Meet Sarah, a development officer. She is persistent. She regularly follows up with donors and stays connected with her portfolio of prospects. She meets with donors frequently, invites them to events, and schedules dinners and coffees with key prospects. This consistent effort means Sarah regularly leads the team of development officers in dollars raised for her institution.
Then everything changes. Sarah’s longtime boss takes a new position at another university. Because of her continued fundraising success, Sarah is named interim director of the department and finds herself managing a team of development officers. Sarah has never had formal leadership training or managed a team of employees. However, because she was good at her fundraising role, she was elevated to manage a team of development officers.
It is a story that for many in advancement is all too familiar—one that many of us have seen or experienced ourselves. This phenomenon offers advancement professionals new leadership opportunities, but many may take on a management role for the first time without formal training or insights on how to lead a team.
As I’ve reflected recently about my own leadership journey, I’ve thought about internal promotions and transitioning to management—and wanted to offer help to new managers. Frankly, I could have used good advice during my initial stint as a manager. The skills of new leaders and middle managers can be overlooked in professional development, but building their abilities is critically important. Providing insight to new leaders is good for our profession and can help them—and their teams and institutions overall—succeed.
Leadership and Turnover in the Great Resignation
Before we get into some lessons in leadership, it’s helpful to look at the current workplace climate. There are more opportunities than ever for advancement employees to move into leadership roles for two major reasons.
First, the Great Resignation is heavily impacting the global workforce. One in five workers globally say they’ll seek new roles in the next year, according to PwC’s May 2022 Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey. In the United States, according to the Department of Labor, nearly 48 million people quit their jobs in 2021. Resignations have increased in the U.K. and across Europe and Australia.
With millions leaving jobs, there are significant vacancies, which creates opportunities for new managers at rates not previously seen before. This is a global trend, and higher education isn’t immune. Ethan Rule, Director of University Marketing at the University of New Mexico in the United States, says that the Great Resignation has made it difficult to acquire talent.
“The biggest challenge I’ve experienced is how competitive the job market is for employers,” he explains. “You have to do a lot to attract the right talent, and in my experience, higher education and public institutions occasionally have a hard time competing.”
Meanwhile, Tyrell Warren-Burnett, Senior Director of Annual Giving at the Oregon State University Foundation, U.S., says his institution is heavily focused on employee satisfaction.
“Like most institutions, we are seeing the effects of the Great Resignation,” he says. “The pandemic has allowed people to rethink what is meaningful for them in how it relates to the work they do and/or how they would like to work. I think no one is exempt from what is happening. The best strategy is to really focus on how to better engage the employers you do have to increase employee satisfaction and increase retention.”
In addition, many members of the baby boomer generation are on the cusp of retirement. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 30 million baby boomers left the job market or retired in the third quarter of 2020. The larger number of retiring baby boomers, coupled with the Great Resignation, means that current employees will be tapped to lead and to help fill these openings.
Advancing into Leadership: How It Happens
As my husband always says, the best reward for doing good work is more work. That seems to be accurate in advancement jobs. Oftentimes, people do a good job in the role they were hired for initially, and when there is an opening, they are tapped to advance into a leadership role.
Lindsay Vahl Dean, Senior Director of Alumni Engagement at Illinois State University, U.S., has been part of the internal promotion process several times.
“As I continued to flourish, that meant receiving increased responsibilities, eventually leading to a role supervising,” says Vahl Dean. “It was certainly a struggle for me because I was positioned to supervise two people who had extensively more life experience than I did, and one of those people supervised me as a student worker.”
To adjust, Vahl Dean had to reestablish relationships with each employee and establish expectations with them.
“[I had to] learn quickly how to navigate tough conversations with an ethic of care and do my best to filter out the noise,” she says.
Advancement into leadership happened in a similar way for Jonathan Cosgrove, Director of Development at University of Melbourne, Australia. He shared how he doubted his abilities for a long time.
“For me, I think that a kind of ‘imposter syndrome’ loomed large for a long time. I couldn’t understand why it was me being chosen to lead. Surely [I thought] there were others better at this than I was,” says Cosgrove. “Over time, I began to realize my leadership approach and style were appreciated. I began to understand more deeply that what I did and how I did it was valued by many others.”
Another way that advancement professionals can step into leadership roles is to change institutions. This is the path that I recently took. After about four years in leadership at Arkansas Tech University, U.S., I was ready for a new challenge. I had learned a bit about myself as a leader and the types of environments that suited me. For my second step in leadership, I no longer needed to learn how to lead. This time, instead, it was about fit: I was looking for an institution that fit my leadership style and for a campus culture that fit me. That led me to take my current role at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
To help support the plethora of managers leading for the first time, I talked with these four managers—Ethan Rule, Tyrell Warren-Burnett, Lindsay Vahl Dean, and Jonathan Cosgrove—about how they have navigated the transition to leadership, and I asked what advice they have for those new in such roles. Here are the common themes and insights that emerged from the conversations.
Find Mentors to Help You Navigate Leadership
Mentors, Vahl Dean shared, offer new managers valuable support as sounding boards. Find both mentors who are at the same managerial level and ones in more senior roles, she suggests.
“It is important you find people who are in peer positions and aspirational positions to mentor you. There’s a need to have a sounding board of someone who understands the dynamics of the work you do but isn’t in your organization,” says Vahl Dean.
Your mentors should meet specific criteria, says Warren-Burnett. He shared these insights on how to select someone to serve as a mentor and why: “I suggest that everyone find mentors that have been in the same shoes that you are stepping into. There have been times where I needed to call on a mentor to ask about how to best handle a situation. They are there to give you honest feedback and guide you along the way.”
Invest in Your Own Development
Rule shared that he believes learning is never finished and modeling that behavior is critical for a leader.
“You can’t expect your team to improve if you aren’t putting time into your own development and modeling that behavior,” he says. “And it doesn’t matter how much you know; you can always learn more.”
Rule and I both schedule time on our calendars each week for personal development. Every Friday afternoon, I have what I call the LMAC meeting, which stands for the “Leave Me Alone Committee.” This is my personal time to read the latest research in marketing, to brainstorm about a challenge, or to spend time thinking about office strategy. For Rule, his professional development time involves reading Harvard Business Review articles, taking courses offered through his own HR office, or asking another leader to mentor him.
Celebrate the Wins
As leaders, it is important to regularly spend time reflecting on the success of ourselves and our teams, notes Warren-Burnett.
“I think that it is important to celebrate the small and large wins. Sometimes we get stuck in the day-to-day and forget to acknowledge the successes that happen,” he says. “Doing this will help a lot in keeping the morale of the team up, and it shows that you value their work.”
To me, celebrating wins really depends on the specific culture of the institution. Once you know that information, you can craft a way to honor your team or individual team members. At a prior institution, the team I oversaw was motivated by breakfast. Every time we won an award or completed a major project, we would hit up the local diner for copious amounts of coffee and bacon.
I also try to celebrate individual small wins. I have a list of each team member’s favorite coffees and snacks, and if that person does something great, I will bring a treat to honor them or write them a kind note.
Create the Culture You Want
Culture is something we can control, but Warren-Burnett notes that it takes work.
“Team dynamics and how everyone interacts can make or break a team. You should want to create a culture that challenges your team while empowering them to think outside the box. This culture is what will define how effectively you work together,” he says.
That’s even more important because of the Great Resignation—which has made Cosgrove incredibly focused on culture, he says.
“We’ve done a few things, such as instituting first Thursday drinks for the team, making sure everyone knows all voices can be heard and respected, and making sure we have time to discuss an interesting podcast or article about life or leadership that a team member brings to our monthly meeting,” he added. “I think these—and other pieces—are adding to a positive culture so that we feel connected to each other, and even when the chips are down (and it’s not been the easiest couple of years for anyone), this remains a supportive, encouraging, positive place to work.”
Own Your Mistakes
Mistakes aren’t fun for anyone, but when you’re a manager, your team is looking to see how you handle mistakes. They will model the behavior they see. Rule learned this lesson from another leader and has tried to follow it.
“It’s better to acknowledge you’re human and messed up than to appear confident in bad calls,” he says. “This also helps to create a culture of ownership among team members, because everyone will make mistakes—that’s inevitable. It’s better to have an environment where people can bring mistakes to your attention and ask for help than a culture where people are so afraid of reprimand that mistakes are hidden until they blow up.”
Once, Vahl Dean made a mistake that taught her the importance of taking ownership.
“A couple years ago, I over-awarded scholarship dollars based on the spending distribution in an endowed fund. I figured out the error, took ownership of it, and worked with the business manager to ensure the scholarship was still disbursed. Then, I worked with my coworker to ensure future scholarship disbursements would not put us in a similar situation,” she explains. “We both worked on the project from the beginning, but I explained that, since I signed off on the disbursement, I was ultimately responsible and would take any heat.”
Her experience reveals a key lesson for managers: Own the error and work to ensure it won’t happen again.
Thriving as a New Leader
Every person I spoke with here shared that moving into leadership was hard and that they had made multiple mistakes before beginning to feel comfortable as a leader.
For myself, I discovered how tempting it is to try to help every team member, sometimes to your own detriment. This was a mistake I made for several months in my first manager role. I spent so much time during the workday trying to support my team that I did not balance supporting the team and the tasks I needed to accomplish. As a result, I’d come home, after a full day of helping everyone else, to hours of work I needed to accomplish. That repetitive cycle went on for months. I was exhausted and worn out.
But after several months, I had an epiphany. If I was going to lead a team well, I had to be rested and refreshed. I set some boundaries for myself about how much I would work in the evenings versus what could wait until the next day. Life went on. Nothing fell apart because I didn’t work for hours every single night. And most importantly, I was a better manager because I learned more about how I could be a better leader and juggle the workload.
Thus, it is critical that new leaders keep going. Keep pushing to balance both the work to be done and your approaches to leading the team. Good leadership, as Cosgrove pointed out to me, takes time to learn, just like all the duties or tasks at the job that may have propelled a person into a leadership role.
“As leaders, I feel we need to sketch out the path forward effectively and ensure the environment and tools are there for others to flourish—but then step back to allow others to build and find their own way to that destination,” says Cosgrove. “[That] ultimately will help us to craft our own authentic leadership story and approach.”
About the author(s)
Carrie Phillips is Chief Communications and Marketing Officer at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, U.S.
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