I gravitate toward everyday leaders who are trying to be courageous in the way they lead. I get the joy of hearing their stories and helping many of them in the university career services field. I am grateful, and inspired often. To me, leadership courage is humble boldness in the face of uncertainty, fear, or unpopular notions. Courage almost always comes about because of multi-dimensional personal or societal problems, and is usually employed for some sort of freedom.
Strategies From History
I recently had the chance to visit Washington DC and get to know the stories of some early innovators and see how their powerful social innovations have shaped US History. I was surprised by the fact that visiting Washington DC was not a barrage political billboards or an overwhelming media experience (although that wasn't absent). It was however, mostly, an inspiring historical journey. I highly recommend it and I am thankful to the DC area Universities and Career Leaders whom I spent time with on the visit.
There are practical strategies for handling the issues of social innovation in career services that I addressed my first post of this series, THE BIG PROBLEM. In that post I advocated that the problems we need to face are not small and often hurt the most vulnerable students: namely, that we, as colleges and universities, are merely making career services available, rather than making a commitment to actually reach and influence the career preparedness of EVERY student.
I'd like to recommend a few strategies from a some early social innovators in US History, which have analogous meaning for career leaders and career teams who are leaning into social innovation for the future of career education. Here they are:
Set up Systems that Empower The People and Scale the Repetitive
Soak up these little known truths about George Washington, and think about how they might relate to the hard work your campus is doing to empower many students for a brighter future.
Lobby for New Systems: Many politicians lobbied for George to be King of the US and establish a new royal family rulership. But he did not want the systems of old, turned them down, and even fought back, arguing that people did not need a king, but needed to be empowered toward freedom, and social and economic mobility. Unreal! He turned down being King for the sake of giving people a better life, and turned his energy toward creating a fresh system of laws and policies to make that a reality. What new systems are you lobbying for on your campus that can change the future of career education.
Know What is Happening on the Front Lines: George and Martha Washington regularly went to front lines of battle during the Revolutionary War to bring wounded soldiers food, listen to their stories, and understand what was not working in the fight for freedom. We have to get to know the stories of underrepresented students and all those that struggle in their career pursuits, why they are anxious or underemployed, and how we might create systems that provide better experiences, more career mentors, and inspire grit. If we leave career education as simply an offering that is available, then they will suffer the most. This intentional empathy needs to happen in increasing measure by multiple upper administrators and career leaders, and will help your campus to understand the changes needed in your unique context.
Change your Mind and Scale the Repetitive: George Washington changed his mind on slavery, set his slaves free, and used a lot of his free time and energy to invent better working conditions for all his laborers. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE. In one instance, President Washington saw that his workers were spending too much individual time and hard labor on thrashing wheat to make bread for the household. It was something they did everyday. It was a repetitive task. The President sketched out and invented a 16-sided barn with a basement, to solve this issue (see picture above of the restored barn at his home, at Mount Vernon). The main floor had boards with 1.5 inch openings between them. He would set stacks of wheat on the floor that needed to be separated, walk about 8-10 horses in a circle around the barn, and watch the grains fall through the cracks. This scaled the speed of separating the wheat, and freed the staff from the back-breaking task of thrashing the wheat individually with a stick for hours.
Which of your career staff tasks are repetitive, menial, energy sucking, and in need of new solutions? Resume critiques, new employer overviews, data synthesizing? Change your mind on your traditional way of doing things, listen to the people, and scale the repetitive! It is worth your investment of time and energy.
Amend Your Practices
Perhaps you best know the below picture of the National Archives from the movie National Treasure, where Nicolas Cage steals the Declaration of Independence. Sightly impossible, but moderately amusing cinema. The room is truly inspiring. You can gaze upon The Declaration, The Constitution, and The Bill of Rights (The First 10 Amendments). Consider with me the Bill of Rights, and more specifically, the concept of an Amendment.
An amendment is something discussed by many, to provide a change in something previously good, but not full enough to represent the current realities of the day. We amend contracts, we amend agreements, and we amend our practices. It blows my mind that George Washington looked upon the constitution with Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and other brilliant minds, and realized that it wasn't good enough. They realized that people needed more uniquely specified rights and freedoms. Wow!
If they amended the freakin' constitution, we can amend our career practices to be able to reach more students, and be more intentional about setting up systems of success that move beyond the approach of, 'sure, we will help you if you come by our office'. We have to do the hard work of discussing the goals of career education on campus with many people, discussing how we can reach all students, and amending our current practices to achieve such goals. It is transformative work, and it starts with leadership engaging in the discussion more broadly.
Take Unique Financial Risks to Inspire Unity and Change
If you haven't realized that people often have differing opinions or silence on important topics, you are probably still asleep. Unity is difficult, but worth the pursuit. During the height of the civil war, the nation was being torn apart by war, politics and social disagreements, and Abraham Lincoln was in the midst of some painful choices to make as a leader. Simultaneously, the capitol building in Washington, where congress meets to attempt to resolve these issues, not only felt like a house-divided, but physically had an unfinished dome. The nation was splitting apart, perhaps into two countries, so why should money be spent on building a gathering place for these divisions. Construction was halted by congress. However, Lincoln
realized that uniting people around a cause can come in various forms. He ordered the dome to be finished, asked for the inscription of a uniting phrase to encircle the dome, E Plurbus Unum (out of many, one), and commissioned Thomas Crawford to design The Statue of Freedom to sit atop the dome, which is there today. What seemed like financial silliness in a war depressed time, was an inspiration to all sides of congress, and it drew people together to discuss ending the war. Lincoln's commission to build the dome and make it a symbol of unity is noted as a key leadership move that began to re-unite the nation.
Okay, so I get it, you are not the President, and perhaps don't have cash to erect a dome, but I hope you see the analogy. I believe you can use the resources you have to unite the campus around the cause of career education. Use them toward symbols, events, or traditions that bring many together, and not just for your unique programs. Use them to be generous. Use them to gather others.
Seek Mission Clarity, Not to be Noticed
The US Capital rotunda mentioned above is a special place. It is lined with famous statues and paintings and has a magnificent internal dome. It is also a place where true change agents can lay in state upon their death, usually reserved for Presidents and a few others who did incredible political or social change work. Only one woman in history has lain in state in the Capital Rotunda: Rosa Parks.
She recently (in 2013) was also given a bronze statue inside the capitol building; a rare honor.
A civil rights hero, one thing is certain about the Rosa Parks Story: she was not seeking fame or notoriety when she refused to give up her seat on that Alabama bus. Nor was she seeking recognition as she continued to work at the US Capitol to solve major civili rights issues. She was not seeking to get published in a journal, or present at a conference, or make sure her name was recognized nationally (not bad things of course, but they are the fruit of work, not the focus of work). If she sought the stage, it was for the reason of getting the word out about a cause, not about herself. She was also not worried about being happy in her job. She was focused on a mission. When people are focused on a mission first, I believe truly great things happen for those they are serving. Notoriety may come, but when it is not the motive, then even more powerful solutions can be discovered.
Have you continued to clarify your campus career mission, continued to hone why you are doing the things you are doing? The more clearly you can articulate what you are trying to accomplish and why you are doing so, the more impact you will have on your students' futures. BTW, I do hope you get recognized for your efforts. :)
May you soak up the lessons of our early social innovators, from George Washington to Rosa Parks, and continue your intentionality toward helping EVERY university student be prepared for their future.
Happy 'social' Innovating!
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 Co-Owner of The Fairs App. He regularly consults for universities to help them find the right leaders and weave career education into the fabric of the campus. Last year The Career Leadership Collective did business with 300+ universities and saw 20,000 people from 30 countries engage their online content.