Higher education as an experience and as an industry is very much a choose your own adventure tale. Whether you are learning or leading – hopefully continuously both – you have endless choices that empower you to define the future of your own life’s journey. Not surprisingly, those choices impact the professional development of others as well, both directly and indirectly.
As we embark on this new year after the historically challenging 2020, today is a perfect day to reflect on the you of right now and make a choice. Is 2021 going to be more of the same or is there room for development? You can choose to either be the leader others hope to be like or be the boss others strive to be better than.
I started working in higher education by accident. At the time, my rearview laden with exceptional past managers and directors, the college president – a female president, no less – stood out as an aspirational figure for me. At that institution, I went from director to chief information officer quickly and unexpectedly. New to c-level leadership, I knew I needed to find someone to hitch my developing star to. Forever painfully self-aware, I recognized my naïveté.
As it turned out, the college president was neither receptive to nor a fan of me. Shocking, right?
Rather than swirling or stagnating, I actively chose to switch gears and focus beyond the president and honed in on my new-to-me academic peers for learning and growing opportunities.
My colleagues helped me learn:
- How to focus on academia and develop relationships with faculty members
- How to build a strong, effective culture and team
- How to reintroduce technology as a service-first standout organization, as opposed to being solely looked at as an operational utility
- How to close the gap and eliminate silos between technology and all other business units, academic areas and students
- How to be a leader and team player, a value-add
I became the leader my institution needed me to be. (The presence most campuses need from their technology leadership still today!)
In tandem, I watched the college president and learned who not to be.
I learned the importance of being a mentor to anyone that asked. I doubled down on my desire to crush gender norms and emulate grace, approachability and effectiveness as a strong female leader. I also internally bottled that crippling feeling of rejection and stored it away as a constant reminder of the depth of impact a leader has on their environment.
Several institutions later and with more professional maturity, I recognize I played a role in that missed opportunity with the college president.
I take ownership of and embrace my missteps and assumptions. I recognize I never approached her with transparency and authenticity. I never informed her that I viewed her as a role model and simply assumed she had the bandwidth to be a support resource for me; that she even knew how. But mostly? I recognize that the leader I’ve lived years trying to not emulate likely inspired the development of the best professional qualities in me.
Find your inspiration
As a leader you will make an impact and that impact will become a part of tomorrow’s leadership DNA – like it or not. People will take your negatives and either embody those negative traits or use them to fuel and further opposite improvements. Imagine the exponential power of exuding positive qualities instead. Your role in tomorrow is your choice.
Strive to emulate or strive to beat? Your leadership presence creates a breadcrumb trail of traits, qualities and competencies that will fuel the next generation’s leadership portfolio. Colleagues will either embrace pieces of your style or choose to be the opposite of what they’ve experienced from your leadership. How do you want to be remembered? You decide. It’s your choice.
It’s never too late to be the leader you wish you’d had. Welcome to 2021 – carpe diem!