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What it Takes to Build the Best Career Center

By Jeremy Podany

Founder and CEO, The Career Leadership Collective

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Probably once a month, I get an email that asks something like, “What does it take to be the best career center in the country?” I currently have one in my inbox from a VP of Advancement who is about to inherit career services and has a potential donor who wants a plan. Sometimes people even ask me for a list of the best career centers.

Of course, most of us are aware of the polls that try their hand at awarding the best, and if you are like me, you have a love-hate with those annual polls…until you get in the top 20 and showcase your glory on Linkedin. Ha! But seriously, they have some merit. Still, the polls often come across as outsiders who are less connected to career services and have to make a ‘field-wide’ value judgment on what defines the best. That is hard to do.

While it is undoubtedly difficult to define the criteria for ‘best’ if you are an outside pollster, it is even more complex when you realize that we are in the era of ‘each institution is unique,’ meaning criteria may vary by institution as to what each values the most. In terms of universal needs, there is definitely a need to measure the first destination outcome, and that is fairly straightforward, but there is more. Measuring career readiness levels is also a need, which is a bit more challenging to assess and define across diverse institutional types. What about broader career outcomes, such as being satisfied five to ten years after graduation or the level of preparation received? Furthermore, is popularity in the career services field part of the equation for being the best? It certainly helps, but to what degree? To be sure, defining ‘BEST’ has many dimensions.

I have had the privilege of dancing with the concept of ‘what is best’ in career services for the last 7 years in our consulting practice, and I have seen good, bad, and ugly up close in the pursuit of it. Therefore, I would like to invite you to dance with me on this concept in a different way.

Since you may have your own definition of best, different from pollsters or popularism, I encourage you to replace ‘best’ with ‘great,’ and to do one thing: Pursue greatness in career services in how your team and your institution define it!

This pursuit will quickly take you into the realms of:

  1. High quality

  2. Transformation

  3. Growth and sustained achievement of metrics and goals

  4. Ubiquitous career readiness across the institution

These are not easy concepts and beg the question: however you define greatness in career services, what does it take to get there?

This is what I spend most of my time on, what it takes. Practical steps. Handling the challenges. Specific how-to's in the midst of change and transformation. Why? The pursuit takes intentionality, strategy, and hard work.

So check your motivation, specify your definition of what is best, and soak up what I believe are the top 10 considerations for setting up your career office with what it takes to become your best!

Seek outstanding advisors You must have many wise outside advisors giving you insights, particularly those who have built great things themselves. All the genuinely outstanding career offices have leaders and leadership teams who spend scads of time learning from great minds and getting counsel about their unique situations.   Be crystal clear about your vision Otherwise, you are not magnetic, and the campus will not get on board. Use fresh words, only a few concepts (as opposed to saying and doing too much), and language that aligns with the strategic direction of institutional leadership. Ruthlessly eliminate efforts that don’t align with your vision.  Be radically student outcomes and equity centric While you can quickly build a few trendy programs, get awards, and get a promotion, none of that equates to being great at career services. It's all about student outcomes and equitable outcomes. Do the hard work to define what you are measuring and build your initiatives around defined metrics. Move beyond counting appointments and identify which metrics meaningfully contribute to career success. Don't build your career center around trends or replicating what everyone else is doing. If you make trends the goal, you will find yourself in an anxious pattern of trying to keep up, not moving the needle on student career success, and focusing on work that is disconnected from your vision and strategy.   Find the money Unfortunately, I have had multiple VPs tell me they want their campus to have a world-class career center but that they have no money and no priority to seek money for it. I kindly tell them this won't work. If you want to be great, outline your plan for when your career center gets $3-5 million dollars and how, specifically, you will transform student career outcomes and related institutional strategic goals with that money. Believe. Then go find the money.   Learn how to communicate like the best When you can present a simultaneously logical and empathic argument about why you believe what you believe about the career services vision…and do it 100 times, you will begin to move the needle. Segment your audiences. Learn how to nuance with different stakeholders. This takes refinement, advice, multiple drafts, and the humility to nail it!   Codify your plan You can’t just brainstorm your way into greatness. People don’t rally behind loosely defined concepts. Do the work of codification of a plan. Work with marketing to showcase your plan so it doesn't sit in a file drawer. Clearly show how your plans with transform student lives. Tell everyone!   Fight for requirements and focus on lasting systems Think about a legacy more than a quick win. Nothing great gets built overnight. You will, of course, need quick wins. However, quick wins are not the end; they are a means to a bigger end. Read everything you can about systemic thinking and seek creative advice about how you can get career services required in some way, in some portions of the student experience. If it’s not required, how can you make career success opt out? It is possible. It is worth it.  Regularly solicit feedback, even if it hurts your ego a little Great offices solicit feedback annually or each semester. If it hurts your ego, your ego will recover, and students will ultimately win. Seek insights by asking questions such as: Where are we not communicating effectively? Where is our brand misunderstood? Let’s disaggregate our data by demographics and be honest about our weaknesses in equity. Where are they? Where and why is it challenging to hook into the campus ecosystem?   Refresh everything, reframe everything, relaunch everything  In my experience with offices that ‘lose steam in their pursuits to become great,’ here is what happens. When it comes to actually communicating about their office, it all sounds like business as usual except for one keyword or phrase and ends up being underwhelming; change leadership comes across as micro. For example: changing the name of the career office without changing anything else will not do much for rallying the campus. Consider a much bigger reframe, refresh, and then a very well-done launch of all your hard work.   Regularly review results I have come to believe that lasting change happens through two things: 1. clarity in communication and 2. A group pursuing actual results. Since you are going to redefine your metrics towards new priorities, commit to showcasing them regularly. Think of results as a 3-5 year journey where many people are at the table helping you move the needle and where there will be ups and downs. Don’t think of them as that dreaded time to look once and to ‘see if it worked.’ You are smart. You have a good plan. Commit, assess, tweak, and walk the path of moving the needle.

One bonus item:

Don’t wait

You will end up waiting forever. Interims, job changes at the top, and new macro issues facing senior administrators will forever be present. Don’t be the campus that waits for what senior leadership thinks or plans. Put the plan on their desk instead and invite their feedback as you keep moving. They want you to think and plan and lead bravely.

Go forth with confidence! Happy innovating! Stay in touch!

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Jeremy Podany | Founder & CEO | The Career Leadership Collective

Jeremy Podany is the Founder and CEO of The Career Leadership Collective, home of The National Alumni Career Mobility Survey and EMBARK. The Career Leadership Collective has done business with over 1,000 colleges and universities since 2017, providing big data and consulting solutions for the systemic career development needs of higher education. Jeremy is an innovation, leadership, and organizational growth connoisseur with niche expertise in the confluence of university career services, systems thinking, leadership, and organizational growth. Jeremy enjoyed nearly 20 years working inside higher education in career services and corporate education and has helped build multiple unique start-ups inside and outside of universities. His inventions and consulting solutions have systemically helped thousands of university leaders and hundreds of thousands of college students with career education and social mobility.


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