Volume 84 | Issue 3
May/June 2016

From the Chief Executive Officer: Year One Lessons Learned

John Taylor, Ed.D.

ACUI CEO John TaylorI have often thought of my entrance into the college union field as happenstance more than a planned career. A last-minute decision to go to graduate school, along with encouragement and guidance from supervisors and mentors, contributed to me learning about student affairs and loving the work we do in college unions and student activities. Each time I started in a new position there was a steep learning curve, along with an unconscious “imposter syndrome” causing me to question whether I was truly up to the job. However, that passes, and with each new job I built new skills and also worked hard to overcome weaknesses. Thirty years after graduating from college, it is easy for me to say I wish I knew then what I know now. Unfortunately life doesn’t work like that, and in our careers we often need to push through the challenges that enable us to grow in our jobs. Even so, as my first year as CEO comes to a close, I thought it might be helpful to share five lessons learned, so that others might benefit from my experience.

Join the Team

When someone starts a new job they are really joining a new team or multiple teams. Anyone who has studied group dynamics knows that when the composition of a team changes, the functioning of the group can be affected. Whether a group goes completely through the typical stages of group development (forming, storming, norming, performing), in the end the group may operate somewhat differently than it had previously.

The other contributing factor is that of culture. Hard to define, I like Nilofer Merchant’s reference of culture in a Harvard Business Review article as “all that invisible stuff that glues organizations together.” I’ve also heard organizational culture described as “how people work” or the “norms” of an organization. Culture is developed over time and rests deep within an organization. New employees both adapt to and contribute to the culture of the organization.

In my role as CEO, I was joining both the Central Office and the Board of Trustees. In each case, I tried to listen, ask questions, and learn about the culture. After some give and take in establishing my role on these teams, my leadership style meshed with the culture of those teams. I would suggest that anyone starting in a new role consciously think about how best to participate in and lead their teams.

Learn the Job

The job description, interview process, and two CEO transition books I read before my first day on the job were helpful, but nothing quite prepares you for your job other than doing your job. In many of our positions, and certainly leadership roles, there is no manual. I was able to apply much of my experience as a college union professional to the role of CEO, and I had to learn the nuances of association management. Similar to jumping from programming to operations, I took advantage of transferable skills, while strengthening those areas in which I was less familiar. For example, I’ve been intentional in reviewing existing hotel contracts, comparing activities of sister associations, and reading daily updates of association and higher education news. I have a much better handle on my job and much more room for growth.

Build Relationships

Knowing that ACUI has numerous constituents, I did my best to connect with as many populations as possible. I presented at four regional conferences, attended six higher education sister association-affiliated meetings, welcomed the Leadership Team to Indiana in July, and met many members at the annual conference in New Orleans. In addition, I tried to visit college unions while on other trips. For example, I visited Georgetown and American universities while at a meeting in Washington, D.C. Similar to meeting with departments across campus, such initial efforts to build relationships are essential in a new job.

Establish Priorities

It is easy in any job to get immersed in the day to day, making it that much more important to establish priorities. I’ve created a dashboard that identifies my strategic priorities and associated success indicators, as well as top issues and pressing problems. I have found it helpful to share my strategic priorities with others, and to indicate where I need their help.

Constantly Improve

Being new to an organization brings a fresh set of eyes and a different way of thinking. This can be invaluable to challenge conventional thinking, but at the same time it is important to not assume someone hasn’t already explored your idea. Just as important is to learn from mistakes. I would love to say I haven’t made any mistakes this past year in the CEO role, but I’m afraid that is not the case. Remembering a John Dewey quote that “failure is instructive,” I have tried to learn from missteps this first year and will encounter more such instructive learning in the future. Surely by the time I am an expert, it will be time to retire.