Professional Development: A Catalyst for Career Success

min read

Professional development isn't just about attending events—it's about the actions that higher education IT leaders take once they're back in the workplace.

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Credit: Zenzen / © 2020

As the higher education landscape continues to rapidly change, it's important for leaders to leverage their existing skills while cultivating new opportunities for growth and effective leadership. With that in mind, EDUCAUSE had the opportunity to interview Luis Hernandez, associate CIO for IT Services and Outreach at Amherst College, and Teresa Hudson, director of Educational Technologies and User Services at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Both of these individuals participated in EDUCAUSE Institute programs. We asked them to share their personal career journeys, discuss the role that professional development has played in their careers, and provide their advice for other career-driven professionals.

First, we were curious about how these two experienced leaders view career and professional development, so we asked each of them to tell us about their career journeys in higher education IT.

Luis: I've been extremely lucky that my supervisors have been great mentors to me. They've helped me find my horizon and identified areas for growth, and I welcome that kind of feedback. So it's important to be open-minded. In addition, I've recognized that I tend to resist moving forward in my career. I get complacent. However, when I take the next step, I always wonder why I didn't do it sooner. I credit my supervisors and past CIOs who helped me to see in myself what I don't see.

Teresa: This one actually made me pause for a second because although I am extremely organized and driven in both my personal and professional life, I can't really say that I prepared for a professional career path. My career began late in my life, as I did not have the opportunity to attend college right after graduating high school. I finally decided to go to college and met with the campus dean at Northampton County Community College here in Pennsylvania. His feedback was instrumental in my transition into IT. In addition, he hired me in my first IT position, where I learned how to support desktop computers. He shared some advice with me as I began my career—advice I still follow today: always put family first, schoolwork and professional growth second, and work third. I now offer the same advice to the student employees and staff that I hire today, hoping they will understand that if your home and personal life is good, then the work you do won't be a struggle.

Luis and Teresa have taken different paths, but both have risen to management roles at their respective institutions. Oftentimes, we view our career growth and goals along a straight, linear path, when in reality it often looks more like the alternative routes on a GPS. Taking a different path can also lead you to an unexpected, yet rewarding destination.

These two leaders had the following advice to share with professionals who are in the first five years of their careers.

Teresa: First, I would say find your brand. What are the unique qualities that make you stand out? For me, it was understanding my leadership style. There are different leadership philosophies, and taking some time for self-reflection and assessment to really understand your passion, motivation, and what energizes you is helpful.

I have learned that I'm a servant leader and take great pride in putting the needs of my employees first, helping them to develop skill sets that encourage them to perform at the highest possible level. Also, I believe that being extremely organized and knowing your leadership style can help you to keep your team tuned in and on track to successfully complete the goals that contribute to student success.

One additional item is to have a clear understanding of the IT division's goals and mission, how the division's goals and mission tie into the university's mission and vision, and how the goals of IT correlate to the overall goals of the university. Once all of those things are clear and you're ready to start the planning phase of your IT projects, don't be afraid to take risks, while understanding that failure is inevitable. Learning how to embrace failure graciously is important.

Luis: I recommend that early career IT professionals take advantage of any new learning opportunities available to them—not only by participating in training, but also by helping with projects that are out of their scope and joining committees and working groups that tackle more than just their direct field of work.

When you're getting started in your career, cast a wide net so that you can learn and determine what you really enjoy. During those first years, you may think you know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life, but that will change over time and it's good to know what else is available in your industry and at your institution. I've been invited to participate in other areas such as student affairs, academic affairs, and advancement. It's good to know what's possible in those areas as well so you can be a resource if needed.

Teresa and Luis both spoke about embracing change and failure, which alludes to the flexibility and perseverance needed to face adversity when it arises. Both leaders discussed how professional development and community involvement have helped to further their knowledge, skills, and abilities—and contributed to their success.

Luis: I've participated in several leadership programs, and each time I've learned something new about myself and come away wanting to do things differently. It's most rewarding when I learn something about myself that I need to change. I see it as a challenge. Change takes time and is not immediate. However, once you set your mind to making a change, write down your goals and really pursue them. You will see changes, and other people will take notice.

Teresa: Attending the EDUCAUSE Senior Directors Program this past summer was a tremendous opportunity that my supervisor supported to help me improve upon my leadership skills. He's someone who sees my abilities and trusts me to further myself both personally and professionally. The program is an immersive experience that helped to expand my leadership skills by providing me with opportunities to engage with my peers and learn from some of the top leaders in higher ed.

There was so much valuable content to carry into our leadership roles, such as the collaboration project that helped us to connect with peers in similar roles supporting the same educational technologies for end users. I now have a group of individuals that I can reach out to for support and advice. The program boosted my confidence by helping me to understand imposter syndrome and how to communicate up, down, and across the institution—and within myself. In addition, the program addressed diversity, equity, and inclusion. These discussions provided information that is useful in the workplace and at home.

Professional development isn't just about attending a learning event. The other major component is the action that occurs when you return to your workplace. Positioning yourself for the next step in your career involves planning just as much as it involves skill development, so we asked Teresa and Luis what they would say to someone who is looking to take the next step but isn't sure what to do.

Teresa: I think the journey is all about finding your passion. If you could do it with a mentor, that would help immensely. If your organization doesn't have a mentoring program, find someone you trust who has more experience, or maybe a life coach who has been down in the trenches and can advise you about your professional growth. And, of course, attending EDUCAUSE Institute programs where you get a fresh perspective from others in the higher ed IT industry is a rewarding experience. One thing to remember when you get to the top of where you want to be is to pay it forward.

Luis: Don't wait. I always hesitate, and then when I do something, I think: Why didn't I do this sooner? Talk to your peers within and outside of the institution, and take advantage of any opportunity presented to you. Be proactive, take action, and don't wait.

Although each of these leaders expressed a unique perspective, the common characteristics that tie the two leaders together include communication, collaboration, self-advocacy, and openness. Leadership is a people game, and growth along the way is optional. Another important insight shared by the interviewees is the idea that change is inevitable. In light of that, professional development plays a significant role in the preparation for and successful progression of one's career. So the question for you is this: When opportunity knocks, will you be ready?

For more information about enhancing your skills as a higher education IT manager and leader, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Professional Development Commons blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Career Development page.

The PD Commons blog encourages submissions. Please submit your ideas to [email protected].

Shana Campbell is Manager of Professional Learning at EDUCAUSE.

© 2020 Shana Campbell. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.