Developing a High-Performing and Productive Advising Department, Part 2: Assessing and Meeting Employee Needs

READ THE WHOLE SERIES:

  1. Assessing and Meeting Student Needs
  2. Assessing and Meeting Employee Needs
  3. Optimizing Your Use of Student Information Systems
  4. Academic Advising's Role in Change Implementation

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by Sue Ohrablo, Author of High-Impact Advising: A Guide for Academic Advisors

Academic advising staff, comprised of both administrative support staff and advisors, may experience a great deal of stress and frustration as they work to manage the expectations of both students and administration. As frontline personnel, they are the first to be confronted when students experience problems and express dissatisfaction, yet they have little authority or control. By including these constituents in decision-making and planning, advising administrators are able to benefit from their diverse perspectives and maximize on the skills that each staff member brings to the department.

This is particularly important because when we establish systems and procedures in response to student needs, there is frequently a risk that advising personnel will view these changes in a negative light. Advisors may anticipate that their own needs will be deprioritized as we work to meet the needs of students. For example, an edict such as "Advisors have 24-48 hours to respond to students" may cause additional stress on advisors who are already facing challenges in managing their workload.

I recommend examining practices and procedures regularly, observing the impact on advising staff, and soliciting staff feedback proactively, so that you can begin to address employee needs while also keeping student needs in clear view. Here are some ways to do so, as well as 7 strategies for responding to staff needs as you identify them.

2 Strategies for Assessing Staff Needs

1. Examine Current Processes

I encourage advising administrators to ask why on an ongoing, consistent basis. Understanding the origin and history of policies and procedures is critical to future planning and decision-making.

For example, before making a decision to add Saturday hours to the advising schedule, find out if the department has ever tried weekend shifts before, and if so, what results were seen. Did weekend hours effectively serve the student population? What was the impact on advising personnel? Was the investment in weekend hours worth the negative impact it may have had on advisors? If so, were advisor needs addressed?

It is important to involve staff in a comprehensive review and examination of processes. In conversation with your staff, discuss:

  • What are the benefits of the current process for the student?
  • What are the benefits of the current process for the advisor?
  • What obstacles do students currently face with the process?
  • What obstacles do advisors currently face with the process?
  • What is something we could change, regarding the student’s role, that would improve the process?
  • What is something we could change, regarding the advisor’s role, that would improve the process?

Observe sources of frustration, and pay attention to sources of conflict. It is important to include both professional staff (advisors and managers) and administrative support staff in your discussions, as all of these personnel play critical roles in the department's success.

2. Actively Solicit Input and Feedback

Make sure that you are listening to the "word on the street" in order to identify key areas of concern. While not all staff members may be forthright in their communication of needs and concerns, you can usually discern those needs either through interaction with a few key individuals or through general observation. Pay close attention to what staff are telling you.

Just as you need to do with students, it is essential to seek input and feedback from departmental employees. You can develop formal assessment instruments (similar to a student satisfaction survey), or simply interview staff to determine their needs and interests. Here are some sample interview questions:

  • What strengths of yours do you feel help us in the operation of the department and in the achievement of our goals?
  • In what areas do you feel we could improve in order to more effectively meet the needs of the department?
  • What tasks/activities/responsibilities of your role do you most enjoy?
  • What tasks/activities/responsibilities of your role do you least enjoy?
  • What do you believe are the biggest challenges we face as a team?

7 Strategies for Meeting Staff Needs

1. Develop Specific Action Plans Based on Advisor Feedback

As you identify areas of concern for your staff, some broad themes may become apparent. For example, staff may be concerned about compensation, opportunity for advancement, and lack of resources. For each of these broad categories, develop a separate and specific action plan. For example, if advisors are perceiving that there is no opportunity for advancement, they are likely at risk for burnout or departure. You can advocate for an examination of salaries and promotion scales throughout the industry and across your institution. Your action plan could also include specific steps to appreciate and acknowledge advisor work in the interim, while you address the more difficult challenge of revising compensation structures. Make sure your action plan is communicated clearly to your staff.

2. Address Concerns Quickly

Advisors are often at risk for feeling trapped and helpless between the students and higher administration. While advisors play an integral role in meeting student needs and resolving student problems, advisors also rely heavily on others to accomplish this. They may have to wait for permission to override a prerequisite, exceed course enrollment capacities, evaluate transfer credit, or make an exception to policy. Administrators can alleviate advisor stress by addressing concerns and requests from staff in an expeditious manner. Just as advisors are expected to assist students quickly and efficiently, advising administrators should prioritize rapid response to the needs of advisors, too. In fact, this is essential to accomplishing that first goal of meeting student needs quickly and effectively.

3. Solve Problems, Don't Just Note Them

Administrative support staff and advisors encounter problems with systems on a daily basis. Problems related to hardware, such as phones or computers that are not working properly, can bring the advising department to a virtual halt. Advisors also face systemic problems, such as the online registration portal not being open on the first day of registration. As an advising administrator, you need to address these issues quickly and follow through to the resolution of the problem. Simply calling the IT department or notifying the registrar is not enough. Administrators who are able to facilitate successful, expedient problem resolution will be more effective in meeting staff (and therefore, student) needs.

4. Provide Tools and Resources

Advising staff need information:

  • Staff who answer phones must have phone directories, and a strong knowledge of personnel and their roles. They also may need access to key resources which they can provide to students, such as academic calendars, catalogs, and forms.
  • Advisors require information prior to dissemination to students, so that they are able to review and understand the information themselves in order to effectively address student questions.

You can help by ensuring policies and procedures are defined and easily located. Articulate protocols clearly (and early) and communicate them in order to maximize efficiencies and minimize frustration. Without the proper tools and resources, advising staff cannot effectively meet the needs of the students with whom they work.

5. Understand Their Jobs and the Challenges They Face

When staff feel that you do not understand what they do or the problems they face, they can easily develop a sense of frustration with the perceived lack of support. This is often an issue because, as advising administrators, you are managing multiple competing priorities and putting out fires on a daily basis, and as you get increasingly focused on short-term problems and daily tasks, you are at risk of overlooking the challenges each staff member faces.

It is essential that you understand the experiences and responsibilities of your staff. Through direct observation and participation, you can obtain first-hand expeirence and insight into the day-to-day operation of the department. For example:

  • Shadowing advising sessions and advising students yourself will help keep you abreast of current issues that both students and advisors face.
  • Observing walk-in or phone traffic or picking up phone calls yourself will provide you with a valuable perspective on the role and challenges of reception staff.

It is often through such experiences that change is initiated. My staff used to tell me that they loved it when one of the managers would go out on family leave and I would fill in for a few months, because they knew that there would be productive change in processes and protocols as a result of my closer participation in the day-to-day work of the department.

6. Anticipate Advisor Needs

As advising administrators, you may often find yourselves in back-to-back meetings as you contribute to policy development and the implementation of programs. Ironically, this can make it even more difficult to plan ahead. Yet it is important to anticipate what your advisors will need in advance of upcoming changes, in order to avoid unexpected problems or unnecessary roadblocks. Whenever there is a change ahead for your policies or procedures, ask yourself these questions:

  • What does the advisor need to know?
  • When does the advisor need to know it?
  • Who needs to be involved in communication to students and staff?
  • Would advisor input prevent ambiguity or student inquiries?

7. Think Across the Institution

The nature of our work -- fast-paced, putting out fires, focused on the needs of the students who are visiting us this week -- can lead to siloed thinking. Yet advising plays an integral, not an isolated, role in helping the institution achieve its academic mission. By looking beyond the advising center, advising leaders can contribute more meaningfully to the broader work of the institution. You can often bridge the gap between academic and student affairs, and help to influence positive change to academic procedures, practices, and curricula. And by developing an understanding of how each component (curriculum development, financial aid, student information systems) impacts students, you can represent the needs of students, staff, and advisors to your colleagues throughout the institution.

Summary

It is essential that advising administrators take the pulse of their staff. As we strive to serve students, we run the risk of compromising the motivation and productivity of the advising staff. As we consider the objective of "students first," we have to also remain aware of the critical role that engaged, dedicated, and effective advisors play in the success of our students.

Get Sue Ohrablo's Book High-Impact Advising

High-Impact Academic Advising: CoverHow can academic advisors provide high-quality developmental advising in the face of diminishing resources and increased commitments? We brought this question to Sue Ohrablo, a nationally recognized speaker with 25+ years of experience working with diverse institutions and student populations. In this 300-page, comprehensive training guide, Sue offers practical guidelines for academic advisors.

“I highly recommend that all academic advising professionals read High-Impact Advising: A Guide for Academic Advisors, as it will help them to enhance key skills needed to establish positive relationships with students, appropriately assess students’ needs, effectively teach students, and efficiently provide high quality service.”
Jacqueline T. Hollins, Assistant Vice Provost/Director of Academic Advisement, SUNY at Buffalo (UB)

“As a department leader in academic advisement, I would use Sue’s book as a training resource and teaching mechanism for advisors. It allows advising professionals to understand today’s complex environment of advising students, beyond just selecting courses.”
Jake Shilts, Director, Advisement & Career Services, Miami Dade College

“Advisors will reap the benefits of this well-balanced, informative guide.”
Shari Saperstein, Associate Dean, College of Undergraduate Studies, Nova Southeastern University

"A student-centered, informative, and practical approach. Dr. Ohrablo presents powerful guidelines geared towards student success for 21st century academic advisors. The handbook offers indispensable information and engaging scenarios that mirror real life college instances that students experience. A key resource tool for academic advisors and higher education professionals."
Dr. DeLaine Priest, Associate Vice President of Student Development and Enrollment Services, University of Central Florida