Serving as a leader is much more than moments on a stage and individual recognition. It is about strategizing, learning, communicating, failing, iterating, and respect. It is about recognizing the unique strengths of each member of a team to structure the work and tackle difficult issues to advance the shared goals.
Serving these past three years on the NIRSA Board and this past year as the NIRSA President has really underscored for me that leadership is about building on the work of previous leaders every day with members who both support and challenge you. It’s experiencing the influence of previous generations in the Association and recognizing this is why you have the opportunity to lead.
Serving as a leader for NIRSA means expanding your view past the here and now to continue the long-term viability and legacy of our profession’s association. So often, the legacy of an individual is reduced to a single point in time. In reality, however, legacies are our cumulative experiences. In the results-driven world we live in, we too often forget that we need to focus on small steps that build toward future goals. Because each successive step is the foundation you are building to enable you to pivot with purpose.
If you only focus on the future, you will miss the important learning and experiences of today that may change your goals. I feel strongly that the NIRSA President’s role needs to be one that empowers and inspires others; those who are privileged enough to hold this office need to be accountable to and build upon traditions, and should work to further strengthen the culture, human capital, and the NIRSA brand.
I had the honour of co-chairing the task force charged with developing the current NIRSA strategic plan and it was designed to be nimble and easily iterated. The Strategic Plan Task Force chose to build a plan that would be relevant and evolve at the speed of the profession and keep pace with the world around us. I am thankful for the innovative path we chose a little more than two years ago because today we have a plan that isn’t waiting for the world to get back to “normal” to advance the profession.
NIRSA has a strategic plan that continues to focus us on delivering our value proposition, even when traditional in-person events, like the annual conference, are cancelled. The plan provides a base strong enough for us to pivot with purpose to enable the Association to advance our profession by giving members useful data and leveraging emerging platforms to innovate and share in a time of uncertainty, financial challenges, and rapid change. The idea to hold the coronavirus and campus recreation preparedness virtual roundtable on March 16 was the result of a discussion where we asked: “How does a leader demonstrate care and understanding for those who are impacted?”
The answer was to bring the NIRSA family together and foster community. Seeing so many of our NIRSA family on the first virtual roundtable led the team at NIRSA Headquarters to develop the “Ideas in Motion” series of roundtables that so many members have facilitated and attended in the last month. This is a living example of how our strategic plan is evolving the NIRSA learning structures to be timely, accessible, and relevant. Sharing ideas, failures, challenges, and successes will almost certainly make us all stronger in this time of unprecedented change and the uncertain future.
If our association were only focused on delivering in-person learning events, we would have not been able to pivot quickly to deliver the content needed for our members now as well as in the future. The strong leadership of our Executive Director, Pam Watts, has led to the planning and foresight to have a NIRSA HQ team with the competencies necessary to allow us as an association to have the strength to pivot with purpose. This talented team of dedicated professionals is a strong backbone for the Association, especially at a time when volunteers were focused on leading their campuses.
I think we can agree, as members, that these past few weeks have seen us focused on managing our own staff and programs amidst the quick and unsettling changes on our campuses. The NIRSA HQ team was closely following the impact of COVID-19 on other associations and across higher education. They were poised to listen and generate ideas and were ready to develop online learning to support members and provide us with much-needed content and community in a time of crisis.
To put this into an analogy—as members, we were all trying to figure out “How to fly the airplane” on our campus while the NIRSA HQ team was envisioning “What the airplane could do.” This vision has allowed us to be successful in this new paradigm and helped propel us, the membership, into our future successes.
Now is the time in our history to ensure that a strategy of “We are all in this together” continues to be how all the components of our association are viewed—for those of us who are longtime members, we need to let go of past models and embrace the power of the whole. Another excellent example of NIRSA HQ pivoting with purpose is the delivery of the first ever Virtual Career Development Week taking place this week. The team re-envisioned the onsite Career Services Center from the NIRSA Annual Conference; presentations were evolved to deliver a professional development week for young professionals, graduate assistants, and students. Actually, everyone should take a look at the schedule—we all stand to benefit from working on our personal/professional brand.
Yes, I am sad about the cancellation of our NIRSA Annual Conference in Phoenix. My family had planned to join us in Phoenix – Todd, Payton, Parker, my parents Gavin and Marie, and my mother-in-law Marsha. It was not about showing off the results of my work or catching a glimpse of my few minutes on stage. It was about me sharing with them the experience of being with the NIRSA family. I was looking forward to having my family wander the hallways and meet you, see the depth of knowledge and passion in sessions, and of course experience all the NIRSA hugs. It was about sharing my happiness, community, fulfillment, and our strong sense of purpose that will advance our profession.
This is not the first-time life hasn’t gone as planned and I am sure it won’t be the last. During another time, when life changes dramatically affected my family, friends would say “It will be nice when things get back to normal for you.” As a family, however, we realized right away we were creating our “new normal” every day. A favourite quote of ours from that time seems very relevant to share with my NIRSA family right now:
It’s about learning to DANCE in the rain.”
In my first President’s Notes leadership blog, I shared with you my reasons for serving in this role: “I stood because I want to inform, engage, equip, and inspire my NIRSA family to not only be campus recreation professionals but to also be higher education professionals. For the past 32 years, I have been working on my why; this year I want to empower my NIRSA family to be more than a title, to look beyond your programs, services, and facilities, and uncover your why!”
I hope that I have inspired you over the past year to look differently at your role as a higher education professional. I hope that you can embrace the courage needed to pivot with purpose, to continue to impact the wellbeing of your campus community, and to cherish the shared experiences with others in your life as you build your legacy.
To my NIRSA FAMILY, thank you for the experience—I HOPE YOU DANCE!