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Building and maintaining relationships in higher education is essential to a successful career. This is not easy to do considering the people in key positions often change. A university is a dynamic organization, new students and faculty arrive each year, and priorities and big ideas are constantly evolving. Regardless of your area of focus, as a higher education professional you should network with key administrators outside your domain. The better you understand these colleagues and their goals, the better you will truly know your university and how best to serve it.
Before you begin, identify the big ideas at your university. And, most importantly, identify the people behind those big ideas. Big ideas are those that often provide a transformational opportunity for the organization to grow or advance. This can mean new schools, research, and/or the way in which your organization is known to the world. These big ideas come from many places. Big ideas are commonly included in strategic plans, annual reports, etc. Once you know or discover the ideas and people behind them, you will really get to know the identity of your university. It may surprise you.
How to Get Started
Make a list of the key people within your organization. No limits. Don’t worry if they are in very senior positions or have had little or no contact with you. That is the fun part. If you don’t know where to start, try using the organizational chart. This can help you understand where to begin that might be more comfortable based on your position in the hierarchy. As you begin to build relationships, you will find new connections and can ask for recommendations of new colleagues to meet. Ask your peers for suggestions and never leave without asking what you should ask the next person. Let them know with whom you are meeting and ask for suggested topics for discussion. Follow up afterward with what you learned.
Before You Begin
Be sure that you listen intently and stay interested. If you are new to any of these areas or departments, start by asking big idea questions. These are also great warm-up questions even if you know a lot about them.
- What is your mission? History?
- How do you measure success?
- Who are your partners or major influencers within the organization?
- What do you worry about?
- How much does your work change? What are the patterns? Busy season?
- How is your office/dept/team perceived internally? Is this accurate?
- What is your big idea? How could it could transform the organization?
Who to Know, What to Ask, and Why
Adjust these names and departments according to your organization and country. Not all of these match up the same across organizations, but the components are essentially the same.
Some would argue this is the nexus of the organization; where supply meets demand and where perception meets reality. The people in admissions and financial aid are often the most social and connected professionals within your institution. They know it all and have seen it all too. Ask them:
- Why do students apply?
- What are the most popular majors? Are there patterns?
- Who are our competitors?
- What percentage of our students receive financial aid?
- How do we determine if the students are the right fit?
- How many graduate? Where do they end up after graduation?
- Are our students satisfied with their education? How do we know?
This is where people start and end with the organization. HR is there to recruit, refine, and sometimes even referee. These professionals are fantastic sources of guidance and insight into how the organization (dys)functions and where it seeks to improve. They are often the most candid and direct in terms of communication style. Ask HR:
- How many people work here?
- What professional development do we offer to staff?
- Do we survey staff on overall satisfaction with employment? Is this data shared?
- What are the major obstacles when we are hiring/recruiting people to our city/state/area?
- What do recruits often ask about our organization in initial interviews?
- How often do people change jobs or leave? Is there much turnover?
- What services do we offer to spouses/partners of recruits?
Fundraisers and friendraisers. Cliche but true. These staff help keep people connected to the organization, seek out and reconnect those who have lost contact, and provide opportunities for benefactors to support the organization based on their interests. They are highly connected to the academy and must always be in tune with overall sentiment of the alumni population. They travel, they engage, they interact. They know the people who love the organization and exist to help them better connect with their alma mater.
- Who are our major benefactors and why do they give?
- Why do people support the organization?
- How many faculty/staff give each year?
- How many people are active in the alumni association and/or attend reunions?
- What are the major issues or sensitive topics within our alumni population?
- What percentage of alumni give annually?
- How committed are leaders here to fundraising and development?
- How do you interact, get to know, or understand the academy and its needs?
- What big ideas are people really excited about?
Executive Officers / Leadership
This group generally consists of the Chancellor/President, Provost, Finance/Budget/Operations/Investing, Vice Presidents, Deans and Faculty chairpersons. They are highly influential and knowledgeable, and they speak routinely about mission, values, and transformational opportunities. Surprisingly, many of these people have open office hours. You might only get ten minutes, but you will be amazed how much you can learn in that short amount of time. They are real people who love to talk about the organization. And, in most cases, their charisma is viral.
- What are the biggest ideas currently within our organization? Why?
- How is our organization perceived within higher education? Nationally? Internationally? Do you care about rankings? Why/not?
- What is the most common misperception of our organization?
- Who are our competitors and why?
- How do we stay competitive and attract top talent?
- What is our greatest contribution to society? Why?
- Who is/are our greatest faculty? Why?
- How often do you travel? Where do you go and why?
- What would the founders of the university think of it now?
Summary: Why You Should Get To Know Your University
Universities are complex, multi-faceted social networks. They are hierarchies. They are layered. Yet, within these structures are common themes, goals, and purposes. If you are curious and interested in getting to know your organization and how it functions, you need to understand your colleagues and how they work, what they do, and how they contribute to the overall mission. Once you start piecing this together, you will become wiser as you contribute to that shared goal. And, it is a great way to advance your career and overall job performance.