Got to Be REL

This past week I had the privilege of speaking with a group of up-and-coming leaders who were participating in an institute for leadership development. When I was first asked to do this several months ago, I put it off because these kinds of requests always cause me some amount of anxiety.

I have to admit that I was surprised to see it pop up on my calendar this week because I thought that the roster of speakers would certainly fill all the spaces before they got around to asking me again. The planners had forethought and placed it on my calendar several months ago, so I had to do it.

It’s not that I did not want to participate, Unfortunately, I tend to think that people who talk as if they know what leadership is might be charlatans because who really knows what this fascinating concept is?

As I ruminated about why I didn’t want to speak on leadership, I found fault with the title the planners had given the talk: Building Relationships: A Leader’s Tool. Though I understood the point that was intended and the spirit of the title, the idea of relationships being a tool to be used seemed manipulative to me and insincere. Then I worried myself with the question, “What can I say about leadership that they have not already heard and that they don’t already know?”

To prove my thoughts in this question about what they already know, I asked them at the very beginning of my talk to share what they think leadership is, and sure enough, they all seemed to have some well-formed ideas about leadership.

After seeing the group and hearing their thoughts about leadership, I was truly happy to be with them. I told them that I had written articles, co-edited a book, served in several positions of leadership, and I had made numerous speeches on leadership. But, what I would share with them would not necessarily be based on anything I had done previously. I was going to talk with them about what I thought about leadership and relationships at this particular time on this day.

First, I told them what I think leadership is not:

  • Leadership is not a static condition or role.
  • Leadership is not something that you own and can put in your brief case or designer bag and take with you to the next place.

Leadership implies working with others, and together, you and the group form a tacit mutual agreement to work toward common goals.

When leadership occurs, there is an understanding among all in the group that each person in the group has a role that contributes to the attainment of something. The person who wants to be an effective leader must insure that everyone sees that the leader is also a worker bee whose responsibilities are often different and not better than or more important than any other workers. The group should easily see that all roles are important and all are valued for what they bring.

Sometimes the person who has the ultimate responsibility for goal attainment fears failure. Having the responsibility for the accomplishments of the entire group can make one who wants to be the leader anxious and afraid.

When I have felt this way, I behave in ways that I always regret, and wish I could take back those moments, but the moments are like feathers in the wind and gone forever. Unable to have a “do over,” I vow to do better and, for me, doing better proves the old tried and true adage that we have all heard. Everything will be all right, “Just be yourself.”

In other words, be authentic. I think that being authentic is the one way of being that one can control, count on, and take to every situation. Being authentic often allows one to hold the magic orb of being a leader. The orb is heavy. It is beautiful in its own way; it’s a painstaking fine work of art, and it’s extremely complex. The orb demands a lot from the one who holds it, and it does not promise that it will always work its magic in your favor. Because leadership depends on the cooperation of others and relationships, the orb of leadership can be finicky, fleeting, and short-lived.

So how do I retain authenticity and how does it help me build relationships that are invaluable in supporting my desire and efforts to be a leader? In thinking about my experiences and how I want to be everyday with the people with whom I work, I have created this mnemonic for ease in remembering. Being authentic is being REL (real):

  • R is for the respect I strive to demonstrate by appreciating what everyone brings to our efforts;
  • E is for empathy as I put myself in the place of others in our group and treat them as I would want to be treated; and
  • L is for love. Yes, leaders who want to be successful have to love the team and be there for each of them.

Being REL (real) builds relationships. Relationships can be the coin of the realm in effective leadership. Being REL with my groups has tended to result in relationships that allow me to hold the orb of leadership in a number of administrative jobs. I am grateful for those fleeting and short-lived moments.

Finding the right time…

It was a decision that had to be made.  In my comment following this excellent presentation, do I only reference the parts of what I heard about the vision for IT at our College or do I also attempt to help everyone who is not in student affairs understand that IT can also play an important role in improving the educational experience of students by supporting the work of counselors and advisers who want to use technology to be more efficient and effective in their work with students?

Why did I have this dilemma?

The CIO made a most impressive presentation introducing concepts of the hype cycle, the trough of disillusionment, the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity. He talked about the history of technology, where the College has been in its use of technology, where we are going, and various faculty and student initiatives in regard to instruction.

The bottom line is I loved the presentation! Yet, something really bothered me.

During the presentation, the CIO was quite specific in outlining how what he was proposing would work with the “academic areas.” Following the presentation when the administrators were making comments, the academic vice president framed his remarks with the words “on the academic side.”

I was surprised to hear this clear delineation of what was academic and, by inference, what was not, especially at a critical time when the entire College has been restructured to insure that advising is done by everyone to some degree.

To insure consistency, accuracy, continuity and a developmental model for advising, counseling faculty in student services are encouraging the use of a system where advisers are encouraged to place notes about their work with students so if a student changes a major or decides on a major after being advised as an undecided students, the next adviser has some prior information about the student.

The system also allows students to select the same adviser by scheduling their own appointments. The system will insure that students are on a pathway towards a degree or certificate, and data can be collected from the system to gauge the impact of interventions to help students succeed in their courses.

A wealth of information can be collected and shared among students, faculty, and administrators with a system that is technology dependent. Why the CIO and the vice president for academic affairs found it necessary to carve out the “academic side” in talking about the future of technology at the College was a puzzlement to me.

I chose not to attempt to enlighten my colleagues at this presentation because there is a time and place for everything, and my attempt at enlightenment following an outstanding presentation would have been seen as negatively disruptive, and no one can hear our message if there is the noise of negative disruption.

I will find other times and occasions to talk about holistic learning, the value of advising, and the fact that all of our work with students is “academic.”

The faces behind the numbers

Assessment…culture of evidence…outcomes…data-driven…accountability…. By whatever name it’s called, I am an advocate for using numbers as evidence of the impact of the work of student affairs.

There are times, however, when an anecdote or story is exactly what is needed to help others understand what we do in student affairs. An anecdote or story is also what student affairs sometimes need to let us know that what we’re doing does, indeed, make a difference.

On opening day of the spring semester before students returned, the Montgomery College community held its convocation for faculty, staff, and administrators. The president spoke courageously and eloquently, as always, and each of us who is a senior vice president had an opportunity to report on the work of our areas of responsibility:

  • I’m amazed at the activity and many accomplishments in academic affairs that included the acquisition of grant funding and other numbers;
  • Administration and finance is doing a great job with the budget despite fiscal constraints faced by most institutions of higher education and this report was about the numbers;
  • The office of advancement had nothing but good news and the report was composed of many numbers.

When it was my turn to give an update on the work of student services, I could have talked about the numbers of students who had enrolled, highlighting the work of admissions and the access team; the number of students receiving financial aid; the number of students seen by advisers; the number of students who received disability support services, and more.

Instead, I decided to talk about a student I had gotten to know. So with that student’s collaboration on what I could share, I told his story. At a time when community colleges are focusing particularly on the enrollment, retention, and success of African American and Latino/Hispanic males, this story was about an African American male.

hurdlers on trackI showed a visual of young athletes running and jumping hurdles in a competition and then I began the story:

Imagine that one of these talented students is James who is typical of many of our students who despite their gifts and talents have many hurdles to clear before they reach the finish line. For the sake of these students and their peers, we all should be grateful that there is a Montgomery College with talented and dedicated faculty, staff, and administrators such as you.

James graduated from a high school here in Montgomery County and began his college career at Bowie State University. He was at the University but not really engaged because he went home every weekend.

At the end of his first year, he found out that there was not enough money for him to re-enroll for the second year. This fact was a disappointment, but he was not passionate about college and really didn’t have any direction.

Because he is a talented person, he was able to easily get a job with the Park Service. After some time in this job, he became bored because he was not using many of his numerous skills. While he was working at the Park Service, some of his friends from high school talked about their ambitious plans, and he began to feel as if he was being left behind.

Bored and discouraged, he began to spend his money on drugs and quickly became addicted. This was a really low point in his life where it seemed that everything he touched, rather than turning to gold, became ashes and worthless. One day he had a really bad car accident. One so serious and catastrophic that he should not have been able to survive, but he did. During his time of recuperation, he began to reflect on his life and realized that he was throwing it away. He was grateful to be alive and wanted to change the trajectory of his life.

When he thought about what he might do, it was as if everything he could imagine himself doing was a closed door, and when he opened the door, the message was always “a college education is the gateway to success.” So as soon as he was well enough, he quit his job and applied to Montgomery College—the College in his community. He was feeling great with these decisions, and he said that there was fire in his belly to make something of his life.

After being admitted to the College, he applied for financial aid and discovered that he was ineligible for aid because he had worked at what he called “that dead-end job” the previous year. He felt as if the door of opportunity had been slammed in his face; he felt rejected and discouraged.

Someone in the Financial Aid Office told him that he might be able to get a job on campus as a student assistant (student assistants are paid from the College’s operating budget) and walked him through the process. He had skills and was readily hired to work in one of the offices at the College. Working at the College gave him more time on campus, and he felt as if he was finally connected to a community. He felt he belonged.

He sought counseling and advising. Working with a counselor, he was able to regain confidence in his abilities. He began to think about his purpose in life and wanted to chart a path to some concrete goals.

Working with an adviser, he was able to develop an educational plan that outlined what courses he needed to take in what sequence in order to reach his academic goals. Doors were opening again, one right after another.

After a year and a half, he was able to qualify for financial aid. The collaboration between financial aid, counseling, and advising provided the kind of assurance and monitoring that James needed to know that he was on the right track and that people cared about whether or not he succeeded.

The next Student Service James took advantage of was Career Services. Here he explored his options related to his interests and what he wanted to accomplish. Encouraged by his family, he was able to begin to dream big and see himself in a career beyond college.

James says that he is grateful to Montgomery College for being a major part of his life during a critical period. He hates to leave the College because of all the support he received and because of the fine faculty and staff he encountered. He knows that he has a solid foundation to be successful at the University of Maryland Baltimore County where he has been accepted. He completed his Associates Degree in December 2014 and will begin his studies in psychology in just a few weeks.

Montgomery College has great resources and an outstanding educational program. Collaboration up and down and across the College in a seamless manner is what contributes most to the success of students like James.

Out for constituent review shortly is a draft of the Student Success Policy. The Policy formalizes the College’s commitment to student success and the procedures outline clear and concrete ways that the College will implement key conditions that will have a high impact on student success.

Many of our students will not have the motivation that James had, so some of these key conditions for student success are mandated, such as advising for the creation of educational plans, assessment for appropriate course placement, and accessible and informative orientations. Our virtual orientation will be available for students who are unable to make a scheduled face-to-face orientation because we believe that orientation provides a vital bridge for students to transition into College.

As students return and as new students arrive, let’s keep James and his fellow students in mind that might have many hurdles to clear before they reach their goals.

A number of faculty, staff, and administrators told me after the convocation that they also had “James” stories, and they were glad to hear one of them shared.

The Dream…moving forward but not yet realized

When I read Katherine Mangan’s January 19, 2015 article in The Chronicle titled “Scholars and Activists Speak Out About Why ‘Black Life Matters,” more than what the faculty said, I was impressed because the young people appeared to be African American and faculty.

This combination is still rare even today so many years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was clear that three out of four of the speakers/activists spotlighted had a faculty appointment. There was a professor, two assistant professors, and I want to believe that the director of higher education research and initiatives at Penn’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education also had a faculty appointment.

I am hopeful that young African Americans are choosing higher education as the place to use their talents and that universities and colleges are realizing their value.

I know that there should be many more worthy African Americans in highly valued faculty positions, and it would be nice if there were more professors than there are.

Acknowledging these realities, perhaps we are reaching a point where universities won’t have to steal star African American academics from their peers because there are too few available.

Perhaps we are reaching a point where one does not have to be “the only” African American in a department in order to be valued for what one can contribute. And perhaps on this day when we reflect on what MLK Day means to us, we can look at the parts of the dream that are being realized.

The young professors in the Mangan article are just beginning their climb up the academic ladder, and they may experience some challenges along the way. My hope is that they and others like them will not be discouraged to the point where they will leave higher education.

They have a foothold and others who follow them and those who have been on the margins of higher education will need to follow the path that these fine young academics are charting.

We are moving forward, but we’re not there yet given that I was still struck by the fact that these young African Americans are on the faculty in higher education.

Bridges – literal and otherwise – for student success

I had an opportunity to welcome new faculty today and I told them that giving the obligatory “Welcome” before the main event was one of my designated roles in life it seems.

I guess it was because I could not sing solo and I didn’t have other discernible talents that I was always selected to give the “Welcome Address” when visiting choirs and other groups came to our church. I made the welcome something special. I made banners that said “WELCOME” with glitter and hung the banners across the pulpit, and I put a lot of thought and practice into what I planned to say. The visitors seemed to appreciate the effort.

When I welcomed new faculty at Montgomery College recently, I did not hang a banner, but I did ask something of them. I told them about when I first worked at a community college as a counseling faculty member. There was a bridge or walk across from the Student Services building and the building where classes were taught. Back then when faculty smoked cigarettes, some of them would take a smoke break on the bridge; others would come out between classes to grab a few rays. I made a habit of walking across the bridge to go from one building to the next just so I could run into academic faculty.

It was on that bridge between buildings that academic or classroom faculty and I discussed students who were obviously talented and bright, but their writing seemed to tell another story. Particularly disturbing was their inability to spell. We did research and discovered that there was something called dyslexia. This discovery led to a collaboration to get support for students who had learning  disabilities.

It was on this bridge that academic faculty talked with counseling faculty about the veterans who could benefit from having someone to talk with, but who were reluctant to come to the Counseling Office. This led to the creation of a peer counseling program where some of the peer counselors were veterans. They were able to have the initial conversations with veterans and get to a point in their relationship where they could refer the veterans to the professional counselors.

A lot of work was done on that bridge between buildings for Student Services and Academic Affairs, and a lot of friendships were forged.

I asked the new faculty to see it as their responsibility to build a bridge between academic faculty and counseling faculty in Student Services in order to reduce barriers to student success.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

For me, the downside of finally getting enough time to sleep is dreaming. My dreams are more like the early MTV videos that I used to describe as nightmares. They are not usually the kind of nightmares where I’m being chased, but they are the kinds of images and scenes that I’m happy to awake from and realize that waking life is much better than these MTV video-like nightmares.

When I remember my dreams, I attempt to relate them to something in my life that I’ve repressed. Sometimes I can make the connection and other times I can’t. One dream recently that involved my blood dripping from my finger was easy to figure out. On that same night I dreamed about Maya Angelou who passed earlier this year. I had not heard her name mentioned or seen a photo recently, so why did I dream about Maya Angelou?

I dreamed that a companion and I wanted to learn about a new group doing some good work. A meeting was being held in an auditorium of some kind, and Miss Angelou was on stage behind a podium directing the activities. My companion was making noise and acting like an idiot and I didn’t want to be associated with him, especially in the presence of Miss Angelou, someone to whom I’ve looked for inspiration for many years.

In the dream, I moved from the rear of the auditorium in order to get closer to the stage to have a better chance of hearing what Miss Angelou was saying. When I found a seat down front, I realized that the other people in the auditorium were all part of Miss Angelou’s entourage or they were all connected in some way because they understood the rules, especially where particular people were supposed to sit. They seemed to be wearing white robes with gold trim and they seemed really self-absorbed and arrogant.

At some point, I realized that Miss Angelou and her crew were chastising me for not knowing where I was supposed to sit. In fact, according to Miss Angelou, I didn’t understand how the system worked and there were questions about whether I should be there at all.

I was embarrassed, shocked, hurt, and completely disillusioned because Miss Angelou was one of my inspirational heroes. As I was being criticized for not knowing the rules, I was thinking that though I might not be important among this particular group, I deserve to be treated with respect. I told Miss Angelou that I had considered writing my Masters final paper on her and her work, and that I was now glad that my adviser talked me out of it. I’m sure that this revelation had no impact on her, but I felt better being able to say it.

In this dream, I was similar to new students who come to find out what the college or university is all about. They think that they want to be part of this college-educated club. What they discover is that there are many rules, regulations, policies, procedures, and cultural norms that make them look foolish and feel out of place. Some of these challenges can be overcome with ingenuity and intuitiveness. Others can be learned over time. But when they bump into challenges that they cannot figure out, sometimes those who can and should help them treat them disrespectfully. They think students don’t hear the sarcasm in their tone or the look of exasperation on their faces, but students do see this and they feel disrespected. A college or university that fosters an environment that disrespects students is not a dream realized; it is a nightmare for students.

Amidst life’s distractions, love still breaks through

The 10-year-old boy’s eyes were staring unblinking at the monitor on the wall in front of him. He had been in this intense and trance-like state totally absorbed in Lego Batman 3-“Beyond Gotham” for at least an hour. At his right knee was his computer showing one of the Penguin animated films, and to the right of the computer was his iPad. I sat at the end of the sofa on the other side of ‘technology row’ reading a book on my iPad.

In the middle of the sounds of the video game and the animated movie, I interrupted with a question to the 10-year-old. He was startled when I asked him, “Do you know what it means to love someone?”

Still chewing his jaw and manipulating the video game controller he said, “I have a difficult time explaining what I think about abstract concepts.”

I was surprised at the response although I should not have been. Young people today with educated parents who spend considerable time explaining things to them have a tendency to speak as if they are years beyond their chronological age.

I was undeterred by his response and continued to pursue the point about his knowledge of love. As he continued to play the video game, he responded, “Do you mean the way I feel about my parents?” I was ecstatic at the response and went back to reading my book on my iPad.

Seeking to give the “Wow!” gift to students

If you are fortunate enough over the holidays to be with people with whom you care and with whom you exchange gifts, you might be ruminating on how you felt when you received the “Wow!” gift or how you felt when the “Wow!” gift you gave was received.

This year, I had gifts for family, but I did not have a “Wow!” gift to give. I will fret over this and vow to do better next time. Today, I was thinking about how teachers, counselors, advisers, and all who come in contact with students need to strive for the “Wow!” gift every time we interact with them because there may not be a next time for that student to be encouraged to go further.

Before online courses became popular, I recall asking a faculty member whose class I had observed whether or not students might have gotten just as much from an audio or video of the lecture as they did from attending the class. This comment did not earn me any goodwill from this person, but I was so disappointed in the experience of being in the class that I just had to indicate that what I had observed did not positively impress me. The faculty member gave a lecture without engaging students in discussion and did not appear to care whether or not students were listening. There was no “Wow!” factor for sure.

While flipping through my recipe files recently, I came across a recipe that was written on the back of a partial sheet of paper that had handwritten course and section numbers on it. This piece of paper brought back the memory of being on the second floor of the Student Center at St. Louis Community College along with other counselors and academic advisers where we would work for 12- hour shifts seeing student after student to assist them in getting the courses, dates, and times they needed. The lines were long and often by the time students arrived at a seat to see an adviser or counselor, they would be out of sorts, to put it mildly.

Today, students can find everything they need for academic advising online and many students never see an adviser or counselor. If students know in what field they want to major, they may just follow the outline in the course catalogue. If they are at a community college and plan to transfer to a four-year college or university, they can go online to find out what courses the transfer college or university requires for particular majors. Why would these students take the time to make an appointment to see and academic adviser or counselor? They would want to see an adviser or counselor because they want the “Wow!” gift of a relationship and collaboration about their academic and life goals. Sometimes this gift may be just a check-in once each term just to insure that a responsible educator knows that they are working towards specific academic goals and remain on the right track.

Students who have had some challenges academically and/or personally and need support or students who just don’t know what among the many options they have that they want to choose may want to establish a trusting relationship with an adviser or counselor. Because of the context and nature of this encounter, when I was advising students, I would welcome students with the attitude and mindset that my role in advising them was critical to their lives.

I felt as if I had an obligation to meet them where they were without judgment and expectations and to walk with them on their academic journey. Through open-ended questions, I would gauge how much assistance a student needed and if the student appeared anxious and unsure, I would let them know that I was prepared to become a collaborative partner with them. I would explain what I could bring to the partnership and what they would need to do to form and keep the partnership.

It was important that the first meeting would set the stage for creating a relationship that would endure and that the student be assured that I would be there for  support throughout the student’s academic and career exploration experiences. Though I’m sure I did not succeed in all instances, I had a desire to give students the “Wow!” gift of my time, energy, knowledge, and most of all, my belief in them as people who could achieve their dreams.

 

Ambushed by Memories on Christmas Eve

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m wrapping gifts. Why am I suddenly feeling sad? My chest hurts as if I have heartburn and my nose burns the way it always does when I’m holding back tears.

After all these years and after telling the story to those close to me, I still remember the Christmas Eve that I hoped that there was a Santa Claus. I still feel the pain I felt that Christmas morning when I really knew that there was no Santa Claus. I have had so many joyful and happy holidays since then, but the feelings of that one Christmas Eve always ambush me this time of year.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I don’t know how I had a few dollars to spend, but I had been happy when I bought small gifts for my mother, grandmother, grandfather, and little sister. I don’t recall whether or not my little brother was living with us or with my daddy during this particular Christmas time. But on Christmas Eve, I had the horrible thought that these folks, my family, may not have thought to get a gift for me. I hoped they would care enough about me to understand that if I didn’t receive a gift from them, I would think that they didn’t love me.

I was standing at the window looking out at the sky hoping that some man dressed in a red suit would find his way into our apartment and leave something, anything with my name on it that I could unwrap on Christmas morning. I listened long into the night and never heard anything like Santa Claus sneaking in to leave something for me.

The next morning, there were gifts for my little sister. I don’t remember the other gifts, but there was no gift for me. I finally accepted the fact that there was no Santa Claus. I felt embarrassed and almost apologetic that I was unworthy of even one small gift. I was ashamed that someone as old as I was even entertained the idea that there was a Santa Claus. I was fourteen years old.

Affirmations on Innovation and Collaboration

Fareed Zakaria had a special on CNN on Sunday, November 30, 2014, about innovation, which caught my attention because I have written about and given speeches on the topic for many years.

More than anything, I want faculty and student affairs educators to be innovative in the manner in which they help learners achieve their educational and career goals. Another ongoing theme and wish that I’ve written and spoken about is the value of collaboration among all parts of the college and university, especially between academic and student affairs.

On this same Sunday morning special, Zakaria interviewed Walter Isaacson whose recent book is on innovators and innovation. I’m paraphrasing, but Isaacson said that in creating his new book he discovered that, more than a facile mind and a willingness to pursue the dreams of one’s imagination, an important element that promotes innovation is collaboration. He said that unlike our image of the lone genius creating something new, those who would be called innovators more often than not worked with others who brought the needed talent to realize a vision.

As I listened to Isaacson talk about his discovery, I was talking back to him and saying “Amen” to his realization. Hearing Isaacson gave me the confirmation I needed to continue my message to academic and student affairs to pull together to innovate in colleges and universities for the sake of learners who need new ways to access the bounty of higher education.

Another guest interviewed by Zakaria for this special was Linda Rottenberg who spoke from her experience of reading thousands of business plans and working with more than a thousand entrepreneurs. Her “aha moment” was that one need not be a creative genius to be an innovator. What one needed to be was a “Doer.”

I loved hearing this because student affairs people often say that they are “Doers.” When there is a problem to be solved or a wrench has been thrown into the best laid plans and everything looks hopeless, two or three student affairs people in the room will tell you, “No worries. We’re student affairs people and we fix problems. We’re doers.”

Hearing these interviews on a Sunday morning was my church that gave me the spirit to keep beating the drum for collaboration, ringing the bell for innovation, and appreciating the work of student affairs professionals.