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Lessons from My Leadership Journey: Three things I wish I knew mid-career

| November 17, 2020

by Mark Askren

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Mark Askren, MOR Associates Leadership Coach, and former Vice President for IT at the University of Nebraska. Mark may be reached at [email protected].]
Reflecting back on 35 years of working in IT for several universities provides one with the opportunity to see different stages of career development more clearly than when you’re focused full-time on leading and achieving results each day. We’ve read insightful lessons from those who’ve just retired such as the excellent article from Bill Hogue on October 13. So what about the mid-career years? This is a point in time when you have the runway remaining to adapt your leadership practices and to enhance your career path. Here are several lessons that weren’t obvious to me mid-career:
Lesson #1 – Take responsibility for your career development

Mentors and coaches can be extremely helpful in the area of career development whether they are formal or informal relationships. Their role is to provide guidance and to offer candid feedback if and when you ask. So build these relationships and go ahead and ask.

And if they’re your supervisor they may consider giving you opportunities to extend your foundational skills and experiences. That said, it’s not realistic to expect them to focus on your career growth on an ongoing basis.

No one is going to care as much about your career as you do. If you’re waiting for someone to recognize your potential, you’re being passive about your future.  Recognize the ongoing need to be the most active participant in your leadership journey. It’s also important to be realistic at each stage about your willingness to put in the necessary time and effort in order to be successful.

Lesson #2 – Don’t assume others can read your mind

Whether it’s your supervisor, peers, team members, or clients, it’s important to communicate effectively every day and to do so in a way that addresses their specific interests and concerns. If you assume they generally understand the what, why, and how related to the direction you’re headed at any point, you’ll likely be unpleasantly surprised. The cultural lens of our work environments does not always default to positive, so it’s important to be able to tell our story and to convey the purpose and value to different audiences both formally and informally.

Effective leaders at all levels focus on messaging key points to their specific key audiences, often doing it repeatedly. At the human level each person we engage with wants to know how the specific initiative or broader issue is going to impact them personally. Given this, it’s critically important to invest the time in communicating, including listening. Doing so will improve outcomes which will reflect well on you and your organization.

Lesson #3 – Focus more on learning the aspirations and challenges of your campus stakeholders rather than trying to educate them about the power of IT

We’ve often heard the lament “if only our university leader (President, Provost, CFO, Dean, Director or so on) better understood the transformation capabilities we have in IT.” In my experience we need to flip the scenario to “if only our IT organization better understood the academic and administrative aspirations and challenges of our key leaders and their initiatives.” This change in perspective redirects our thinking and actions to be able to partner more effectively and provide improved results for our institutions.

If you know the issues that are keeping university leaders up at night you have a much greater opportunity to engage them with an IT related initiative that will help them move forward. And as you build your knowledge of what different stakeholders are working on across the institution, you’re more likely to effectively propose solutions that scale up to address multiple opportunities. IT does scale which provides us with a major advantage in terms of our potential. To leverage scale we need to better understand our institution’s key academic and administrative issues and initiatives.

In summary, when you’re in the middle of your career, you have the opportunity in terms of time remaining to reassess and refocus on your development path. And to sharpen your toolkit and practices including communications. And to continue to educate yourself on the impressive and complex institution where you work.

We’re not on this journey alone. So be open to asking for feedback and learning from others on your campus and in our MOR community.

Wishing you continued success!