Should I Be Preparing to Leave?

Judith S. White explores the options and provides a strategy that will prepare you whether you decide to stay or go.

October 19, 2017
 
 
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Last month, I wrote about issues raised by moving to a position at a financially troubled institution. I received several comments asking a different question: If I am currently working at a financially troubled institution, should I be preparing to leave?

I have two possible answers and a strategy that will help you, whatever you decide.

The first answer is no, you should not be making plans for a panicky bolt from your current position. If your institution has acknowledged there are financial problems and has left your job in place, you have an opportunity to make a contribution. Making every effort to help is good for you now. And even if the efforts fall short, that work will help you later.

The second answer is yes, you should be preparing to leave if you are ready or if circumstances force you to go.

Here is a strategy that will prepare you, whether you decide to stay or not to stay: add value by creating a rich set of connections among those who also care about the work you are doing.

It sounds a lot like networking, right? It is networking, but with distinctive goals that will help you navigate the special pressures and tensions on a campus that is facing financial challenges. You need to network to gather information. But people on the campus can have a more guarded attitude about sharing information or supporting ideas when someone might be blamed for a failure. So you need to network beyond it. However, outreach beyond the campus or even the department can sometime be seen as disloyal.

All this constraint leads to gathering less information that could be helpful to the campus -- or to you if you decide you must move. So how can you gather what you need, both for your institution and for yourself?

To Stay: Develop and Share Resources for Doing a Great Job Related to Your Current Position

If you are going to be part of addressing challenges and creating new approaches to serve your institution, you will need to have more information and perspective. You want to do a great job where you are. And as you gather a broader view, you will have resources that can help others do better, as well. I recommend that you take a few key steps.

Survey your connections: Where are the overlaps in concerns? Who else on your campus does work that relates to similar goals or serves similar constituents? Are these colleagues with whom you work regularly? Would outreach to them seem unusual?

Who are the people doing the job most similar to yours on other campuses? You can select the other campuses by geography, institutional type or mission. They could be part of organizations or associations that support your particular institution or your field.

Think of at least one thing you think you and/or your department does well. Then reflect on another thing that you know could use some improvement. Finally, focus on a project you are starting or considering. Among the people you have identified, who are the ones with an interest in at least one of those areas? If not all are covered, you might look to add colleagues with such interests.

Address the possible internal challenge: Talk with your supervisor first. Before you launch your set of conversations, you need to talk with your immediate supervisor. That could be your dean, chair, director or any number of titles. If you generally report what you are doing to this person, that’s the one. Let your supervisor know that you are gathering information for advancing the priorities for your office or department. Start the discussion with whatever topic you feel is of highest concern to this person and, as much as possible, part of your current assignments. Explain you want to connect with colleagues on your campus and other campuses to broaden your perspective on your work.

Most supervisors will be happy to know about your information gathering. But given the financial challenges identified on your campus, your supervisor may be under pressures you don’t anticipate. The response may be guarded or even hostile. Be prepared: you may need to refocus on whatever this person sees as a higher priority for attention right now. But unless you are told not to make these connections, go ahead and contact colleagues. You can select the appropriate occasions to share information from these contacts, identifying your sources at that time.

Start making connections: Talk with your colleagues about improving your contributions. Before you make any appointments to stop by for a conversation or connect by phone, make some notes about why the particular people you want to contact came to mind. You might do a bit of looking online or checking other sources to learn the latest on what the individual or their campus is doing. You always have better conversations when you have done some homework.

If these are colleagues with whom you have some regular contact, there are probably topics you usually cover. But you need to let them know you want to talk about specific ideas, concerns or projects -- whatever is most appropriate for you. If they are new contacts or colleagues whom you see less frequently, let them know why you thought of them in connection with your current work.

As you talk with these people, ask them for suggestions of other colleagues with whom you might speak to follow specific themes. Listen for references to more senior colleagues who are particularly committed to these topics or campus leaders who are major champions for important projects. You may have opportunities to meet those leaders later. Or you may want to check for possible presentations or publications from which you can learn more.

To Leave: Make Connections That May Be of Help in Finding and Securing Another Position

To secure a new position, you need some basic resources. Those are not always easy to come by, especially when you are working in stressful conditions. That’s why it would behoove you to reach out to colleagues you can trust. Again, I point out that you should also be aware of when you have access to resources you can share. Networking always needs to be mutual, but it’s most important when you know that you are currently in need. You can ask because you know you will respond positively when the chance comes to help others.

Seek inside information about open positions. Through the internet, you can find many sources of information about positions. You probably need to check every two weeks; positions are posted almost daily, but you can become overwhelmed sorting through them too frequently. Be systematic about what kind of position, the type of institution, the geographical location and any other factors important to you in your search.

The most senior-level positions are typically handled by search firms and are broadcast widely, but many other positions at varying levels aren’t as easily accessible to the public. That’s a big reason to ask your colleagues to help identify institutions that are doing particularly interesting work in your field -- or ones that could use some help. Watch the position postings on campus websites and check with colleagues about any that seem at all interesting. These could be on their campuses or just in the field; you never know where the connections are. You may find out more about that specific position or learn about others. If you are not sharing your search goals with this person right now, you can always be checking “for a friend” who is interested. You may find something that actually is more suited to a friend and pass along the information.

It is also really important to let some of your colleagues outside the institution, especially those you trust, know that you are looking. You may find they are, too. You can help look out for opportunities together.

Develop a broader set of recommenders. We all know that you will need recommenders as a candidate for new positions. That can be tricky on your campus, but you should try to find at least one person with whom you can discuss potential job positions and ask to serve as a reference early on. You may be asked to identify a list of references as part of your initial application; at that stage, you can usually ask that they not be contacted without your permission.

Nevertheless, you must be prepared to have the search firm or the hiring official contact key people with whom you work. As hard as it seems, it is generally better to let the people whom you want to serve as references know you are job hunting as soon as you enter the early interview stage. Ideally, you can approach people to seek their advice about positions. That’s a strategy that makes sense even if you have moved forward with an application already. You still will need advice about whether the position is a good match for you.

All that being said, you may certainly supplement your list with key colleagues who are off the campus. You can use at least two off-campus references in most searches -- including, ideally, a senior leader who has had the opportunity to come to know you or your work well. Your colleagues can help bring your work to the attention of people in positions that are senior to yours. Additionally, some of those whom you connect in positions similar to yours may also be more senior in terms of their experience or national reputation. These individuals can also be helpful references. The key goal for any reference is to make the connection between the needs of the institution and the skills, experience and accomplishments you can bring to it. Your broader network can now do that.

For Either Choice: Cultivate a Community of Support for the Transitions Ahead

The two tasks I have laid out for you above are intended as practical advice. It is also the best way to create the crucial social and psychological support you need to make the professional transitions you may have ahead.

Keep perspective through your connections. Avoiding panic is difficult in these situations, whether you decide to keep the job you have or to pursue a new one. Even if your position was spared, you may have seen abrupt changes for other people at your institution or among your professional colleagues and friends. It may well feel that huge parts of your life are moving beyond your control.

Whether or not the circumstances at your institution force you to change positions, you need to maintain your energy and creativity. More than anything, what will sustain you are your connections with those people who know the quality of your work and share your commitments. Positions change for many reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your work. As you take your next practical steps, your allies will help you keep perspective. They will help see you through whatever choices you make. I’ve been there and can assure you that, with the help of your friends, even hard transitions can bring unexpectedly good possibilities.

Bio

Judith S. White is president and executive director of HERS. For more information on HERS, visit www.HERSnet.org.

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