Looking for a Job in Student Affairs? Show Your Potential

by Jodi Koslow Martin

Last week, I stayed late after work for a panel discussion on immigration, hosted by our Office of Diversity. Two of the speakers on the panel are current faculty members at my newest employee’s graduate school. NE (New Employee) is finishing up his dissertation, in his early thirties, and has been married for a couple of years. I asked NE if he wanted to go to dinner before the panel discussion and invited his spouse to join us. The restaurant I chose was near their apartment so I drove NE and his spouse met us there. In the car, NE noted that if we were in the late 1950’s, Mad Men era I would be a man and we would likely be going to his house where his wife would likely have made dinner for us. NE is right…this picture would have likely looked different 60 years ago. My gender was a noticeable factor in the context of this situation.

While I could write many blog posts on Mad Men gender politics (and how the residual effects are still subtly alive and well), I want to note how I appreciated that NE noticed the context of the situation, and that he was able to do so in an appropriate-for-the-moment way. There are many ways such a comment could have made things awkward but he has been able to quickly assess people accurately. He is astute, “astute” being my new favorite quality in people in the workplace. Being astute really has little to do with experience but rather the ability to pay attention, be curious, and think. All such qualities are marked ways to demonstrate potential. And, demonstrating potential is what I really want to highlight in this blog entry.

Hiring for potential, according to Harvard Business Review author Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, is the best way to spot talent. Fernández-Aráoz’s article, The Big Idea: Why Potential Now Trumps Brains, Experience, and Competencies, has named the approach I use when I look for people to fill position openings. Actually, it’s what I’m looking for even when I don’t have openings because I never know when I may have one. In his piece, Fernández-Aráoz is preaching to the choir when I read about the difference between “high performance” vs. “high potential.” I want people who not only can do what is expected of them – thus solidifying good performance – but can also identify new ways of doing things better. I don’t want someone to run a Career Development office the ways other colleges do it; I want someone who can see the best of other Career Development offices in higher education and the best practices of career coaches and search firms and have someone re-create that in our office. (I hired an incredibly high potential woman to run our career office eight months ago.) Yet, I worry that women may not show high potential often enough. It’s not enough to just do your job well (performance) but it’s essential to show who you are in your work so that you show you can do things at a higher level (potential).  It’s not lost on me that the examples of successful professionals who were hired for potential in Fernández-Aráoz’s article are men. So, I wonder…. How can professional women in student affairs who are looking for jobs, or soon to be looking for jobs this spring, demonstrate their potential? I have some thoughts.

Always be creating a pipeline for yourself…it may not exist. Fernández-Aráoz points out that there are not many people who focus on their successors. Thus, there may not be many “pipelines” to move up. In other words, there may not be a culture of cultivating mentoring relationships. (Those of us who started this blog understand that.) Pipelines, or professional paths, come by way of knowing people and having people know you. You’ve got to create relationships with people continually and naturally. Ask your boss about his or her professional path. Talk with others about their professional paths. Email people who look like they have a good job and request to do an informational interview with them. Glean as much as you can from these stories. You’ll build your network and learn that there are many, many paths to professional fulfillment. Never be fearful of humbly asking others about their takes on pipelines and paths. You will undoubtedly learn and craft a pipeline or two of your own.

Make sure your male counterparts are doing their share of the office housework. The book club members of this site recently read What Works for Women at Work. The authors point out that small administrative tasks are often done by the doers – by the women. I think it’s part of an office culture. Women have often found success by pleasing others, by getting things accomplished. Yet, as you move up the ladder, the nature of the work is different and the work is strategic. Take the minutes of the meetings if that’s part of your job responsibility…and take them in stride. And, don’t always be the one getting the birthday cards and the cupcakes. Share that responsibility. (And that doesn’t mean making the excel chart to keep track of who is in charge of the cards and cupcakes.) Gently nudge your male counterparts by noting what you’ve gain from these tasks.

Listen and do…and then offer alternatives. My spouse recently told my three-year-old daughter that the back window of the car could not be opened on the highways. She asked, “Where are the low ways?” Out of the mouths of babes come some good reminders. If you can’t get to the intended goal one way, then you may need to suggest alternatives. There should be nothing holding you back from offering new ways of doing things once you’ve established yourself in the workplace. Even if they are not always adopted, it will show your potential for innovative and entrepreneurial thinking.

Personalize the impersonal. This nugget is for your consideration if you are in the midst of a job search. You may find a job posting at the perfect school, at the perfect level, at the perfect time. Sadly, you and thirty-eight others think the same thing. If you are going to stand out in the process, you’ll have to do your research and act on it. This means making a personalized connection. The best way to make a personal connection is to find a way to be recommended by someone who knows the boss of the job and to have said person write a nice email on your behalf.   If that is not an option, you can submit your resume and a personalized email that acts as a cover letter indicating your interest in the position directly to the supervisor. Take this step in addition to going through the human resources approach. This shows initiative and it shows potential. It shows you are willing to make a gesture and not just wait for things to happen…you are someone who makes things happen. High five yourself if it works. Will some people think you didn’t follow the directions and the protocol of the search process? Maybe, but what’s more important…standing out or sitting around waiting and wondering why the job you are sure was created for you has gone to someone else?

These tidbits are to be encouraging, and to offer a bit of the practical way to find yourself doing the work you love in student affairs. Then, women can become part of the organizational structures that advance future generations of women…so that those who take their employees and their partners to dinner are not replicating a Mad Men episode.

Fernández-Aráoz, C. (2014). 21st CENTURY TALENT SPOTTING. (cover story). Harvard Business Review, 92(6), 46-56.

Williams, J. C., & Dempsey, R. (2014). What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know. New York: NYU Press.


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