Asking the Right Questions
EACE Blog contribution by Teresa Olsen, Director of Operations and Strategic Planning at Colgate University Center for Career Services
I recently received a phone call from a campus colleague. She was seeking tuition support for a student whose family’s situation had recently become very challenging. The student thought that she had exhausted all avenues of support from our institution, and this colleague was looking for any last ditch efforts to keep the student engaged. Although I always find it a good sign that others think of us as partners, from my seat in Career Services, it struck me as odd to receive that particular question. Although our office didn’t have resources to directly offer, I was happy to make a quick call to a colleague in Financial Aid, and together the three of us have plugged this student in with the office most poised to help her.
In considering what to write for this blog post, this experience stuck with me. Lately I have been noticing patterns of how individuals, initiatives, or ideas either seem to be successful or hit road blocks. It struck me that it boils down to two main themes: whether the person driving that situation has developed a network of trusted people with whom they choose to partner. Secondly, if that person is approaching the situation with the right set of questions rather than driving hard at trying to hit the right answer. From a management perspective, it seems as though these two concepts are the place where our leadership can be most helpful to model, and to reinforce in others. Here’s what I mean:
You can have the singular best idea in the history of your organization, yet, very little sustainable growth is achieved in isolation. The basic foundation of knowing who does what is important. It helps you get to better answers more efficiently. But good partners also have taken the time to know the hows, whys, and strategic goals and ethos that drive a colleague’s work. Let’s take the situation I introduced. For a moment, put aside the component that lending a hand to plug this student in with the right resource was the right thing to do. The fact that I had an established relationship with my colleague in Financial Aid likely more readily compelled me to pick up the phone. She trusted that the questions I asked were coming from a positive and not judgmental place, and I knew whatever answer she could offer would be founded in an unequivocal commitment to ensuring the student had access to opportunities. I didn’t resolve her need, but my relationship paved the way for me to take a potentially loaded and stressful situation for the student and drop some of the anxiety from the equation because I could make a personal interaction. People want to be connected to people, especially when they are vulnerable. The more we can serve as connectors, the more effective we can be. This brings me to the next point….
As career development professionals we coach our students to ask good questions. Be prepared. Know your audience. However, have you noticed that something happens to dissolve that mantra when colleagues go into meetings – especially with people above their pay grade? Pin it on nerves, or something else, but I have seen more often than not people tend to enter into a conversation with an agenda and forget that they are sitting across from a human being. Instead of thinking, ‘I have to get THIS point across, land on THIS outcome, or move THIS dial’, consider, ‘How can I shape this initiative in a way that can help this person’s goals, needs, or metrics yet also hit your own objectives’? You will develop far more allies on route to accomplishing your agenda if you slow down the conversation and check-in with that person across the table. Once you do, you may realize that there is potential to solve more than one challenge. Don’t lose sight of your objectives, but you (and your colleague) might be surprised at how productive a partnership can be when you widen your perspective to consider what the best questions are for your relationship rather than worrying about getting to your one answer.
It’s funny. As you move up in leadership roles, these two elements – your network, and your ability to get the questions right rather than the answers – becomes even more important. The types of challenges you will work to solve become more politicized, more visible, and thrown at you at a quicker pace. Modeling these ideas and helping your supervisees begin to adopt them will serve the whole team well.
Teresa Olsen draws from over thirteen years of experience in career services at Colby College, Dartmouth College, and Indiana University prior to joining Colgate’s senior leadership team. In addition to her position at Colgate, she serves as the executive chair of the Liberal Arts Career NetWORK, a consortium of 37 selective liberal arts colleges, and is an independent external reviewer of career centers. She was recently awarded the 2014 NACE Excellence Award for Colgate’s SophoMORE Connections initiative. Teresa holds a BA from Colby College and an MS in higher education administration from Indiana University. Her research interests include liberal arts students’ career launch, career development for student-athletes and underrepresented populations, and the assessment of career centers’ effectiveness.