Growing pains and trust

My first year in my administrative role as STEM Director was all about figuring out what the hell I’m supposed to be doing. My second year, thus far, has been all about growing pains.

I won’t go into too many details, because the situations themselves are not all that important to the story. In a couple of cases, I angered some colleagues and likely alienated a few others through decisions I made independently — decisions on which I should have sought broader input. In another case, I learned that several other groups within STEM were independently planning an event that I, with a few others, was also planning.

I’ve spent a lot of time this year feeling frustrated. Not at the people involved, whose intentions were good in the latter case and who trusted me enough to give me tough feedback in the former case. (Something I don’t take lightly at all!) But moreso at the situations themselves. Didn’t we, as STEM departments and programs, work hard to put this particular leadership structure of a director and a board in place, because we saw a need for this leadership structure? If that’s the case, then why aren’t departments, programs, and individuals utilizing this structure? Why are departments and programs continuing to act independently on initiatives that could benefit all of STEM at Carleton, and do what I see as unnecessary work, when if we work together through the board we can do so much more?

And then I realized that I’ve been asking myself the wrong questions. The question I should have been asking is this:

How have we failed to establish the trust of the STEM community at Carleton in this new system we put into place?

This particular leadership structure is just over 2 years old. Departments and programs developed habits and systems to work independently, in the absence of habits and systems of working collectively (at least in an organized way), over YEARS. We’d worked together on some initiatives in the past, with shaky alliances. Why now should we magically expect that departments would abandon these habits when we hadn’t yet proved that this system was something they could rely on, that could help them in myriad ways?

I’d forgotten a fundamental lesson from my time at the HERS Institute: The first and most crucial step for a leader is to establish trust.

I’ve been reflecting since then on how to build trust, now that I understand that’s my MAIN role in these early years of the STEM Directorship. There are many paths to building trust, but there are five that I think are most important:

  1. Transparency. My personality is such that I’m not comfortable sharing ideas that I haven’t thought out. I need time to plan before I can share. But this can backfire if I go too far down the planning road before sharing my plans with others. I need to get more comfortable letting people in on earlier stages. And I need to figure out when it’s ok to share a half-baked idea (“we’d like to bring X to campus, but are not sure if we can make it happen”) and when I should flesh things out more carefully before sharing them. In a similar vein:
  2. Delegation. People want to help! My job is NOT to come up with all of the ideas. (Big thanks to the STEM Program Manager, who reminds me of this at least once a week in an attempt to save me from myself.) My job is to put the structure in place that ENABLES others to bring their ideas to life. This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my missteps. Delegation also demonstrates trust in others — I trust you to help realize this vision, bring this initiative to life, share ideas that matter, etc. This leads to:
  3. Empowerment. I need to empower the STEM Board as a whole, and STEM Board representatives in particular, to be agents of change. In the past, board meetings served as a way to share information and perspective from departments and send information back to departments. While this is valuable, it’s too transactional and not transformational. This year, I’ve assigned all of the reps into working groups based on interests, and each group is working on specific and self-defined initiatives related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM at Carleton. These groups are moving us much more quickly from vague ideas of “we would like to make STEM more inclusive and equitable at Carleton” to “here are specific ways in which we will move the needle”, than we would have done otherwise.
  4. Wins. A big part of building trust lies in demonstrating through your actions that you are trustworthy. For the STEM Board, this means putting on successful events and taking concrete actions towards things that matter. For me, this means soliciting input and feedback from others, and then acting on this input and feedback. This one’s still very much a work in progress, but an improving work in progress.
  5. Messaging. Not only do I have to develop trust in this new structure, but as the first full-term director, I need to help the STEM Board develop its identity. Who are we and what do we stand for? What are our priorities and ways of working? The more I can help establish a STEM Board identity, the more smoothly my successor can transition into this role and move STEM at Carleton in new directions.

This is the first time in my career that I’ve had to work hard to establish trust on this large of a scale. At times it’s deeply uncomfortable, requiring me to act in ways that don’t come naturally to me. (See: delegation.) And part of me wishes that I’d figured this out sooner — how much more smoothly might the first year have gone if I’d started by establishing trust? I can’t change the past, but I can start laying the groundwork now for my successor, and for the future of the STEM Board.