by Dr. Tammi Cooper

Dr. Tammi Cooper, Associate Dean in the School of Business at Northcentral University, shares her knowledge from her own often-bumpy transition from faculty to academic administrator, covering the following key topics:

  • The challenge of the transition
  • Key areas for administrator success
  • Creating a personal development plan

The challenge of the transition

As I reflect on my transition from faculty member to administrator, I can only describe it as awkward, challenging, and lonely. I am confident in what I do now, but I could not say that in the early years. There was no preparation or playbook for the role I took on and I often felt like a goldfish that had flopped outside the fish bowl.

Most of us enter higher education as faculty members excited to engage in the teaching and learning process with students. We are not formally prepared for administrator roles that challenge us to leverage multiple skills in a complex, ever-changing environment. So how can you prepare if you choose to become an administrator? From my battle-tested perspective, I want to share a framework that I hope might help. After serving in a variety of administrator roles over the last decade, I have unpacked my experiences into key growth areas I believe are necessary for success. These include:

  • Understanding the higher education environment
  • Knowing the institution you serve
  • Learning the technical aspects of what you lead
  • Practicing your soft skills
  • Honing your leadership ability

Understanding the higher education environment

The higher education environment is complex. As administrators, we should understand the elements that comprise this larger landscape and how each impacts our institution. It is critical to consider areas such as accreditation (both regional and professional), state licensing in some disciplines, authorizing bodies for distance learning in the various states, and the Department of Education, to name a few.  Being knowledgeable about our larger environment equips us with the ability to filter activities occurring at our institutions through these lenses to ensure the decisions we make are viable.  Each of these environmental stakeholders views our work through their distinct lens, and each expects us to understand that view. At this point in my career, when I am faced with a new challenge, I instinctively run it through the filter of environmental elements that apply to my context. This requires that I have some knowledge of what makes up our landscape.

Knowing the institution you serve

Each institution is unique. From the students it serves to its internal processes, each organization boasts a one-of-a-kind internal ecosystem that you must master to be successful. First, the types of students you serve drives the decisions you make. Understanding who they are and what they need should inform all that you do. Second, master the internal systems and structures of your organization. Without understanding the internal processes, the governance structures, how resources are allocated, who makes decisions, and how those are made, you are unlikely to gain confidence or have a respected voice as an administrator.

University of Texas at Austin

Learning the technical aspects of what you lead

There are various opinions on this topic, but I firmly believe that I would not be effective as an administrator if I did not understand the areas I lead. Part of being an administrator means I advocate for people. I am more effective at advocating because I develop deep understandings of the areas I advocate for. Without understanding what I lead, how could I know whether we were effective or not, or even what we needed? How could I lend a hand and actually roll up my sleeves and jump in, if someone needed my help?

I remember when I was a new administrator, and a functional office I knew nothing about was assigned to me. In one of my first meetings with the head of that department, I was asked a question to which I responded with an answer that I thought was great. I was promptly told that if that were done, it would certainly be flagged in an audit. Lesson learned. It pays dividends to understand the technical aspects of areas you are responsible for as an administrator.

Practicing your soft skills

As strange as it might sound, when I began my career, I never thought people needed to practice their soft skills. I assumed we were all innately equipped to speak kindly, listen, hear, persuade, and communicate professionally overall. I learned quickly that this was not the case and that I needed to make a conscious effort to strengthen my own skills. This is a time-consuming activity, but one I am convinced should be at the top of your list. Time and again, when I took the time to craft a thoughtful communication, or meet with someone to truly listen to their perspective, I was gifted with valuable feedback or the beginning of a relationship with an important ally.

Honing your leadership ability

Leadership is intentionally the last area on my list. To me, without having knowledge and skill in the previous areas discussed, you cannot lead in your administrative role. Good leaders understand their environment, their institution, and know the areas they lead, while utilizing their soft skills effectively. This is the foundation of a strong administrator. Once the foundation is established, you can begin to hone who you are as a leader.

I cannot tell you how to lead. Each of us has different leadership styles and abilities. For me, I discovered that I lead by communicating frequently, diving into the weeds with people when necessary to demonstrate that I care about what they do, and by simplifying the work we do as much as possible. Sometimes that means I plan and map out processes ahead of time to clear a path for people to succeed. Other times, I have taken on some of the more challenging aspects of a project in order to keep others engaged and excited. I challenge you to identify your own leadership attributes and find ways to leverage these as an administrator.

Ultimately, each area discussed here played a part in my success; yet I also developed capacity over time as I was pressed to perform and lead a variety of projects and initiatives. Depending on what role you are in, you may find that some of these areas are more crucial than others; however, over time, it is likely that all will emerge as important. While I identified these areas by looking back, I encourage you to consider proactively developing your capacity in these areas.

Creating a personal development plan

True growth occurs when we examine ourselves. Simple awareness of these areas is not enough. Instead, I challenge you to apply a common strategic planning tool to your own development: the SWOT analysis. Having participated in and led strategic planning, I value the notion of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats as we seek ways to move organizations forward. Consider applying the same tool to move yourself forward.

SWOT Analysis
For each of the five key areas described above, ask yourself the following questions within the context of your role:

  • What are my strengths/what do I know about this area? How can I leverage these strengths as I serve in my administrator role?
  • Where are my weaknesses? How can I strengthen these areas?
  • What are some of the opportunities I have to build capacity in this area? What opportunities do I have to leverage my knowledge in this area?
  • What things threaten my success? How can I mitigate these with opportunities to build capacity?

Closing advice

Account for possible blind spots. Interview someone in a similar role. Ask them to share their insights into each of these areas. Are there others they might add? Ask what skills they utilize most. Incorporate what applies to you into your SWOT — then seek ways to turn weaknesses into strengths and threats into opportunities. Consider conferences, trainings, mentors, and connecting with others in your network.

As an administrator, you will build confidence, satisfaction, and engagement with your work by acknowledging what you have mastered and seeking new avenues of growth.

This article is from our May 1, 2019 issue. Read the full newsletter here!

About the author:

Dr. Tammi Cooper, PhD, has over a decade of experience as an educator and leader in higher education. She began her career in higher education as a management faculty member and went on to serve in a variety of higher education leadership positions including as a vice-president for innovation, associate provost, and in various dean roles. Her experience includes leading and designing university-wide assessment processes, strategic planning, online learning, competency-based education (CBE), leading innovative change, faculty leadership, program development, retention and student success efforts. Dr. Cooper has been an active supporter of innovations in higher education, having participated in the Educause Breakthrough Models Academy, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s CBE work group and earning a Stanford Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate. Additionally, she is an alumni of the WASC Assessment Leadership Academy and served as a SACSCOC accreditation liaison, where she successfully led school reaffirmations and several significant substantive changes. She has a background in quality management and previously served as a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Examiner. Dr. Cooper is currently an Associate Dean in the School of Business at Northcentral University where she leads strategic planning and initiatives, professional accreditation, and oversees curriculum and assessment.

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