The Defectors, Series 3: Parting Words for the Road Ahead

We’ve reached the end of the third series of The Defectors, and I want to thank each of my ten participants for their consideration and candor as they shared their stories. The community that has come together around this particular stage in work has blown me away, and I’m happy to have gotten to share even a little bit of it with you this August. More will be coming from me on the topic, so I hope you’ll stay tuned!

[Defectors, Series 1 | Defectors, Series 2]

I want to conclude this year’s edition with some final wisdom, collected from our participants. I asked each of them to answer the vague but essential question for empowerment, “Any parting words on the Defector experience?” Here are some of the answers, and the lessons they highlight:

From Greg Sadler, reluctant but now confident entrepreneur: it’s okay that you might not have imagined this for yourself when you started your career.

I never thought I’d be doing anything remotely like this ten years ago. Quite frankly, the catalyst for me was not the independence being an entrepreneur brings, or the potential of making a better income than as an underpaid university professor.

I left a position where I was coming up for early tenure and promotion, had written portions of the 10 year Quality Enhancement Plan for the university, and was carrying out university wide assessment.  I did that for love, moving up to New York, where my fiancee lived and worked, in a still-terrible job market.  I did continue to teach as an adjunct, but over time I became more and more a post-academic entrepreneur.

There were a lot of growing pains, setbacks, and learning experiences, but seven years in I’m doing fairly well and still growing in my profession.  So I’m happy with being a “defector”!

From Ashlie Baty Petz, tech sector program manager: it’s okay to protect your time and energy by taking your skills somewhere new.

I do not regret my decision to leave and am MUCH HAPPIER in my current role (no night/weekend work!). I am financially stable and have a positive work/life blend. I wouldn’t be in my current role without my higher ed background/degree, but I am overall very glad that I made the jump to the tech industry.

From Bonnie Fox, speaker agent and frequent business owner: the impact we have on students doesn’t go away just because we do.

I loved my time with my students in Student Activities. With the help of facebook, I’ve reconnected with many of them…and loved to see the small part I had in forming them into the productive adults they are now. Some have taken my lead and left and started businesses…some have gone into the field…but it is so satisfying that with whatever they choose to do…they look back on the time we had together as one that helped steer them; mold them; teach them; empower them into the awesome people they are today.

From Liz Rader Haigler, HR pro: we need to treat each other better as we make decisions and explore options.

As SA pros we need to support people who have “left” but also support people who have “stayed”. I don’t think the inside/outside dynamic is necessary. I made a choice to apply my trade in a different environment and others acted like they couldn’t even connect with me anymore or I had betrayed the SA profession. We need to celebrate what people chose to do with their skills no matter the place they choose to apply them.

Closely related to that, from Anne Scheideler Sweet, consultant: you might feel alone in some of this. You’re not.

There are others out there rooting for you!

From Mike Conte, staffing professional and founder of the Expatriates of Student Affairs Facebook Group: enjoy your Labor Day, if you have it 🙂

It’s been really fun. I’ve learned so much and got to work with ton of people who I would never have meet in Higher Ed. My Line of work attracts a lot of different backgrounds.

If things were different, If my last job had been better, maybe I would have stayed, and maybe I might go back in a Career Advising role someday….but for now I am really happy about not having to work Labor Day moving in students.


Some more reading on the topic:

Thanks all for reading, and happy Defecting!

[PODCAST] Subject Matter X, Episode 1

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of kicking off Content Pair‘s Subject Matter X podcast. Designed to highlight the journeys to expertise of magicians, sleep experts, pitching analysts…and yes, apparently me 🙂 Content Pair is a company designed to pair marketing professionals in need of expertise, with the highly qualified folks that can make their work sing – in that way, Subject Matter X is an outstanding complement to their daily work.

Bob, Todd, and I are talking about creativity in the debut episode- how I learned to love it, how you can learn to harness and use yours, and why any of this matters out in the world.

Click the image below or head to Subject Matter X to hear my episode- and several others from entertaining and brilliant experts!


The Defectors, Series 3: Meet Corey, Ashlie, Mike, and Liz

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I feel like I keep reliving the Anger Phase of the SA Break up a lot due to my job. I’m privy to a lot of salary information in a lot of different fields due to being in staffing.

-Mike Conte, Staffing Professional and Proud Defector

In this week’s edition of Defectors in Conversation, you get the pleasure of time with Corey, Ashlie, Mike, and Liz.

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Corey Allen (CA) is a Campus Recruiter at Wayfair in Boston. He graduated with his Masters from Northeastern’s College Student and Development program in 2014. From 2014-2017, he worked in Residence Life at Northeastern University and the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Ashlie Baty Petz (AP) is a 2012 graduate of Florida State Higher Ed. Her background lies in Leadership Development from Florida State and Boise State. She formally left the field in 2015, and currently serves as a Program Manager at Micron Technology (Fortune 500 company in tech and semiconductors, aka computer chips).

Michael Conte (MC) is a Senior Staffing Manager at Professional Staffing Group in Boston. He spent almost a decade in Residence Life, from Grad Assistant to Associate Director, and worked heavily with Summer Conferences as well.

Liz Rader Haigler (LH) is currently an HR Operations and Human Resources Development Manager for Halliburton. She graduated from BGSU’s College Student Personnel program in 2013, and worked in the functional areas of New Student Orientation/Services, Admissions, Fraternity and Sorority Life, Campus Activities, Student Conduct, and Residence Life.

Get to know them and their wisdom this week in Defectors in Conversation!

Briefly, what got you curious about “breaching the bubble” of your former field/work?

MC: The first thoughts came in when I had a hard time breaking out of Residence Life. I felt pigeonholed, and was barely getting interviews for entry level Advising Jobs, I was getting worn out on living in a Hall, being on call and missing so many life events and the less then stellar pay. On whim someone told me I would be a great recruiter and that’s were the bug first got in my ear. I saw too many of my friends get raises, big title changes etc, and there was just not that in higher ed. I worked hard too. Where was my bonus for running a Res Hall that brought in 4 million a year? Or my bump in pay for running around all summer being a main point of contact supporting a Summer Housing Program that brought in close to 800k?

AP: I was living paycheck to paycheck. If I became sick or had an emergency, it would have all gone on credit cards with no plan to pay them off. I was sick of having a masters and getting paid like shit.

MC: Glad to see I’m not the only one who had the money issue. I feel like I keep reliving the Anger Phase of the SA Break up a lot due to my job. I’m privy to a lot of salary information in a lot of different fields due to being in staffing. I get blown away and frustrated. Routinely I see people who graduated with a BA with 3-4 years of work experience make close to what I was making with a Masters and 9 years in the field, sometimes more.

LH: I was working in Residence Life in Dallas at the time and it was a mix of things that started my journey “out”. I LOVED my SA role at the time, but my partner was offered a new role in Houston. I knew I would need to find something new shortly. Since I had to make a change, I thought why not see what else is out there? I knew there were parts of my passions and personality that Student Affairs was not fulfilling for me. Some of the work I loved most felt like a hobby and something I could do outside of work.

While searching, a friend of mine who worked at Halliburton sent me the job. The role would be designing and developing competencies, driving the program, and supporting the product service line training framework. I thought, I know nothing about the Oil/Gas Industry but I do know people, people development, and how to help people learn. I can learn the rest. They were willing to take a chance on someone who had a development background versus a technical one (like engineering) because they were looking for something different. I now have worked there since 2015, have loved it and regret nothing.

CA: After I graduated from grad school and began working in higher education full time, I began to feel notice the transition from student to professional. I no longer was the super involved student that had pride in the change they were accomplishing on campus. Also working in Residence Life at the time, I felt that living on campus was beginning to become a burden. There were long hours, the pay was low, and there did not seem to be any opportunity for growth at the institution I was working at. The next solution that came to mind was to change schools! That will solve everything. It did not.

I was working in Residence Life at a completely different institution in a different city and had the same feelings. I then began my job search online and noticed a significant amount of Campus Recruiting positions from large companies. I made it a goal to sit back and reflect on my transferable skills and began applying. Months later, I got the job I’m in now.

I thought, I know nothing about the Oil/Gas Industry but I do know people, people development, and how to help people learn. I can learn the rest. They were willing to take a chance on someone who had a development background versus a technical one (like engineering) because they were looking for something different.

What was your biggest fear in making the jump? Comparatively, what were you really confident in?

LH: I didn’t know what the environment would be like, I didn’t know if people would be cold or managers would only care about deadlines, metrics, and moving up. When you are in Student Affairs often your passion and drive to do your work is based on wanting to “develop/support students and their experiences.” What would be the mission where I was going? Making money? Could I get behind that? Turns out I love the work and the company has been such a great experience. For sure it’s hard and many days I am stressed to my max- but the challenge, pace, and opportunity to be innovative keeps me here!

What I was confident in was my strategic/innovative thinking, that I knew best practices in people development, and I think student affairs work teaches resiliency, problem solving, and team work. So- even if I had a learning curve ahead of me, the skills I was bringing to the table could help get me through it.

MC: My biggest fear was that is was all new. I had only known 5 Years of Retail at CVS and Higher Ed. What would a corporate office be like? What was the day to day? What’s the lingo?

I was really confident in my people skills. I know how to talk to people in a variety of roles and situations. I was also confident in my adaptability.

CA: My biggest fear​ at the time was potential future regret. I was only in higher education for 3 years professionally and only worked in Residence Life. Thoughts going through my head were: “What if I want to go back into higher education?” “Did I just waste time/money going to grad school?” “Where will I live moving off campus?” “Did I have enough money saved to make this transition?” I think most of my fears were centered around my personal life transitions versus the actual job and its functions.

Since the campus team was new at Wayfair, and I was the only one on the team that had a background in higher education, I was confident that I could bring knowledge and experiences to the team that they were unaware of. This has played to my benefit when it comes to creating those networks of colleges/universities that we hire from.

Thoughts going through my head were: “What if I want to go back into higher education?” “Did I just waste time/money going to grad school?” “Where will I live moving off campus?” “Did I have enough money saved to make this transition?” I think most of my fears were centered around my personal life transitions versus the actual job and its functions.

AP: [My] biggest fear was losing part of my identify. I have always identified as a teacher/educator/servant. Would I still feel this way after making the jump? (answer turned out to be a YES, thankfully).

[And] my confidence? I am resilient. I know I could get through just about anything with my new role. I also knew my thought process and education mindset would be a welcome influence at my new company.

What challenges did you have as you adjusted to your new role and new environment?

AP: This might seem trivial but it is true: No one cares where you went to school and everyone has multiple degrees. Most people do not know what Higher Ed or Student Affairs is unless you give specific general examples (like Career Counselor or Academic Advisor). With this, people do not understand my background or career before I started working at Micron.

Other challenges: I am the youngest person on my team by about 15 years. My company is around 14% women (globally). I work at a very global company but only speak English. I work in a cube and have a cube-mate.

LH: Corporate environments can be VERY fast paced in some ways but when you work for a Global Company things can also move slowly. Everything needs stakeholder engagement and approvals and you have to consider your workforce/audience in all you do. I had to learn quickly not only about the business but what things will and won’t work based on the end user. I also had to adjust to the company “type”.

Just like Higher Ed institutions, companies have types too. Different personalities, different environments, goals, and values. Navigating a new company and understanding what they value in your work, your personality, and how it determines success was all part of my adjustment. Ditto to Ashlie- I was the youngest person on my Global team- they didn’t care where I went to school or what I did in my past. I had to create proof points and show them what I could do right then and there. Past accomplishments or laurels meant ZERO.

CA:DATA. DATA. DATA. Coming from a higher education background, all the data I had worked with in the past was qualitative that centered around feelings. Not that corporate doesn’t care about feelings…wait, they don’t- haha!

All the data in my new position had to be quantitative and tangible. So quickly learning how to pick up Microsoft Excel to prove to my stakeholders that I was making progress was the biggest challenge. Learning how to create pivot tables, VLoookups, and charts weekly was something that was challenging at first. Another challenge was my personal passion surrounding diversity initiatives. Everyone in corporate preaches diversity and social justice, but you don’t see much action behind it. So navigating my position to find opportunities to incorporate that into our hiring processes and into the culture was a challenge.

MC: I had a few challenges. Where I work is a very metric driven and public office. We would announce our goals, numbers all in front of each other. People know when you hit your stuff and when you don’t. Very weird at first. Also when you get a placement, you ring a bell and people clap. That was really interesting but become really cool after awhile.

Also, I no longer had my own office. In fact, no one in my company did, all open floor plan…the President/Owner could tap you on the shoulder and ask you a question…Another thing: the President knows your name and who you are. My First Friday there, I went to grab my lunch at a local place, and was pulled by coworker who informed me they buy lunch for us on Friday…then at around 4, saw three people walk in with 12 packs and I was tossed a beer…That was different. I got used to that pretty quick!

[My] biggest fear was losing part of my identify. I have always identified as a teacher/educator/servant. Would I still feel this way after making the jump? (answer turned out to be a YES, thankfully).

What skills served you well in your transition?

CA: Time Management/Prioritizing skills I gained from working in a variety of grad assistantships and ​my time in Residence Life. In corporate, it can tend to be fast paced all year round, so being able to manage my time wisely to make sure I get everything done has been useful in this position.

MC: Patience. Working with students taught me a lot of patience. Nothing much surprises me after working in Housing, so it helped when I would have candidates tell me outrageous stories on why they were going to be late

AP: Confidence and positive self-talk. I walk into the building every day knowing I am meant to be at Micron. I limit the “impostor syndrome” in my head and quickly built a network of people to help me throughout my transition

LH: Really learning the business. You would be amazed at the number of people who don’t know what their business does. Building relationships with key influencers and staying confident and focused on what I was good at- I didn’t know much about some of the technical aspects that I would be building development solutions for, but I did know I was good at facilitation and leadership/soft skills training. So I immediately jumped in to help in that area, so I could add value right away while I worked to learn/understand the things that were less intuitive.

What suggestions do you have for people nervous about (or struggling to) articulate their value “on the outside”?

MC: Everything is translatable…Students = Customers, being an RD is like being a Account Manager, Student Conduct is HR, Admissions is Sales, everything you have done has a “corporate” equivalent. They may not [be] a 1 to 1 comparison but it’s close.

Also focus on your hard skills, not our soft skills. All that Admin work you had to do? That is now way more important. All that paperwork, budgeting, invoicing, process flow you did get a program off the ground? Those skills are going to be way more important be the actual creativity of the program.

AP: Ditto to Michael. Change your language and drop the higher ed jargon. Know that you are not in this process alone. Many people have left the Higher Ed field before you and many will come after you. You have a network of people to lean on during your transition.

LH: Ask someone you know who is “outside” to review your resume and help pull out experiences or phrases that highlight things that a business would be looking for. Changes you initiated, metrics you helped influence, and experiences that show problem solving, ability to analyze and develop strategies. Your skills will serve you well no matter what type of company you are looking at.

Ditto to Michael- Students= Customers, programs=event planning/budget coordinating, Advising/Student Workers=Staff supervision and accountability. It’s just putting it in ‘corporate’ terms and dropping some of the SA buzz words (Intentional, Challenge/Support).

CA: Ditto to the [other] comments, but definitely have someone who is not in higher education look at your materials. After working in recruiting, there are several things I have noticed in the way corporate hires people. For one, I know this will be difficult, but going back to a 1 page resume is really important. The applicant flow in corporate is so large, and if your resume is longer than 1 page that actually may prevent it from being seen.

If you would like to represent all of your experiences still, utilize LinkedIn and keep all of your experiences there. ​To the everyday person, this tool may not be a go to, but as a recruiter we are on LinkedIn all day as we are going through candidates. Also back to the first question I was asked in my Finance class in grad school “Is a university a business?”. Reflect on this question, and try to see where you fit in that “business” and how it could translate to any future experience as well.

Special thanks to Corey, Ashlie, Mike, and Liz for sharing their time, energy, and wisdom with me for this series. 

The Defectors, Series 3: Meet Anne, Greg, and Nicolle

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With the skill-sets and knowledge I had to draw upon, would I really have something cogent and on-point to say to professionals in other fields? As it turns out, the answer is yes, and that fear for the most part dissipated.

-Greg Sadler, Entrepreneur and Proud Defector

In this week’s edition of Defectors in Conversation, I’m really pleased to introduce you to Nicolle, Greg, and Anne.

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Nicolle Merrill (NM) worked in higher ed and Defected twice. First as a Global Programs Manager at Foster School of Business; she left that role for a job as a private jet travel writer in digital marketing at a luxury tourism company. The second role was as an International Student Career Coach in Career Services at Yale School of Management. After two years, she left that to start an online career school for university alumni.

Greg Sadler (GS) is currently president of ReasonIO and editor of Stoicism Today. For about a decade, he worked as a Philosophy professor, and towards the end started moving into assessment, faculty development, and administration.

Anne Scheideler Sweet (AS) spent almost 12 years cobbling together a career in higher ed career while her husband’s military service moved her and her family all over the world.

Get to know them and their wisdom this week in Defectors in Conversation!

Briefly, what got you curious about “breaching the bubble” of your former field/work?

GS: I was already doing that to some extent, simply because I viewed Philosophy as a practical and interdisciplinary activity. So, while doing the typical academic activities – teaching, research, publication, etc. – I was also getting involved in bringing philosophy outside of the academy into more public, practical, and other professional spaces.

I got to make my transition from traditional academia to becoming an entrepreneur and practical philosopher in a more gradual way than many. With each new project, platform, or service I took on, I perceived new opportunities, made additional contacts, and got drawn into thinking about how to make philosophy accessible and applicable for others.

NM: I was curious about [it] for two reasons: I wanted to build more skills and I couldn’t see a path forward. I worked with such good people and had a fabulous boss at Foster; I loved working in international education. But I couldn’t see a path forward.

AS: [In a somewhat opposite issue,] I worked really hard to build a career trajectory for myself and, for a very long time, I wasn’t willing or able to see a way out of the field. I was approached by a friend to consider applying my skills to their family business/startup and decided to take a leap of faith.

NM: When I looked at possible paths to advance I saw limited roles and honestly, just a lot more meetings and too much time spent thinking about budgets. Those options weren’t a fit for me. I was also in program management which didn’t provide many opportunities to increase my skill set. I left for a job that allowed me to build cutting edge skills in digital marketing.

I didn’t think I would return to higher ed but two years later an opportunity opened up at Yale that aligned with my passion for global careers. It was a new role, so I could craft it the way I wanted which appealed to me. I loved that job too. But again the lack of advancement opportunities was a problem. On top of that, there was a relentless focus on MBA rankings at the expense of innovation and change. The rankings game is a common problem in higher education and it preserves the status quo in a time when higher education needs to change. I was curious about changing the traditional career education model so that it better prepared workers for the advances in AI and automation. There wasn’t room for that at Yale SOM (because rankings). So I left for the second time.

Were there any fears at play when you decided to make the jump?

GS: Quite honestly, I had three main fears.

One is the “imposter syndrome” that we’re all familiar with. With the skill-sets and knowledge I had to draw upon, would I really have something cogent and on-point to say to professionals in other fields? As it turns out, the answer is yes, and that fear for the most part dissipated.

AS: Somewhat related to that, my biggest fear was being perceived as a failure for giving up/not being able to “hack it” in higher ed. I haven’t written or posted much about my transition due to still wrestling with those feelings.

GS: Another was almost the opposite of that first fear. Would I be taken seriously as an expert in my field – for example, in my early YouTube videos – even though, in my view, I was practically a “nobody”? I didn’t have a particularly good pedigree, institutional post, and hadn’t published all that much. That fear went away as well, as people responded very positively to the content I provided and the competence I displayed.

NM: [I can understand that.] The first time I was worried they wouldn’t think I was a qualified candidate because program management is not the most competitive skill or a hot job title.

GS: The third main fear was whether I would really be able to earn a living by getting people to pay for my services. That worry is a particularly tough one to get past, especially since some months are lean and others flush when it comes to business!

I was truly confident in the value of working for humans who cared about me as a person and in an environment where changes were possible and encouraged based on what’s important to us as people (kids, family, flexibility, innovation, creativity).

Greg, I have definitely been there…on all three fronts, now that I think about it! Conversely, what were you really confident in?

NM:  I was confident I could create a professional narrative that focused on my communication skills, educated employers about the skills it takes to run successful programs, and convince them that I was a nontraditional candidate to take a chance on. It worked 🙂

AS:  I was truly confident in the value of working for humans who cared about me as a person and in an environment where changes were possible and encouraged based on what’s important to us as people (kids, family, flexibility, innovation, creativity).

What challenges did you have as you adjusted to your new role and new environment?

AS: Still within my first 6 months of the change, so far I’m stumbling over boundaries and time management.

GS: [As a business owner and independent worker,] my two biggest challenges are marketing and maintaining contacts. Both of those are tough to pack into what is always a very busy schedule. The one – maintaining contacts – is actually something I really do enjoy doing, except if I’m feeling embarrassed about failing to keep in touch for a while – and then I have to watch that I don’t fall into that cycle of not keeping in touch, feeling guilty, and putting off getting back into contact until I’ve got the time to write something really substantive. I’ve gotten better about that.

Marketing is still a challenge for me. It’s something that’s absolutely necessary, and I’ve gotten over the “this is self-promotion” hurdle, but I still don’t like to devote time to it. So that is a work in progress.

NM: I had to get used to creative collaboration. I joined a creative team where brainstorming ideas and constant iteration were all in a day’s work. The team was quite flat compared to the hierarchy in higher education. I adapted and loved it eventually but I had to get used to sharing my ideas, getting shut down, building on coworker’s ideas, and working seamlessly with people from diverse skill sets and backgrounds (digital designers, editors, account managers) on one team. Conversely, returning to higher education for a second time after that experience into a non-creative, hierarchical environment was actually harder.

What skills served you well in your transition?

NM: Above all, communication skills. Writing and public speaking are my strengths; I used them a lot during my time in higher education. Lots of people forget the ways you use communication in program management. From engaging students in creative ways to creating documents/resources to presenting on topics, there are so many ways you build communication skills in program management! Those skills are highly transferable and employers value them!

AS: [Case in point:] I’m a shy introvert, so I really don’t love being on the phone, but phone based customer service has been huge for me – being able to talk to anyone and work through an issue together spans all industries. Cleaning up data/records is also a really valuable skill.

NM: Second, my ability to develop a narrative around my higher education experience. You can’t assume employers understand your role. You can’t rely on your job title or your institution’s brand name. You have to explain it to them in their industry language. Show it in your resume, on LinkedIn, in your discussions with people in the industry (hello networking!). A 60 second story that explains what you did in higher education and how it relates to the job you want is incredibly valuable.

GS: As it turns out, one of my talents is for taking complex philosophical concepts from difficult texts, and explaining them so that non-specialists can understand, incorporate, and apply them. I also seem to have fallen into a good balance between maintaining real rigor when it comes to ideas and their application, and engaging with my clients or audience in ways that make them feel valued, not “talked down to.”

What suggestions do you have for people nervous about (or struggling to) articulate their value “on the outside”?

GS: This is where certain approaches in practical philosophy can be very helpful, because that nervousness or difficulty tends to be one of those matters where thought, experience, action, and emotion are coming together in complex ways. Going from my own experience and that of others I’ve discussed this with, fear of rejection holds many people back from making a pitch about what value they have to contribute.

As academics it can be especially tough, since many of us have tendencies to over-explain matters, and to stick with areas we feel ourselves experts in. So sometimes we just don’t make the pitch at all, and we pass up potential opportunities. These are sometimes opportunities to make a connection, a booking, a sale, but sometimes also opportunities to get rejected and develop resiliency about rejection.

AS: For me, asking questions about other people’s work and sharing what I loved about my work was what ultimately led to more serious discussions. I think it’s helpful to learn as much as you can on your own, talk to people on the outside and try things out if you can.

NM: Figure out what you’re good at now while you’re in your role. Ask your coworkers or ask your boss what they think you do really well. Then find a job description or two that interests you so you have a target to work towards. Start by reading job descriptions without talking yourself out of them. Learn the vocabulary of your target job and industry. For example, if you promote programs to students on social media and email, you’re working in digital marketing. If you manage multiple projects and budgets, you’re doing project management. Use a tool like to compare your resume with the job description to figure out if you’re communicating your experience in the language an employer expects.

Then note which skills you need to work on to get the job you want. Find a way to work on those skills while you’re still working! Ask friends in other departments what they’re working on. Ask how you might collaborate so you can build the missing skills.

Finally, talk to everyone. Leave your desk and start asking people about their jobs. What do they like? What don’t they like? What would they do if they weren’t in higher ed? Talk to your friends about their jobs. Then practice telling people what interests you. You need to get comfortable talking about what you want and what you do well. Start small. Practice saying things like, “I’m interested in digital marketing because I’ve have really good success running our social media recruiting campaigns at UW” to people you meet.

The more you tell people what you can do, the more confident you get, and the more people can help you.

Start by reading job descriptions without talking yourself out of them. Learn the vocabulary of your target job and industry.

Special thanks to Anne, Greg, and Nicolle for sharing their time, energy, and wisdom with me for this series. 

The Defectors, Series 3: Meet Bonnie, Chelsea, and Sharon

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The long term security of a known paycheck, health insurance and retirement that went away was very scary. I struggled with the pros and cons for about a year before actually making the leap. BUT once the words came out of my mouth…it was like an elephant was lifted off my chest and it was incredibly empowering and exhilarating moving forward.

-Bonnie Fox, Speaker Agent and Proud Defector

In this week’s edition of Defectors in Conversation, be pleased to meet Bonnie, Chelsea, and Sharon.

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Chelsea Haring (CH) serves as the Chief Operations Office at Switchboard in Portland, OR. She spent 12 years in career services at Portland State University, Wingate University and Johns Hopkins University. During her career, she worked almost every corner of a career center and developed a deep understanding of emerging trends and potential for innovation in the field.

Bonnie Fox (BF) is an agent with S.P.E.A.K. Educators, the speaker division of FUN Enterprises. She was in Student Affairs in Student Activities as a director at a medium size Community College in Washington State and a medium size State University in Connecticut. She oversaw a paid leadership program that produced events on campus for students.

Sharon Manson (SM) serves as the Educational Program Manager at University of North Texas’s Health Science Center. She comes to that work after 25 years in student housing, and in that time served as an RD, Area Coordinator, General Manager and Director of Residence Life for a private housing company, and a director of residence life for a small private university.

Get to know them and their wisdom this week in Defectors in Conversation!

Briefly, what got you curious about “breaching the bubble” of your former field/work?

BF: I had started a business on the side in my 3rd year of working in Student Affairs…by year 5, it had taken off and had been a solid business that could support me full time…although it was very scary (state comforts like health insurance and 401K) I took the leap and haven’t looked back. I left the field 17 years ago and have recently just sold my last of the 4 businesses that I started.

SM:  I loved residence life and might have stayed in Student Affairs (I was “in line for the Dean of Students position”), but I got caught up in office politics. My boss (Dean of Students) was disliked by his (VP Student Services). She put the pieces in play and had the opportunity to get rid of him (on the day before his doctoral hooding no less) – the person she hired fired me exactly a month later.

I’ve looked outside of higher ed, but always came back – while my coworkers grumbled about the extra work, I genuinely enjoyed orientation and graduation. Working in Residence Life and with RAs, I did get to see the growth we hope to encourage (with most of them).

CH:  I […] have a background in tech and was assigned to every tech sourcing committee at the institutions I worked. I implemented over 33 products over the 12 years and developed a robust vendor network and understanding of how software can scale student success and young alumni career support for institutions.

SM:  Isn’t that the norm – if you have special interest/skill you tend to get put on every committee that relates to it.  It either burn you out or energize you! 🙂

CH: The last year I was at Hopkins, I spent a year researching innovation trends in career services and realized so many teams were struggling with the same challenges. I understood for me to have an influence on the field, I should go into the private sector and try to work with multiple teams at once through consulting/technology solutions. 3 years ago, I transitioned into ed tech as a higher ed industry consultant. I spent time at Handshake working with their product, customer experience and support teams and have been at Switchboard the past year building out a services arm of the company and driving their growth strategy.

The last year I was at Hopkins, I spent a year researching innovation trends in career services and realized so many teams were struggling with the same challenges.

Each of you had that same point where you decided you needed a change- what was your biggest fear in making the jump out of what you’d been doing?SM: I had imposter syndrome big time. I had to give workshops to medical doctors who are teaching in med. school or residency. I thought they’d see through me and that I didn’t really have that much to offer them. (They were supposed to be the smartest people in the room).

BF: The long term security of a known paycheck, health insurance and retirement that went away was very scary. I struggled with the pros and cons for about a year before actually making the leap. BUT once the words came out of my mouth…it was like an elephant was lifted off my chest and it was incredibly empowering and exhilarating moving forward.

CH: I had two “biggest” fears:

1. I didn’t have any formal training in business and operations.

2. I have 3 kids now 7,5,3 and having control over my schedule and making sure I have time to be a mom is really important to me. I feared I would give that up moving into working for tech startups.

These are all really well-founded fears, and it’s great to know that you found ways to address them as you made your move.

It’s also incredibly important to highlight that you do have what it takes to be successful in your latest roles. In contrast to your own worries, what were you really confident in?

CH: I was very confident in my industry knowledge and the problems that were top of mind for so many teams and how ed tech could forge better partnerships with institutions.

SM: I had confidence in my experience leading RA training and teaching class (teaching listening skills, feedback, documentation, and team building).

BF: [In a combination of the two,] I was very confident in my customer base…we were selling to my Student Activities counterparts and I KNEW Student Activities so I was very confident in my abilities and connections.

How did the adaptation process go? What challenges did you have as you adjusted to your new role and new environment?

BF: I thought long hours were reserved to Student Affairs professionals…boy did I under estimate what it took to run your own business! I put in WAY more hours on my business, but it was a labor of love and often it just didn’t feel like “work”.

CH: I found I actually worked more hours in a week in higher ed, but the hyper efficient/productivity pace and tools available to drive efficiency took me a couple of months to get used to.

BF: I moved offices 4 times in 5 years…working from home; from small cramped offices in the back of a converted old Ice Storage warehouse; to traditional office space; to a converted old thread mill in a creepy old mill warehouse; to a brand new office/warehouse build to spec for ME! All of them had their pros and cons and we always made do, but not having the luxury of access to brand new equipment, computers, printers etc was a hard transition.

And I missed the student interaction…the learning…the “ah-ha moments” when it just clicked. When an event was executed perfectly, when their timelines WORKED! I really missed that part.

SM: I was also used to a much more lively, casual atmosphere with students around. I’m now in an office with no student workers and the students I work with are either off-site or come to campus once a month. I do miss the laughter of college students just being goofy – it kept me young.

I was used to teaching college-age students, who were eager to listen and learn as they started new jobs. I assumed the doctors I talked to had much of the knowledge they were asking me to teach, but so much of what I took for granted that they knew had never been taught to them. (“when you… I feel…” SOLAR – squared, open, lean, eye contact, relax).

What skills served you well in your transition?

BF: I adapt well and quickly assimilate. I am a pro multitasker which is valuable when you are in sales; customer service; production and head of shipping and receiving! I also knew the ebb and flow of the academic year so I was able to work hard…really hard during the “hot” times and knew that just over the horizon it was going to slow down…something that I really really looked forward to!

SM:  I’m fairly adept at making people feel comfortable (all those years of move-in, orientation, RA programs, pizza parties, and dealing with parents) and trained my staff in a version of servant leadership, but I’ve gotten more thank you’s for responding to emails or sending detailed emails about conferences (I coordinate 3 regional ones). I think all of the years of focusing on marketing and leasing (and talking to students and parents during orientations) has developed skills that I took for granted.

CH: [In a good mix of Sharon and Bonnie’s answers,]I have always had a high EQ and my ability to navigate higher ed as an incredibly relationship driven industry has been the most valuable asset in the transition I made. I am flexible and adaptable and a very strategic thinker. I am also incredibly mission driven. My years of listening to students and alumni and internal campus partners positioned me well to take my coaching skill set and apply the same frameworks to university teams who were struggling to meet competing demands. I have always been really organized and a multi tasker, that is a must in this business.

What suggestions do you have for people nervous about (or struggling to) articulate their value “on the outside”?

SM: Don’t doubt yourself. The skills that you’ve gained in student affairs are needed in other fields. Find what you really like/liked to do and capitalize on that.

BF: I tell people to write down a list (I am a master of lists!) and put down all the things that they currently are doing in their job. Then you convert it to skills. You submit purchase orders and keep a budget…You’re in charge of Finances! You meet with your staff weekly for progress reports and if there are any problems…You’re Human Resources!

SM: I would have thought my experience juggling multiple project or creating and managing budgets of over $3 million would be my “value” but its the soft people skills that people are impressed with — and it’s the thing that I enjoy

BF: Its simply amazing when you do this to see what you are capable of. When you SEE the list you instantly become confident in your abilities…what you thought was mundane daily tasks you can see how they quickly relate to bigger and broader life skills! It creates a “I don’t know if I can…” feeling into “I’m already doing it…I CAN” feeling. And that’s affirming and confident building and so exciting.

CH:  I actually get a handful of people reaching out every month asking to hear about my transition. There is a huge talent drain right now in higher ed. The forward thinking, emerging innovators are frustrated and bored and tired of trying to better meet the needs of students, but struggling to be efficient in the complicated organizational structures of their institutions. I encourage people to try something on the side whether it is private practice consulting project work, advising work for a higher education vendor or volunteer work to try and assess what the day to day is like.

I also encourage people to make a list of their 3 absolutes–the things that have to be there for them to make the transition and hold true to those. There is a negative stigma (in some circles in the private sector) about higher ed professionals. I had to work incredibly hard to prove myself and my ability to be a top performer. Many people view higher ed as slow moving, behind in terms of business operations and inefficient. I had to work against that stereotype.

The great thing is there is so much opportunity in industry to take on additional projects, volunteer and network that you can prove yourself as a strategic asset and high performer quickly. It only took me about 6 weeks to get over that hump.

Don’t doubt yourself. The skills that you’ve gained in student affairs are needed in other fields. Find what you really like/liked to do and capitalize on that.

Special thanks to Chelsea, Bonnie, and Sharon for sharing their time, energy, and wisdom with me for this series. 

The Defectors, Series 3: Defectors in Conversation

defectors s3 imagery

Today marks the start of the third series of The Defectors, and you might find it’s taken on a different form from its last two iterations. And there’s a reason for that.

When I first Defected, one of the biggest challenges I never expected to feel was feeling isolated. Between going into business for myself, and not knowing too many others who had taken a similar path out of traditional higher education work, I found myself feeling more alone than I had ever imagined.

This year, I wanted to combat that for others in a very specific way: by pulling stories, and the Defectors who tell them, together. You’ll be treated to conversations between Defectors, sharing their challenges and successes with one another – and by extension, you all.

Meet Bonnie, Sharon, and Chelsea

Meet Anne, Greg, and Nicolle

Meet Ashlie, Corey, Liz, and Mike

In addition to this new format, this month will also feature the debut of Defector Academy, a personalized coaching experience for those seriously considering defecting from higher education and in need of guidance. Sign up for the mailing list to get more details, and check out the full program at its home base.

Enrollment for Defector Academy is now closed. Stay tuned for more learning and contributing opportunities!

I don’t want this series to just be a conversation between the participants, though. I want this to be a conversation between you and I. I’d love to hear from you: what questions do you have about Defecting? What do you worry about most? Are you curious about how your talents could best be utilized? Is the Defector Academy program a fit for you?

Ask away, and I’ll be answering them over the course of the month via Twitter and Instagram!

Inclusion Riders for the Rest of Us

A few weeks ago at the Academy Awards, Best Actress in a Motion Picture winner Frances McDormand set Google afire with the phrase “inclusion rider.” The idea was not hers; rather, it was the brainchild of USC Annenberg School of Communication professor Stacy L. Smith. First proposed in 2014, it is a contract clause that

A-list actors can incorporate a clause in their contracts that stipulates that inclusion — both on camera and behind the scenes for crew members — be reflected in films. The rider states that women, people of color, people with disabilities, and members of LGBT and marginalized communities who are traditionally underrepresented be depicted on screen in proportion to their representation in the population.

Most of us will likely never be in the position to create such a clause for our own contracts. But the purpose that they aim to serve is one we all have the power to explore in the environments we create- and the culture developed by the people populating these environments.

This is far greater than a matter of aesthetics. Valuing and abiding by the principles these inclusion riders espouse contributes meaningfully to a team’s ability to thrive in a constantly changing marketplace. I write in Cultivating Creativity about how those in positions of power (like those who can ask for these rider provisions in negotiations) have a tremendous opportunity to disrupt a power differential in this area:

Those with like experiences and perspectives coming together will result in either relatively few clashes for the sake of harmony, or the same old clashes fueled by existing factions fortifying their ranks. But by seeking to elevate the potential and impact of those who don’t typically have a seat at the table (or an audible voice once they arrive), the work that we seek to do can yield new perspectives, reach new people, solve problems that we previously haven’t had the resources or insight to solve.

This shifting take on allyship, advocacy, and activatorship might challenge those who typically inhabit these roles. By choosing to support those who differ from you, you are making yourself vulnerable. There are aspects of these relationships where you will not be the sage, expert, or most experienced party. And for those who typically sit in the majority, this is an unfamiliar stead. Embrace it. Listen through it, honoring and affirming the difficult truths you may hear about, even  (especially!) if they’re not your own. Learn through it. Use the knowledge gained in these moments to bolster your own work, to fuel your own creativity.

Creating space for underrepresented voices isn’t just “the right thing to do” to make people feel good. It affects an organization’s ability to serve its marketplace, to meaningfully shape the society in which it operates, and the lives of the people affiliated with the organization – both inside and out.

This is presently not easy work. An exchange I found on Instagram late last week dismayingly addressed this concern with an actress and comedian about whom I’d been wondering: Amy Schumer. When asked by a commenter why the three “Amy Schumer Presents” specials had highlighted the comedy of one white woman and two white males, Schumer responded meaningfully:

Thank you. You’re right. But what you don’t know is that I’ve tried and worked hard to produce specials for other women including women of color and been rejected. You’ve seen the ones they agreed to buy. I’m doing my best. I will keep trying. @miacomedy (Black female comedian Mia Jackson) will have a killer special very soon if the people in positions of power wise up.

Admittedly, Schumer’s approach was one I had previously questioned; while the talent she has lifted up (Rachel Feinstein, Mark Normand, and Sam Morril) are all deserving of her support, I wonder what could be done if that capital was used to lift up the talent of those who may not otherwise get the opportunity. Director Ava DuVernay put it another way, when she talked about addressing inclusion practices, questioning the very language that we use to describe it (as Dr. D-L Stewart has previously):

I think the very words diversity and inclusion are unfortunate because it’s really just reality. The world is not as we depict on film and television – that is not real. Unfortunately, it’s the case for the people who are controlling film, television and theater, but it is not a real space. So the idea that inclusion and diversity is some kind of allowance being made to open our arms to more people — no. It is a correction of an error. It is a righting of a wrong. And it is going to be done.

Academy Awards red carpet outside the Kodak Theatre

IMAGE CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

And yet, in all these discussions, I see hope. I see people like Jessica Chastain tying their own compensation to that of Octavia Spencer, resulting in a fivefold raise for the latter. I see the launch of sites like People of Craft (a directory of artistic creatives of color developed by Amélie Lamont and Timothy Goodman) and Akuarel (a directory of television and film creatives launched by #oscarssowhite creator April Reign). And I have to hope that these mechanisms in media will create a world that other industries can see and emulate in their practices.

For most of us are not in roles where we can include this type of stipulation in our employment contracts. Most of us are left to our own devices and judgment when advocating for these changes in our workplaces. Whose perspective isn’t being heard? Where does your organization have gaps? And who needs to be not just present, but heard and empowered in your organization to change its face?

A few suggestions:

  • If in a hiring capacity, look meaningfully at the job descriptions and locations of postings. If paywalls are associated to access sites, consider how that could keep out segments of the qualified applicant pool. What words could be turning off female applicants, or applicants of color, or applicants with disabilities?
  • Seek to acknowledge, and then change, elements of your organizational culture that are actively challenging or demoralizing underrepresented populations. Asking in earnest, with an eye toward improvement, can reveal inequities and injustices that actively hinder success or comfort for employees.
  • Closely related to the last point: when confronted with evidence of these challenging or demoralizing circumstances, stop. Listen. Acknowledge the experience of the person who is sharing. And incorporate said testimony into your present view of the organization- even if it isn’t your experience. To reiterate the advice from Cultivating Creativity above: “honor and affirm the difficult truths you may hear about, even  (especially!) if it’s not your own. Learn through it.”
  • If serving as a mentor or sponsor, consider not just advising those under your watchful eye, but actively putting them forward for opportunities. Don’t tell them how to do things, let them do things and encourage others to do the same.

[PODCAST] Boundless Podcast, Episode 8

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of getting to talk to Paul Millerd of Boundless for The Boundless Podcast. Paul is doing some really smart and interesting work on the future of work, how we can prepare people for it, and what traits it will take to embrace and thrive in this new space.

Paul says I hold the present record for making him crack up the most over the course of an interview; if you’re into that, you’re going to enjoy this one. Thanks so much for having me, Paul- looking forward to teaming up again soon!

Click the image below or head to Boundless to hear my episode- and several others on the future of work!

9 Ways Senior Leaders Can Promote Creativity

I spend a lot of time thinking about creativity. How to encourage people to find their own, how to expand the definition of it, how to make the case for its utility in organizations. But what I also spend a lot of time on, is pondering what environments need to help people be creative. A lot of organizations have chosen to focus on the space in which people work – hence open offices, Ping Pong tables, whiteboards, and all those other “office perks” that companies put in place to set themselves apart.

Companies with beer fridges and board games be like… IMAGE CREDIT: GIPHY

But things don’t make an organizational culture. People do. And the people in that organization  – be it a student club, a nonprofit, or a corporation – should have philosophies about work that are congruent with the environment they build and attract prospective employees with.

This congruence came to mind again a few weeks ago when I read this report from the Center for Creative Leadership, about senior leadership behaviors that sabotage innovation. It’s one thing to say, “we love creative ideas,” but it is quite another to foster an environment that truly does that. As such, I want to turn around their findings, thus sharing nine ways that you can ensure your surroundings promote the innovative impulses of your team.

(1) Encouraging creativity.

And I mean really encouraging it. Not just saying “no idea is off-limits,” only to later poke holes in the ones that don’t match what’s previously been done or what solutions were expected. I wrote about the many ways that leadership can articulate dedication to creativity in Cultivating Creativity– and the way that’s most effective:

Leadership over creative individuals, or over individuals with whom you’d like to work creatively, requires a shift in thinking from the way we’ve typically conceived of supervising and managing. In the earliest waves of management, we believed that giving employees permission was the highest form of agency we could provide. Managers and supervisors are custodians of a work environment, and the manner in which people worked was up to them.

Then, leadership and management theory moved away from language of permission and into the language of support. “This individual has my support” was the new way of saying that someone was allowed to work in a different direction than they might have originally. While this change was welcome, this language is challenging because it still puts the onus of directing a project, a department, or an organization in the hands of the leader. The modern workforce is evolving to where having support still isn’t enough. So what comes next?

My answer: truly transformative creative work will come when individuals don’t have permission, or have support, but when they feel supported. While it may seem like a subtle semantic change, I believe it matters. It matters because it changes the responsibility of the manager or supervisor. Helping someone feel supported is a collaborative process. It requires the joint understanding of an employer and an employee, a patron and a protégé, a leader and a team member.

Leadership practices that help people feel supported, whether their idea goes well or poorly (more on that later) is more likely to foster further creativity. I speak often of how important collaboration is to creation; to help someone feel supported is far more collaborative than “you have my support,” and certainly more so than “do whatever you want.” As a creator, how can you articulate the importance of such support? And as a leader, how can you articulate or demonstrate that support to those under your employ?

(2) Evaluating ideas thoroughly, including resources and systems.

There is a time and place to prioritize ideas based on feasibility and resources. That time is not the very instant after the idea is presented. Perhaps the most precious resource that creativity needs to thrive and take hold is time; remember that when an unfamiliar idea is presented. Choosing to evaluate an idea for feasibility at that introduction point fails to truly examine the needs that idea addresses, the resources truly available (and what changes could be made if needed). In the Cultivating Creativity framework, the commitment to thoroughly evaluating an idea is a function of determination. Two traits of a workplace determined to be creative that I strongly recommend embracing and continually implementing:

A determined environment periodically assesses the resources of those dedicated to solving problems. Are they well equipped to address the issues at hand? Where are there gaps? How can those gaps be filled? And how can those in relatively higher positions of power assist in filling those gaps?

When assessing decisions, these environments encourage open-minded assessment of ideas and pitches. Go into negotiations or ideation sessions with a “how can we make this work?” orientation, rather than a “here’s why this won’t work” orientation.

(3) Pushing a Bottom-Up Approach.

After moving to an electronic system for ticketing at my last institution, we had a misfire on how tickets were distributed. I was embarrassed that a system I had championed had failed relatively early in its deployment and had disappointed students. One of those students, more agitated than many, came to see me. I asked her “what would you have me do?” and listened to her reply; the answer was a good one. Later in the day, we re-deployed the ticket acquisition process incorporating her suggestion. She was right.

Good ideas can come from anyone. This means that ideas can be acted on whether they come from the top of the organization, or from someone elsewhere in the pipeline – who sees challenges or problems from a wholly different perspective than those in leadership. As a leader, do you acknowledge the validity and truth in those perspectives, even (especially!) if they don’t align with what you’re seeing?

(4) De-Emphasizing Structure and Hierarchy

One challenge to allowing ideas to rise from wherever they originate, is finding the professional mechanism, or personal courage (or both!) to convey that idea upward in the organization. If we’re convinced people in power won’t listen or honor what we think, we hold ideas in- ideas that can make a difference if supported and funded.

So while it’s unlikely that most companies will dismantle their hierarchical structure simply to ensure the free sharing of information (and, as many learned from the lessons at Zappos, such a move isn’t necessarily productive), it is possible to lower the intimidation factor when it comes to voicing a problem or suggesting a solution. A few quick ideas:

(5) Expanding Innovation Beyond R&D

Confining an expectation of creativity and innovation to research and development (or whatever the equivalent would be at your organization) underscores the idea that creativity is the exclusive province of a select group of people, equipped with a certain skill set, and allowed to impact an organization in a certain way. To be clear: I don’t believe that. I often express disdain or frustration with the phrase “I’m not creative,” but for a very specific reason: it underestimates its speaker. Yes, you too can be creative! And believing that, particularly in a professional capacity, starts with feeling empowered to explore that part of yourself.

Worried about your ability to contribute meaningfully to a creative solution? Start by noticing, and start by encouraging those you supervise to do the same. What elements of your daily routine could work differently, perhaps better? Who does your work include, and who might it exclude? What “research and development,” as it were, could you do within your organization- and how will you use those experiences to get the wheels of creativity and innovation moving? And in your role as leaders, when are approached with the results of these R&D efforts: how do you empower these folks to pursue solutions?

(6) Uplifting First

“That’s not how we do things here,” the fraternal twin to “that’s how we’ve always done things,” is the most disempowering phrase any budding creative can hear. You’d be surprised how many forms it can take – “we’ve tried that before, but it didn’t work,” “that’d never work here,” “we don’t have enough [insert thing] to try that,” – and yet it has the same impact each time: cooling not just that attempt to create, but any subsequent attempts from folks who want to create change.

I expect that much of the reason it’s so tempting to poke holes in ideas when they first arise, is because we’re accustomed to the mythology of good ideas descending from the heavens, fully formed and foolproof. That’s far from the truth. And that means while many ideas do need to be subject to feedback and criticism, it also means we have to try and see the good in those initial proposals to get to that point- not the bad or imperfect.

(7) Encouraging Risk in Innovative Ideas

I’m a generally risk-averse person, so the idea of advocating for risk feels foreign to me. And yet, I have to do so because nothing creative or interesting can thrive without it. Innovation needs risk because it deviates from what we’re familiar and comfortable with. The level of risk can be as big as turning money or humanpower over to an initiative, or as small as daring to imagine your department’s work, or a stakeholder’s experience, as different than it has previously been.

Mitigate risk by supporting creators testing new ideas with the parties who will see the most change. Worried about how a change will affect thousands of customers? Pilot it with five. Scared of long-term implications? Make the first trial time-limited. Small risks that generate wins make larger leaps of faith a little easier to digest.

(8) Embracing Ambiguity

Thinking about ambiguity in a creative scenario always brings to mind the image of Willy Wonka in the Tasting Room, snacking wide-eyed as Augustus Gloop wriggles in the chocolate waterfall tube. As the others around him fret about what will happen next, he muses aloud: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it’ll last…”

Few of us will embrace ambiguity with that level of comfort. And that’s understandable! Ambiguity has stakes for many of us, in a way that they never really seemed to for Mr. Wonka. If something goes badly, we could lose money. We could lose trust. We will hear about it on social media. In those moments, it’s also important to recall the good that could come from creativity and change. What parts of our jobs will be easier? What parts of our stakeholders’ experiences will be improved? How can we save money, or time, or the sanity of staff members? Yes, there are things we won’t be able to predict. But even to the risk-averse, I have to admit: there’s something a little fun about that possibility. It keeps our work fresh when we might otherwise get bogged down or bored with routine. In the words of another high-profile creative, Todd from BoJack Horseman, “I never know if I can handle anything. That’s what makes my life so exciting!”

(9) Acting Like a Rookie

At some point, society decided that an ironclad requirement for leadership was having all the answers. Being the steady pillar and sole source of information became a sign of power. But the very nature of creativity and innovation means venturing into territory that no one has seen or experienced before. It requires not having the answers. Liz Wiseman calls this a “rookie mindset,” and it’s one that we could all benefit from when considering a new idea. In her book Rookie Smarts, she explains why:

“When the world is changing quickly, experience can become a curse, trapping us in old ways of doing and knowing, while inexperience can be a blessing, freeing us to improvise and adapt quickly to changing circumstances.”

The purpose of organizational creativity and innovation is to change in a way that responds to our circumstances- not just to implement change for its own sake. Inexperience (and our willingness to embrace that inexperience) forces us to act on instinct and in response to our surroundings, yielding better and less predictable solutions.

I want you to pledge to do one thing this week that makes it easier for you, or someone you work with, to do something creative. Share with me what you’ll do in the comments!

7 Great Questions to Support Your Local Creative

I’ll admit it. Sometimes, the well meaning queries of “how’s it going?” or “what are you working on?” are hard to swallow. And I’ve written previously about how difficult the “hope it works out for you” mentality of wishing friends and colleagues well can be to hear.

Does it seem petulant to try and dictate how others support you? At first glance, I’m sure it does.  However, I’m a tremendous believer in teaching people how to treat you. 2018, thus far, has been my year of “putting things out into the universe.” I’m often guilty of holding on to a thought or idea, then getting frustrated when those I work with or am surrounded by, don’t just get it. #introvertproblems, I suppose. It’d be far more effective, I see now, to help those close to me be supportive. And, I would imagine, help other creatives accustomed to working alone and incubating ideas in their heads.

For this reason, I’m starting the year with a series of questions you can ask them when they come out of their heads and into the “real world.” Driven by my Cultivating Creativity framework, they help you address specific facets of their work- something more substantive than “what are you up to?” These questions are designed to be constructively challenging, convey their support system’s desire to help, while minimizing perceived pressure or misunderstanding. Support your local creative constructively, compassionately, and in a way that helps drive their work forward.

Allies/Advocates/Activators: Do you have anyone helping you “kick down doors”? Can I help you find someone?

Good ideas need launchpads to help them take off. Sometimes those creating big ideas have access to said launchpads, and those who guard them. But sometimes they don’t. In the event of the latter, help will be needed- and this is a part of the process where you might be able to provide it.

As a creator, I sometimes have the confidence to run with an idea. I often have the energy to do so. But when it comes to the courage and humility that comes with asking for help? That’s often less plentiful. This isn’t a rare disparity in the creative community. Which means offers for help, especially constructive and targeted (that means “let me know how I can help” often doesn’t count), make a world of difference in our ecosystem.

This doesn’t have to be a time or labor intensive process. Bruce Kasanoff advises going into interactions with the mantra “first, help this person.” Adam Rifkin is notorious for the notion of the “five-minute favor.” Even a quick intro email can make all the difference in the world. Believe it or not, your small moment of effort (when accepted by the creator- no one likes help forced on them) could be the start of something big.

Broadmindedness: I saw this article/video/podcast that your idea reminds me of. Have you seen it?

Preemptive answer: to those wondering, yes I have read Quiet by Susan Cain. I get asked a lot. But I love that people ask. Why? Because it shows that they’re trying to understand some of the work I do, and can draw connections to things they know.

The ability to draw said connections is at the heart of broadmindedness. What other resources out there in the world could enrich, challenge, or deepen my knowledge? Even being an avid reader, I’d never find them all. And I’m hopelessly behind on podcasts.

Applying broadmindedness to your local creative’s work requires deep listening when they talk about what they love and are working on. And even if nothing comes to mind right away, my heart always flutters when I get an email, text, or IM from a friend or peer saying “have you seen this?” Your suggestion could lead to a breakthrough for the person, so don’t hold back if you see or think of something that could make a difference! And even if it doesn’t, making these thoughtful connections is a sign that person can hang on to: “this person in my life understands (or wants to understand) the thing I’m working on.”

Collaboration: Do you have anyone sharing the load with you? Can I help you find someone?

There is a loneliness that comes with creating. It can be particularly important for solo creators to develop relationships with other creators- be they as collaborators, sounding boards, or even simply cheerleaders- in order to help give them peace of mind and reassurance as they set out to do something hard.

Perhaps you, as an important person in that person’s life, don’t have the skill or insight to fill that role. Think, instead, of who you know. Do you know someone who could serve as an investor? Mentor? Source of constructive criticism? Similar to the counsel shared above, one of the most important assists you provide may be introducing people who go on to make a significant impact in concert with one another.

Determination: How can I help you when it gets hard?

This is a hard question to ask, and a hard one to answer. But it matters. The reasons that questions like “how’s it going?” or calls like “let me know if you need anything” are challenging is because they are hard to address when things are difficult. No creator wants to report that things are going poorly; no one wants to feel as though they have to grab a life preserver, because they first have to admit that they’re drowning.

But by being willing to make an overture, you may be the person that gives them the fuel to keep going.

Sometimes the person may not be able to identify the answer to this question either. That’s okay. A quick note to let them know you’re thinking about them, or a nice gift that made you think of them, will go further than you might expect. I’ve gotten many a “just because” card or gift in the mail that helped me break through a creative rut; I’ve also sent many a gift to that effect. Asking the right questions toward determination means knowing those you’re supporting well enough to lift them up in the moments where they might need you.

Execution: Is there any part of the project you’re having a hard time getting your head around?

Much of the above applies when supporting someone through an execution problem. Essentially, this is being there for someone in the moment when they’re having trouble moving an idea from their head out into the world. The solution to this is often being there to let someone talk through an idea, absent judgment or even absent willingness to try and solve the problem.

As with the above, there is a tremendous bit of vulnerability involved in posing and answering this question. Honor that by being accepting if an answer is difficult to come by, or doesn’t come to mind at all. An earnest offer can be enough, particularly if you’re able to articulate that you’ve heard and understand other elements of their project.

Flexibility: Have you learned anything cool in the process of putting all of this together?

While they might be painful in the process, missteps and setbacks will happen over the course of the creative process. They will happen. But the best and most successful creators are able to transform those moments from painful to educational. After a suitable period of “mourning,” allies and supporters can be valuable sounding boards for creators by helping them find the learning from those moments.

Finding ways to articulate the learning that comes from unexpected changes to the plan at hand, can be important in clarifying the path toward the next plan of attack. Being the person who helps clear that path can be incredibly powerful.

Heart: What good do you envision your final product doing?

I’m often vocal about the idea that the things we set out to create should do the most good they can, while also minimizing the harm they do. Regularly interrogating the things we create, and the perspective of those creating them, is one way to ensure that this balance of power is preserved.

In a lot of ways, other essential elements addressed in Cultivating Creativity can help clarify how the heart of a project is reached and continually reaffirmed. Aligning creators with willing and principled allies/advisors/advocates and collaborators means that their work will be supported by people who want to do good work- and good work. Broadminded thinking hopefully means that resources will come from a number of places, but will also seek to address the needs of a diverse slate of users or stakeholders. And determination, execution, and flexibility will serve well if the scope needs to be widened after initial attempts fall short or do harm.

I’ve spoken previously about the heart question being among the most important a creative can answer; as a supporter of impactful creative work, this may be the most important question you can ask. Setting an expectation that heart-filled work is imperative, helps creators prioritize it. And being supportive while also prioritizing good work can help creators align their efforts with this essential goal.

Want to know more about the essential elements of creativity, how they impact problem solving, equity and inclusion, and career advancement, and why it matters to cultivate creativity at all? My newest book on the topic is now available!

For the creators out there: what has been the most impactful way someone has supported you in achieving a goal? And for those seeking to support creatives: what questions do you have about doing so effectively? I’d love to address them for you!