Barbra J. Wallace, University of California, Riverside
I am a college administrator at my institution. Like many of my generation, it wasn’t my ultimate career goal to become a college administrator, but 25 years later I’ve managed to climb the college administrator career ladder. At this stage of my career, a number of colleagues have asked me how I did it. As a result, I sat down to try to “reverse engineer” my path. Below I’ve cataloged 10 of the most important skills I’ve learned over the years. I believe these skills are essential to success in college administration and perhaps other careers as well. I’m sure everyone has their own list, but here are my top 10. I hope those who are interested in promoting will find this list of important skills helpful.
Research Librarian. The goal of the research librarian is to become the expert in his or her field. Great administrators may not initially be content experts, but they learn quickly. There is no substitute for diving into the research and using what is learned in one-on-one conversations, meetings, and citations in written reports. Those who studied their field in graduate school revisit textbooks and journal articles. Those who didn’t teach themselves the theory behind their practice. They commit to their own continuing education. The final outcome is to become known as someone who values the experts and ties his or her own practice to those who’ve been successful before.
Surveyor. The goal of a surveyor is to determine boundaries and ownership. In higher education, there are a lot of “owners:” the students, campus partners, faculty, and the public at large. It can be confusing to determine who has primary responsibility for what. Weighing in and trying to take over a task when ownership isn’t clear may not be a success strategy. Great administrators get to know their campus rules and regulations, access organizational charts, meet and greet to get to know the campus culture. The final outcome is to understand when to take the lead and when to merely offer support.
Astronomer. The goal of an astronomer is to search the heavens to see the big picture. Great staff members focus on the details to make sure that the job is done correctly the first time, but great administrators focus on the big picture: “what are we doing and why are we doing it?” They work with their staff members to craft the mission, vision, values, and goals for their office, making sure that they align with the goals of the campus. Great administrators learn to effectively summarize and communicate essential information that will help higher administrators make important decisions to move forward. They also regularly review and revise office policies to make sure they align with changing goals. The final outcome is to ensure that every day work products align with the office and campus mission.
Teacher. The goal of a teacher is to educate. Great administrators serve as partners who are invested in their staff’s success, work together to translate goals into a common philosophy, create benchmarks that show when those goals are reached, provide opportunities for staff to independently practice what they’ve learned, and reward excellence. Great administrators understand the difference between style and substance and provide staff the freedom to determine their own work style within the established culture and philosophy. They give constructive feedback. The final outcome is to create an office philosophy, communicate expectations, review performance, give feedback, and reward accomplishments.
Fire Fighter. The goal of the fire fighter is to quickly and efficiently extinguish fires. Great administrators respond to concerns in their constituencies as quickly and accurately as possible. And just like fire fighters, effective administrators must be accessible and available. They must be thorough, reacting only after performing due diligence to secure complete information and expert consultation. If their office makes a mistake they apologize and make it right. They never fail to follow through and communicate resolutions to interested parties as quickly as possible. The final outcome is to be accessible, empathetic, and to respond appropriately to the concerns of others.
Public Relations Specialist. The goal of a public relations specialist is to communicate success to outside constituencies. Great administrators understand that while it is important to quickly and appropriately respond to “bad press,” it is also vital to generate “good press.” They create a proactive, positive communication cycle by tracking office achievements, encouraging and rewarding innovation, and proactively disseminating their successes to their constituents. The final outcome is to proactively advertise the staff’s accomplishments to communicate their value to the campus at large.
Concierge. The goal of a concierge is to determine and fulfill needs. To paraphrase Abraham Maslow, staff can’t shine if their basic needs aren’t met. At the very core, staff need to feel safe. Nowadays great administrators must create a safety plan to foster security. They create and maintain dialog with their staffs to foster open communication. They train their staff to understand the difference between “need” and “want.” With limited resources, they must often prioritize needs and must then communicate those priorities broadly to ensure transparency and equity. They must also communicate campus policy so staff members understand what administrators can and cannot provide and why. The final outcome is to recognize and adequately provide for staff needs and, when possible, even a few wants.
Engineer. The goal of an engineer is to build bridges. Each individual office can be an island; there are a lot of things we need that we don’t have the resources or expertise to provide for ourselves. Great administrators can help their staffs accomplish great things due to personal relationships that cross intracampus boundaries. By getting to know and working collaboratively with campus partners, they’re able to prevent duplication of effort while amplifying the impact of their staff’s effort. The final outcome is to build relationships and rapport with campus partners to ensure necessary resources, assistance, and support.
Fortune Teller. The goal of a fortune teller is to tell the future. College administrators are required to effectively react to national trends, constituents’ concerns, and student needs. But great administrators examine and quantify past trends in the student population, access institutional research resources, develop basic analytical skills so they can perform some analysis themselves, and forecast coming trends. They access those with institutional memory focusing on what’s been done before, why, and what the outcomes were. They extrapolate future trends while remaining mindful of the changing landscape. The final outcome is to create an evidence-based vision of the future and to communicate it to appropriate stakeholders.
Juggler. The goal of the juggler is to keep all of the balls in the air. Managing an advising office with limited resources, in an atmosphere of changing priorities, without letting important things slide, is very challenging. Great administrators “keep all the balls in the air” by making sure they understand their bosses’ primary concerns, organizing and prioritizing their work, delegating to those who can assist, and keeping their cool. The final outcome is to make sure everything is done, done well, and done in advance of looming deadlines.
Barbra J. Wallace
Director, Undergraduate Academic Advising Center
College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences
University of California, Riverside