7 leadership lessons learned along the way

"Field Notes" is an occasional Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org. 

by Arnold Arredondo, Ph.D., Dean of Enrollment Management, Baptist College of Health Sciences.

Some leaders are strong and decisive. Others look to them to blaze a trail for all to follow. You know the type I am talking about. They just seem to be natural-born leaders. Made out of steel and strong resolve, they command a statesman like presence and get things done.

Unfortunately, that is not me.

I am fairly shy at times and I am very comfortable at sitting at my desk for long periods of time. I have no issue at working on projects alone, and quite honestly, I prefer it that way.

The problem? I manage multiple departments and oversee a number of personnel.

My natural mix is not one of steely resolve, but rather one of thoughtful and quiet contemplation. While I would say my technical skills match the needs of my role, my leadership skills will ultimately make or break my success at the institution. I have no magic leadership bullets to share, but more like lessons learned through the school of hard knocks. I would say these are achievable lessons you can implement today, regardless of personality type or leadership bent.

The first lesson begins with a basic and obvious one. Answer your emails! I know. I know. I know. We all face the email monster every day, but nothing hurts a leader more than a failure to communicate. Designate times for email replies throughout the day. You may or may not slay the email monster all at once, but you must keep it contained. Keeping the channel of communication open is vital within any complicated organization, much less a college. Train your staff to add descriptions, such as Information Only, Action Required, or Time Sensitive as part of the subject line for quick reference and prioritization.

Second, meet your deadlines. Do you know many great leaders that miss all of their deadlines? Me neither. Do you want to show the strength of your leadership? Meet your deadlines. In fact, meeting your deadlines is not only about your personal skills, but also about your leadership skills in pulling together resources and human capital. Team building is more than a catch phrase. It is about an investment in people that complement your strengths and weaknesses. The key to leadership is not about being a Lone Ranger, but rather a team builder and meeting your deadlines is an obvious outcome of your leadership ability.

What is just as powerful as meeting deadlines? Telling people you will not meet a deadline. It is never good to come up to a deadline and not have a project completed. Think back to your college days when you let your professor know that you are struggling with a project that is due next week. What was her reaction to the news? She would provide you with additional resources and encouragement to help you finish on time. In today’s world, letting people know you will miss a deadline could open opportunities for others to invest in you and help you push to meet your project deadlines.

Which leads us to our third lesson, take responsibility. If you do miss the deadline, take it on the chin. Do not blame a team member or provide a series of incidental excuses. Do offer up some action steps to correct the deficiency next time. A true leader is constantly striving to improve. A weak leader blames others and looks for a way out.

Fourth lesson, use an agenda. Who loves meetings? Not me and probably not you either. But I have learned to appreciate the power of a good agenda. It is human nature to quickly evaluate something that is rich and valuable versus something that is, well, a waste of time. Time is a precious commodity on a college campus. Keep the agenda focused, and push it out to the attendees (with any attachments) way ahead of time. People want to know what to expect. If needed, brush up on Robert’s Rules of Order to help you manage the meeting properly. Nothing is worse that fumbling and endlessly wandering through a badly organized meeting. Keep it sharp and focused with clear start and end times. No meeting is too small to have an agenda either. This is especially true when meeting with a group of high performing employees. They want to know you value their time and that you are prepared to walk away with actionable steps.

And speaking of high performing employees, the fifth lesson is to manage up your direct reports. Nothing bolsters up your department more than verbally managing up your employees in front of others. When I introduce members of my team, I set a high level of expectation that encourages my employee, but also instills trust on the side of the student. I say something like, “Let me introduce you to our academic advisor, Sarah. She completed a Master’s degree in Higher Education and has five years of experience at our institution. She is going to take GOOD care of you!” Now sit back and watch the extra effort that your employee will give to match that positive encouragement. I also manage up employees working on a project with something like, “I am so glad you are working on this project. I need someone with your level of creativity to really knock it out of the field. I know you will do an amazing job.” And therein lies the secret of a great leader… having a great team. Some team members just forget how great they really are!

The sixth lesson is to be mindful of your nonverbal cues. Do not look defeated before you even have a chance to start! Sit up straight. Head up. Chin down. Strong handshake and make good eye contact. Do not look at your watch when someone else is talking. And please, stop playing with your phone all the time. But here is the BIGGEST nonverbal cue I have discovered…take notes! When you meet with an angry student, pull out a pen and pad and take notes. When you meet with a faculty member, take notes. Or if an employee brings a concern, take notes. People not only want to be heard, but also that you are taking their topic seriously. The act of taking notes is the easiest nonverbal cue you can make that shows you are invested in trying to understand their issue.

And the final, but most important leadership lesson - try to find a way to say yes. Our world is filled with critical people. Some have even developed criticism into an art form. In truth it really does not take much to tear something down. A true leader does not lead backward. And worse yet, not at a standstill. Next time you are presented with a change in process, challenge to reach higher goals, or a new project to complete, try to find a way to say yes. Leading forward is what a true leader does.