Through the Looking Glass: Using Reflection to Advance Your Goals

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In 2007, the UMBC president and leadership team participated in a two-day workshop titled “Effective Leadership in Challenging Times.” The program was based on the work of Ed Oakley, as highlighted in his book Enlightened Leadership: Getting to the Heart of Change. This training was focused on the role that leaders play in creating a supportive culture on campus and on how leaders’ actions create positive energy among those reporting to them.

I will likely explore this training—and how it helped me improve my leadership skills—in a future blog post. But today I want to highlight a part of the program that at the time seemed odd to me. Each new year following the workshop, the trainer would send an e-mail with reflective questions for us to contemplate. These reflective questions asked us to look back on the prior year while looking forward to goals and actions in the next year. This was an optional exercise, and the first time I received the questions, I was caught off-guard because it had been over six months since we had completed the workshop. However, as I reflected on the questions, I found them to be both helpful and empowering in envisioning my future. These follow-up questions continued to be sent for the next six years, until the trainer retired.

However, I still take the time to review the past e-mail messages and answer the questions. Below are some of the reflective questions that I looked at during the past year:

  • What were the most important things you learned?
  • What was the most loving service you performed?
  • What was the biggest risk you took?
  • How did you encourage others?
  • Who made the biggest difference in your life? How have you acknowledged them?
  • How did you improve your relationships with those you love?
  • What were your greatest achievements?
  • What else do you need to do or say to be complete with the year?

Some forward-looking questions included the following:

  • What are you looking forward to learning?
  • What undeveloped talent are you willing to explore?
  • How will you experience more joy?
  • What loving services will you perform?
  • What risks are you planning to take?
  • How will you encourage others?
  • How will you improve your relationships with those you love?
  • How will you make a difference in the world?
  • What will be your greatest achievements?

Taking these questions seriously requires a lot of contemplation and introspection. In particular, they force you to look at how well you integrate your work life and personal relationships. Enlightened leadership requires a holistic approach: succeeding in one dimension without the other is not beneficial to long-term personal growth. Using these questions, I talk with my wife and my friends to ensure that I am allocating the time needed to build strong personal relationships and maintain a healthy work/life balance. For me, maintaining work/life balance is the foundation from which I can take on efforts to advance both my work and my personal development.

The best way to achieve balance is to develop a specific action plan. This is one of four tips for job satisfaction noted in a Washington Post article by Joyce Russell, associate dean of the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. If you need help getting started, EDUCAUSE has a very comprehensive professional development plan. As noted above, I developed my own action plan based on the enlightened leadership training. Each year I plan across four dimensions: work, professional, personal, and community/service. I then identify steps I can take in each of these areas to advance my interests. In an earlier blog post, I outlined my 2016 goals as an example. In doing this, I can plan how I want to focus my time and energy throughout the year, and I can evaluate opportunities on whether or not they fit my plan. Where this work is very helpful is in evaluating opportunities or activities that were completely unanticipated. I look at these and determine if they fit into my four goals and whether they would advance my efforts to make a difference. If they do, they get added to my list; if they don’t, I put them aside for the time being and stay focused on what I already have planned.

Russell also talks about mentors and resumes. As part of your specific action plan, if you don’t have a mentor, you should make it a goal to find one. EDUCAUSE has some very good resources on mentoring. If you have never had a mentor, I recommend listening to the EDUCAUSE mentoring podcast. Getting a mentor is an important step in reflection and personal development.

Whether or not you are thinking about applying for a new job this year, you should take the time to update your resume and think about your online-brand: what shows up when you Google yourself? Developing your resume requires you to reflect on what you have done in your career and where you hope to go. Again, the EDUCAUSE Career Center has a variety of resources to help you get started. In particular, I recommend watching the video on developing your resume by Marshall Brown, an executive coach, and also Brown’s video on building your brand.

It is never too late in the calendar year to make a personal plan. If you haven’t done so, take some time to reflect on your goals and identify actions you can take this year to support those goals. I welcome your comments on what resources or approaches you find helpful in achieving work/life balance and advancing your career.

Jack Suess is Vice President of IT and CIO at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County


© 2016 Jack Suess. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (