College student retention researcher Vincent Tinto once compared the experience of new students starting college to someone navigating a maze. When I read this analysis, it made me think of the corn mazes we have here in Wisconsin (and I’m sure other places) during the fall season. The adventurous spirit in us may like the excitement of treading down the path of the maze attempting to discover the trail that leads to success (getting the heck out of there!), but I think it is fair to say navigating the maze can produce some anxiety as well – especially when you take a few wrong turns.
The analogy of the corn maze and the experience of a new student arriving in college conjures some important questions to consider regarding how to help college students experience a positive transition into college and a successful path to their end goal. While many of us in student affairs may ponder these questions, I think we often forget about our own transitions in and out of the institutions where we work and how the corn maze analogy applies there as well.
Beginning a new job in student affairs can be incredibly exciting – full of promise and potential; however, we may also experience some anxiety producing moments when we aren’t sure what we’ve gotten ourselves into and aren’t sure how to navigate the landscape. Thinking about how we transition into a new position in student affairs is incredibly important not only for success in our new job, but for our own personal well-being.
Organization development scholars Bolman and Deal encourage us to examine institutions through the lens of four different frames. These frames include assessment of the political landscape; consideration of the people, or human resources, who make up your team; the structure, or hierarchy, that exists; and the symbolic images or artifacts that collectively describe the organization culture. Contemplating these four factors can help professionals in new positions evaluate the landscape and determine how best to become engaged in their new environment. In the spirit of Bolman and Deal, below are four suggestions for student affairs professionals in new positions.
1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. I first heard this advice from author Stephen Covey who cited this as one of his seven habits for highly effective people. I think this advice serves professionals in new jobs well to help prevent our foot from becoming lodged in our mouth by talking too much and finding ourselves in difficult political terrain. Yes, we were hired for a reason and we should share our talents and perspectives, but consider that as someone new in the organization you are jumping in mid-stream. Before speaking too much, take some time to understand what your team has been working on, what they’ve tried, what their experience has been, and learning about the political terrain before moving too far out there on your own.
2. Develop relationships. My organization development professor once told our class that organization culture is not something that can be manipulated. It’s a living thing that will only change when the will of the organization determines it will change. While this is a little abstract, this point makes me think about how real change happens. As a new person on the job, you may feel pressure to make change right away, but that usually isn’t best. Before sustainable change can happen, individuals within the group need to share a sense of mission and purpose that could eventually lead to change. This sense of shared purpose is developed through relationship building. Get to know people, take opportunities to collaborate with people in and outside of your department, and get to know how they think and feel about your organization.
3. Consider the kind of structure that exists in your new environment. Some institutions operate through a strict hierarchy while others operate in a more organic type of structure. We may have personal preference s for the type of structure we may prefer, both models have their strengths and drawbacks. A more strict hierarchy may provide security and lessen ambiguity, but could also dampen creativity. A more organic model may provide creativity and free flowing communication, but may also lack the structure necessary for clear decision making. As someone new in a role, determining where your new place is on this continuum is important so that you can successfully navigate the culture without miscalculating who you should communicate with and how.
4. Participate and become engaged in your new culture. Every workplace is different in terms of what comprises the organizational culture. Some artifacts like a mission statement, learning outcomes, assessment strategies, etc. may hold deep meaning for members of your new team. Identifying that and learning about those things is an important way to communicate you are part of the team. If the mission statement is important, hang it on your wall. If the learning outcomes are important, make sure the programs and services you design align with these outcomes and that you communicate this alignment with members of your team (and your new boss)! Also know that culture may include special traditions like attending events together or spending time outside of work on occasion. Participating in these experiences will allow you to feel more connected to your team and will communicate to your new team members you are happy to be there.
Navigating the corn maze of a new job in student affairs can be exciting, but also comes with some nervousness and angst. I’m a fan of the saying that most of our work in student affairs is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t feel you have to do too much too soon as a new person on the job. Hopefully by assessing the landscape using the practical advice inspired by organization development research, we can find our way through the maze and realize all of the promise and potential of a new job in student affairs.
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About the Author: Paul Shepherd currently serves as the Director of Student Involvement at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls where he is responsible for a diverse array of student engagement opportunities including leadership, student organizations, service/volunteerism, student governance, and campus events. Paul has served the student affairs profession for 13 years and is passionate about student learning and development through intentional co-curricular programming. Paul is currently pursuing a Doctor of Educational Leadership degree and is interested in researching student engagement and persistence to graduation among multicultural, first generation, and low income college students. Paul has served as a presenter, consultant, and speaker in the areas of leadership development, student engagement, bystander intervention, and learning outcomes based assessment. In his spare time, Paul enjoys spending time with his family and blogging at Renewing Leadership. Paul also loves engaging with colleagues and students via Twitter! Follow Paul @pshepRF.