‘Acting’ is Not an Act: Lessons Learned by an AVP

my time as
acting AVP, I learned
that thick skin and an
ability to not take things
personally were also

Melanie V. ThompsonMelanie V. Thompson

By Melanie V. Thompson, EdS, assistant VP for student services at Northern Illinois University

In September I become the assistant VP (AVP) for student services, having served as “acting” AVP for 14 months.

Within our leadership team, the joke was always, “Why don’t they teach us this in graduate school?” on how best to navigate an acting role.

Whether responding to student crises, campus politics or personnel challenges that came up during the acting role, I learned multiple valuable lessons from my acting role.

With few classes and little literature available on the challenges of taking on an “acting” role in higher education below the presidential level, I relied on a trusted mentor, colleagues, friends and family to figure out how to navigate an “acting” role with respect, grace and a focus on being student-centered.

Here are seven lessons that I learned in my 14 months.

• Weigh the Pros and Cons of the Acting Role

I was offered the acting AVP slot just one month after the then VP had accepted the presidency at another school and two of the AVPs had moved up to VPs elsewhere. While it was exciting to see our leaders win national recognition, it was intimidating to consider trying to fill part of the void so quickly through an acting appointment.

I was aware that my division was shaken up; the uncertainty was palpable on a daily basis. I had to think seriously about how I could contribute and question how I would help bring stability in an acting capacity.

Additionally, I had to evaluate what it would feel like to fill the role for a year, knowing I might not be chosen to continue. And, it might be challenging to supervise those who had been my peers the day before.

To accept the acting role in these circumstances would take finesse, thoughtfulness and respect. Not for a moment did I consider refusing it.

For me, the overriding pro of taking the position was gaining a year’s experience as an AVP, the type of position to which I aspired. My acting contract allowed me to return to my former position if I did not become the AVP permanently, so it felt like a win-win situation.

One of the biggest cons for me was feeling that I was leaving unfinished business as a director, my having been on campus for only two years. I’d worked hard to advance the department and I had to accept that progress in improving student access might slow while I was in the acting role.

• Don’t Just Act

Having successfully navigated an acting role once before, I’d learned that it can be tough to come to work feeling as if you’re being interviewed every day.

I’d also learned that colleagues may feel entitled to share their thoughts about your candidacy, favorable or not, often making assumptions as to whether or not you’ll get the permanent position.

I also knew that campus culture can affect the success or failure of internal candidates, which may have very little to do with their strengths or skill set.

Having already learned these lessons, I made a commitment not to “act” but to ”be” the AVP, to the extent I could. This meant focusing on doing the work and being student-centered, rather than on whether I’d become the permanent AVP.

This was not as easy as it sounds.

In an acting role, limitations relate to the uncertainty of permanence in the position. Long-term decisions may need to be deferred. So I focused on what I could accomplish during my appointment, considering what was essential for the departments in my Community of Practice, best for students and doable in a limited time.

I put aside desires to leave my mark on the position, knowing I’d have the chance later if I became the permanent AVP.

This is not to say that I embraced the status quo. I had to be mindful of what I could accomplish in a limited period of time, and make sure that I was setting up the Community of Practice and the division for long-term success, regardless of whether I remained in the position.

During my time as acting AVP, I learned that thick skin and an ability to not take things personally were also critical. Some people will question decisions and discredit actions made by those in acting roles. Those same people may very well do the same thing to those not in acting roles.

Before accepting the acting role, I’d asked why I was offered it. One reason was because I’d shown that I could make tough decisions. Holding on to that feedback was helpful as I navigated difficult situations in the acting role—knowing that continuing to make tough decisions was expected of me.

• Know Your Professional Identity

One of my most challenging transitions early in the acting role was refocusing my professional identity. Having spent most of my time in higher education working with students with disabilities, I’d become involved nationally, presenting and holding leadership roles.

Just weeks before accepting the acting role, I had been approached about writing a chapter for a book about disability in higher education and I had been elected to a national board of directors, two accomplishments I was extremely proud of.

But in accepting the acting appointment, I was encouraged to develop other components of my professional identity, to broaden my involvement.

I was challenged to imagine the interview process, should I get the opportunity, and asked how I would talkabout what I had done while in the acting role. Should I talk about what I still did that was disability-related or provide examples outside my area of expertise?

Intuitively this made sense to me, but reframing my identity was more challenging than I’d anticipated. As acting AVP, I could say yes to students sometimes when others had said no. But I also could do things like remove students from campus or uphold their conduct sanctions.

Now I had to reframe my view of my role as an advocate, shifting from a specialist to a generalist, and I addressed gaps in my knowledge, moving from depth in a few areas to breadth in many areas.

• Negotiate Expectations

Becoming an AVP was my career goal after completing my doctorate. So it was not a difficult decision to accept the acting offer while still in my doctoral program.

What was difficult was determining how to balance the transition into a new professional role with my already existing commitments and obligations, and negotiating that in a way that worked for both my supervisor and for me. I agreed to take fewer courses and let go of some professional commitments in order to focus on the transition, position and division.

Only a few months into my acting appointment, I was asked to stay for a second year in the role. While a one-year appointment had been an easy decision, a twoyear one was more challenging.

What could be the ramifications to my career if I held a position for two years and then returned to a director’s position? How would I navigate decision-making with an extended, though still limited, time frame? What was the trickledown effect of continuing in an acting role, which would affect multiple positions in the former department where I had been director?

I approached the offer of a second-year acting appointment much differently than I did the first. For example, I negotiated expectations about the search process and about returning to my previous level of coursework. While having a second year of experience as an AVP was enticing, its uncertainty for two years gave me pause.

• Have a Personal Transition Plan

I spent the few weeks before starting my acting role by reading about and preparing a transition plan. Looking back, it was not nearly extensive enough.

While I factored in ways to address transition components I knew, I repeatedly found myself wondering how I could have prepared better for things I‘d never before encountered. Next time I’ll spend more time thinking about how I’d tackle certain aspects of the anticipated new role.

I didn’t factor in how the ambiguity of the role would affect my ability to set and obtain goals. For example, I was unable to make long-term personnel decisions; I also didn’t factor in how to separate myself from my previous role, to which I’d return if I didn’t become the permanent AVP.

Additionally, I didn’t consider how my understanding of the campus culture had been shaped by my experience as a director. Although I navigated these factors through communication and collaboration, if I’d planned ways to address these factors on the front end then I’d have minimized some frustrations and met some expectations more effectively.

• Politics Always Exist

A unique challenge of being appointed to an acting role is that the campus community doesn’t get the satisfaction of vetting the candidate. Often the search process for AVP level positions allows constituencies to have a voice; but appointing someone to an acting role means those voices may feel unheard.

Politically that can be challenging for the acting person. Others may assume that the internal acting appointee knows the institutional politics and will function just like the former one. A search process allows campus constituencies to make more informed assumptions.

In my acting role, I very quickly had to become highly attuned to campus politics. A few people thought they could “get” something from me that they were unable to “get” from former administrators.

On a few occasions it was assumed that being in an acting role, I would defer or make the same decision as former administrators. I found it a consistent challenge to decide when to stand my ground and when to try something new, to avoid alienating those who may be asked later whether I was able to do the job on a permanent basis.

• It Takes a Team

While serving as acting AVP, I had many highs and lows. Personally and professionally, I was challenged in ways I had never expected. What kept me going on many days was working with a team of real professionals.

As a director, I often had been the one making daily decisions. I was used to forming a plan before taking action.

But as acting AVP, I was more often managing information, helping those above and below me to make decisions. Times of crisis require taking action even while forming a plan. Without a solid team, this would have been incredibly difficult.

Having developed a strong reputation prior to the acting appointment, I had earned some grace that an external hire wouldn’t have had. While I didn’t take it for granted, it allowed me some wiggle room that I otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Now that I’m no longer acting, I can see that even more clearly. Although being an internal candidate for a position while in an acting role brought some difficult moments, working with other members of the leadership team made those difficult moments bearable.

Since becoming the AVP, I’ve been asked if I would take another acting role in the future. My short answer is “Yes, I would.” I’d be a hypocrite to say otherwise. Although this is not the case for everyone, taking on an acting role has worked favorably for me both times.

Should the opportunity present itself again, these lessons learned will help me to navigate the process even better. I hope they can help you too.

Reach her at: 

 Thompson, Melanie. (2013, November). IN HER OWN WORDS: 'Acting' is Not an Act: Lessons Learned by an AVP. Women in Higher Education, 22(11), 19-20.

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