Through the Provost’s Window: The Wisdom of Mentors

By Dr. Kristine Barnett

Chances are, you didn’t get into your leadership position without some help. Maybe you benefitted from a formal mentoring relationship, or maybe you had some informal mentors. Perhaps you are mentoring others. When we are tested, we often turn to the wisdom of our mentors and counselors. I’ve had mentors from the beginning of my career, a collection of diverse individuals in various roles. These seasoned colleagues have enriched my professional development with great advice. This advice is often imparted through zingy bon mots that have stuck with me for decades. The following nuggets have had particular staying power:

“Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys.”

This classic statement is an apt reminder that sometimes, chaos is just not yours to fix. As leaders, we are tempted to jump in and clean up the messes. But we can only control what we can control. I heard this expression from a colleague who kept getting sidetracked by some systemic institutional issues – a circus not of her making. The expression reminded her that her time was better spent in her sphere of influence rather than watching a sideshow. When the circus really came to town, we would refer to this expression to remind ourselves to stay focused and occasionally enjoy the entertainment of someone else’s monkeys.

“If You Wait Long Enough, The Problem Might Go Away.”

One of the people I learned a lot from was a boss whose leadership style could be labeled “What not to do.” But there were a few things I picked up. This person generally avoided work or taking responsibility. They explained to me that they didn’t answer the phone or email because eventually, someone would figure out a fix. I don’t recommend or practice avoiding communication, but there is some truth behind this lesson. Sometimes people bring concerns and problems to me that they can and should fix themselves. Encouraging others to take the lead empowers them to be change agents instead of looking to others for answers. This advice reminds me that I don’t always have to jump in immediately with a fix.  

“Is This The Hill You Want To Die On?”

As a leader who tends to occasionally slide out of my lane, this question is one I ask myself nearly daily. Earlier in my career, I could get caught up in small-picture issues instead of thinking strategically. Essentially, this question reminds me to focus my time, energy, and priorities on areas where I can be most impactful. Answering the question honestly brings clarity about those spaces where it is worth taking a stand. Do I want to ruffle feathers over something small? It’s also a great question to ask of others who may have become bogged down in all the things that take our eyes off the horizon.

“Focus Your Time On The People Doing Their Jobs.”

Working with people is hard. Working with good people is a blessing. A mentor reminded me that, in any role, there will likely be a small group of challenging people who will take up a lot of oxygen. He advised that leaders focus less on these people and more on those who are making magic happen. When I find myself caught in someone’s spiderweb, this advice helps me get untangled and refocus on moving forward. Also, the advice reminds me to see and affirm the folks who are bringing their best selves to work every day.

“Get Happy Or Get Gone.”

A mentor of a mentor gave me this one. Basically, it’s a reminder that not every position is the right fit. As leaders, we may see this lack of fit in others and may need to help them along for their own benefit or the benefit of the organization. Most leaders don’t look back and say, “I wish I had let the problem go on longer,” or “I should have allowed that problem employee to continue to erode the department for six more months.” While not easy, when the fit is not there, the answer may involve moving someone into a new area or role or out of the organization.

Other times, we may need to acknowledge our own lack of fit and muster the courage to make a change. A few times in my career, I have realized that I had reached my potential in a role. After testing my assumptions with others and taking steps to determine whether growth was possible, I eventually made the decision to pivot.  Getting gone was the best thing for me and most likely for the organization as well.

As leaders, we will be confronted by important choices. We can reframe our situations in an effort to find satisfaction, or we can arrange for an exit.

What are your favorite bits of advice? What is the advice that you find yourself sharing most often?

Here is your Action Step:

Gather the wisdom of your mentors in your professional journal or reflection tool. What are examples of instances in which you took the advice? Or when you didn’t take it? What happened? In addition to capturing and evaluating the advice you have received; you can also pass it along. Next time you connect with your mentees, share with them the wisdom you have gathered from your mentors.

Kristine Barnett, Ed.D is a career-long educator and academic administrator who often has a unique perspective on all aspects of academic leadership. Dr. Barnett has cobbled together a career at a variety of institutions that have afforded her several different scenic vistas. For the most part, her leadership has been focused on small, private, liberal arts women’s (or former women’s) colleges. Barnett is new to her position as a Provost/VP of Academic Affairs at an independent liberal arts college in the southeast, affording her a new window and a new view. In her spare time, Barnett works with doctoral students in the Bay Path University EdD in Educational Leadership program.

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