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‘Us v. Them’ in Higher Ed. ‘Old Hat’ to Us Corporate Folks

I started my career in the corporate world. Why? Well as I earned my first degree in Communication from the University of Arkansas and set out to find a job, it honestly never occurred to me that higher ed would/could be an option. After all, I wasn’t trained to be a teacher, I had no kids yet so wasn’t a fan of ‘little ones’ and – well – for some reason I was unaware there were office jobs available at schools and universities. The option just was not on my radar. So I started out in a strange, unheard of position at a financial institution. The position was titled ‘Corporate Concierge’. I’d never heard of such a position, but basically it was created to cater to employees within the company. There were gads of these positions in the downtown Dallas area, there was even an association dedicated to the field (in fact, there still is), but the position was as new to me as it was to apparently my new employer. They weren’t clear on what the position was about, but like many business mindsets in Dallas, they knew others had one so they wanted one too. But an even better one, whatever it was.

As I look back, as silly as it might sound, June 1997 was a defining time for me. I attained a job that not only had I never heard of, but my employer hadn’t really either. My first day I was shown to my desk and given the directive ‘Good luck!’, i.e. ‘You’re on your own’. And I recall having zero sense of fear. Having moved from Northwest Arkansas to the very heart of Dallas, Texas, I jumped right in to this new position and within a few months there was a comprehensive concierge presence including discounts tickets for everything from the Dallas Stars to Six Flags, a full-service dry cleaning service, on-site oil changes and car washes, and a daycare facility.

My career progressed through two other (exponentially varied) corporations. In each environment I primarily morphed chameleon-like. After being recognized as software-adaptive by a corporate CIO, my path flowed in the direction of web development, design, database structure, etc. It’s not that I love to work per se, I just enjoy communication, strategy, development, completion. So suddenly I woke up one day as a manager.

After a decade in the corporate world, I moved to higher education. No romantic story about giving back or molding the future. My mom was terminally ill and we needed to relocate back to Arkansas. Stat. A position opened at the local community college, my family endorsed the community aspect of it and I applied, went through the interview process (my gosh the process) and accepted the offer. This move cemented me in management. I realized quickly that to be an effective leader you need to let go of everything you love to do. I had to change my entire mindset and mantra and focus wholly on management – people, projects, environment. The swan song of web development calls often to this day. You find small ways (read: the blog) to fulfill your past loves but focus entirely on strategy and continuous improvement.

Within higher ed there’s an ‘us v. them’ mentality. Many of them. Students v. faculty. Faculty v. (the dreaded) administration. Management v. staff. Finance v. faculty. Everyone v. IT. I could go on. Lifelong higher ed fixtures seem stymied at times by the divide found between administration and faculty. But guess what? It’s not unique. In every corporation I worked in, there were divides in some way between all departments, customers, leadership, vendors. And everyone always hates IT. I think the difference is this: In the corporate world, you have to sidebar your ego to succeed. My success isn’t going to be halted by my own inability to collaborate. Success occurs only through collaboration. And in the corporate world, unlike much of higher ed, you can be ousted from your career with nary a thought by management. That is all-encompassing. Corporations in at-will states take advantage of that status with a dry eye and clear conscious. It’s not show friends, it’s show business. People at Dave & Buster’s didn’t like me (technology) either. I mean, they like ME, but everyone is leery of technology. Prior to technology I worked in HR for about five minutes. No one liked me (HR) either. It’s typical.

So in pops why it’s not always a bad idea to advocate for corporate employee candidates for administrative staff positions in higher ed. Feathers get ruffled less over dislike. Feathers get ruffled less over divides, in fact, in many instances the challenge is on to collaborate where collaboration has never darkened a doorstep. It’s common knowledge that success doesn’t happen without teamwork. It’s healthy to embrace us v. them! Our differences are what define our success. Especially in higher education.

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