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.

Preparing for an especially busy term

I knew, going into this academic year, that my year would be especially busy. Between stepping into the STEM Director role, finishing my 3 year stint as the director of a cohort program, and teaching one more course than I should be due to a staffing shortage in my department, the year was going to be full, no matter what. I knew Winter Term, in particular, would be especially chaotic — several rounds of grant applications to review (and grant funds to award) in STEM, the selection of next year’s cohort in the cohort program, the selection of a new director for the cohort program, and tenure track hiring in my department. And despite my best efforts to avoid this scenario, my heaviest teaching term — 2 of my 4 courses this year — falls, you guessed it, in Winter Term.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve had a similarly full term — Winter 2016, to be exact, when I was teaching an overload, chairing a department, and chairing a tenure track search. That term almost broke me, even with my hyperfocus on self-care that term.

And while my schedule is what my schedule is, and I can’t control the number of responsibilities I have, I can control my approach. And, as I learned in Winter 2016, and in Winter 2019 when I had a challenging term despite advocating for a lighter term to deal with an expected heavy set of responsibilities, controlling my approach is crucial to maintaining my mental health.

Over at Dynamic Ecology yesterday, Meghan Duffy posted about her strategies for successfully dealing with a busy fall semester. The post contains excellent advice — blocking off time, saying no, etc. — advice that I will definitely borrow during this period of overwork. I’m also taking a few additional steps, to meet my responsibilities in as sustainable a way as possible.

First, I’ve modified the way I plan for the term. I tend to set research goals for the term at the start of each term, to keep myself on track and to keep myself from bailing on research, or spending my research time unproductively, when things get busy. I sketch out everything on my calendar for the next 10 weeks. But this term, there’s just too much to wrap my head around. So I’m only planning a month at a time, to prevent myself from getting too overwhelmed.

Second, I’m putting off interesting but not time-sensitive projects. I decided not to meet a conference paper deadline next week, because I can submit to the same conference in a few months and get feedback then. I’m fortunate in that I am not likely to be scooped in the interim, and I’ll be able to more fully concentrate on the paper starting in mid-March. I’d also originally thought about revamping the assignments in one of my classes to revolve around datasets, but decided that while this would be an interesting and worthwhile use of my time, it didn’t need to happen now. (“It doesn’t need to happen now” is kind of becoming my mantra this term…) I have a couple of research projects that I’ll move forward in smaller steps this term, but the bigger pushes forward will have to wait until Spring Term.

Third, I’m hyperfocusing on managing my energy levels. Monday was the first day of classes, and by the end of my first class I had very little left in the tank. And I still had another 70 minute class to teach! It also didn’t help that I still had some prep to do in between the two classes, so by the time the second class was over, I felt nearly catatonic. Lesson learned: No class prep can happen in between classes — I need to use that time to replenish my energy. This is especially important as an introvert, since teaching two courses means a lot more people time. I also want to experiment for a couple of weeks with upping my sleep. I normally get 7 hours, but my gut tells me that I’ll need 7.5, if not 8, hours of sleep to optimally function given everything on my plate. I need to move some things around and really restrict the time I spend on, say, social media, to make this work, but I’m willing to try.

Perhaps most difficult for me, I am embracing the art of delegating. One of my biggest strengths is the amount of self-motivation I possess. One of my biggest weaknesses is that this self-motivation tricks me into thinking “I’ll just do X, too.”, even when there’s no time for X. Additionally, being the truly effective leader I aspire to be means giving others control and responsibility, giving them guidance, and then getting out of their way. This term, I literally can’t do everything, so delegation is a must — both at work and at home. I need to ask for help. So I will ask for help. Even if internally, I’m cringing at the thought of “imposing” on someone with my ask.

Finally, I’ve decided to embrace the suck. Yes, it’s a difficult term. Yes, I have too much to do. What can this experience teach me about setting and maintaining boundaries? What can I learn about prioritizing? I’ll be meeting and interacting with a lot of new people — what can they teach me? How can I use my experiences, as painful as they might be in the moment, as part of my professional growth? Having so much on my plate means many opportunities to learn and grow, as a leader, a colleague, a mentor, and a professor. I want to take advantage of this unique time.

Are you staring down an especially busy time period, at work or in life? What strategies are you using to make it manageable? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

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).

Thoughts on moving into academic leadership, part 1

I’ve alluded to a significant change in my work life in my posts for a few months now. I’ve shared the news with those who know me in real life (which, for all I know, is the entire readership of this blog anyway, ha ha), but I’ve been a bit quiet about it on the blog, because I wanted to do a full post about my thoughts behind this transition and not just drop the news.

Starting next year, I will be Director of STEM at Carleton.

This is a 3 year, essentially half-time administrative position. This means that except for next year, I will teach 3 courses instead of 5. (Due to complicated staffing/leave issues in my department, I’m taking one for the team next year and teaching 4 courses.) Teaching-wise, this isn’t a huge change for me, since I’ve been in various positions with course releases continuously since 2013. And in 2012 I had a term of parental leave, so it’s been a looooong time since I’ve taught 5 courses in a year.

This position is brand new as of this year (we have an acting director now). The position codifies a reality we’ve faced for a while: the sciences don’t exist in a bubble. We share resources: grant initiatives, student research funds, classroom space. We have similar agendas, and face similar issues around student achievement and career readiness and broadening participation. We do research that crosses disciplinary boundaries. We want our students to contribute in positive ways to the campus, local, state, national, and global communities via academic civic engagement. And starting this coming fall, we will all share a new science facility.

This last piece — the new science facility — is the catalyst for the change. Moving into a new physical space presents a golden opportunity to rethink and reimagine our relationships to each other, as departments and programs, as people, as disciplines, as scholars and teachers. The new facility was designed for collaboration and sharing; how can we ensure that we all have a collaborative and sharing mindset?

To that end, a handful of us met last year to work through different models of coordination among the sciences. How could each department and program’s voices be represented? Who should, and how should they, coordinate the shared resources, ideas, and initiatives? How should we develop a vision for the future of the sciences at Carleton, and who should direct and guide that vision, and represent it to the dean (who ultimately makes the decisions)? We developed a couple of models and put them up to a vote among the science faculty and staff. The model that “won” features a representative board of science faculty and staff from each department and program, a staff person to serve as program manager for the day-to-day details (whom we are currently hiring), and a faculty member to serve as the director or “vision point person” for the whole enterprise, working with the dean and the program manager and the board to make this vision a reality.

When the call went out for the STEM Director position, I’d just started participating in the HERS Institute, a leadership program whose goal is to get more senior women into administrative roles within academia. I’d been contemplating a move to administration for some time and because of my HERS participation, I’d started to think about what a good first move in this direction might look like. The part-time nature of the STEM Director position appealed to me as a way to “try out” academic administration, in a space that also allows me to think about things I’m passionate about, like interdisciplinarity, broadening participation, inclusion, student/faculty collaborations, and academic civic engagement, on a larger scale. So I put my name in for consideration….and the rest is history.

I’ve been sitting in on the STEM board meetings this term, to get a sense of how the board operates. At this week’s meeting, we’ll be setting an agenda for next year. I’m excited to hear what the board feels our priorities should be, and eager to have some time this summer to reflect on how to help bring those to fruition. The dean, present director, and I have started brainstorming about public, creative ways to introduce the new space to the community, as well as how to start off with communal and community-building events among the sciences. My HERS leadership project (more on that in my next post!) examined ways to build community in the new space in ways that are welcoming, inclusive, and thoughtful, and how this might extend to other collaborations beyond those in physical space.

I’m excited, and more than a bit nervous, about some of the challenges I’ll be facing. New buildings bring new, unforeseen problems, and while half of the sciences are moving into the space in the fall, construction continues in the rest of the space. How do we navigate around the physical limitations of the building? And how do we ensure that our community building welcomes all of the sciences, including the ones not physically in the building until the following year? The fact that this is a brand new position also brings challenges: we’ve outlined, to the best of our abilities, what the position entails, but what does it really entail? What are the unwritten rules and expectations? What did we forget to anticipate? I’ll get to shape this role as I occupy it, and that’s both exciting and terrifying. On a personal note, what will happen to the research I’m doing with my student collaborators, and my work on academic civic engagement in CS? I’ll have to figure out how I can carve out space for those, and what that looks like over the next few years.

In my next post (Part 2 of this special mini-series on academic leadership), I’ll talk more about my HERS Institute participation and what lessons I’m taking from that as I move into this role.