Strategic Thinking Can Help Advisers Overcome Identity Crisis
Kathryn M. Rybka, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Editor's note: This is the third in a series of seven articles written by students who were enrolled in Dr. Jennifer Bloom's course, Developmental Academic Advising in Higher Education, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign during the 1999 summer semester. For an overview of the course, along with a description of all seven articles, please refer to Dr. Bloom's article, Developmental Academic Advising in Higher Education: The Class.|
There are times I envy a former schoolmate, because to almost everyone she knows outside of
work, her job is simply called, “nurse.” In the minds of family and friends, her career is the
result of a prescribed course of university study and training. They can conjure a visual image of
what her job responsibilities are, even if they are not always accurate, from other nurses
portrayed in movies, books, and television, or even from experience as a patient. The same is true for
other easily-identified professions such as firefighter, police officer, truck driver, farmer, and
academic adviser. Academic adviser? If someone were taking a test that asks which word doesn’t
fit with others in this list, fingers would point to academic adviser, the job held by many of you.
Historically placed under the tutelage of faculty advisers, deans of students, and career and
psychological counselors, it is only in the past twenty to thirty years that academic advising has become
a viable campus service. It was during this time that advising centers as a delivery system began
to make their appearance, and the number of full-time professional advisers increased
dramatically (Cook, 1999). But unlike many other professional fields, there are no defined
academic programs for this career path. In fact, few individuals enroll in college with the intent of
becoming academic advisers. Most advisers have come to this profession only after a related
graduate assistantship, the urging of a friend or colleague, or trying another career and
then accidentally discovering academic advising.
There is an obvious irony here: advisers are supposed to direct the academic and even career
development of students, but have little in place to unify and promote their own field. In reading
articles about academic advising, one will find that these practitioners don’t even agree on how to
spell what they do is it adviser with an “e”or advisor with an “o”?
In a higher education environment characterized by responsibility-centered management, multiple
groups placing budgetary decisions under magnifying glasses, and students as well as parents
demanding improved customer service, academic advisers must better define and plan how to
communicate their strategic importance. Since the road leading to this career often takes a number of
twists, turns, and detours, many advisers do not have a map that clearly leads people to a solid
understanding of the role professional academic advisers play on college campuses. Successful
strategic planning can provide advisers with this much-needed set of directions. The ability to
think strategically is the first step in the journey to validation and recognition.
As a higher education marketing director, I have participated in and facilitated numerous
planning sessions and have found that there is no cookie-cutter formula for strategic planning. The
specifics will have to be adjusted to meet the needs of your organization. I would like to offer
these suggestions, however, for staging a staff retreat to focus on strategies and tactics to help
advisers overcome their identity crisis.
Do Your Homework
Establish a Goal
What do you want to accomplish at the strategic planning retreat?
Who Should Be Involved?
In addition to the professional advising staff, would it be appropriate to invite faculty who advise
as well as those who don’t, current students, or those who have already graduated?
Who Should Facilitate?
You should consider hiring an outside facilitator. Not only will he/she be more experienced
with this type of exercise, but also more objective. It also makes the process increasingly
egalitarian if the supervisor is one among equals and not in charge as usual.
Don’t try to hold a planning session in your break room. Reserve space at a retreat house or a
hotel and conference center. Get off campus where people won’t be distracted by phone
messages or the temptation to stop by the office and check e-mail. Another college campus is
often a great getaway.
Allow Enough Time
A couple of hours is not going to be enough time to do the process justice. Ideally
you should allow a minimum of two days.
Prepare and Practice
Provide participants with an agenda in advance. Have them read pertinent articles before a retreat
in preparation for the topics to be discussed. Everyone should come mentally prepared and ready
to be an involved member of the team.
If you are using an outside facilitator, you should be in close communication several weeks
before the retreat. Make sure you have a clear picture of exactly what he/she will be doing.
Remember, you want this to be a productive time, and you don’t want any surprises.
The Day Has Arrived
Introduction and Overview
Emphasize to your staff that this is their retreat. There are no right or wrong answers, and all
voices are equal (even if job titles at the office would indicate otherwise). Review goals and what
you hope to accomplish. Strategic planning is ongoing, so while you hope to leave with some
action statements, that doesn’t mean the “thinking out of the box” process should ever end.
It’s important that everyone approaches this process from a positive point of view, so use an
initial exercise that stimulates collegiality and establishes a common ground. One tactic that has
worked well for me is to have members introduce themselves and name one thing they like about
working at their institution. This is a simple, nonthreatening way to begin, and everyone’s voice
is heard. It also helps to focus members and establishes eye contact between all who are
Be sure to write all responses on large easel pads. In fact, you should write down everything that
takes place during the retreat for all to see. That way there are no secret agendas.
Establish Ground Rules
Once again, you are trying to build a common ground among the group’s members. Give one
example, such as “no side conversations while another participant is talking,” and then let
everyone provide input until they run out of ideas. Most groups will suggest serious as well as
fun ideas to keep the mood light.
Pave the Way for a “Parking Lot”
After you have reviewed the agenda and mentioned you will need to keep on task to accomplish
planned goals, set aside an “idea parking lot.” Participants will have the opportunity to place a
note on the parking lot if the timing for the idea is inappropriate at that moment. Staff are
welcome to get up at any time and add a note or take one away. Allow time at the end of the
retreat to address any remaining notes.
Ask the Right Questions
Oftentimes it is far more productive to get at the issues in an indirect way. You wouldn’t, for
example, want to start the retreat by asking for a detailed list of everything that’s wrong with the
institution for which you work, or why it is so difficult to work with some faculty members.
Part of the reason you go through a structured process like this is to be able to better define the
issues from a more objective, professional viewpoint. This often means looking at the issues
through different filters and trying to contextualize your job in terms of the other campus players.
Questions that may help you get at some of the larger issues without pointing fingers and
assigning blame include:
And probably the most important question of the entire process:
- What elements create a successful work environment?
- What does your department do?
- What services do you provide?
- How would you describe the personality of a best friend?
- How would you describe your department’s personality (stay away from individuals)?
- What parts of your department’s personality would you like to change and why?
- How do your internal customers see your department/organization?
- How do your external customers see your department/organization?
- How does your department head, dean, or college president view what you do and its
Strategic planning is really a process of overcoming the fear or resistance to change. Each of us,
no matter where we work, has an opportunity to lead change or risk being buried by it.
Successful change is led by those who hold a vision of the possibilities balanced by the realities.
All of us must learn to better meet the needs of our customers, administrators, and other
influential constituents as well as ourselves and our profession. Always remember that when
someone talks about how an organization has changed, it typically is not the bricks and mortar to
which they are referring, but to the individuals who work there. Advisers need to take the
initiative to better define and articulate their “reason for being” to all constituents. So take the
first step. Schedule a planning retreat and begin the ongoing dialogue of strategic thinking.
- What is your reason for being?
Cook, S. (1999). A chronology of academic advising in America. The Mentor, 1(2), May 28.
Kathryn M. Rybka is marketing director of the Illini Union at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is enrolled in a doctoral program in the University's Department of Educational Organization and Leadership, Higher Education Administration and Leadership. Ms. Rybka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (217) 333-8163.
Published in The Mentor on September 27, 1999, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at dus.psu.edu/mentor
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