My HERS experience

(This is the second post in a series of posts on moving into academic leadership. Part one, in which I talk about my move into an academic leadership post next year, is here.)

I perused the brief bios of the 60+ women in my HERS cohort one sunny September afternoon with an increasing feeling of dread. How on earth did I, an unaccomplished hack and imposter, fool the admissions committee so badly?

I was preparing that afternoon for my first of 4 residential weekends at the HERS Institute. The HERS Institute is a leadership program whose purpose is to prepare women for higher education leadership positions, and to increase the number of women in such positions. There are three such offerings each year: 2 residential offerings over the summer, and a year-long one at Wellesley College, which is the one I attended. I’d originally applied to one of the summer offerings, was waitlisted, and then encouraged to apply for the year-long one, where I was accepted. (In retrospect, I think I got way more out of the institute by spreading it out over an academic year, a point I’ll address later on.)

I expected the HERS Institute to give me a taste of what academic leadership was like, to help me figure out if academic leadership was a viable career path for me, and to teach me the tools I’d need to achieve a leadership position and succeed once there. HERS delivered on all fronts. I hate throwing the word “transformative” around, since I think it’s way overused, but in this case “transformative” definitely describes my experience with the institute.

Here, I’ll break down the key aspects of the institute and what I took away from each.

The cohort

While there are many, many aspects of the HERS program I found valuable, perhaps the most valuable were the connections I made with women leaders from other campuses. My HERS cohort ran the spectrum: large schools, tiny schools; public schools, private schools; seasoned leaders, people testing the waters; pretty much every academic discipline represented; extreme extroverts, extreme introverts. The diversity of experiences lent itself to spirited conversations and discussions. You don’t realize how insulated you become at your institution, forgetting that schools that are very different from yours may share more similarities with yours than you think, and that some of your ways of operating might be a little, er, messed up. Perspective is key!

It’s easy for an introvert to get lost in such a large and dynamic group of women. HERS divided us into cohorts in various ways — institution type, current role, career aspirations, etc — and shuffled us among these groups over the course of each weekend (“your table for this session is your similar institution group”, etc). I felt a palpable sense of relief when I walked in, heart pounding, that first morning to find myself at a small table of 5 women from small undergraduate institutions, and warmly greeted by a fellow scientist from the midwest. I especially looked forward to the times we spent in our “similar roles” cohort, a quirky mix of personalities that managed to find the humor in even the toughest conversations.

Now, when I’m facing a tough situation at work, I often think back to “what would So-and-So do in this situation? didn’t Person X deal with something like this and talk about it in our group?” I go back to my notes to see who else is working on a project similar to mine. I keep in touch with my 60+ new friends on Facebook and our listserv, providing insights and advice, congratulating people on new positions, and asking for help. I value these connections and relationships greatly and look forward to continuing to cultivate them for years to come.

The curriculum

The HERS curriculum is roughly equal parts personal and institutional. Each Institute has a theme (ours was “People of Power and the Power of People”) and each weekend had a particular focus (examples: communication, leading through change, critical higher ed topics, career paths). We heard from experts, worked through exercises and case studies, spent time in self-reflection, talked in small groups, and talked in larger groups. We learned about leadership models and change frameworks. I now feel competent enough to read and interpret financial statements. We grappled with how to have difficult and crucial conversations, about social justice and race and difference and Title IX, about inclusivity and who has a voice. I left with a better appreciation for and understanding of enrollment management and athletics and how each contributes to and reflects the mission of the institution.

We had homework before each weekend — targeted readings and some kind of individual work (a worksheet, a reflective exercise, an assessment). I still refer back to the readings on a regular basis. Our big, multi-month homework assignment was to interview all of the senior officers on our campuses (president, deans, CFO, directors of admissions and development, etc) to discover what our institution’s “story” is, and report out on that. Truth be told, I DREADED this assignment, but found it one of the most fascinating and enjoyable parts of my experience. The senior officers were so generous with their time, candid with their thoughts, and honest about our institution’s strengths and weaknesses. It was a true gift to converse with them, and I have a much better understanding of our institution as a result — and feel much better equipped to step into the leadership fabric of the institution.

Higher education institutions and the issues they face are large, complex, and many-faceted. The curriculum gave me the tools to navigate this landscape. I’ve already used specifics from readings and case studies in my own work. The curriculum also helped me get clear on my own priorities and values, which will center the way I lead. (Interestingly, I’m working my way through Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead right now, and it definitely complements the personal work I did at HERS.) Most importantly, it’s equipped me to be a better observer and participant at my own institution, to ask better questions, and to connect the dots more easily (“oh, THAT’s why that senior leader responded in that way to that comment.”).

Going into HERS, I worried about the distributed structure, spread over months. Would I become detached as life intervened between weekends? In retrospect, spreading this over the year allowed me valuable time to reflect on, and process, the material, and integrate it immediately into my work. I could try out and try on frameworks and practices to see if they fit, figuring out how best to modify things for my situation and values. This was especially important coming out of one of the tougher weekends, where it seemed like every topic and discussion was weighty and difficult — the space was vital to process the conversations, read further and deeper on the underlying issues, and clarify my principles. The “small intense doses” version of HERS worked well for me!

The practice: Leadership project

The HERS Institute has its own capstone project: a self-defined “leadership project” that addresses some need at your institution. The leadership project proposal is part of the application process. The project itself is fairly open-ended, acknowledging that all institutions and situations are unique and changing — participants have quite a bit of leverage in defining the project’s scope and deliverables, and the project can morph over time. While much of the work on this project occurs outside the institute, we did have a few sessions about the projects specifically, and a “similar projects” cohort. Also, it was expected that as you encounter more of the curriculum, you incorporate that into your project where applicable.

Originally, I proposed a project I’ve been working on for a while behind the scenes as my capstone: launching a program involving students in academic civic engagement projects, for academic credit, outside of specific courses, with a computer science aspect. For instance, this could be maintaining and growing projects that came out of a specific course or capstone, or working on projects that don’t neatly fit into a particular course or a ten-week span. When I was selected as the new STEM Director, I shelved my original capstone so that I could work on something more directly related to the role I’ve stepped into. My new project examined ways to build community within our new science complex as we move into the new space over the next year.

The cohort proved valuable in helping me flesh out some of the fuzzier aspects of my original project, particularly around assessment and getting buy-in, and in thinking through my even fuzzier revised project. The project(s) required me to think strategically on many levels, thinking big picture while also getting into the weeds on how I was actually going to do these things. Applying concepts and readings and learnings as I got deeper into the project and the institute really brought the curriculum to life, and brought more clarity to my project and its goals. It was, and still is, difficult and challenging work, but intellectually and personally fulfilling.

Final thoughts

I highly, highly recommend this experience to anyone who’s found themselves in a position of leadership or who’s seriously thinking about taking a leadership path. And not just the traditional department chair/dean path — if you’re directing a program, leading an initiative or important committee, or in any sort of visible and influential role, you’ll find a home in HERS. In addition to the tangible advantages I’ve discussed above, it’s really changed how I approach every aspect of my job, from teaching to scholarship to mentoring, and gotten me clear on who I am and what I stand for.

If you’re thinking about applying, this page has more info. I’m also more than happy to talk about it/answer questions, so shoot me an email (adalal at carleton dot edu).