july 2015 bulletin cover
Volume 83 | Issue 4
July 2015

Do's and Don'ts for New Professionals

John Taylor
Last month I had the great fortune to join participants at the IPDS: New Professionals Orientation, held at the University of Illinois. Thank you to Lowa Mwilambwe and the staff at the Illini Union, who were outstanding hosts. It is because of such support from our member institutions that we are able to offer cost-effective, on-site educational programs. While I served as educator in residence at the program, I also provided the introductory session, focused on what to expect as a new college union and student activities professional. The do’s and don’ts I shared can help new professionals navigate their roles and build credibility to be successful campus community builders.

The most common thought a new professional might have upon entering the field is: “Do I have what it takes to get the job done?” For any new professional, I would suggest five skills or attributes important for success.

John TayorFirst, be ready to learn, and look for active avenues to gain both knowledge and experiences. College unions certainly have many areas needing technical expertise—programming, operations, auxiliaries, finance/budgeting, advising, and more. However, I have never expected a new professional to begin their career already proficient in the 11 core competencies. In fact, I am more interested in new professionals’ mindset, recognizing that a supervisor can usually teach skills but not attitude. Author Malcolm Gladwell suggests that it takes 10,000 hours in a given profession to attain mastery. New professionals’ visible commitment to investing time in their own skill development demonstrates a work ethic that is more valuable than their initial technical competency.

Second, communication is always at the heart of working with other people. Central to communication, of course, is that it is two-way. As a riff on George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote, my favorite saying is: “The illusion of communication is that it has been achieved.” What we say, how we say it, and how the message is received all contribute to our ability to successfully communicate.

Third, I have found it beneficial to be simultaneously persistent and patient. Colleges and universities are notorious for having slow processes, with decision-making often taking longer than desired. Union and activities professionals must be tenacious to accomplish desired outcomes. Don’t expect quick action, and do your best to remain positive while waiting.
Fourth, remember to keep students at the center. Whether or not you have a strong foundation in student development theory, our role in unions and activities is to provide opportunities for students to grow, mature, and succeed. When making decisions, we should always consider the effect on students.

Finally, integrity is the most important attribute for any union and activities professional. It can be difficult to know the correct decision to make in a given situation; however, always use your internal compass to ensure you are upholding strong ethics and personal values.

Aside from building new skills, it is also important to recognize common missteps when starting out as a new professional. Foremost among these, new professionals should be cautious of joining in office politics and should avoid contributing to unsubstantiated claims. It is better to keep your opinions to yourself, rather than to be seen as the tabloid reporter.

New professionals should also not assume they have “the answer” or that there is only one answer. We are often confronted with complex situations, and in some cases the seemingly correct answer is inaccurate because information is hidden or missing. In addition, there can be multiple truths to a situation and, of course, various solutions to solving a problem.

The last minefield of note is assuming campus colleagues have or can see your perspective. For example, many areas outside of the college union, such as business and finance, do not necessarily work directly with students. When confronted with a challenge, it is easy to feel like these colleagues don’t care about students. While that is not usually the case, it is helpful to engage such colleagues and to teach them about students. For example, as a union director, I found it helpful when working with the university procurement office to have students on a vendor selection committee. This was unique to the procurement process but illustrative of how we involve students in the union’s service functions. It is helpful to view such situations from our campus partners’ lens and to recognize that they may be basing decisions less with students in mind and more with the bottom line.

New professionals are often in an ideal position to bridge the conversation between students and senior-level professionals. Their connectedness and originality offer a lot to an organization. By considering what attributes to emphasize and what indiscretions to evade, new professionals can be better positioned to foster positive relationships with students, colleagues, and supervisors.