Most higher education professionals haven’t had very diverse experiences. They move steadily from an undergraduate degree to Master’s and PhD and settle into a career without ever leaving the sanctity and homogeneity of an institutional setting. As professionals, they travel to conferences, attend educational workshops, and read journals and books, all focused SPECIFICALLY in their discipline. Advancement and praise are afforded to those who further divide the proverbial pie of theories and research relative to their expertise into smaller bits of unexplored terrain. If one takes a “big picture” view, this fairly standard and narrowly focused approach is limiting and can serve as an endless loop of inbreeding that ultimately leads to complacency and ineffectiveness. Consider Steve Jobs’ perspective: “When people don’t have enough experiences, enough dots to connect, they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.”
Here are 5 suggestions designed to give you and your team
a broad range of new perspectives by diversifying your stimuli and experiences:
1. STOP encouraging your staff to attend the same national conference year after year. A mentor once opined that if she learned one new idea at a
conference, she was amazed. That’s a sad but often true statement. Poor presentations mixed with a rehash of old ideas have become conference common-place. And I’m not indicting any association in particular. Over my career, I’ve attended national conferences from eight different associations. In all but two, I allocated significant time and money and came away disappointed. I won’t deny that conferences afford great opportunities to network, catch up with old friends, and occasionally view a stellar keynote address, but does that justify the expense? The best conference I ever attended had ONLY cutting edge experts and authorities from OUTSIDE the field. My takeaways there were not incremental improvements on old ideas–instead, they catapulted me to revolutionary new initiatives.
2. START sending people to tangential conferences or forego conferences completely. Replace them with certifications or professional development courses that benefit both the individual and the institution. Below is a list of some of the “unconventional” trainings and experiences that I’ve seen yield substantial innovation and impact for my staff:
Digital Video Conference
NY Restaurant Show
Dale Carnegie Courses
True Colors™ Trainer Certification
Profilor™ 360 Feedback
Project Adventure Facilitator Trainer
3. ENCOURAGE the curation and presentation of new ideas from every member of your team. One of the categories for monthly reports in my group is titled “New Things Learned.” I’m amazed at the breadth of new and divergent knowledge that staff members acquire each month. Often the topics follow a passion or interest that has no seeming relevance to the work they do–yet these explorations have become new programs or services that transform common experiences into something remarkable.
I also devote at least two staff meetings per season to a version of “show and tell.” Try asking everyone to present a 5 minute book review or share a favorite website, YouTube video, or “crazy” cool initiative they’ve come across in their travels. Then have them explain the potential applicability to the work we do. This often leapfrogs into loftier concepts that create the building blocks of innovative programs.
4. CREATE a “think-tank” group with people outside your profession to share ideas, concepts, plans, inventions, stories, and writing. People not associated with your workplace can provide honest (and sometimes brutal) feedback without creating workplace drama or repercussions. It’s also important to get people who represent a range of areas with contrasting viewpoints and unique perspectives. Getting an economist, a doctor, and a priest to all walk into the same room isn’t just the start of a good joke, it’s an eclectic mix of viewpoints likely to spark lively debate and discussion.
5. HIRE based on portfolio of results and experiences, not on pedigree. Rudy Giuliani said, “Too many leaders overlook candidates with unusual resumes because of a failure of nerve. It’s safer to hire someone with pedigree than without–if the former screws up, you can always say, Didn’t see that coming–the old boy went to Princeton.” I’m guessing we’ve all seen people with prestigious pedigrees who were terrible in practice. Half of my staff has no background or education specifically in higher education or student affairs, yet many of them are among the most well-respected performers at the University. Because they haven’t been indoctrinated into a particular way of thinking and they offer other disciplines and perspectives to their work, they often challenge out-of-date practices and bring ground-breaking ideas and experiences to the students we serve.
Whether you lead others or not, I hope you’ll have the courage and open mindedness to step out of your comfort zone and expand your range of knowledge and experiences well beyond your area of expertise. What will you do this week and every week thereafter to intentionally forage for new ideas outside your field?