Habits of Highly Effective Higher-Ed Professionals

by Steven Riccio, Ed.D., SPHR,
Lecturer, International Business & Management, Dickinson College

Higher education does a great job educating others, but seldom do we work on ourselves. We don't take the time to 'sharpen the saw.' As a result, colleges and universities are filled with very sharp people who possess rather dull blades.

In a classic video vignette entitled "Big Rocks," from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the late Stephen R. Covey invited an audience member to join him onstage for an experiment. Most know the concept of Big Rocks, but I encourage you to watch this video if you haven’t already. In the experiment, Covey asks the young female executive to fit in all the big rocks he has provided into a bucket that is over half-filled with pebbles. The pebbles depict the day-to-day tasks, emails, meetings, and emergencies that we are all faced with and that fill up our lives.

At one point, the participant looks at the rock labeled "Sharpen the Saw," rolls her eyes, and places it back onto the table. Covey, who never shied away from a teachable moment, picks up the same rock asking the audience, "Who feels they don’t have time to 'Sharpen the Saw'?" As several hands are raised, Covey then follows with a great line, "Have you ever been too busy driving to take time to get gas?"

"Sharpen the Saw" was Covey’s analogy for self-renewal. He describes how we all work hard each day "sawing wood," but instead of taking time to sharpen the blade of our saw (self-renewal) we decide it is easier to just push forward and continue sawing with the same dull blade. For this reason, we don't get very far in our pursuits, despite working extremely hard. As you read this article, chances are you feel the same way.

Covey introduced this concept to us nearly thirty years ago. However, it's fair to say that thirty years later we continue to leave for work each morning with our lunch and dull blade in hand. As a result, colleges and universities are filled with very sharp people who possess rather dull blades. This is not meant to insult the reader but to share my research findings and experiences as a human resource professional in higher education. For my doctoral dissertation, I explored talent management practices specifically within academic institutions. Through this research, I noticed that higher education does a great job educating others (our students, communities, and corporations), but seldom do we work on ourselves. I found this to be both fascinating and troubling at the same time.

What Gets in the Way

Of course, there are a number of excellent examples where colleges and universities invest in the future through their talent. However, very few institutions budget the necessary funding needed for their faculty and staff to continually grow in meeting the needs of their students and other constituents.

That lack of funding and institutional will is certainly understandable, given the economic climate of the last ten years, competing campus interests, and increased scrutiny from those outside the academy looking for immediate results. However, this all begs the question, How do we produce the results we aim for when we continue to work with dull blades? We owe it to ourselves, the colleagues we work with, and the students we educate and support to prioritize professional development more than ever before.

I was fortunate to have worked for seven years overseeing professional development within the human resource department at my institution. With the exception of teaching, it was one of the most fulfilling opportunities I have had in my career. Senior management at our college made a significant investment that would allow for professional growth for all employees. This spoke volumes within our community. We saw increases in morale, conversation, collaboration, excitement and enthusiasm. This translated to a better experience for our students. In fact, students asked to participate in a number of the workshops that we offered across campus, and we were happy to have their perspective in the sessions.

Over time, however, I saw a shift in the culture. The investment by the college was still there, but I began to witness too many employees who were "too busy driving to take time to get gas." Some admitted to the struggles they faced with the pace of their work and their workload overall. Others felt (whether this was perception or reality) that their supervisor would not support their attendance at professional development events.

When our emphasis is placed on our own urgencies and other people's priorities, we then wonder why we don't feel fulfilled any longer in the important work that we do. We lose focus on why we decided on a career in higher education in the first place. Trust me, I have been there and it is not a place you want to stay in for too long.

Going from "Fighting Fires" to Adding Value

Colleges and universities have always excelled in "fighting fires" (being reactive) as opposed to taking the time to build structures that are fire-resistant. We check our email continually throughout the day and evening; some studies show that we check email nearly fifty times per day. If we are not checking email, we are in meetings struggling repeatedly with what seems to be the same issues. The most "efficient" check emails while in meetings. In addition, our mobile-technology way of life allows us to get a heck of a lot done while robbing ourselves of the precious time to consider deeper, more strategic pursuits.

Professor and executive coach Richard Leider, in his book Repacking Your Bags: Lightening Your Load for the Good Life, addresses the value of continuing to reinvent ourselves in today's economic landscape. He states that it's no longer "what you know" that's important, but "how you add value." The experience we gain through performing our dedicated work proves that we know quite a bit about academia, and more specifically our chosen field of work. But we must ask ourselves, Am I still adding value? Am I continually seeking new learning opportunities that allow me to gain new perspectives by collaborating with colleagues (both internal and external to my campus) who are faced with the same challenges?

Most of us in higher education would agree that our overall purpose is to create the optimal living and learning environment for our students, an environment that will prepare them to move forward to serve their communities well into the future. In order for this to occur, we coach our students to pursue lifelong learning; yet we don't practice what we preach. Whether you manage a team or are an individual contributor to your institution's mission, it's time to inspect your blades. If you are like me, after a while your blade starts to bend, leaving you working really hard while achieving minimal results.

Let's not just lead our students. Let's lead our students by example.