Advice & News

February 17, 2020

Attending Annual Professional Meetings as a Career Development Strategy

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As the spring term begins, the annual meetings cycle is underway as well. These stretch throughout the year, of course, but there is a concentration of them annually between January and May. This prompted me to think about their purposes and how they fit into the career development strategies of campus leaders at all levels.

Those of us who followed the path to administration through the academic ranks were acculturated to "going to the professional society meetings," be they national, regional, or even local. There we met other specialists, exchanged ideas, discussed our work, presented papers, and at the end of the day, hung out in informal settings getting to know each other personally.

I was surprised to learn upon becoming an assistant dean that there were parallel experiences for college and university leaders. I'll never forget the first meeting I attended in this new role. Held in Boston, it was focused on improving academic advising and the target audience was newly-appointed assistant deans. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the person in line behind me at registration was not only from my alma mater but had been my Geology 101 professor fifteen years earlier!

The point of the story is to say, that no matter how long we have been in higher education, there is always something new and interesting to learn, especially when we embark on a new career course.

It was then that I became an inveterate meeting goer. In the ensuing thirty-five years, I learned a great deal. Much of it was job specific on issues of contemporary importance. Some of it was more conceptual about trends in higher education, current and/or anticipated. Much was not entirely relevant to my own circumstances, but it was vital for others in attendance and thus important to know, if nothing more.

Taken collectively, these experiences constitute a significant part of the informal learning we all do while pursuing our trade. As such they are a valuable, and in my view, an underutilized resource in the professional development of higher education leaders. Here are three, of many reasons, why.

First, we all work in insular environments where we become accustomed to the local way of doing things and are inclined to perpetuate practices that our predecessors created. We try to improve upon them occasionally but there is a reason why jokes about how this system ossifies tradition at the expense of effectiveness are numerous.

That all changes when you attend a professional meeting. You cannot participate and come away not knowing that there are many effective ways to address all issues and that some of them might actually be an improvement on the practices back home.

Learning is critical for your ability to make change when you return. In my case, at that first meeting, I learned that a comprehensive freshman orientation program, as it was then called, was vital to the successful transition of our students to college and that even the largest state universities with new student classes numbering in the thousands could mount a hands-on advising program for every student. News to me! Back home the prevailing belief was "there are too many of them to deal with and if they have questions, they will call us." Otherwise, they are on their own. That changed within the year.

Second, regular attendance at the same meeting gives you an opportunity to address multiple issues over time. There are usually themes for these gatherings so they focus on specific topics of great general interest. These change annually, never more rapidly than today. Regular attendance thus provides a way to supplement your reading and to develop depth of understanding about them.

There are many reasons for this, perhaps the most important being that those who write the journal articles are frequently panelists and presenters at the meetings where they update their ideas and answer questions. This exposure both broadens and deepens your understanding in ways that merely reading can never fully accomplish. And, of course, no one has time to read everything so it introduces you to issues that you have yet to consider.

Finally, there is an important long-term benefit. At my second meeting, I met another associate dean (yes, I had been promoted) who was attending her first. In the ensuing decades we saw each other regularly but only at one meeting or another, and as our careers advanced in parallel to the presidency, we became good sounding boards for each other on a whole range of increasingly complex issues.

This was not a unique experience. There were many others over time who played similar roles in my own career development, and I in theirs. These professional networks cannot be developed without personal contact and those informal conversations that enable us to ascertain the quality of a person's thinking and values on a wide range of issues, not all of them academic. Trust emerges from these experiences, or doesn't, and seeing someone regularly, if not often, is an excellent way to engender confidence in a colleague in ways that are difficult to acquire otherwise.

Networks of colleagues are a key component of successful leadership. Going to the meetings regularly and purposefully enables you to develop them. That may be the best reason of all for regular attendance.