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While in high school and college, I ran Cross Country. I may be terribly biased, but I don’t know if you can find athletes that are bigger head-cases than distance runners. While Cross Country is a team sport, the training you do before race day is largely done on an individual level. With each stride, you fight the voices in your head, making the battle an internal one. And on top of it all, running fast really, really hurts.

Because of all this internal dialogue, we distance runners tend to remember our bad races so much more than the good ones. Sure, you try and institute the “24-hour rule,” whereby you give yourself only one day to be upset about a poor race, but it seems that no matter how hard you try, you can recall the disappointing performances way more easily than you might hope.

I’m no exception to this rule. In some ways, it was a good thing, because I believe it takes some experience with failure before achieving some success. But I bring up this little peek into my psyche because I feel the tendency to remember the tougher times more so than the better times spreads into other areas of my life, not just my running escapades. In last month’s blog, I ended the piece noting that in the first year in my role as an Associate Director of Admission at American University, I made a number of mistakes that ultimately made me a heck of a lot better in the end.

After reflecting on last month’s entry, I wondered if I was being a bit too hard on myself. Sure, there were mistakes, but I realize that I cannot let those initial mistakes overtake all the great things I was able to accomplish with my staff, who I grew to absolutely adore. (Side note: In my current office at USC, I have only three pictures on my desk: One of my wife and me at a Mardi Gras parade, one with my best friends from high school, and another of my five staff members from AU.)

For example, in just a couple years’ time, I worked with my staff on developing new, research-driven approaches to recruitment, redesigning AU’s supplement to the Common Application, and reorganizing the schedule by which we mailed our transfer admission decisions, among other fun projects. But each of these projects did not come without a few stumbles, so as I continue to reflect on my journey “beyond the cubicle,” here are three rules I wish I would have known when I became an Associate Director:

  • Don’t underestimate how long it takes for your staff to develop trust in you.

When I learned that I had gotten the position at AU, I was thrilled. My determination in obtaining an upper-level position in higher education had paid off, and I was so anxious to join my new office and start making things happen. In retrospect, I might have been a bit too anxious.

Not only was I replacing someone who had been with the university for a number of years, but I was coming from across the country, and my years of experience weren’t much greater than those of the staff I was now in charge of leading. To assume that the staff would just jump on board with every new idea I threw out was naïve, but in my first few months, I seemingly threw out new idea after new idea. Deep down inside, I truly believed these ideas could enhance the work we were doing, but my timing was premature. I realize now that any resistance I felt to my ideas wasn’t necessarily a judgment of the idea itself, but rather, a part of the process of the staff figuring out whether or not they could trust me. So often in organizations, the story seems to focus on a leader developing trust in the people who work for her, and we may fail to gloss over the part where the workers need to develop trust in the leader.

  • Admit to your staff that you’re going to make mistakes, but you promise to learn from them.

As mentioned, I had wanted the opportunity for a different kind of responsibility for some time. Having finally achieved a role where I was responsible for leading others, the last thing I wanted to do was come across as incompetent. In those first few months, it was natural for me to take the mistakes a little harder. I wanted the staff to believe in me, and at the time, I felt that each mistake was a step in the wrong direction.

But eventually, I started to notice that each time I was facing a situation similar to the one where I had previously made the mistake, I was so much better prepared to tackle the dilemma ahead. My experience at AU taught me a number of things, but above all else, it’s that the best way to improve at something is through trial and error. I like to think my staff noticed me getting better along the way, but perhaps if I had been more realistic with myself and more upfront about how mistakes were going to be a given, I could have alleviated some personal stress.

  • Understand the purpose of your role, what you’re there to do, and more importantly, what you’re not there to do.

One of the first projects I attempted to take on at AU was a major reorganization of the staff’s territory assignments. I thought we could reach more places around the country, and do so in shorter time frames. My Director didn’t ask me to take on this project; it was entirely self-driven.

After a few months of working on it, I presented it to my Director (right in the middle of the file review season, no less), and asked if it was something we could consider implementing for the upcoming fall recruitment season. Not only was my timing totally inappropriate, but nowhere in my job responsibilities did it say I was in charge of organizing the recruitment plans for the entire office.

Even if the plan I presented had some merit to it, the approach I took attached a stain to the idea that was difficult to shake for some time. I hadn’t yet gained the trust of the rest of the office, and at the time, reorganizing recruitment wasn’t something my Director needed me to be working on. In the early months, it would have been more effective to get a clear understanding of what was expected from me, and maybe after doing strong work in those areas, I could have earned the right to take on other tasks that were of greater personal interest.

Well, I’ve gone about 200 words over last week’s entry, and I was advised to keep things briefer in this blog, but hey, there’s always next month, when I plan to write about what I learned on how to keep a staff motivated. Stay tuned to see if I learn from my mistake.

By Michael Gulotta