By Dr. Kristine Barnett
Every provost I know is good at juggling. On some days, you are juggling soft round balls. Others find you juggling projects and priorities that are anything but soft. It takes good leadership to keep these things smoothly moving along. And it helps to have a well-functioning team to share the load. Teams and organizations almost always function best when everyone knows what to do and how to lead from where they are located in the institution. You and your campus are more likely to thrive when there is a leader in every seat.
You may be familiar with the expression, “there are leaders, and there are followers.” From my experience, the work of leadership is rarely this clear-cut. Leadership can be perceived on a spectrum – with followership on one end and leadership on the other. Talented leaders adjust themselves and their styles to fit the situation and context. As executive-level leaders, you have no doubt learned how to flex and adjust your leadership according to what your supervisor and the institution need at a particular moment in time. Sometimes you may enact more of a follower role, and in other situations you may take the lead. Training others on your team to be able to do the same thing—to be adaptable leaders according to what is needed in the moment– takes time and effort. And it’s worth it.
Here are a few thoughts on how to get a leader in every seat:
Name It and Claim It
I’ve worked with many folks who assume that adults understand instinctively how, when, and why to take on leadership roles. And I’ve encountered many frustrated managers who are disappointed that their employees don’t act like leaders. Simple as it sounds, you need to empower your team to step up and lead by defining what leadership means in your setting. Avoid creating spaces where people assume what is expected of them as leaders – tell them. Does leadership mean holding people accountable? Making decisions? Trying to resolve issues before escalating them? Bringing solutions alongside each concern or problem? Answer these questions with your team.
You may need to help your team see themselves as leaders. It helps to directly refer to them as leaders. Publicly commend those who step up and lead by pointing to the behaviors of leadership. Rather than offering an overall pat on the back, focus on highlighting what leaders do at your institution, whether it’s careful intentional planning, effective collaborating, innovative thinking, or attention to the details that make a difference.
Clarify Roles and Responsibilities
People who are confused and uncertain about their work and role may be hesitant to merge into leadership spaces; they may be more comfortable following. At least annually, review with your team, and ideally with the rest of campus, what everyone does. Tell your stakeholders what each person does and can do. Colleagues who feel that they are part of a team or who have ownership of an important function are much more likely to be leaders. If they know another colleague has primary responsibility for an area, it will be more clear to them when a follower stance in appropriate. One way to clarify roles and responsibilities is to have each person share out their priorities at an annual staff meeting, offering their goals and then recapping accomplishments. Circulate a shared list of whom to contact for what purpose.
Take time to map out each person’s strengths to ensure that every employee’s role is aligned with their gifts. You can use tools like StrengthsFinder or the Predictive Index, or you can rely on your own gifts of interpretation. As I got to know each of my new employees over the past year, I actually kept notes of each person’s gifts so that when it came time for annual evaluations and review of job descriptions, we could make adjustments. Employees who are using their strengths more often than not are more confident and willing to take risks. Aligning roles with personal strengths may help move your team towards having a leader in every seat.
In my years of observing leaders at work, I’ve noted that some of the most productive leaders are lousy delegators! When you’ve got many things in the air, and you are under a deadline, it is difficult to stop juggling and risk losing momentum. Delegation lightens our load and helps our colleagues gain experience in leading in different situations. Do you hang on to too much? Are there initiatives into which you could bring less experienced staff members? Sometimes, we don’t delegate as much as we should because our eyes are on what we are juggling instead of what others could be doing. Each week, on Thursday, I like to take a sneak peek at the next week or couple of weeks and jot down a few notes about where I could use some help. This is when I remember to invite others to meetings or share important documents and information to get them involved. Within reason, bring others into opportunities that allow them to observe and perform in leadership roles. They will then become more comfortable leaning in.
Your action step is to do a delegation audit: Write down all of your priorities, responsibilities and tasks, and then evaluate them. Make note of what only you can accomplish. For example, perhaps only you can complete the division budget or finalize faculty contracts. If you are not required to complete a task or project, delegate it. Although it’s hard to give things up, it’s likely that you can delegate parts of planning for a significant event or preparing a routine report. Complete a delegation audit a few times a year to give someone else an opportunity.
As the old saying goes, many hands make light work. Many hands also help with juggling multiple and often complicated priorities. To ensure that you are not an overwhelmed and overworked solo act, work with your team so that there is a leader in every seat.
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.