new job, new dynamic
September 3, 2012 7:25 PM   Subscribe

I will be starting a senior administrative role at a university. I was doing administration with supervisory responsibilities up until this point, but this is a big step up for me. I don't doubt that I can do it, but I'm feeling a bit uncertain about a few things. I need pointers or resources on "getting your act together" to operate at this level.

I feel as if there's going to be a learning curve on how to simply conduct myself at this level with the people I work with. For example, I now have an Administrative Assistant (i.e., secretary) whose sole job it is to help me out. But, I'm not used to having one, so I'm feeling a bit awkward about using one. People will also be looking to me for guidance when I feel that I should be the one asking questions, as there are a lot of details to the job I need to learn now that the previous person is gone (although he is around in a limited capacity to provide advice). Again, I don't doubt I can do this. I guess my concerns have to do with transitioning to a place of competence regarding office protocol with the people I work with and the things I'll be overseeing. I don't have a great benchmark to discern what is normal in this process.

My job doesn't start immediately, but I've been interacting with those I will be working with a bit. I'd like to spend the next couple of weeks figuring out how to think about things and how to transition effectively. How does one go into a position like this asking the right things, doing the right things, and not seeming too incompetent? What is it okay to not know, and what should I do to have my act together in the places that matter most?

This is a bit open ended, and I might be making it out to be more serious than it will end up being; but even a book or something that discusses this kind of transition would be quite helpful. I have set up some lunches and meetings with some people I will be working with to try and get a sense of how things are structured, and also what I'll have to do to hit the ground running. What kinds of questions should I be asking?
posted by SpacemanStix to Work & Money (8 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Set up one on one meetings with everyone who reports to you directly, and everyone you'll be working with closely for as soon as possible after you start. Give them a chance to say what they are concerned about, what they want from you, anything that did or didn't work with the previous person in your position, etc. Take tons of notes and use this time to get an understanding of what each person does, how they can help you do your job, and what they are expecting/need from you.

With your admin assistant, set up a regular meeting. This could be a ten minute meeting every morning or a weekly meeting, but make sure you set up a regular time to talk.
posted by cushie at 7:40 PM on September 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I can't speak to all of your question, but I am an Executive Assistant. I have worked for someone who had never had an assistant before and didn't know what to do with me, and I was bored out of my mind because he never sat down and talked with me about what I could help with. I would do that with your assistant day one: have an informal meeting, explain you've never had an assistant before, and ask what your person's strengths and capabilities are. An experienced assistant will appreciate this very much One thing that will help you a lot is to treat your assistant as an equal who happens to simply have a special talent for administrative work. A good assistant can be relied upon to have your back with protocol and your relationships with other people at your level and above, and a lot of people miss that benefit by treating their admins like peons.

Also, here are some general admin things I do (or things I get annoyed with my boss for doing himself): make travel arrangements, schedule meetings, set up filing systems, return emails, write and edit correspondence, run reports and create presentations, keep track of expenses, order office supplies, plan conferences, do internet research... anything administrative or detail-oriented you've probably been annoyed with having to deal with in the past, hand it off. In the beginning of course it will be a good idea to work closely with your assistant until you can build some mutual trust and a familiar working relationship, but don't be afraid to give him or her some substantial projects.
posted by something something at 7:45 PM on September 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I'm an increasingly senior faculty member at a university, with a fair amount of experience dealing with administrators at the college and university level (deans, associate provosts, provosts, assistant chancellors, etc.), and some experience myself as a director of a few programs. My first piece of advice would be to keep in mind that what you say in any quasi-public setting is no longer just what you, personally, say, but what your title says. That can throw new administrators who don't expect that their off the cuff remarks will be given more weight than they intended.

If you have a trusted friend on the faculty who can be relied on to give you blunt feedback, without advancing his or her own agenda, consult with him or her from time to time about how you're coming across, and more generally, how the rank-and-file think about your administrative area. If you're outside the academic side of things, look for the equivalent in the area where your responsibilities lie. If you have contacts outside your institution, cultivate them--not only at your level, but also a level or two above or below.

On the nuts and bolts level: you should ask about how available you'll need to be outside of regular working hours, what your responsibilities will be on evenings and weekends (e.g. receptions for new faculty or students, convocations, commencements, etc.), constraints on vacation time, dress code, and that kind of thing. If any of these will be a hardship for your spouse or partner, or affect your child care arrangements, bring it up now and work out accommodations with the person to whom you report.

If you have a competent administrative assistant, follow something something's advice. You want to use your assistant's talents to the max, not only to make your job easier, but also to keep him or her from getting bored or quitting. A good assistant is worth his or her weight in gold. On the other hand, if you've been saddled with a lemon, get rid of him or her ASAP. In a union environment this can be surprisingly hard but it's not impossible.

Don't insist too much on the administrative hierarchy. If you hear a concern from someone 2 or 3 levels below you who, according to protocol, should have reported it to one of your underlings, don't fret about that; consider whether the concern is merited, and if so, act on it. An administrator who fobs off complaints by constantly referring them to underlings is going to lose respect. On the other hand, if acting would involve undue interference in your subordinates' bailiwicks, say that. A director of campus facilities shouldn't promise someone that s/he will ensure that the pumpkin soup in the dining commons will have less nutmeg the following week.

Finally, as Samuel Conti, a retired administrator at my university, once told the assembled crowd at a dinner where our faculty research award was being named in his honor: administrators should turn their organizational charts upside down from time to time, to remind themselves that their role is to support the work of teaching, research, and outreach that the university does. Students and faculty are not there to support administrators. You can't always please everyone, but you should bear in mind the point of your position as you carry it out.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:07 PM on September 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I worked in university administration - all the above, plus -

- Attitude is more important than knowing everything. If you don't know the answer to a question, give people a timeframe within which you'll get back to them. Then get back to them within that timeframe, even if it's just to say 'Apologies, I don't have an answer for you yet, but I've taken action a, b, c'. The most frustrating thing is people who say they'll sort something then hang up the phone and put it in the too-hard basket (don't know if this happens in all universities but it certainly did in the one I worked at).

Seconding Something Something on the need to give your admin asst stuff enough to do. You just need to get over the awkwardness of having a lackey and hey, why not be open about it and ask them to rate whether the workload is too much/not enough during your regular meetings, so you can adjust as needed. Try to think of 1-2 large research tasks they can do in downtime so you're not always trying to come up with smaller stuff for them to do (if they're scarily efficient).
posted by pink_gorilla at 1:24 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: People will also be looking to me for guidance when I feel that I should be the one asking questions, as there are a lot of details to the job I need to learn now that the previous person is gone (although he is around in a limited capacity to provide advice). Again, I don't doubt I can do this.

Don't be afraid to make decisions. They put you in this position because they think you are right for it, and they think the decisions you will make will be the right ones, so trust their experience and knowledge. Even in your decisions are not the ones your predecessor would have made, as long as they are well-thought out, backed up by evidence (or at least experience), and comport with the overall philosophies of your institution (both official and unstated), you will be OK. It can be very frustrating to deal with an administrator who is hamstrung by their own indecision.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:16 AM on September 4, 2012

Best answer: Not a university, but Confessions of Community College Dean (actually I think he's a VP now) is excellent on higher education politics, balancing faculty and administrative responsibilities, etc. For example, in this post he talks about professional development for administrators and recommends The College Administrator's Survival Guide (which is about university admin).
posted by idb at 7:04 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. That is all very helpful advice, and I plan to make good use of it!

Please feel free to keep the advice coming if you think of anything else.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:35 AM on September 4, 2012

Best answer: Find out what you can and can't promise and hold the upper echelons to their word. How much autonomy do you have in getting resources for problems or getting stuff done? What can you actually do if someone performs well - or badly?

Please for gods sake learn to say no unambiguously. Too much 'maybe' or 'nice idea lets try' flattery kills respect for an admin.

If you have no resources to give to a problem, but you would like to see it done, send the person away to help GET SOME.
posted by lalochezia at 2:19 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

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