Hard Won Tips for Moving Into Administration

“Mental health really is teaching. It involves communication, problem solving and identifying strengths,” she told WIHE. It was the perfect background for college administration.

On August 1, 2005, psychology program director and associate professor Michelle Majewski became chair of the Social and Behavioral Science division of Marian College in Fond du Lac WI. Just 88 days later, at the Wisconsin Women in Higher Education Leadership (WWHEL) conference in October, she shared tips she wished she’d known sooner.

The first day as division chair she thought, “Piece of cake!” The second day she told her husband her new job was great. Day three started with a 6:15 am meeting; by 9:30 am she was handling a sticky personnel issue. The barrage of day-to-day details have made administrative reality a surprise.

“I’m used to being able to come into the office and get some work done. That came to a screeching halt,” she told WIHE. “I guess I was a little naïve thinking how I would juggle all this.”

She’d been interim chair before but the college is more complicated now. Another difference is that being the “real” chair brings more opportunities to facilitate change.

Before she started teaching at Marian in 1987, she worked in the mental health field. She holds two master’s degrees and is completing a doctorate at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago.

“Mental health really is teaching. It involves communication, problem solving and identifying strengths,” she told WIHE. It was the perfect background for college administration.

Components of leadership

By day 88 as chair, the day she spoke at WWHEL, she still liked the job but found many challenging aspects. She found eight factors were key to effective leadership:

  • Communication
  • Holding others accountable
  • Having a vision and agenda
  • Anticipating issues
  • Problem solving
  • Competence
  • Mentoring
  • Credibility

Effective leadership in higher education is a matter of perception, with no commonly accepted definition. Studies of the role of gender in leadership perceptions reached conflicting and ambiguous results. One thing is clear: “We know women have to do a better job,” she said.

What kind of leader do you want to be? Contemplating her new role as chair, she knew she didn’t want to be disen-gaged, demanding or psycho. She made notes on the models set by the good bosses she’s had.

Like her teaching, her administrative leadership revolves around relationships and helping people to think about things differently. “My therapy used to be with children but now I work with adults,” she said.

Her top tip for women moving to administration: Learn from your mistakes and stay flexible. You don’t have to be perfect. “Striving for perfection only produces more stress,” she said.

Communication and feedback

Gender differences in communication style—the topic of several bestsellers—don’t always serve women well as leaders. Check in with yourself to see if your style needs work.

Can you be direct and open, or does speaking directly give you the willies? Women may try to be kind with words that soften their message or cancel out a negative with a positive. This ambiguity makes it hard for the listener to grasp your real point.

Are you transparent—what you say is what you do? You want to inspire trust. Trust depends on predictable behavior; you wouldn’t trust a hairdresser you couldn’t predict. Can people trust you to match actions to words, or do you carry hidden agendas and withhold key information?

Are your emotions on your sleeve? Crying works against you at the office. As problems arise, shift your response from emotion (“I’m so angry and frustrated!”) to a practical search for solutions.

About 80% of communication is nonverbal. Get feedback on how people perceive you, using these guidelines from Joan Goldsmith and Kenneth Cloke in The Art of Waking People Up:

1. Ask. The first step in getting feedback is to request it.

2. Listen. You don’t have to agree but you do have to listen. Take an open posture. Use active, empathic and re-sponsive listening techniques.

3. Check for accuracy. Measure what you’re hearing against your experience and other people’s memories.

4. Lower your defenses. Set aside your anger and defensiveness. You need to be able to take in bad news and the speaker needs to feel safe giving it. Keep asking, “What else?”

5. Clarify. Ask questions to make sure you understand.

6. Keep eye contact. If eye contact is culturally appropriate but the speaker keeps looking around, say “You look un-comfortable” and let her know you’ll listen.

7. Summarize. Recap key points to show you’ve heard.

8. Identify solutions. Discuss ways you could change behavior to improve problem areas.

9. Get help. Enlist collaboration in making desired changes.

10. Digest. Take some time to think about the feedback and the interests of the person who delivered it.

11. Reframe. Put your understanding of the feedback into your own words, so it becomes yours.

12. Thank. State your appreciation for the speaker’s honesty and caring.

13. Offer to reciprocate . Ask if she’ll accept feedback from you in return.

Having modeled how to receive feedback sets the tone for giving it. The steps are similar. Be direct and honest in a reassuring tone of voice. Include positives, saying “yes, and” instead of “yes, but.” Request and listen to reactions.

Monitor your emotional involvement. In using “I” statements, women need to shift from “I feel” toward less emotional verbs like “I believe,” “I observe,” “I know,” “I perceive” and “I think.”

Wrap up with an action plan, an offer to help and a word of appreciation. Make sure you both leave the room with the same understanding of who does what next. Follow up by putting it in writing.

Accountability, vision and more

Communication was just one of the many areas of challenge. She shared tips for handling other components of leadership as well.

Holding others accountable. Clarify roles and responsibilities and establish clear expectations. Replace wishful thinking with specific written agreements about who will do what. This applies to you too, not just to others. “Many women take on too many things to do but then something slides off the table,” she said.

Meet periodically to check on progress and see if someone needs help. Tracking software can help you follow each part of a project. When someone gets off track, remember that her behavior has some purpose; figure out what she’s striving for and you’ll be better able to help.

Having a vision and agenda. Majewski thought about her vision for the life she wanted. Leadership also requires a vision for the group or program you lead. To get from vision to agenda, ask:

  • What goals are important to you?
  • What specific behaviors will lead to these goals?
  • What is your plan for implementation?

Anticipating issues. Whether you’re talking about individuals, groups or organizations, the best way to predict future behavior is to look at the past. Look for patterns in past behavior as a guide for what to expect.

Problem solving. “A problem well-defined is a problem half solved,” she said. Sure, problems are a pain. Work toward reasoned solutions—with input from stakeholders—rather than basing your actions on anger or frustration. 

Competence. Develop the skills to do the job, or the job you hope to hold in the future. Skills for administrative leadership include:

  • Budgeting
  • Hiring
  • Strategic planning
  • Legal issues
  • Contracts

Administrators deal with policy at a level faculty can largely ignore. “I take my faculty/staff handbook home with me,” she told WIHE.

Mentoring. Seek out a mentor. Get several! They’ll have different strengths and approaches, so you can learn something from each. Develop an agenda with each mentor for working together to build your experience and skills.

Credibility. “Just having the title doesn’t mean anything unless you’re the queen of England,” she said. Sincerity and follow-through count for more than the sign on the door. If you have all the other components, credibility will follow.

Contact Michelle Majewski at: mmajewski@mariancollege.edu or 920.923.8132.

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