“What is your superpower?” This question has come up several times for me during the past few weeks, usually as part of an icebreaker activity. Other times, it has been disguised in strategic planning or hiring language, “what is your special sauce?” or “what is your value add?” Let us start out with a certainty: we each have superpowers. If we can figure out how to best fuel those superpowers, we will be able to harness their powers for good - both personal, and collective.
Remove the Barriers to your Superpower
I want to make some observations about how we tend to prioritize our time at career oﬃces on college and university campuses.
We spend a lot of time with our colleagues on campus focused on ways to improve the student experience. This is definitely a worthy pursuit, and I intend to keep at it, myself. In addition, our teams will spend a lot of time considering ways to better engage with our employer and community partners to elevate their experiences with us and our campuses. Again, this is definitely time well spent. On many of our campuses, we are even taking great strides with our own colleagues, invigorating a groundswell of support for the greater umbrella of career development work across campus, rather than holding onto those outcomes too tightly in our own spaces. This is exceptionally helpful work for the future of our success, so it is time well spent. There is a lot of documentation out there and training we can attend for novel, reimagined, and even recycled methods of making those improvements to our operations.
What we will likely spend less time on and downplay substantially is the improvement of our own experience.
Yes, I have the audacity to suggest that, selfish as it may initially seem, we need to take time - even resources - and devote them to improving our own experience. We are sacrificing our superpowers if we do not invest in ourselves and our teams this way. Professionals in our field tend to place a high bar on care of the other, especially the students. This is a good thing.
Additionally, not instead, we need to make it a priority to care for ourselves. Who else is going to prioritize that? Even the most highly functioning team or individual will hit a breaking point going full tilt on care for others at the expense of self-care. Just imagine the increase on impact we could make if we were running constantly on a full tank, rather than getting by on fumes.
Answer this: “a full tank of what?”
Identify and Maximize your Superpowers
Everyone has superpowers. Every team has them. You can identify them from when we are the most productive and engaged in our endeavors - when we are thriving and providing that experience exponentially to others through our work. We spend a lot of time working with students on uncovering their strengths and translating them for others, and we work with our colleagues to determine market diﬀerentiation and touting that for an external audience. Spending at least that much time and energy tapping into our own superpowers and ensuring we are constantly fueling them, as well as incorporating them into our storytelling, is an area where most of us could use some intention.
As with so many things, there is not a one-size fits all prescriptive checklist for recognizing your superpowers and what fuels them. When you have had moments of sheer brilliance and your superpowers are on full display, what was the fuel that led to that experience? How can you seek out the personal and team fuel you need and prioritize bringing that into your work environment? Let me share an example.
When my daughter was little, she jumped right into the napping schedule that my son and the rest of the children were already on at the daycare they attended. On the occasion that she would miss out on that napping time, she would alter into a completely diﬀerent being, aﬀectionately referred to as “no-nap-Kiley.” As I moved into my second decade in this field, I had the startling realization, both at home and at work, that when I did not participate in some form of exercise over the course of the day, I would also alter into a completely diﬀerent being - one with little energy; substantially less motivation; and a palpable lack of creativity. I referred to myself on those days as “no-workout-Hilary.” On the other hand, when I had the chance to work out, it was a game changer. It was so much more than simply being “good for me.” I could serve as a much more eﬀective sounding board and catalyst for the great ideas my team and colleagues would have, my capacity for personal creativity was magnified tenfold, and my energy levels for whatever task was on hand were contagiously enthusiastic and productive.
Those were some of my superpowers. The workout was my fuel. Of course, my fuel is actually a unique blend of exercise, sleep, nutrition, travel, reading, adventure, and family time - an ever- evolving blend that I prioritize perfecting throughout life changes.
Develop our Teams’ Special Fuel Blend
Discovering team fuel is also not prescriptive. In addition to thinking about the individual fuel
each team member needs, you need to consider many things to develop your team’s special fuel blend. It will take time and it will take eﬀort. Above all, I highly recommend getting transparent with your special blend. Do not hide it. Make sure your team knows you are developing it. Even if you are not in a leadership position, you have the opportunity to advocate for yourself and team on fueling needs. For instance, do you take real lunch breaks, oﬀer flexible work schedules, try out diﬀerent meeting times/structures, create new feedback loops, get oﬀ-site for meetings/ retreats, engage in activities together (not just planning sessions, but meals, wellness/service/ mindfulness activities), celebrate small wins, incorporate inclusive practices, or consider oﬃce decor? Do you acknowledge that while we might occasionally work more than 40 hours a week, it is not a sustainable practice. Getting minimal sleep and “expert multitasking” are not badges of honor when they do not properly fuel your superpowers.
Team leaders, how do you support professional development? When you make performance goals at the start of a year, do you incorporate professional development into those for each team member, or are they all operationally focused? How do you talk about and model self- care? When was the last time you brought up discernment with your team members? Are they all on the right track for their own career goals?
Again, it is awfully selfish, considering the lack of staﬀ and resources typically encountered in our spaces, to take the time to reflect on superpowers and fueling needs. Even if we have staﬀ and resources in place, the outcomes we are chasing for our students, alumni, colleagues, employers, and campus community of supporters are staggering. Most of senior leadership is not checking in with us on outcomes related to our team’s wellbeing. Or are they?
Leadership and invested stakeholders’ questions will reflect the information we provide. If we know that research shows the level of productivity, innovation, creativity, retention, and eﬃciency that increases with sleep, self-care, mindfulness, career development engagement, health, and wellness - when we are asked for any outcomes, why aren’t we sharing those wins, as well? Perhaps we need to move the needle on the conversation to reflect our superpowers as contributing to the overall operational successes we achieve. We talk a lot about the art of storytelling and personal branding in the context of career development. If we follow our own advice, we should weave these moments of self-care and improved experience for ourselves into our overall stories of success for students and other stakeholders.
For my part, I am going to continue to chase down my own brand of fuel - carefully crafting that blend, to charge my own superpowers. I am going to be engaged in conversation with my teammates to see how I can support their blends and widen the impact of our individual and collective superpowers. And I am making a commitment to check in frequently with my campus leadership and colleagues, so they can better understand how to harness these superpowers for the good of our campus outcomes. Hopefully, our students will see, through our modeling, that not only can they discover and hone their superpowers while they are with us on campus, but they can dial in on the fuel and start perfecting that blend to sustain them well beyond their time with us.
Hilary Flanagan is the Executive Director of Career Engagement at Seattle University. With almost 20 years of progressive leadership in the higher education career development environment, Hilary is as passionate as ever about helping college students during this important stage of their lives. She has a strong track record for leading dynamic teams on campuses in an ever-changing professional landscape, as well as collaborative leadership involvement in regional and national associations. She received her undergraduate degree from the United States Coast Guard Academy and proudly served in the United States military before transitioning to higher education. She received her graduate degree at the University of Maine in Student Development in Higher Education. As Executive Director, she has the joy and privilege of working every day with the amazing change agents within the Seattle University Career Engagement Office. When not working, Hilary can be found training for and competing in triathlons, exploring new cuisines and cultures at home and abroad, or spending time with her expansive and lively family.