5 Career Mistakes to Avoid in Student Affairs

November 18, 2013

Mistakes in Student Affairs

1. Job Hopping – While switching jobs is endemic in higher education, job hopping is typically not a good idea. Chasing money, position titles, or trying to find the perfect institution that emulates your alma mater can unintentionally make for a sketchy-looking resume to prospective employers down the road. A resume that illustrates a job for every one or two years can communicate that you are hard to get along with, never happy, or “too big for your britches.” No one goes from being a resident director to a vice president of student affairs overnight. Promotions, responsibility, and a higher salary come from experience and patience. “Paying your dues” is very true in our field.

Friendly Advice:

  • Do your best with where you are at. While your current work situation may not be the best, use it as an opportunity to further develop your skills and your experience. If it is a negative experience, do your best to turn it into a positive for you (no matter how difficult that may seem!)
  • If you are excelling in your current role, ask for more responsibility without the expectation of increased income, which typically should not be expected anyway given the current financial climate of higher education in the U.S. This can only help you in the next step in your career path. Create the experience you want to showcase on your resume and portfolio.

2. Getting Involved in Negative Politics - Colleges and universities are rife with politics in both academic and student affairs. Unfortunately, negative politics can consume your time and energy and get you away from your department’s mission and vision. While it’s easier said than done to avoid the politics of your institution, ultimately you are in control of how to interact with your colleagues and contribute to the success of your students. That’s why we do what we do, right?

Friendly Advice:  

  • Simply put, stay away from those who exhibit negative energy. There’s enough challenges and complications within the institution outside of negative attitudes and drama. Contribute your time and energy in creating solutions and not more problems.

3. Negative Social Media Presence - Social media is now ubiquitous and entwines both our personal and professional lives. Gone are the days when all that a prospective employer knew about you was from what you listed on a paper resume. Many employers screen your online presence, and in some cases, will expect that you will have a positive and impactful presence online related to your department and the field in general. We should be role models for our students after all, right?

Friendly Advice:

  • Understand that it is extremely difficult to have a completely separate personal and professional life online. Given this, the best practice is to keep your online presence as positive, professional, welcoming, and “restrained” as possible.
  • Social media outlets are not the place for uninhibited opinion and “diarrhea of the mind,” particularly if you are looking to land the next best position in student affairs.

4. Failing to Seize Opportunities – There will be the proverbial “two roads diverged” at some point in your career in which you will be faced with a choice to participate in various opportunities. This could be anything from committees, travel, presentations, grant writing, and other institutional initiatives. It pains me when I hear colleagues complain about such opportunities and whine about extra work or not getting compensated for projects outside of their normal workload. By failing to seize these types of opportunities, you limit your exposure to meet new colleagues across the institution, share resources, and impact students on a larger (or simply different) level.

Friendly Advice:   

  • Don’t be the person who said, “Man…I wish I would have been a part of that!” Hindsight is always 20/20 so take on the prospective of keeping your eye open for opportunities as they arise. Even better, create opportunities rather than waiting for them.
  • Keep in mind that NOT every opportunity is a good one nor has to be pursued. Keep your options open and take advantage of those that will fulfill your department’s mission while also appealing to your own interests and expanding your student affairs experience.

5. Failing to Make a Difference – You are what you do; And if you’re not doing much, you’re not making a difference. I will share the same message with you that I try to impress upon student leaders: what are you creating, what are you changing, and what are you influencing? If you don’t have much to show during your next job interview other than a bland job description, others who have made an appreciable impact upon their institution will clearly win out.

        Friendly Advice:

  • Like Stephen Covey stated, start with the end in mind. What difference do you want to make? Figure that out and work toward that end. Develop goals, write them down, and display them so you can see them daily. Also, create initiatives that you can assess. This way you can qualitatively and quantitatively illustrate the difference your work has made.
  • Don’t spin your wheels to impress colleagues. You’re there to impact student learning and retention (among other goals) and not create a club of cronies. As was the case with #2 above, stay clear of drama and concentrate on your work.

* Photo courtesy of Zsuzsanna Kilian

Creating a “Leadership Kit” Passive Program (***free handout***)

November 14, 2013

Leadership Kit

For many years I have been putting together and distributing small “Leadership Kits” to my employees and various student leaders whose leadership skills I aim to develop further. Recently I gave these to my students in our Leadership Living-Learning Community to help emphasize some of the attributes of being a “servant leader.” Although I themed the kits for servant leadership, you can adopt them to serve your own particular leadership needs.

The kit comes in the form of a Ziploc bag that includes the following inexpensive items that correspond to various aspects of leadership:

  • Snickers Candy – leaders need a sense of humor
  • Dum Dum Lollipops – leaders learn from their mistakes
  • Rubber bands – leaders are flexible
  • Pen / Pencil & Pad (Post-It Notes) – leaders write down good ideas
  • Highlighter – leaders highlight the strengths of their team members
  • Light stick – leaders show the way
  • Glue stick – leaders keep the team together
  • Super Ball – because leaders are super to their team
  • Index cards for the leadership quote(s) and item explanation

Outside of the symbolic representation of the items, the kit also serves as a small resource supply bag that students and employees can use from a practical standpoint to accomplish such tasks as homework and other school and job-related projects. The kits can be used for staff welcome back gifts, primers for team discussions, marketing efforts for an upcoming leadership activity, and even as a simple passive activity / program for your students.

You can create your own “Leadership Kit, by downloading this free, ready-made leadership kit label template in order to print out the leadership cards and quotes you will need to assemble your own kits. These can be printed on Avery labels (Template #5163) and adhered to index cards or you can simply print them on paper and cut them out.

Enjoy and please share with the handout with your colleagues!

Conflict Resolution Questionnaire (***free activity handout***)

August 21, 2013

Conflict Questionnaire Activity

Each of us has our own personal conflict style. Because of this we may handle situations in different ways, which can cause various conflicts. There are five basic conflict styles, which are briefly described here:

Competing – “Fighting the good fight” is par for the course for this particular style. In most cases this is counterproductive to resolving conflicts.

Compromising – “Give-and-take” is the approach for someone who normally compromises.

Avoiding – Conflict is never encouraged and typically avoided. This can create further conflicts because issues aren’t being communicated and shared.

Accommodating – Accomodaters sacrifice for the sake of others to resolve a dispute. While this may be an ends to a means, it can ultimately lead to their needs and wants not being taken care of.

Collaborating – “Let’s work on it together to come up with a solution” is the driving force behind this particular style.

Here is a Conflict Questionnaire that can be utilized as an activity for conflict resolution training and / or to have a discussion about communication among individuals. Please feel free to share among your students and colleagues.

Blogging Group Interview Activity (Five Dollar Download)

June 19, 2013


The goal of any student employee interview process should be to assess the attitude, personality, and skills needed for the open positions. As with any job, candidates should be assessed on their ability to listen, follow instructions, demonstrate knowledge, and display a positive and professional attitude through their writing. This “Five Dollar Download” Blogging Group Interview Activity was created to do just that.

In a nutshell, student leader candidates are taught how to use the WordPress blogging platform in order to create a short (two to three paragraph) blog post / article on a student life-related topic. The professional in charge of the activity creates a free and private Wordpress account ahead of time and teaches the students how to create a short post using this account. This blogging demonstration should only take 5 – 10 minutes to accomplish allowing time for any questions. The candidates are instructed to choose a topic from a list that is provided to them. Examples include: Tips for Getting Better Grades; Safety Tips for College Students; and Advice for New College Students. Candidates can also create a topic of their own as long as it is related to college life and is educational. The suggested topics sheet also purposely includes a “trap” that some unsuspecting candidates may fall into and ultimately prove to be an unsuitable hire. (*This will be obvious to student affairs professionals and the more savvy candidates.*)

The hiring professional(s) can have the students accomplish the task after the instructional demonstration in a computer lab, on their own portable devices they are instructed to bring with them, or even on their own time with a set deadline. Once the time has expired, evaluators utilize the rubric in order to assess each candidate’s article. This helps to demonstrate a student’s knowledge on college life, and to see if they can professionally articulate that information. This activity not only teaches a great skill that students can use during their lifetime (i.e., blogging), but is also a suitable activity as one point of evidence to assess the employability of student leader candidates.

My assistant director and I developed and utilized this activity as a part of our own student group hiring process, which proved to be very insightful and successful. This was included as one of a handful of assessment activities. The 6-page Blogging Group Interview Activity includes the following: Activity objectives; CAS student outcomes domains & dimensions; materials list; setup; procedure; closure / discussion; activity variations; topics list; blog login instruction sheet; and rubric and assessment form.

30 Ways to Motivate Organization Members.

May 13, 2013

Leadership with education

Motivating organization members can be the most challenging part of a leader’s responsibilities. Yet, this should be the driving motivation behind why the leader is their position. Mentoring and motivating people is key is accomplishing the mission, vision, and goals of the organization. Here are 30 ways to motivate organization members:

1. Make the members in your group WANT to do things.

2. Study members, and determine what makes each tick.

3. Be a good listener.

4. Criticize constructively.

5. Criticize in private.

6. Praise in public.

7. Be considerate.

8. Delegate responsibility for details to members.

9. Give credit where it is due.

10. Avoid domination or “forcefulness.”

11. Show interest in and appreciation of others.

12. Make your wishes known by suggestions or requests rather than demands.

13. When you make a request or suggestion, be sure to tell the reason(s) for it.

14. Let the members in on your plans and programs even when they are in an early stage.

15. Never forget that the leader sets the style for the members.

16. Focus on the positive.

17. Be consistent.

18. Show your members that you have confidence in them and that you expect them to do their best.

19. Ask members for their advice and help.

20. When you’re wrong or make a mistake, admit it.

21. Listen to ideas from members.

22. If an idea is adopted, tell the originator why, and that you appreciate their ideas.

23. Accept that people carry out best their own ideas.

24. Be careful what you say and how you say it.

25. Don’t be upset by little hassles.

26. Use every opportunity to build up members a sense of the importance of their own work.

27. Give your members’ goals, a sense of direction, something to strive for, and to achieve.

28. Keep your members informed on matters affecting them.

29. Give members a chance to take part in decisions, particularly those affecting them.

30. Let your members know where they stand.

What are some other ways in which you motivate your organization’s members? Please share below.

5 Secrets to Becoming a Kickass Leader

May 9, 2013


There’s a movie that came out in 2010 with Nicholas Cage called “Kick-Ass.” It’s basically a story of a nerdy high school kid and comic book fan named Dave Lizewski that gets robbed. Eventually, he decides to become a superhero named “Kick-Ass” to fight crime throughout the city without any superpowers or special training. Obviously it’s a fantastic and funny story, but it’s the story of an ordinary kid that creates his own destiny by becoming a homegrown superhero. It’s the story of someone that can do great things and influence others by being “kickass.”

As student leaders, there are many things that you can and should do to be truly kickass.

Secret #1: Create the change that you want to see. Mahatma Ghandi is credited with saying, “We must be the change we want to see in the world.” The concept is very simple, but yet very profound, particularly on a college campus. This essentially means that if there’s something you don’t like, change it! If there’s something you would like to see, create it!

If you don’t like the clubs that are offered, create a new one. If you don’t like something on campus, participate in or create a committee to research and suggest new ideas and options. Want to participate in a new campus-wide initiative or project? Create a proposal and approach administrators and faculty to see if they can support you.

As students, you have more power than you think you do. You are the reason why colleges and universities exist, and the reason why people like me have a career. Wield that power to make a difference not only in your life, but the lives of others, and the quality of the academic and student life experience here on campus.

Be a kickass leader by creating the change you want to see.

Secret #2: Stand out from others. Over the past 15 years, I have supervised hundreds of student employees across the country at five different colleges and universities. When I recruit and interview, I always ask, “What are you involved with on campus, and what have you done?”

I always hear, “Well…I am the president of the biology club … and a representative on student government …” That’s great…but what did you do? What have you influenced? What have you changed? What have you created? Leadership isn’t merely a grocery list of activities on a co-curricular transcript or resume. Leadership is about enacting change and leaving a legacy.

Also, quantify your experiences. Set goals, and upon achieving those goals use statements on your resume and in interviews such as, “I helped to raise $10,000 for a local charity … We served over 500 meals at a homeless shelter on Thanksgiving … I presented at a regional conference to over 100 session attendees …” and other impressive accomplishments.

Stand out from others. It’s easy to be great when others are mediocre.

Be a kickass leader by standing out from others.

Secret #3: Read about and become an expert on leadership. Your education doesn’t stop when you graduate from college. As someone looking to get a job after graduation, you need to be able to communicate that you know about your career field and can bring actual value to their organization. You can’t be an innovator and a true leader if you don’t know what’s occurring around you.

Take the time and spend the money to join and participate in professional organizations. Read their publications. Use social media to connect with others in your field from around the globe. Subscribe to blogs, follow industry leaders on Twitter, and attend the multitude of free webinars that are presented every day on almost any topic you can imagine. Books and articles on leadership and supervising people are published every day. If you’re not constantly ahead of the curve, others will be and inevitably will be more marketable.

Be a kickass leader by reading about and becoming an expert on leadership.

Secret #4: Seek out a quality mentor. A mentor can be a professor, a staff member, a club or organization advisor, a spiritual leader, or even someone you’ve networked within your chosen career field. Think of a mentor like having your own private secret weapon for success. And when I say “quality mentor,” I mean someone who cares about you as a person and your success. A mentor is not someone who will only give you five minutes of their time and otherwise treat you like you are a distraction.

 A mentor is someone who will not only give you good advice, but will help you seek out networking opportunities, includes you in on collaborative projects, such as research, conference presentations, and employment opportunities. A mentor is someone you can vent to and bounce ideas off of. A quality mentor is also someone who doesn’t pretend to know it all; a person that will guide you in the right direction if they don’t have a direct answer. A quality mentor is someone that you can look to throughout your lifetime as you progress through your career.

Be a kickass leader by having a quality mentor.

Secret #5: Remain humble. I strongly believe in the mantra of civility, integrity, and responsibility. I think these are the attributes of what makes a great leader. If I could add one more attribute to the list of civility, integrity, and responsibility, it would be humility. People appreciate and admire those leaders who don’t take all the credit, are courteous, and make those around them feel appreciated and respected.

One of my favorite books is “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t” by Dr. Robert Sutton from Stanford University. Dr. Sutton’s premise is that bullying behavior in the workplace kills morale and productivity. He uses the word “asshole” because other terms, such as bully or jerk does not have the same impact.

Two tests are specified to recognize this type of person: After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated, or otherwise worse about themselves? — and — Does the person target people who are less powerful than him/her? You can probably name multiple individuals that you deal with on a weekly basis that fit these criteria. DON’T BE LIKE THEM!

It’s easy to be in control and push people around, but it takes a true leader to be civil and gracious and, most importantly, humble.

Be a kickass leader by remaining humble.

What are some other ways to be a kickass leader? Please share your comments below.

You can also see a video of Dr. Helfrich giving a speech on 5 Secrets to Becoming a Kickass Leader.

How Good People Can Destroy Organizations

May 6, 2013


Contrary to popular belief, good people can destroy an organization as quick as their less noble counterparts. Good people in leadership positions often have the best intentions, but can unknowingly sabotage the organization’s efforts by perpetuating counterproductive practices. If you find yourself or your colleagues using the following tactics, you may want to reconsider how you are managing your organization.

1. Focusing on Feelings and Not Results – The hallmark of any high performing organization is the unrelenting focus on positive outcomes and results. Unfortunately, results can be sidelined unintentionally for people’s feelings, which will ultimately lead to agendas other than the goals of the organization. This can be as simple as a supervisor not confronting an employee for poor performance as to not “hurt their feelings.” Another example includes a department’s leadership passing on certain strategies because staffers may become upset by the resulting decisions even if they are advantageous to the organization. Organizations must focus on results and make smart decisions that lead to those ends.

2. “Good Guy” Hiring – I have encountered many colleagues who hired a candidate because they seemed to be “A good guy…” or “A nice girl…” I’ve even had a supervisor who demanded that my colleagues and I hire a handful of candidates because they were “good guys.” Someone that may have a nice personality in passing can end up being a nightmare employee. Furthermore, this “good guy” may not have the necessary skills to perform the job. Take the time to assess each candidate thoroughly prior to hiring. As the adage goes: fire fast, hire slow.

3. Being Unrealistically Optimistic – There’s a big difference between being optimistic and being delusional. Being unrealistically optimistic can prevent smart and quick decisions from being made that if not made can cause irreparable harm to the organization. Stay grounded in reality, plan accordingly, and make data-driven decisions.

4. Performing Favors  - Constantly doing favors can be a slippery slope as typically exceptions are being made in some shape or form. This generally means a policy is being undermined or a double-standard is being created. This can easily destroy moral among employees and clients alike. Additionally, performing favors always translates into sacrificing time and or money.

5. Avoiding Tough Decisions - This goes back to focusing on feelings and not results; results depend upon making tough decisions. Smart and ethical decisions can be made even if they are difficult. While tactics such as cutting a budget or laying off a staffer are never fun, tough decisions of some shape or form will always need to be made by every organization. Delaying the inevitable can lead to bigger problems.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,377 other followers

%d bloggers like this: