Losing Touch, but Gaining Influence

Patrick Love
Associate Vice President for Student Affairs
Rutgers University

“I want a job where I can still have direct contact with students.”

I hear a version of this refrain often in my professional life. It is typically uttered either by master’s students preparing for the field and looking ahead or from entry-level professionals who are contemplating their next move and possible promotion. I smile each time because I was there years ago, fretting about losing touch with undergrads, because they were the reason I got into this field in the first place.

Today, as Associate Vice President of Student Affairs at Rutgers University, my direct contact with undergraduate students is about as close to zero as it can be, without actually being zero—and I am okay with it! Let me tell you why.

When I consider this issue, I think about the story of the boy and the starfish. As you may recall, a man comes to a beach where an unusually high tide has washed up thousands of starfish who were now drying and dying in the sun with no way to return to the ocean. He spots a boy down on the beach. The boy bends over, picks up a starfish, and flings it into the ocean. He does this over and over and, from the man’s perspective, is hardly making a difference in the numbers of starfish being saved.

So the man goes down on the beach and says to the boy, “Young man, there are thousands of star fish on this beach. You are wasting your time. Your efforts are hardly making a difference. Why are you doing this?” The boy stands up with a starfish in his hand and flings it in the ocean. He turns to the man and says, “It makes a difference to that one.”

Staff LOVE this story. I love it too! We like the idea of having an easily discernible impact on the individuals in our life. We like the idea of acting heroically in the face of insurmountable odds. Maybe it was someone “flinging us into the ocean” that first introduced us to this field. Helping individuals is why many of us were attracted to this field in the first place. However, I now have an additional perspective on this story.

What if the boy was flinging starfish because his mom was managing a construction site across from the beach? He could go to her and easily convince her to send the bulldozer to the beach and in a matter of moments return a vast majority of the starfish to the ocean. How many of us are flinging starfish in the ocean and feeling mighty good about ourselves when a bulldozer is resting just beyond our sight?

That’s what I mean by the title of this blog entry. If the reason why we are losing touch (i.e., direct contact) with students is because we are advancing organizationally, it is probably a good bet that our ability to influence a wider swath of the student population is significantly extended. As a hall director I could influence about 200 students. As an area coordinator that number jumped to 1000. As a Director of Residence Life, it climbed again to 2000. Now, as AVPSA it is about 40,000. Do I know these students? No. Do I have direct contact with these students? No. However, my actions do influence them.

I influence students in two ways. The first is through other people—the people I hire, train, develop, supervise, mentor, and advise. My direct contact is with staff, not students. The second way I influence students is through the type of work I have performed in my various senior level positions during the past decade, such as organizational restructuring, program development, strategic planning, professional development, and on various committees (such as suicide prevention, freshman advising, the transfer student experience). This “bigger picture” work has put into place programs and services that are positively influencing the lives of students.

There are, not surprisingly, at least two challenges in this.

The first is that I refer to much of my work as “faith-based practice,” because even the best assessment practices cannot capture the actual influence of many organizational actions on individual students. This is very different than the heartfelt “thank you” you may have received from an individual student for a conversation you had with them. We must face this challenge and continue to explore multiple and creative ways to assess the impact of programs and services on the growth, development, and learning of students.

The other challenge is that the skills focused on and developed early in one’s career (e.g., listening, advising, supervising, training, counseling, translating theory into practice) only form the foundation of the broader skill set needed to be successful higher in the organizational hierarchy. Competencies in such areas as leadership, organization development, resource attraction, talent (staff) development, marketing, intrapreneurship, strategic planning, financial management, and political management must be recognized, appreciated, and learned. Ideally, the recognition and appreciation of the importance of these competencies should come early so that developing them can begin through observing and engaging with successful middle- and upper-level administrators.

Obviously, there are many professionals who have long and fulfilling careers in direct contact jobs, such as counselor, academic advisor, and career counselor. However, most of us eventually start to move up the organizational hierarchy. I invite graduate students and new professionals to reflect on this issue. Tony Doody (@TonyDoody) and I (@pglove33) are addressing many of the competency areas in our work on #unconventionalleadership. You can see more of our work at unconventional-leadership.com and by following us on Twitter.

Happy New Year!

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Losing Touch, but Gaining Influence

  1. I really enjoyed this post Patrick. This concept sounds simple the way you’ve written it (and it is well-written) but I think it’s a concept that many people are afraid of. Moving up the ladder and losing touch also means losing affirmation. We lose our eligibility for martyrdom as we gain influence and lose touch. Thanks for writing, looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  2. I totally agree with Becca you articulate well how your focus changes as you move up and becomes much broader. I hope to see more posts from you.

  3. I find this to be an intriguing article and a good argument for letting go of the fear of losing contact with undergraduate students, even as one of those fearful entry-level professionals. But I think you’re suggesting a trade off– sacrifice some contact, gain some influence. That may appeal to some, but I’m not sure that it appeals to everyone. While moving up may broaden your sphere of influence, increase your paycheck, etc., your day to day tasks change. If you enjoy those changes, by all means, embrace them. But I find it important to love what you do every day, especially in student affairs where its a part of your life as much as your job. And if the part of the job that you absolutely love is the direct contact with students, well, that may be a big sacrifice to make.

    • DMarie,
      I agree with you. Each person needs to decide what they are willing to sacrifice and what elements they really love about their work. I love working with people, it is just that now I tend to work almost exclusively with staff. I have the opportunity to advise and mentor (and, therefore, influence) some great young professionals. I get the same charge from this that i got working with RAs and students as a hall director.
      Thanks for commenting!
      Patrick

  4. I agree with most of what you shared in this article. I would add a challenge to those you’ve listed, however. Our culture and our students change, and the actual students we worked with ten or fifteen years ago no longer exist on our campuses. Let’s say I’m a marine biologist who has read everything about dolphins, interact with other biologists who work with dolphins on a daily basis, have all the research stats at my fingertips – but in my work I’ve only interacted with manatees, never with dolphins. I am missing a critical data set when it comes to making choices in my work, choices that directly impact the dolphins. What’s more, I’m missing the richness that direct interaction brings to my professional perspective. This, I believe, is a significant challenge for senior administrators (and one we should take seriously): to ratchet up our direct contact with students, not to the level of a Hall Director, but somewhat higher than “as close to zero as it can be without actually being zero.” Without this, we run the risk of making irrelevant decisions (at best) or creating programs and structures which don’t work for actual students (at worst).

    • Jenion,
      I agree with the spirit of your challenge regarding the importance of being in touch with our undergrads. You are so right about leading, managing, and developing programs without understanding our clients. To help me with that I my work with a team of grad students who helps me with a variety of projects and every week each of them have a 15-20 “interview” with an undergrad asking a basic set of “taking-the-pulse” questions. They write up and post the results on our work site. So each week I end up with about 6 brief summaries of these interviews and over the course of the semester it adds up to scores of students. We can identify themes and issues (and certainly any immediate follow-up). I have found it very helpful.
      Also, while I don’t have much contact with undergrads, I do have the privilege of teaching in our CSA program, so I get to work directly with 25 great master’s students. That really helps fill me direct contact desire!
      Cheers,
      Patrick

    • Gavin Henning

      Jenion,
      You do pose an interesting challenge. Direct contact can provide some information, but not all of the information we need to be foster student learning and development. Your challenge highlights the importance of being lifelong learners. We need to constantly keep ourselves up-to-date not only on the literature regarding students but also expand that learning outside of higher education. We can learn a great deal from fields such as business and engineering to helps us do our job more effectively and efficiently. This type of learning is good for both those with direct interactions with students and those without.

      Gavin

  5. Gavin Henning

    Excellent post Patrick. This highlights for me that while our realm of influence increases as we move up the career ladder, that move also requires a different set of skills and knowledge than many direct contact jobs require. We all need to continue to be active learners throughout our lives.

  6. Pingback: https://thejerseyalliance.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/losing-touch-but-gaining-influence/ | thejerseyalliance

  7. Pingback: Patrick’s pre… | thejerseyalliance

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