Making the Most of Transitions

Successful leadership requires being humble and taking the advice of those who have done the work before us, writes Terri E. Givens.

October 4, 2019
 
 
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Perhaps the most impactful life transition I’ve experienced was the day I set foot on the Stanford University campus as a first-generation, first-year student. I had no idea how my life would change in the four years I would spend there, but I was excited to be starting a new adventure. Those years were challenging, but I made a successful transition in part because of people like my resident assistant and peer adviser who helped me manage many challenges -- partly social but mostly financial. They remain friends to this day.

Life is all about transitions. Some are filled with joy, while others can be difficult rites of passage. The most recent one for me has been watching my son move from high school to college, which is a combination of the two. I am excited for his new adventure but sad to no longer greet him coming home from school each day. Although it has been a bit painful as I watch him spread his wings and go off into the world, I know it’s a necessary part of life, and I must let him go.

Humility and Good Counsel

The world of academe offers many transitions to be celebrated. Fifteen years ago, I made my first transition from faculty member to administrator. As one of the founding directors of the Center for European Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, I was blessed to have great mentors who helped me through that important transition. I quickly learned how to hire and manage a staff person, and I began to play a greater role in the life of the university as I interacted with my dean and provost, who supported me and the center. I made another big transition during that time, from assistant to associate professor. Getting tenure was extremely rewarding, given that I had managed to do it in a timely manner, despite having two children and taking on a new administrative position.

My mentors were also with me when I made the transition from center director to vice provost for undergraduate curriculum and international affairs in my first year as an associate professor. It was a huge leap for me, and I had a lot to learn. In fact, that year was like drinking from a fire hose. Despite the help of many mentors, I could have been better prepared to take on a position that required knowledge of the broader curriculum across the university and working with a wide variety of programs and personalities.

I learned quickly to reach out to leaders across campus, to help develop a consensus around strategies and directions for curriculum and our international programs. What I hadn’t counted on was resistance from faculty members, who now saw me as being on “the dark side.” It took a while to gain their trust and confidence that I was working on their behalf.

I firmly believe that successful leadership requires being humble and taking the advice of those who have done the work before us. One of my favorite mentors, Sheldon Ekland-Olson, former provost at UT Austin, personified for me what a supportive leader should be. Along with my dean at the time, Richard LaRiviere, Sheldon took me under his wing, met with me on a regular basis and was one of the main reasons I became a vice provost so early in my career.

When I left that position three years later, to focus on getting promoted to full professor, I encouraged my dean to work with faculty who had an interest in administration early in their careers. Giving faculty members exposure to the intricacies of life as an administrator can help make the transition easier. Given that we generally don’t learn anything about academic administration as graduate students -- despite my advocacy for this type of learning -- academic leaders must develop and nurture the administrators of the future.

The transition to administrator is often full of sacrifice. From the long hours spent in meetings to campus events on evenings and weekends, it is no surprise that many faculty members eschew the idea of taking on an administrative role. But it’s important that we develop and nurture future campus leaders and value those who do agree to take on those roles. For example, we need to give appropriate credit to the people who do service on committees and in the faculty senate, knowing that those activities can take away from valuable research time. Such roles can help faculty members make the transition to positions such as department chair, center director and dean.

Moving Beyond Higher Ed

It has been a year since I made the transition from provost to consultant and started my own company. I have been thinking about what it means to make the transition from higher ed leader to CEO and how my perspective has changed. I have definitely learned a great deal about starting and running a business, as well as figuring out how to appeal to investors and find the right people to fill critical positions.

Even during this process, I have been lucky to have lots of amazing mentors. When I first started to develop the idea that became the Center for Higher Education Leadership, I consulted with friends who had been business faculty, along with many entrepreneurs who had been successful with their start-ups.

I have always had an entrepreneurial side, and this is my third time starting my own company. It hasn’t hurt that I live in Silicon Valley, and frankly, that was one of the reasons I wanted to get back to California when I left UT Austin. I knew I’d find fertile ground for my entrepreneurial ideas in a place with so many venture capitalists and opportunities to connect with other entrepreneurs.

As with many of the transitions I have made in my life, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But what I did know this time around was that I needed to rely on people who knew more than I did. For example, I was lucky to connect with my friend and co-founder Shelley Seale early in the process of creating the company. She was able to take over the newsletter portion of the business and has done an amazing job. I have been able to get great legal and financial services and advice from professionals who understand the world of start-ups. And I have even learned from my engineer husband, who has been part of a start-up. I hope that I will follow in his footsteps.

The most important attributes in being able to manage the many transitions I have experienced in my life are my love of learning and willingness to take advice. My experiences in academe helped me to be open to new experiences, to be humble yet decisive and to always appreciate the next phase of life.

Bio

Terri E. Givens is chief executive officer of the Center for Higher Education Leadership. She previously served as vice provost at the University of Texas at Austin and provost at Menlo College.

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