As of yesterday, I had been in my role as my department’s Acting Executive Director for one year. I lead an IT organization in a higher education institution. The day before, we held our quarterly department meeting to review our accomplishments as well as upcoming projects. As a typical practice after events, I asked for feedback on how the meeting went and how well I did. The staff I spoke with had positive comments. One staff shared feedback that made me think about my leadership role as an Asian American and the perceptions of leadership in higher education and even in this country. The comment that made me think about these topics was this “Joe, you were certainly much more assertive and more confident yesterday. You’re a lot different from when you started last year. My initial concern was because you’re so nice, I didn’t know how well you’d be able to deal with other directors and those more senior than you when it came to conflict. It seems you’ve adjusted well and I see you as more confident and more assertive.”
Throughout my career, one personal trait that’s been perceived as negative when it came to my leadership style has been my assertiveness, or rather lack of. From the feedback I’ve received, I’ve been seen as not direct and not confrontational when dealing with conflicts. Whether that’s because of my personality or because of my cultural upbringing, I don’t know why I have not been seen as “assertive” as other folks would like me to be. However, when folks assess my assertiveness, they’re probably comparing it to other leaders either from their experience or what they see in popular media.
I grew up in a Filipino household that values harmony and conflicts are dealt with in not-so-direct ways. When it came to conflict, saving face or preserving dignity of those involved, mattered a lot in my family and in the Filipino culture. In my career, these approaches have been in conflict with how those I work with expected me to deal with issues. Because I have not always been direct in confronting issues, I have been seen as weak and unsure of myself. Perhaps, others have expected me to be dominant and controlling. I’ve been more inclined to use influence and persuasion to lead. The challenge for me then has been reconciling my personal tendencies with the expectations of the workplace when it comes to being an assertive leader. Actually, the challenge has been on determining when to use the style I’m more comfortable with vs. what others may consider as assertive.
As I think about this issue of assertiveness, I wonder which opportunities I missed because I was not seen as assertive leader. Moving forward, I wonder whether how this perception will shape my career. I also wonder about my prospect of moving up the management hierarchy in higher education where there’s a glaring lack of Asian American leaders who can mentor me, where my qualities may not match the Western qualities associated with leaders, and perhaps bias against me because I don’t fit the prototypical leader that hiring committees are comfortable hiring.
I’ve been in far too many conversations when new ideas are immediately met with “that’s not possible because …” and with those conversations come quick death of what could just transform organizations beyond imaginable. When thinking about future possibilities, ideas should not be framed in how we see things as they are now. Granted that no one really knows what the future holds, what I do know is that the reality we see today is not how it will be in the future. Given this case, why not think of the future as an optimist and consider all what could be possible instead of limiting our thoughts because of the constraints we see today? A popular Wayne Gretzky quote goes something like “skate to where the puck is going and not where it has been.” Leadership is about the future and not maintaining the status quo.
I’ve noticed when having conversations about ideas is that folks immediately get into the mindset of scarcity and managing constraints. Often times, the mindset is about “we don’t have enough resources to do that” or “how can we do that when we need to give up …” and while these constraints do need to be considered, there are times and places for that level of conversation. Personally, when I hear those feedback, my response is “even more reason as to why we should be thinking differently. We cannot choose to stay on the same path or situations may become worse.” I’ve also responded with “was there ever a time when we had enough resources? The reality is that we will never have enough resources but it’s about being resourceful with what we have.”
A colleague who’s proven himself to be able to implement innovative ideas on campus once told me ideas often start with “wouldn’t it be cool if …” and sharing them with other folks who share the same enthusiasm or who may be able to provide support. Keeping this in mind, when I’ve had conversations about new ideas and I’m met with skepticism, sometimes, I’ve had to say “I don’t know how we’ll do it, but wouldn’t it be cool if we could do that?”
I used to have a mindset of “it’s not possible here in our organization any way so why bother thinking about an idea” and that mentality stopped me from exploring possibilities and it frustrated me. But, what I’ve come to find is that while my ideas may not be implemented at my university, there really is no one stopping me from thinking about possibilities and sharing them with the world. Many of the ideas I’ve shared on my blog will never be implemented at my university (now) for many reasons, but they are fun to think about them any way.
On a personal note, my wife and I commute to work for about 30 minutes each way every day and we often use those times to dream about possibilities. We dream about an exciting future ahead of us. It’s not really costing us anything, so we don’t really limit ourselves when we think about what are the possibilities ahead of us. Will they happen, who knows, but I do believe in the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies. One can continue on the path of “it will never happen because …” and things indeed will never happen, but with an optimist perspective, there’s the chance that what we think about and pursue may just happen.
I made a commitment to push myself beyond what I think I’m capable and comfortable this year. I’m going to try new things that will result in embarrassment, failure, criticisms, and feelings of inadequacy. Why? I’m not doing new things just for the sake of trying new things but rather, I want to challenge myself to get used to the feeling of being uncomfortable. What I’ve come to realize after some reflection is that I have the tendency to give up too soon when things get hard, when I encounter criticisms. I tend to personalize criticisms and I take them to heart to a point where they paralyze me. I look back at opportunities missed in my career when if I only persisted more than I did, I could have done more. I look back at how easily I gave up in 2009 when I tried promoting the idea of mobile websites but I could not quite convince my colleagues that mobile will become more common in the next few years. I gave up too soon. Six years later and some of our most used sites are still not mobile-friendly. What a missed opportunity.
I recently started a group on campus called Innovators Community at UCSB. I started the group because I was craving for a place to just chat about new ideas. I feel like there’s not enough space to just talk about ideas without getting stuck thinking about why things can’t work. I had invited folks to come to our first social. I even offered to buy food. After some feedback, I chose a date. I had expected quite a few people to come. Two other people besides me came. In the past, I would have beaten myself up, considered the event a failure. This time around, I didn’t see it that way. I was talking with a colleague today, and he said, “that’s a bummer.” My response was “not really. I thought it was great!” Two folks or fifty, I was going to make the most of the result. As a matter of fact, I had an awesome time having long conversations with my friends who showed up. It was the type of conversations I had been looking for.
There are goals I had wanted to do but I was too scared in the past to pursue them. I’ve always wanted to do formal research about student affairs and technology but I gave myself so many reasons as to why I couldn’t do them. This time around, I will find ways to finally start taking steps towards this goal. I will be attending the NASPA Regional 6 conference Research Institute to gain research skills and connect with others who may be able to help me out.
I will be called the “lone nut”, I will probably be called some names I may not appreciate, but I will take them on as a challenge. When I attended a student affairs conference this last weekend at UCLA, I attended a panel session of senior higher education administrators wherein they shared their experiences and challenges. One of the panelists, VP of Student Services at Rio Hondo College, Henry Gee, said something that just resonated with me. I’ve heard the advice many times before, but it was different this time. He shared how in his position, not everyone supports everything he does. He shared a story where a board of trustee offered their opinion not to renew his contract, while he was in the room. VP Gee’s advice is you can’t take personally. Guess what? I think that sounds like a good advice. As I have learned in my position of one year as the acting Executive Director for my IT department, even with the best intention, everything I’ve done so far to this point has not been met with unanimous approval. There’s at least one person who tells me I’m doing things wrong or I’m not doing things well enough. I’ve come to learn I cannot please everyone and so with that lesson learned and with all my plans to try new things this year beyond what I would have done in the past, I will be learning to be comfortable about being uncomfortable. Onward I go!
I once read that identity is an intersection of how others see you and how you see yourself. As much as we want to define how we want others see us, I think that’s pretty much impossible. We can certainly try to influence others’ perception of us but ultimately, what matters is how others see us. I believe that’s called reputation. The concept of identity is a complex one. It’s even more complex when one considers the role of identity in the context of social setting. When we are associated with groups, such as the organization we work for, we assume the organization’s identity and the organization’s identity is shaped by its individual members. Actions by individual members reflect the organization and other members while the organization’s identity impacts how its members are perceived. Have you ever walked into a meeting where you’ve never met anyone before yet they’ve already formed an impression of you?
Those in leadership position must sometimes have to negotiate and reconcile their own identities and values they hold with that of their organization as they don’t always match. So, how do leaders authentically represent themselves when they’re representing their organization? What does it mean in this context to represent “themselves”? Are they representing their individual identities independent of the organization or are they representing identities defined by their role in the organization?
I think about the questions above when I hear from individuals who maintain they want to be authentic to themselves and to the values they represent. Considering the possibility that there probably isn’t an organization anywhere that completely aligns with the values of each and every single one of its members, how will those individuals deal with this reality?
It’s easy to get caught up in our own world and the challenges we face which could lead to thinking we are the only ones who are going through difficult times. Sometimes, we might think we’re the only ones who are working after hours and the only ones who must face so much work for the inadequate resources we have. This could lead to thinking we are unfairly being asked to take on the burdens of our organization on our own. This kind of thinking happens when we don’t take the time to connect with other folks in other parts of our organization. In IT, we are often asked to work after hours and weekends because that’s the only time when we are given the opportunity to do some maintenance work and not disrupt the work of our customers during business hours. I personally don’t do much technical work anymore given my management role but for years, I worked after hours and weekends to complete parts of my job. There were times when I got frustrated but there was one thing I did that gave me perspective about my situation. It’s a practice I still do today – talk to other folks in other units in my organization about the challenges they are going through.
Admittedly, there have been times in the past when I have over-valued the importance of my role in IT when it comes to providing services to the students and to the campus community. As an IT organization, we’ve been able to create significant systems that have been able to improve the efficiency/effectiveness in how the staff do their work. We’ve also created systems that helped students learn and assist them in their lives outside the classrooms. As the dependency for technology grew the last few years, so did the demands on IT. At the same time, the resources to meet the demands have not been able to keep up. This is the daily challenge I face now as the director of my IT organization. It’s daunting, indeed.
However daunting my challenges are, it’s when I speak with other colleagues in our student affairs organization that I gain perspective on how my challenges compare with others. As I am reminded, we are all facing a not-so-unique challenge of too much work, having to deal with much more complicated situations but with not enough resources. But, on the other hand, I am also reminded that I don’t have to deal with the aftermath of tragedies, not at the personal level at least. When I speak with my colleagues, I am reminded that they are the ones that must make the calls to parents to inform them their child just committed suicide, or they must be the ones the campus community must look up to as the strong ones to lead them through a crisis when they themselves are suffering at the same time. It is during these conversations when I am reminded that as challenging as my job is, I cannot even imagine the impact of my colleagues’ jobs must be on them. I am dealing with computers, they are at times must deal with human tragedies.