top of page

So, You Want to Be a (Great) Career Center Leader

By Jeremy Podany, Founder and CEO of The Career Leadership Collective

illustration of brain and heart connecting.

Career leaders have the exciting opportunity to be system architects, brand leaders, and community developers, all with the mission of helping students realize career success. Yet, the work volume and institutional and personal challenges can quickly lead to burnout or frustration, leaving great leaders wondering if they should stay the course.

One early Thursday morning in 2014, I was pacing anxiously near the whiteboard in my office, writing and then erasing again and again. I had arrived 30 minutes before we opened the Career Center to get ahead of my day as the Executive Director. But I wasn’t getting anything done.

My inbox was overwhelming! Our Career Outcome data had just been misquoted in the student newspaper. One of my leadership team members texted that they needed to vent to me about a campus partner, and I woke up with a kink in my neck - always delightful. To top it off, here was the calendar I was staring at:

  1. Work through budget and finance items in preparation for the student review board meeting. The board had recently expressed a strong desire for no budget increases and some decreases.

  2. A phone call with an upset parent about their child being treated poorly during an internship.

  3. Meet with a committee of campus leaders with varied philosophies about how the campus should use career data in a brand campaign, hoping none of them had read the morning newspaper mistake about our career data.

  4. Coffee with the VP of Advancement to discuss a regional bank aggressively requesting that we guarantee they hire 20 interns a year if they up their donations.

  5. Speak to 150 first-year students about career exploration. . . but I had no time to prepare, so I was going to have to wing it in front of a faculty member who was skeptical about the Career Center's existence.

Image of quote: How was I supposed to be great at my job when so many challenges were regularly being thrown at me?

And that was just my morning. Simply put, I was overwhelmed. I was also vexed. I aspired to be great at my job and to make a real difference. How was I supposed to move my office forward when so many challenges were regularly being thrown at me? I was operating above capacity just to stay afloat.

Anyone who has been doing this for more than a semester knows that leading a career center is not a simple programmatic and advising venture. It requires influencing every type of stakeholder in the campus ecosystem: students, faculty, employers, alumni, donors, deans, prospective students, parents, and your own staff. Many career center leaders have more extensive portfolios, budgets, and potential to influence the student experience than some associate deans, associate vice presidents, and vice presidents. Successful career leaders essentially get an experiential quadruple degree in systems thinking, design thinking, marketing, and community development.

Effectively leading a career center necessitates a deep understanding of the inner workings of how a college campus lives and breathes. And by that, I don't mean getting to know people or names of offices, but rather knowing what motivates them, their Maslow's hierarchy of needs, what scares them, and most importantly, why they do or do not care about or participate in the mission of career development.

Image of a fictional book titles Mastering the Art of Career Services Leadership,

Through my decades of leading career centers and coaching leaders, I have come to realize that leading a Career Center takes more than just understanding best practices. I hear a few familiar refrains as I interact with leaders around the country, and the biggest goes something like this: there is no guidebook for this level of leadership, in this type of complex organization, on a mission of this importance.

I also regularly hear from career leaders about loneliness, pressure due to the volume of work, getting caught in the slow pace of bureaucracy, and wondering if they will ever find the perfect reporting line. Ha!

Commercial break: Much of what I am writing about in this post led us to design our annual Mastermind leadership cohort back in 2018, which has now graduated nearly 150 leaders from every type of higher education institution. I highly recommend it!

Leading a Career Center is the ‘real deal’ of being an agent of hope! It is not for the faint of heart. But wow, it is absolutely worth the challenge! I believe you can overcome or manage the loneliness, volume challenges, bureaucracies, and silos. It won't be easy, but there is a way through, and the fruit of your labor is watching hundreds and thousands of students' careers and lives thrive!

With all of the above dimensions as a backdrop, here are three important recommendations for those who not only want to be a Career Center leader but wish to advance to the ranks of the extraordinary:

Invest time and energy in your own leadership health. Personal leadership stability matters more than tactics, trends, your existing leadership talent, or your ability to woo. When you are healthy, the whole office becomes healthy - leading to all sorts of benefits for students and employers. Take the time to invest in yourself! If you are not doing this, you are at high risk of burnout.  Learn the art of saying no. The volume is no doubt enormous. But you can live more by design and less by default. Learning the art of saying no will dramatically increase your sanity, strategy, trustworthiness, and effectiveness.  Quit trying to change gravity. Many of the problems coming at you are simply unsolvable. There is no need to lose sleep or spend creative energy - they are like gravity - here to stay, unchangeable. Others are long-term problems. Still, others are short-term and quickly solvable issues. My advice: Ask one crucial question when faced with a problem: is this a problem I can solve (and how quickly) or an ongoing tension I need to surround with management strategies?

Keeping these three recommendations in mind, consider the day I described above. Consider developing a practice of not beginning a high-stress day with problems and tasks but by investing in yourself to ensure you have the energy to face the day's challenges. Be realistic about what you can influence and what you cannot. Work hard to keep your eyes and efforts on your biggest goals.

Jeremy Podany


Jeremy Podany is the Founder and CEO of The Career Leadership Collective, a consultancy that has done business with over 1,000 colleges and universities since 2017 on the systemic career development needs of higher education. The Collective is the inventor of the National Alumni Career Mobility (NACM) survey and the EMBARK first destination data service, which were both acquired by Lightcast in 2023.

Jeremy enjoyed nearly 20 years working in higher education, primarily in career services. His inventions and consulting solutions have systemically helped thousands of university leaders and hundreds of thousands of college students with career education and career mobility.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page