What New Student Affairs Directors Need to Know

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The job of directing a unit in student affairs is complex and challenging. Here is some advice from experts who have been there.

New student affairs directors have the opportunity to see a direct impact on the lives of students and the success of the institution, but often face an array of common challenges upon entering their new position, including:

  • Learning how to lead, manage, and delegate
  • Determining the internal and external priorities for your department
  • Moving your initiatives forward by influencing up, across, and down
  • Making important financial and budgetary decisions
  • Navigating their new human resources duties

Taking on the directorship is a complex and challenging transition. That’s why we’re offering a Bootcamp for New Student Affairs Directors this July, co-facilitated by Karen Whitney, president of Clarion University and a past student affairs leader, and Jeremy Podany, executive director of corporate services and career education at Colorado State University. We wanted to ask these two experts what skills gaps they are seeing in new student affairs directors and what critical pieces of advice they would offer to those preparing to lead a department in student affairs.

This is what they told us:

What is one knowledge or skills gap you see often in new SA directors?

Photo: Karen Whitney, speaking on skills new student affairs directors needKaren Whitney. Often new SA directors make the mistake of only focusing on inputs rather than on results. It is understandable to get caught in simply looking at and defending the good hard work that the director and those who report to the director do every day to benefit students. However, when a department only looks at the hard work (the inputs) without also assessing the outcomes achieved, it becomes easy to keep working hard without achieving or without knowing if you have achieved the purpose for which the department exists in the first place.

As such, I always encourage directors to be very clear about the results the department is expected to achieve, and to organize around results. Being results-oriented allows you to know when and why you have had a good year, and knowing this, you are better able to advocate for your department’s future needs.

Photo: Jeremy Podany, speaking on the skills new student affairs directors needJeremy Podany. I think it is very important for a new student affairs director to prioritize integrating their functional area into the broader ecosystem of the campus; often this doesn’t happen. When one gets a new leadership role, it’s a beautiful feeling; the new role comes with excitement to lead a team, recognition from peers in similar roles around the country, and also a bit of “Imposter Syndrome”–a nervousness that others might discover that we are not all they think we are.

If we are not careful, this nervousness can make us want to stay close to our own expertise and not consider the broader partnerships we need to make if we are to thrive in the campus community. This is natural and can be overcome; new directors should be reminded and encouraged to go on a listening tour into multiple other departments to specifically consider mission overlaps, process integration, and data sharing. This will not only enlighten the director in her new role, but also shed light on potentially great solutions for students.

What are a few critical pieces of advice you would offer to new SA directors?

Karen Whitney.

  1. Always remember exactly what you were hired to achieve and keep that at the forefront, guiding your efforts.
  2. Be sure to continually keep abreast of evidence-based best practices. In other words, stay involved in national organizations such as NASPA, ACPA, CAS (Council for the Advancement of Standards), and proactively seek out other professional development opportunities.
  3. As soon as you can, develop an advanced skill set in assessing your department’s work in order to continually improve your department in an evidence-based manner. In addition to this evidence-based culture of improvement culture, you should use your data to regularly express the “added value” your department brings to the college experience. As I argue here, your work is at the core of the academy, and you need to be able to demonstrate the specific impact you are having and you need to be able to advocate accordingly for the resources you need to increase that impact. Own the work that you do.

Jeremy Podany.

  1. Find 1-3 lifelines that are completely outside your campus, individuals you can talk with regularly about pain points in the office. This will both help your personal stability, and give you more perspective and long-term energy. This personal advisory board will be a source of great encouragement, as well. (Encouragement is something leaders get less than they used to.)
  2. Data is your new friend. It gives you and your office more credibility, and it helps you tell compelling stories of success. Create the necessary channels and bandwidth for identifying, collecting, and visualizing the stories your data tells about the work that you do.
  3. Respond, don’t “react.” Respond to emails, comments, and all the interesting news that comes your way. The volume of highs and lows may be greater than you are used to. People will test you, and you may hit your limits, but stepping back to provide thoughtful and measured responses will build trust and respect among your staff and colleagues.