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At each offering of the HERS Institute, we ask panels of senior women leaders -- presidents, chancellors and other senior officers -- to respond to questions about their trajectories into leadership roles. One of the most interesting conversations focuses on the question “What do you consider the most important pivot of your career?”

The panelists describe key turns in the direction of their work -- maybe even for their lives. At times, these career shifts sound like magic moments, but it is clear from the fuller conversation with the panelists that there is more to it than mere magic. Most often it is a matter of a powerful alignment. A person with clarity about what really matters to her in higher education finds a project or a place that provides the right opportunity to act on that commitment. The combination animates the courage to move into a challenging situation and find or foster support for making a difference.

Participants at the institute are always inspired, but they are sometimes uncertain about how to find such opportunities. After many years of hearing such stories and working with HERS alumnae, I believe that when you want to make a difference in higher education, pivotal opportunities for leadership can occur all around you. Preparing for pivotal opportunities takes time, self-reflection and imagination. But I promise that taking this approach to thinking about your career will be energizing immediately and rewarding in the long term.

Is This Career Planning?

Your expectations for career planning so far may be pretty narrow: planning for a series of positions that will lead you to a senior role. However, many leaders report that they did not “plan to become president” and/or did not consider executive roles until later in their careers. At HERS, we help participants find the clarity and courage required to attain the position that will present them with a pivotal opportunity. The key is to identify your passions and commit yourself to being excellent at what you do as well as to be alert to roles that have responsibilities and resources for achieving your goals.

You can plan this as a path to more senior roles. But leading so that you create innovative options for excellence is just as likely to take you onto less obvious trails along the way. How are you going to know which are the right routes for you?

First, review each new opportunity to see if it matches with your skills and experience. Second, consider how it can serve your greatest passions as well as the institutional goals of the campus. Of course, only you can figure that out.

An Exercise: When Is an Option an Opportunity?

To answer this crucial question, I recommend you start with an exercise that’s standard at HERS and many career-planning seminars: check job-posting sites and select a position that interests you. But now also review the position as a potentially pivotal opportunity for you. You may select a position for which you would really want to be a candidate. But the point is to use this as a starting point for imagining best options as you prepare for the future.

Not all pivotal decisions are going to involve a move elsewhere or even a formal change in your position; we will consider handling those options below. But either way, use the position description and the information available about the institution to practice an imaginative challenge: Could this opportunity provide a pivot that puts you on the trail for making a difference?

Negotiating and Creating Options

What are the significant responsibilities outlined for this position? Beyond the responsibilities and the resources, look at the deeper question of what impact you can have in such a job. Are there clear goals for what is to be achieved by carrying out the specified responsibilities? The responsibilities of some jobs may sound the same for almost any department in which you are working, either as a faculty member or an administrator. But each department surely has some specific goals for how the work should be achieved and what priorities are most important when that work is assessed. Can you discern those from the information provided? In this exercise, the point is to examine such goals to see which might motivate you to make a significant turn in your career.

Equally important, does someone in particular really care about achieving those goals? You can explore that through the history of the position, or the source of funding and authority. It will probably take conversations with people on the campus to find out this sort of information. If you can’t find anyone who really cares, that may raise red flags as to whether this position is truly an opportunity to have an impact.

If you are nonetheless interested in a new role and prefer the new duties to those you presently have, it could still be a good move. But for a pivotal move, one that puts you on the path to making a difference for your career and for those you serve in higher education, you also need clear goals and a championing individual or group that shares those said goals. As great as you are, you can't make a pivotal difference alone.

Can You Create Pivotal Options Where You Are?

Career pivots can also come in the form of options offered informally or as new roles are added to what you are currently doing. How can you sort added burden from exciting possibility? First, recognize that while this situation may be presented somewhat informally, you could be entering into a pivotal moment and will want to give it your best shot.

In reviewing a potential new role, or an informal overture, you need to start with the same questions that you would ask about any new position that interests you. Responsibilities? Authority? Resources? Goals? Sponsoring individual or group with investment in success of this work?

In asking those questions, you should be prepared for less clarity than you will need in order to make a final decision. Ask questions with interest and patience. You are now in an exploration process. Your questions need to be posed not as a test of how well the position has already been defined, but as possible contributions to a fuller description.

Also, be alert to whether those shaping the position are open to your asking the questions. You need to be respectful of the effort that has gone into starting to define the role, but anyone who wants the person in this role to succeed will appreciate the seriousness of your inquiries. A major goal of your explorations at this point is to determine whether someone who cares and has authority to shape the role is willing to invest more time into crafting a stronger job description and possibly engaging more support for the role before it’s launched.

So let’s say that you can imagine having that conversation about a potential new role offered on your campus. Can you take the exercise one step further? Are you ready to propose a new role for yourself -- either a new position or an addition to your current position? Why wait until someone comes to you? If you see a way that you could make a difference in any area where others agree there is significant work to be done, I would argue you have little to lose by letting someone know that you are interested.

Learn more about who is also concerned with this area of need and what is currently being done to fill it. You may not propose a new position right away, but you can share your thoughts about the challenge that the department or the larger institution is facing. The process of identifying other people who care about your passions is the first step to finding the right trail to your pivotal move. Now that you know what you seek in your career, you are prepared to take the planning steps to achieving your goal.

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