This series will explore what I wish I had known about advising and supervising students, staff and volunteers. The second in the series will be about being a first time administrative staff supervisor.
Earlier this summer, I asked my readers to help me choose topics to explore. The most popular choices will be part of a new series of posts. The first in the series will be about being a first time advisor and supervisor. I’ll explore this topic and look at the following roles I held: advising students, professional staff, and part-time employees. I’ll also look at times when I had to supervise volunteers.
In my career, I have learned that I need to ask people for help. I have worked in solo positions, so I have had to figure out what I don’t know quickly but still need to deliver. Most of the positions I have held I was the first person to do so. So I know and understand the pressure to start something I had no blueprint to do, or operational book to train me. And yet, two decades later I am still here. There is much I wish I had been told to get me started quicker, and I hope what I share will help you jumpstart the beginning of your own career.
After leaving Ball State, starting my career in multicultural affairs at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I found myself as an interim director of my department. I had been hired by a wonderful director, but her family was moving out of state before I finished my first year on the job. So I had to learn how to do her work and my own very quickly.
I was responsible for managing all aspects of the department. And I really do mean all aspects. I already supervised our student workers, but had to learn the work that our administrative assistant was doing. She was pregnant with twins when I began my tenure my interim role, so I had twice as many roles to learn for the months she would be on leave.
On top of all of this, the division of student affairs was going through a re-structure and I had to sit on the vice president’s leadership team to suggest changes. Plus my supervisor from the vice presidents office was leaving to become a vice president out of state and I would be shuffled to another supervisor half-way through my time as the interim leader.
Okay I won’t say I was exactly like Ariana when I was 22, but I learned a great deal from my mistakes as a first-time department leader.
Stress: The Undeniable Motivator
To say I was under a great deal of stress to get it right is an understatement. I have written about working in this department, and how I struggled towards the end of my time at the institution. But I don’t want to dismiss or forget my own learning curve. In hindsight, many opportunities didn’t get explored and I failed to ask critical questions about being the leader of my own department.
I am not ashamed of my failures, though. These experiences helped me grow professionally and I am a better professional because of them. But I don’t think everyone needs to repeat my mistakes. Below are a few things I wish I had known as a first time professional administrative supervisor.
What I Learned: The Administrative Supervisor
What I Learned: Understand Institutional Forms and Timelines Forward and Backward.
Maria was one of the best staff I have ever worked with. She helped start the department before I arrived and knew how to make everything work. She anticipated needs and had contacts across campus to short-track requests. I would never have been able to do any of my work without her.
And this I know for truth. Since she went on maternity leave for a few months, I didn’t know a thing. I knew the required forms but didn’t know how to move them forward. I understood how to do my portion of the forms but didn’t understand all of the complex financial requirements, like expense codes and timelines for submitting payments.
While she was out of the office, I was a one-person operation, doing the work of the director, my coordinator role and her administrative role. And that was a great deal to manage. I learned quickly that I needed to make friends with someone who could patiently explain the what’s and the when’s of the processes she managed so well. Get yourself a colleague or friend who can do the same for you.
In my world, only Judge Judy can judge me. And she would have been disappointed by how I managed all those late forms!
I’ve since learned these are the first things to learn in any new office. In that way, in case you need to be a one-person office, you can do what you need to and still operate on-time (or close to it.)
What I Learned: Learn About Union Requirements
Many student affairs professionals attain professional roles outside of unions. Only two of my student affairs were part of a union, but otherwise I operated outside of unions. My lack of experience taught me that I need to be aware of union rules and requirements. Since UNLV was part of the State of Nevada higher education system, union rules governed our requirements for staff work. Given the size of our department and the work we completed, the rules were not complicated. But it is important to know ones that could have the most impact.
For instance, I had to learn about overtime rules. Asking administrative staff to work beyond the required hours impacted payroll and overages had to be approved. As an exempt staff, overtime rules were new to me. I learned very quickly when my first interim supervisor asked me why I was approving overtime without having any budget for it.
I’ve since learned that learning these rules helps create trust among other unionized staff. Respecting their roles and the rules that govern and protect them shows that I am going to be a good partner and supervisor. Plus I’ve learned to make sure there is always budgeted money for overtime for times we need all-hands on deck, like Orientation or Move-In weekend.
One More Thing for Supervisors
Since leaving UNLV, I’ve had opportunities to train student affairs staff, both within their departments and as a division. I’ve had to on-board staff in small and large departments, and done a few administrative staff searches. I’ve learned a few more tips I believe worthy to share.
What I Learned: Include Administrative Staff in Strategic Planning
Your administrative staff see and hear everything. And I mean everything. They hear issues, problems, panic, stress, ah-ha moments. Sometimes these issues are shared but often they are just assumed to be part of the job and not worth sharing. Including your staff in the goal-setting and outcome development for the year allows them to share anecdotal stories that support the learning we want from our students.
Bring everyone on-board for your training and help everyone understand their role in achieving departmental learning goals.
For instance, train staff to ask a developmental question when students fill out a form turned in late, such as “what will you do differently when required to turn in this form again.” Working in a college office affords them opportunities to reinforce the learning we want to see in all of our offices. Treating them as educators helps change the mindset that our administrative staff are barriers for learning but instead are the gatekeepers for chronicling it.
What I Learned: Management Plans Matter
I have written about management plans and how important they are for professional staff development. But I have also learned that these plans are just as important for administrative staff. Learn about annual review requirements as indicated by union rules, but you can always ask your staff to complete the management plan for personal use. In this way, you encourage your staff to continue to improve their personal and professional skills.
I’ve had administrative staff indicate they wanted to improve their public speaking skills or to learn a new software. Using the management plan, we could separate the software skills to a professional goal that would be measured for their annual review and the public speaking as a management plan skill. This helped staff understand how to prioritize their learning and feel secure knowing what brought them stress would not be evaluated. It also helped them understand that they were part of the professional staff. They just held a different role in the department, but had the same resources and expectations for professional and personal growth.
What I Learned: Do Front-Line Work Anytime Possible
When I worked at a Campus Center in New Jersey, we began one of our years staffing the information desk at the start of the academic year. Before working there, I had never really worked in this type of office environment before. So when I helped staff the desk for 5 hours a week, it provided an eye-opening experience. Working even five hours showed me the variety of questions and concerns asked at the start of the year. The experience gave me great ideas on how to better train the students who worked at the desk, too.
It also helped me understand how changes to policies and procedures, made on the fly by the professional office staff, sometimes didn’t get to the desk on-time or in a manner that all staff could understand. I would use this type of experience when supervising desk staff again, helping create consistency and an expectation for training on all new policies.
As a graduate student working over the summer for discounted housing, I also helped staff a desk that worked with over a dozen professionals in the office. Keeping information up to date was critical, and I made it a point to check-in with the administrative assistant every time I stepped into the office to know and understand what was going on that day. As the eyes and ears, she knew everything and I knew that respecting that gatekeeping role would help us all advance. Watching her manage these competing schedules and staying on top of the work helped me gain confidence that I could do the same.
Want to Explore This Topic Further?
I will explore tips for first-time supervisors, next time about supervising students. You can read my related content about advising students and supervising students, or read through any of my current posts about supervision. Feel free to ask questions in the comments below!
In addition, I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.
Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.