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Today’s Defector is one who not only recognizes the forces that allowed her to easily walk away from higher education, but is now actively working to address some of the things that concerned her most. A love for organizational psychology is the driving force behind her Zen Workplace, a consultancy that helps people work and lead better- on campuses and off. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Karlyn- and for sharing what you’ve learned with those who need help!

Not sure what we’re doing here yet? All is revealed here.

Over the past few months, I’ve been coaching one of the most creative and talented women I know as she prepares to be fired from her job at a very prestigious college.

That’s right, prepares to be fired. Because instead of utilizing all the talents and skills this woman brought to the table, she has been beaten her down over the course of months. She was blackballed by a vice president that no one wants to deal with, harassed by both her boss and her subordinate in a coordinated effort to force her out, and sought out help from HR only to be turned away….because they were coaching her boss on how to create documentation to fire her when no real reason existed. All of it was clear as day to the two of us and it was really just a matter of time – the only reason she stayed was to try to line up another gig before she got the boot.

Why would they go through all this trouble, you ask? I have a few theories:

  1. Her boss, who was relatively new, was intimidated by her and wanted to replace her with someone more junior to be the clear top dog.
  2. She wasn’t an alum of the college, and therefore didn’t “get it” in their eyes. 

This all sounds crazy, but the really crazy thing is that this is not the first time I’ve seen this happen. And it probably won’t be the last. Therein lies the issue that I have with higher education – the amount of amazing talent that gets squandered and dismissed.

Let me back up. My first job in higher education was right out of college as an admissions counselor which, of course, is an amazing first job to have! You’re working with people your age, traveling to recruit students, and learning a variety of different skills that you can apply later on. I had a great time and truly fell in love with the industry: the community, the idealism, the very real sense that you have a part in changing people’s lives. As an extra bonus, you get to work with really smart people! Higher education has a lot going for it and I wouldn’t have chosen to spend my early professional years anywhere else.

But as you rise in the ranks the ugliness starts to rear its head- the politics, the red tape, the committees, the people who have been at the institution forever and have consolidated a power base that put the kibosh on any and all new ideas. You realize how underutilized all those really smart people are – how underutilized you are – and it becomes a maddening experience. Unless you’re really lucky and have an amazing, influential boss (yes, those do exist!), one of two things will eventually happen to you: You either conform to the quiet mediocrity that is demanded from you, or you will get forced out. You may not get fired but it will be made very clear to you when your presence is no longer welcome.

There is a talent crisis in higher education that is coming from the top. So much talent is leaving because they do not see the opportunity to do the innovative work they are capable of or advance beyond mid-level. Those who do get ahead are the ones that know where their place is…and understand they should never attempt to push boundaries beyond a gentle nudge.

Ironically, it was these experiences that ultimately precipitated a career transition for me.  After years as a very successful marketer, I went back to school and to get a PhD in organizational psychology because I wanted to understand and help organizations create better, innovative, engaging work environments that takes full advantage of the skills that their people bring to the table. After over a decade in the industry, I left to go solo. Today I have my own practice and, yes, I have a lot of higher education clients! It’s another ironic twist of fate that I’m better positioned to serve the industry I love as an outsider than I ever would have been if I was on staff. It’s the higher ed way of life, knowing that even if you’ve been saying the same thing for years, the consultants will always be listened to before you will be. So I’ll enjoy my consultant role for now. Being listened to by leaders, having my advice taken and implemented- it’s a whole new world!

Would I ever go back and work for a college or university full time? I love the idea of it in the same way I love the idea of a world full of rainbows and unicorns. But truth be told, I would be scared to death to make that commitment. The work I do in shifting work cultures sounds great on paper, and I’ve never come across a college or university that wouldn’t benefit from my help. The problem is that I just don’t think many leaders in higher ed have the fortitude to see it through to reality beyond a few trainings here and there. And it takes more than a few trainings to shift a culture.

Here’s what it would take for me to take the full-time plunge:

  • A long-term commitment from the top, because that’s the only way it can possibly work. A president that isn’t afraid to say it’s time for higher education to do things differently when it comes to how it treats its administrative talent and wants to create a preeminent work culture for their people.
  • A leadership team that understands that when your employees are happy, motivated, and taken care of, every single success metric that can be measured goes up. Enrollment, engagement, scholarship, retention, giving…every single metric that drives the success of any academic institution.
  • Independence from the HR function. HR plays an extremely important role in any organization. However, they sat back and watched as the current reality was created. Maybe they didn’t know what to do, or maybe they just didn’t see the benefit of advocating change. Either way, that means the solution has to come from outside of them.

That’s a tall order. Is it possible? I’m not sure….but I hope it is. Universities are starting to make a proactive effort to look for talent who have no higher education experience when all they really need to do is look internally and utilize the talent they already have. Empower them, let them off the leash and do the things they are capable of. They will blow your mind and all of your core metrics will skyrocket.

If there are any higher ed leaders reading this that want to consider that a challenge, get in touch with Karlyn! She would love to talk to you.


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