The First 90 Days: A Critical Period for Women Leaders

will notice how
you engage politically,
how you communicate and
how you handle the budget
when different divisions
lobby for money.

Dr. Kimberlie GoldsberryDr. Kimberlie Goldsberry

Starting a new job? Consider these words from Michael Watkins in his book, The First 90 Days (2003):

Transitions are periods of opportunity, a chance to start afresh and to make needed changes in an organization. But they are also periods of acute vulnerability, because you lack established working relationships and a detailed understanding of your new role.

Women on campus can learn from his observation of corporate situations. Shelia Burkhalter, associate VP of student affairs at the University of Baltimore MD, and Dr. Kimberlie Goldsberry, dean of students at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware OH, spoke at the NASPA annual conference in Phoenix in March 2012 on “The First 90 Days for Women—Imagining the Opportunities.”

They met in January 2008 at NASPA’s biennial Alice Manicur Symposium for women in student affairs. In the next two years each took on a new role at a new school, where both felt the first 90 days was a time of intensive learning.

How Burkhalter got there

As an undergraduate at Southeast Missouri State University, Burkhalter was a resident assistant and assistant hall director. She hoped to be a reporter on Capitol Hill but working for a local newspaper left her unfulfilled. She returned to Southeast Missouri State and then landed a job as residence hall director at Millikin University in Decatur IL.

After a job fair she decided to go for a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington, where she got more work experience. During a series of student life positions at Loyola College MD, Michigan State University and Bowling Green State University OH, she married.

Family shapes women’s careers more often than men’s. She was the trailing spouse when they moved in 2005 to the University of Arkansas–Fayetteville. There she directed first-year experience programs, had a baby, assumed the care of an ailing parent and enrolled in the university’s blended-delivery MBA program, where she learned the language of the bottom line.

She was ready to rest, but others nominated her for jobs. Her mentors urged her on. She attended the Manicur Symposium in 2008 and two years later became associate VP at the University of Baltimore. Her husband now works at George Mason University VA, 60 miles away.

How Goldsberry got there

“I was a super-involved student at Bowling Green State University,” Goldsberry said of her undergraduate years in northwestern Ohio. Active in Alpha Phi and the Ohio Student Education Association, she served on the school’s Pan-Hellenic Council, orientation board, homecoming committee and senior programming board.

She graduated in 1990 with a master of science in secondary education. She stayed two more years at Bowling Green to complete a master’s degree in college student personnel.

After state university jobs at Bowling Green and Oakland University MI, she worked in private religious universities. Her 13 years at Xavier University in Cincinnati OH brought constant change, with seven offices and four position titles, ending as executive director of student involvement.

“I actively resisted getting a PhD,” she said. A finalist in lots of higher-level job searches without receiving an offer, she bowed to necessity. Working toward her 2007 PhD in higher education at Ohio State University was simplified by her not having a family. She went to NASPA’s Manicur Symposium the next year, where she met Burkhalter, and in 2009 became dean of students at Ohio Wesleyan University.

Laying the foundation

What’s the big deal about the first 90 days? For a woman in a campus leadership position, plenty.

First impressions. Strong women aren’t always welcomed at a male-dominated school. Passionate women should beware of playing into stereotypes. “Be aware of being seen as emotionally over the top,” she said. Practice temperance and apply your emotional intelligence. Watch how other women operate. The catch: If a strong woman acts demure, others treat her as weak.

Credibility. They’ve interviewed you and seen your credentials; they know you’re qualified. The questions are about the fit. Both your personal and professional relationships matter. Your dress, hairstyle and personal life will get special scrutiny. If you look young for your position, especially as a woman, they’ll wonder if you can hold your own.

Foundation for the future. You have to get up and running quickly. “The information overload is overwhelming,” she said. Besides the official policies, you need to learn the unofficial ones that nobody thinks to mention. People will notice how you engage politically, how you communicate and how you handle the budget when different divisions lobby for money.

Expectations and standards. These are confusing at best. She asked many people the same question and got different answers each time. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle without a picture of the final goal,” she said.

Burkhalter suggested women maximize their first 90 days as a leader. “Having a plan, deliverables and deadlines greatly increases the possibility that you will accomplish something meaningful,” she said.

She also sought to help women colleagues “raise their awareness that factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, education level, family status and other factors can impact the tenor of their first 90 days in positive, negative and/or meaningful ways.”

By being prepared for these possibilities, women can be proactive, diminish stress and prepare to respond rather than react so that they can stay on task, she said.

Family, race and gender

Even though Burkhalter’s spouse worked at the University of Arkansas, she was seen as a single mom because she brought her daughter to campus. Her boss tried to support her but they had to avoid perceptions of special treatment.

Much younger than her colleagues, she has a six-year-old while their kids (if any) are in their 20s. Her husband now works at the other end of the Beltway.

She’s one of just two African American women on the cabinet, although her university serves nontraditional urban students (37% minority) who see her as representing them. Others perceive her as an advocate for minority students. “I’m noticed more because of my ethnicity,” she said. If she misses a meeting, she gets a harsher reaction than her colleagues.

She also draws attention by her passion, which can trigger stereotypes. Students mentioned how her facial expression communicates emotion, so she now strives to present data factually with less subjective show of feeling.

Varied circumstances

All new jobs are not equal. If you moved from a different school, as they both did, you have more to learn and more new relationships to form. If you are promoted from within, you have more baseline knowledge but more baggage to overcome and relationships to redefine.

Perhaps you were brought in to shake things up, or to keep things running smoothly or to take a school or unit in a new direction. Each involves a different set of challenges and opportunities.

Watkins described four scenarios:

Start-up. Challenges include building systems from scratch and welding a high-performing team with limited resources. Opportunities: You can do it right from the start, not limited by precedent or rigid ways of thought. People around you are excited by the possibilities.

Turnaround. Being hired to fire people is not much fun. Employees and others are demoralized, budget and personnel cuts are painful and you often have to act quickly. On the plus side, in a turnaround situation everyone knows that change is necessary. A little success can go a long way, and external support may come from others who want your school or program to survive.

Realignment. When deeply ingrained cultural norms no longer serve the mission, it’s a challenge to redirect the focus and culture. You’ll need to restructure the top team and persuade faculty and staff that change is necessary. Opportunities lie in existing pockets of strength and peoples’ desire to see themselves as successful.

Sustaining success. You face a different sort of challenge when you inherit someone else’s team and live in your predecessor’s shadow. You need to play a good defense to avoid creating problems and still find ways to take your unit up to the next level. Opportunities abound: People are strongly motivated and foundations are in place for success.

Whatever your situation, you’ll find opportunities and challenges galore. Expect the unexpected. Assess your team to see whom you need to keep. Encourage other women and give them the information they need. “Women should not feel alone on this journey,” Goldsberry said.

Contact Burkhalter at or 410.837.4271
Goldsberry at  or 740.368.3135

Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2012, July). The First 90 Days: A Critical Period for Women Leaders. Women in Higher Education, 21(7), 1-2. 

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