In the wake of the pandemic and the subsequent “great resignation,” work within higher education has undergone a profound transformation, challenging leaders to redefine roles, goals, and strategies. Many of us have witnessed these struggles firsthand.
But what was initially just about surviving the epidemiological, social, and political challenges wrought by the pandemic became something else entirely; we are called to fundamentally reckon with our contemporaneous solutions to work, leadership, and teamwork to be successful in a New Now.
A Shifting Leadership Paradigm
In the midst of the crisis, a colleague of mine confided in me about feeling disconnected and unseen. The absence of shared past experiences—those hallway conversations before and after leadership meetings—created a palpable sense of deficiency in context and collaboration with other team members.
I quickly realized that our leadership team was shaped by a disappearing construct of in-person connections and conversations. Back-to-back Zoom calls had replaced serendipitous encounters, leaving a void that needed to be addressed.
The Unseen Framework of Working Relationships
In the struggle to survive the crisis, we’d lost sight of a crucial aspect—the framework of contemporary working relationships was being permanently altered. In real time and unexpected ways, the landscape of collaboration, communication, and connection shifted.
This realization dawned as we all grappled with major challenges as administrators: building and leading cohesive, caring, and productive teams in an environment we had not anticipated. These changes now shape every aspect of our ongoing higher education leadership journey.
So where do we go from here?
Adapting Perceptions, Practices, and Methods
To successfully navigate the New Now, leaders must acknowledge and adapt to an evolving reality. Perceptions of leadership, traditional practices, and established methods must undergo a transformation.
The challenge lies not only in surviving but thriving in this nascent environment. It’s a call to innovate, experiment, and embrace change as an inherent part of our leadership practices in higher education.
Sophie Tucker’s post-WWI song, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” resonates in our discussions about work/life boundaries. The traditional dichotomy between work and personal life has blurred, demanding a reassessment of employment policies and practices.
As leaders, we must strive to create an environment that respects the well-being of our teams, acknowledging the need for balance and flexibility, while creating a productive workspace that supports and extends our institutions’ educational mission.
Acculturation, Interpersonal Relationships, and Authenticity
Acculturation is essential. Adapting to new cultural norms and practices is central to effective leadership. The virtual shift challenges interpersonal relationships, emphasizing the need for authenticity in communication.
Leaders must work harder to foster genuine connections that build trust and camaraderie among team members. Our onboarding processes must adapt to attract the best and brightest, successfully integrate them into our institutional tapestry, and quickly have them productively contribute into the far future.
Effective communication is more important than ever. The absence of spontaneous in-person interactions necessitates intentional and strategic communication. Leaders must leverage various communication channels and tools to foster collaboration, transparency, and engagement within teams.
Effectively conveying the organizational vision and values becomes paramount in a world dominated by virtual modes of communication, evermore asynchronous modalities, and fewer face-to-face interactions.
Budgets and Sources of Funding
The struggle to recruit and retain talent in the New Now is turning technology team structure on its head. IT teams face a shifting balance of in-house talent, homegrown solutions, and trusted managed service partners. To manage through it, campus and technology leaders must become and remain ever more financially proficient.
Sources of institutional funding and their impact on their team’s capacities to perform exceptionally, with absolute coverage over function and service quality levels, are key considerations. Mastery over institutional budgets and funding is key to operational and mission success.
Team Building in the Virtual Sphere
Building cohesive and productive teams in the virtual sphere becomes an art in and of itself. The physical and temporal dispersion of team members requires innovative strategies for creating a sense of community, connection, and shared purpose.
Leadership must involve orchestrating virtual team-building activities, fostering a culture of inclusivity, and ensuring that the team remains connected despite distance in space and time.
Leadership in Action
In the New Now, successful leadership in higher education is about proactive engagement. It’s about leading with empathy, understanding the evolving needs of the team, and fostering an environment of continuous learning.
It requires a keen awareness of shifting social dynamics, changed perceptions of acceptable boundaries and working conditions, and a commitment to staying ahead of the curve.
Leading in the New Now demands a departure from traditional leadership norms, embracing change, and fostering a culture of adaptability.
We are not merely navigating challenges; we are pioneering a new era of leadership—one that is defined by resilience, innovation, and an unwavering commitment to the well-being and success of our teams in an era of generational change.
Over the course of the coming weeks, we’ll explore these evolving perspectives in greater detail, with examples and solutions taken from contemporary practice from institutions rising to the challenge of the New Now.