the reality that I have not yet brought up brainstorming. Ideation and Brainstorming can kill the heart of your problem if you are not careful. Some of you may be familiar with the Stanford University Theory of Design Thinking. Here is an illustration of their process:

Unfortunately, here is how we usually go about solving problems:

We must put empathy and problem identification ahead of ideation. We must not rest on our smarts and assume we know our customers.

Even deeper into this, we are often trying to solve the wrong problems or wrong types of problems. Henry Ford said, 'If I would have listened on the surface, I would of built a faster horse.' Thank goodness he did not, and we can all drive cars now.

Here are three key questions to ask that will help your teams get to the heart of the problem:

  • Ask, is this a problem to solve or tension to manage? Tensions are not going away, you have to create management plans for those. Problems can be solved.

  • Then ask, what is the problem or tension preventing?

  • Then ask, what are we trying to understand from our customers?

Let's tackle Silos for a moment

Can we solve them? Nope. They are a tension to manage. I dare you, go to your Provost and say, 'I'd like to get rid of Silos'. At minimum she will laugh at you. She might even tell you that Silos are how she makes a living. But what if you first figured out what Silos are preventing. Among many things, they can often prevent clear access pathways for our students and employers. There is lack of clarity in how they get to our services. Take that to your Provost and your discussion will be lively and they will probably want it fixed. Then take it to the last level and script the critical question. Perhaps you end up with something like this 'what does the user-experience look like when students know exactly how to find what they need from career services on our campus?' Wow! That is a great research question to understand, and a great problem to solve!

Solution #3: Pose the Hard Questions Together as a Staff

When we see clearly what are customers want, and we have clearly defined the problem we are trying to solve, we can then courageously put the following questions in front of our staff teams:

  • Are we willing to solve our clearly defined problem, even if it means our job descriptions might change?

  • Are we open to doing the hard work up front?

  • Are we committed to getting educated at every level, on how to actually scale our initiatives?

  • Can we identify specific items we can say NO to this year?

  • Once we know what we are going to solve and scale, can we commit to finding more monetary resources to aid in our efforts?

Our students, parents, employers, and alumni deserve for us to say yes to all of the above.

And, may we never forget that puppets, songs, and the basics of counting were not the transformative x-factor that scale Sesame Street into millions of children's lives, but rather that the leadership of the staff at PBS dared to have empathy for their stakeholders and get to the heart of the problem, and boldly did something about HOW they were delivering their services.

Jeremy Podany is an innovation, leadership, and organization growth connoisseur who has helped nearly 1,000 organizations and 500 leaders, having nearly 40 leadership roles in the last 20 years. Jeremy has enjoyed a career in higher education, has helped build six unique start-ups, and is currently the Founder, CEO, and Senior Consultant of The Career Leadership Collective and the Co-Founder and CEO of The Fairs App. You can follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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