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To advance in your career, do you need to move to a new institution? People have asked me that question many times. And my response has always been, “It depends on the institution and on you.”

To truly respond effectively to that question, your mind-set is as important as the culture and situation at your current institution. As a human being, your brain is hardwired. If A, then B. You have habits that may lead you to act contrary to your desired outcome. That can especially be the case when you are trying to resolve a complicated career question. You might be dealing, for example, with what I’d call a “wicked problem.”

Imagine I walked up to you and said, “Wicked problems. Discuss.” Would you talk about higher education reform, faculty and staff retention, shared governance, multigenerational workspaces, Title IX, student debt, or some other intractable issue? Wicked problems, by definition, rarely focus on an individual. Jon Kolko, in his book Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving, says that, classically, wicked problems are complex and only an innovative system or institution can solve them. The problems we encounter daily as individuals are not anywhere as large.

Yet those individual problems present their own challenges and constraints. And there are gains to be had by also looking at our lives and careers as wicked problems.

How can you solve a wicked problem? How can you break out of predictable thinking that may keep you in something of a rut? Is it possible to use an organizational concept for individual change and advancement?

Over the last few years, “design thinking” has become an organizational buzzword. Using design thinking to design one’s career path evolved while I listened to Tim Brown’s TEDGlobal talk, “Designers -- Think Big!” Brown states that we have the “ability to exploit opposing ideas and opposing constraints to create new solutions.” When your pathway seems most narrow, you can invent a new way forward, even when making individual decisions.

Design Thinking for Career Planning

You may remember watching cartoons in which a small version of a character sits on their left shoulder saying, “Do what you want to do,” and another small version sits on the right shoulder saying, “Do what you need to do.” How would you proceed with these two characters trying to weigh in on your career decisions?

Or let’s say a colleague with whom you are in a mutual mentoring relationship comes to you and asks one of the following questions:

  • Work is what I do every day, and my family and friends are vital to my success. What are your thoughts on this opportunity available to me that requires me to move across the country?
  • I have a wonderful role with a salary commensurate to the job expectations and am not sure I'm able to take a role with even more authority and impact yet a lower salary. What are your thoughts on accepting this offer?
  • I have led some of the largest campus initiatives and not had a linear career trajectory. I aspire to a deanship, provost appointment or presidency. What are your thoughts on reaching my ultimate career goal?

Do any of these sound familiar? Are you grappling with any of them yourself? Is determining your next career move a wicked problem? In other words, are you not sure what you want to do, where you want to go next or how you will get there?

You may have memorized the career advancement dos and don’ts. But for career transitions, that often means you may have acted within a limiting belief. That can be especially the case for women, people of color and those with diverse or nontraditional backgrounds and experiences, who encounter the must-do and should-complete before advancing more than others. Research has noted how the lack of mentoring and sponsors adversely impacts career advancement and stifles creative career planning.

Scheduling time to create a written plan won’t answer some of the internal career queries listed above. A career plan typically has a clear pathway toward a specific role or some desired career growth. When you are uncertain about your next steps or advised not to skip leadership roles or experiences, completing a career plan isn’t as beneficial. You may turn down offers that do not align with tradition, or you may accept roles where you have heightened impostor syndrome -- which started long before your professional career began to take shape, when you were an undergraduate student.

In other words, there are no easy answers. But there may be some questions you can ask yourself to determine if you’re doing what is good for your career and what will bring the most value to your institution. Design thinking asks you to assess what innovation or change is at the intersection of desirability, feasibility and viability. What do you want? What are your possibilities? Are your possibilities practical?

If applied to your career, where would you start? What questions do you need to ask if you are, say, aspiring to become a top institutional leader and debating whether to stay at your institution or leave for a new one? I recommend you consider the following steps.

Frame a question. Identify a driving question that inspires you to search for creative career pathways. Which women leaders had nontraditional career pathways that led to a presidency?

Gather inspiration. Inspire new thinking by discovering what you really need. Learn more about the distinct talents each woman leader brought into their role and consider how your background will help an institution reach its goals.

Generate ideas. Push past obvious solutions to get to breakthrough ideas. For instance, the need for you to gain additional leadership training and experiences in any area where you have gaps in experience is obvious. But gaining specific new knowledge or joining the board of a particular national association in the gap area is not as obvious.

Make ideas tangible. Build rough prototypes to learn how to make ideas better. Create a few career plans to see how you may want to proceed.

Test to learn. Refine ideas by gathering feedback and experimenting going forward. Share your career plan with mentors, sponsors and coaches. Get feedback for improving the plans. Then test the job market by expressing interest in roles that fit your interest and ultimate goals.

Share the story. Craft a human story to inspire others toward action. Define your career path and goals in a way that motivates others to sponsor your career advancement.

We should not reinforce old systems that suggest there’s only one right way to lead or become a campus leader. Like most habits, practice will ensure that design thinking becomes a part of your new strategy for leadership advancement.

While transitioning to a new institution may be a way for you to move forward, after designing your career, you may identify more than one single direction for your advancement, growth and fulfillment.

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