The Worst Career Advice I Have Received
Learning from other people’s mistakes can be as valuable as making your own — and much less painful.
Last spring I wrote about the “best career advice” I’d been offered in my 25 years in admissions and administration. After it was published, I was asked if I could balance out the equation and share some of the worst advice. As you can imagine, that was much harder. Not only do we tend to want to forget bad advice, but also, some of it came from very well-meaning colleagues who don’t deserve to see themselves on a “worst advice” list.
Still, I think it is worth sharing five pieces of conventional wisdom — offered to me at various points in my career — that turned out to be lousy advice. I have a few regrets about following that “wisdom” and also relief that, in some cases, I didn’t. Mistakes are a tremendous teacher, and learning from others’ mistakes can be as valuable (and much less painful) making your own. So I hope that debunking some poor advice will help others avoid a few potholes on the administrative career path.
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Last spring I wrote about the “best career advice” I’d been offered in my 25 years in admissions and administration. After it was published, I was asked if I could balance out the equation and share some of the worst advice. That was much harder. Not only do we tend to want to forget bad advice, but also, some of it came from well-meaning colleagues. What I did with that sometimes lousy advice was up to me.
I have a few regrets about following some of the conventional “wisdom” offered to me at various points in my career, and also relief when, in some cases, I didn’t. Mistakes are a tremendous teacher, and learning from others’ mistakes can be as valuable as making your own (and much less painful). Here are five piece of poor advice I heard over the years, and what my own experiences have taught me since.
“You are not ready.” Just two years into my first admissions job, I was offered an opportunity to step into a significant leadership position. I didn’t take it. At the time I told myself that it was because I didn’t have enough experience in the profession, and that I wanted to take my time and build my skills to make sure I was ready to take on a management position. Looking back, I was probably just afraid to step forward. I was happy to be successful in my comfort zone, but being in charge at that point in my career just seemed like too big of a risk. I didn’t want to fail.
At the time, I turned to senior professionals for advice and a lot of what they told me was not useful. Maybe they thought I hadn’t paid my dues but they helped persuade me that I wasn’t ready. Instead I stayed another year in the job and then made a lateral move to a higher-ranked institution.
Thing is, that first institution was ready to invest in me, and had even set up a mentoring opportunity with an experienced professional. I’ve often wondered what would have happened to my career had I accepted the promotion. I don’t know that I regret my decision but I do regret the reason I made it: I was playing it safe, and typically, that does not lead to good career choices.
If your supervisors see potential and are willing to invest in you, maybe they see something you are too close to notice in yourself. There is no perfect career path for you to mess up. If you get an opportunity to move up, by all means, consider the pros and cons of stepping into the spotlight but also think hard about what it will mean for your career to decline the offer.
“You owe me your loyalty.” If someone has to ask for your loyalty, that person probably doesn’t deserve it. I can remember sitting across a desk from a supervisor who told me horrendous stories about working in college admissions offices. To my mind, the stories bordered on abuse. But my supervisor shared them as a badge of loyalty, and asked me for the same kind of commitment to be on “the team.” That’s when I realized I was in the wrong place.
Dedication to an institution and its mission is important. But a “circle the wagons” mentality that covers up every flaw in the name of personal loyalty is bad for both your career and your campus. Excellence comes from open, rigorous conversations in which everyone feels comfortable bringing their best (and worst) ideas to the table. That sort of honest exchange is missing at too many institutions, where people feel afraid to speak up in meetings, or even to speak directly to a senior leader. Fear breeds in environments of secrecy, and a culture of fear is not something you want to be part of.
If you are interviewing for a job at a new campus, or just checking the place out with an eye toward applying, observe how people there communicate. Do the vice presidents seem to talk only with other vice presidents? Do people agree with everything the leader says? If you get the sense that people on the team value loyalty above all else and seem afraid to say anything that would contradict the supervisor, run in the other direction.
“Don’t worry about them.” Office bullies are my least favorite people. Unfortunately, every institution I have worked at has had a few. I suppose they exist in all organizations — the challenge is to make sure the bullies are not setting the ground rules for workplace culture.
In a few instances, when my “bully radar” went off and I raised concerns about someone, I was told things like: “Oh, don’t worry about that person. You won’t have to work with them much,” or, “Just stay in your lane and it won’t be a problem.” That advice has never proved true. Inevitably, I have had to figure out a working relationship with the troublemaker. It’s usually an exhausting challenge and an unwelcome distraction from the work.
What personality type drives you crazy? Who are the people who make your work so much harder? You won’t be able to avoid all of them, so you need to figure out how to work with — or around — them. One tool that has helped me immensely is a working knowledge of the Enneagram personality test, which helps to identify the hidden motivations driving people. Practice identifying the personality types you find most challenging to deal with and think about how you would handle potential confrontations.
Carefully judge the workplace culture of an institution to make sure you are not fighting a losing battle. Colleges and universities are interconnected organisms. Campuses are usually too small for you to avoid the people who really get to you.
“All that matters is results.” Administration is definitely not a meritocracy. People who do the best work don’t always get the most credit. I remember an enrollment colleague I really respected telling me: “As long as you have the numbers on your side and can demonstrate results, you will be safe.” Unfortunately, that is not what I have observed. This colleague was fired despite great “numbers,” and I know others who suffered the same fate. Conversely, I have seen people remain in their roles for years despite mediocre or even poor results.
Higher education is primarily a people business. That means, with very few exceptions, you will need to build good relationships to be successful. Far from a necessary evil, this can actually be one of the most enjoyable parts of the job. I still keep in contact with college counselors whose high schools I visited more than 20 years ago, and I still reach out to colleagues at former institutions for advice and feedback.
As a results-oriented person, it took me a while to figure out how important it was to maintain and cultivate long-term relationships in the field. That has not always been my strength, but when I have taken the time to build such bonds, the investment has paid off in both opportunities and job satisfaction.
It is also critical to build good relationships across the institution. As much as you want to get great results, you also want to be known on your campus as someone who is easy to work with, has integrity, and cares about people. Early in my career, I made a remark that offended a vice president. A very wise older staff member advised me: “Take him to lunch. Everyone has to eat.” That meal allowed us to re-establish trust and work together successfully for the next few years.
At some point, the numbers will fail even the most talented professionals. Make sure you have good relationships in place when they do.
“That’s too big of a risk.” I’ve worked at several different types of institutions in my career, which is somewhat unusual. I went from private colleges to a public university and back to private institutions, with enrollments that ranged from 400 to 9,000 students.
Every time I changed jobs, I had at least a few colleagues tell me I was crazy to make the move I was making. I was sacrificing prestige, they said, or job security. Whatever the reason, my choice did not fit into their box.
Make career decisions that work for you. No one else knows what is in your head or the values that motivate or fulfill you. In my changing jobs, I have prioritized two things: a good location for my family and a work environment where I knew I could make a difference. That’s a different set of choices than if my goals had been working at a prestigious institution, maximizing my salary, or playing it safe.
In some ways, I wish I had taken bigger risks. The most enjoyable parts of my work have often happened when I stepped out of my primary role in enrollment management and took on new areas — like career services, international partnerships, or study-abroad support. I’ve learned so much from dabbling outside my comfort zone. I doubt I would have had such varied opportunities had I taken admissions jobs at large, elite universities, and I might have missed out on some of my favorite experiences.
Play your own game. You — not the folks giving you advice — have to live with your choices.
Where to get good career advice. The 85 percent rule teaches that optimal learning takes place when we are making mistakes 15 percent of the time. Some of the best guidance comes from people who are willing to admit their failures.
When you receive bad advice, it usually comes from people who, while they have great theories, haven’t actually lived through the situation they are advising you about. They are projecting their own fears onto your predicament. For the most-relevant advice, look to those who have experienced what you are confronting. Their 15 percent of real-life mistakes will be far more valuable to you than wise-sounding speculation.
Seek out those in your field who have earned their battle scars but are still smiling, still building relationships, still getting results. And at the end of the day, don’t be afraid to make 15 percent of your own mistakes. That way you’ll have good advice to share when others come to you.