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Podcast: Developing Leadership Skills in Online Higher Education

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Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Faculty Director, School of Arts and Humanities

Educators should always be thinking of ways to develop and enhance their own leadership skills. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen presents strategies for leadership development including improving communication skills, finding new ways to collaborate, understanding how to develop a strategic plan, finding a mentor, and much more.

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This is episode number 34, Developing Leadership in Online Higher Education. This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the podcast today, and thank you for joining me for this chat about developing leadership in online higher education. Some of us think that people are just born natural leaders. In fact, this is a really common belief. This is called the trait-based leadership model, and of course, this is a theory from the 1700 and 1800s. It’s very old and outdated.

Since then, many leadership theories have come along and primary in those theories is the skills-based leadership theory. Under the skills-based leadership theory, we believe that the skills needed to be an effective leader can actually be taught. Some of these are technical skills; some of these are conceptual skills.

Now, when we have skills-based leadership in place or training to help people grow in this way, that really means that anyone can aspire to become a leader, can learn what it takes to become a leader, and can really fulfill their dream or desire to move up in an organization if they want to.

Now, if you’ve been teaching for very long, chances are you have some fantastic ideas you could share with other people. An initial way to become a leader is, of course, simply share your knowledge with others in your profession.

You could, for example, present at professional conferences. You could write blog articles or write journal articles. Or if mentorships exist in your organization, you could do some professional mentoring and help others who are newer to the profession or where you have special expertise in your skillset and they don’t.

There are lots of opportunities to gain more leadership experience, but this idea of learning skills and gaining conceptual understandings that will help you succeed as a leader, it’s so important and critical to a true leadership development pathway.

Brian Eastwood wrote a blog called Eight Essential Traits for Effective Leadership in Higher Education earlier this year, and he shares that there are some specific skills that you need to succeed as a leader in higher education.

Now today, of course, we’re talking primarily about online higher education. In online higher education, there’s also the need to be connected, significantly connected, to the people that you’re working with. This can be very difficult, but strategies, again, can be learned to make it happen.

Leaders Need Financial Acumen

Regardless of the type of higher education you’re engaged in, the number one skill that Brian has written in this article is that you need financial acumen. The idea is that at some point in your leadership journey, the more you rise in the ranks of leadership at a university, the more you’re going to need to know how to get donors, how to use fundraising, how to do budgeting, how to fund research, capital projects, and maybe even how to be involved in student financial aid.

Now, I’ll tell you, I’ve been in higher education for 14 or 15 years at this point, and I’ve been a leader for the past six or so years. I’ve been a faculty director, where I lead a faculty team and I coach them on teaching excellence. I have never once in that position needed to have financial acumen. However, if I were in a different role, that would be the case and I would have budgets and I would need to do that.

The first thing to think about is: what kind of leadership position you might be looking at and what kind of degree of financial acumen would be required in that kind of position?

The Importance of Collaboration

The second point from Brian’s article is collaboration. Collaboration is critical. In higher education we have so many subject matter experts and people have varying experiences, backgrounds, and expertise. Collaborating with those people involved is going to really help your leadership to succeed. Learning how to collaborate now with peers is the best type of preparation.

Collaborating with stakeholders will also be critical in a leadership role, and as you collaborate across the institution with other schools, other departments, with your faculty, and with other people in the leadership team, collaboration skills will be critical for your success.

Focus on Building New Leaders

Building new leaders is the third skill mentioned, and building new leaders means that you continue to foster people in your organization who can continue to move up in leadership themselves.

When I first became a faculty director six or so years ago, I did not really envision doing that role. I was happy to teach and I was happy to do what I was doing, but someone else in a faculty director role kind of adopted me in a mentor fashion. That person called me and coached me on setting my sights high and developing more leadership and having a long-term objective.

Pretty soon I was very interested in working with a large team with helping other faculty members and with coaching them. Even if you’re not right now thinking about leadership, this is something that could be on the horizon for you. And thinking about how to build other people’s leadership potential would be a great way to think about a leadership role yourself.

Value of Communication

The fourth tip shared in the article is communication. Now, there are five steps to good communication listed here and I’m just going to read them to you:

  • start with what’s most important,
  • set expectations up front about what you need,
  • actively listen and take body language into account,
  • provide constructive and specific feedback, and
  • address concerns immediately, and if possible, in person.

Of course, when you’re working online, leading or teaching online, it’s very difficult to address problems in person, and sometimes we can’t really see anyone’s body language because we’re communicating by telephone. Or maybe we’re on a virtual conference and they’re not showing themselves on video.

There are a lot of things we need to adapt and plan around, but, overall, listening is one of the most important things we can ever do in good communication. Understanding that we don’t need all of the answers immediately and can go ahead and think about it, come back with good examples and good answers, those are going to be critical skills. To not feel overly pressured to say something right now, and to listen carefully and really connect with those people who are speaking you.

Creating a Strategic Plan

Skill number five is strategic planning. Now, strategic planning is a phrase that may sound like a very complex and challenging process. Basically, strategic planning means you’re using data and evidence to think about the present situation, review the past, and project into the future.

You might be making a timeline of steps, you might be setting goals for short term—six months, one year—all the way up to 10 years or 20 years down the road.

You’re going to consult some of the stakeholders like your faculty members, maybe you’ll talk to some students about their experience. You’ll also coordinate with other departments and create a plan for the future.

A lot of data is going to help you in this regard, so you want to learn how to read reports and data of various kinds and also ask about these things, especially if you’re currently in a teaching role but you’d like to gain more experience to advance further.

The kinds of data that people look at in online education, especially regarding student performance, might start with enrollment numbers and the demographics:

  • What type of students are interested in this program?
  • What is the composition of our faculty team?
  • Do we need more perspectives or diversity there?
  • We might look at drop and withdrawal data to determine how we can help our learners better succeed.
  • We can look at course and program outcomes.

There’s literally a hundred different things we can look at when we are strategic planning, and all of that data is going to influence your planning and help you work together with other people to create plans and lead your department and your programs and your students into success.

Develop Skills for Change Management

The sixth area suggested is the skills for change management. Now, change is a constant, especially today in online education. Things that used to work might totally be outdated and much more engagement is now needed.

Regardless of the institution you’re currently teaching with, change in higher education can be incredibly slow, but it can also come quickly and happen constantly over time. Basically, as in life, change is inevitable in pretty much any role you’re in. If you’re aware of good change management strategies, this is going to help you achieve change when you’re working with teams.

[Podcast: Using a Planner for Amazing Time Management in Your Online Teaching]

One of the most important things to think about when you are conducting some change management is to collaborate with the people involved to determine how it’s going to impact them, and to actually hear them. Listen to them. Let them have a voice. Ask for feedback from students, from faculty. And take them all into consideration when you’re making decisions.

The more you can do that, the better off you’re going to be when you’re planning the steps for strategic growth over time, and you’re going to have a better chance of communicating effectively when you’ve already primed the pump by talking to people and listening to them.

Be Committed to Diversity

The seventh skill is commitment to diversity. Now, committing to diversity not just talks about your student body and recruiting students from all different types of groups, but also your faculty. You want faculty that reflect the student body, but also reflect a lot of diversity that simply exists in the world.

You want lots of inputs, lots of backgrounds, lots of levels of expertise, various races, cultures, and genders. We want to include everyone who is qualified to be there and can share something of benefit to our students. We’re really going to get a lot of great perspective from diverse groups. This can be part of your hiring practices, it can be considered in terms of where you’re recruiting and also your long-term planning.

Feed Your Intellectual Curiosity

Then lastly, this is intellectual curiosity. Of course, a lot of us got into higher education because we love to learn, or maybe we had great learning experiences ourselves when we were in our younger educational years. Many of us can list several instructors we had that really made a difference in our lives.

If you’re intellectually curious, that’s a bonus. If you’ve stopped learning for a while and need to rekindle the flame, it doesn’t take much to really get your fire burning again. You could try a new discipline, take a class, learn something new, get into a study group, a book club. You could create a club with a student group, and that might even be more exciting because you’re helping the learners who are students right now continue to grow in your area.

Focus on Leadership Skill Development

Be thinking about how you might improve in your educational leadership skills, not just in these eight areas, but also in creative ways that appeal to you. You can develop the skills to become a great leader and thinking about continuing to be more of a leader in the future is always a good thing.

Now, I was at a workshop just recently called Cultivating Leaders: If You Build It, They Will Come. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn about how Stephanie Hinshaw, the Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Natalie Pelham, the Senior Director of Training and Development, from the American College of Education, run some of their leadership preparation.

Some of the things that these ladies were sharing with us was that they have some very specific initiatives in their organization that intentionally grow future leaders. That way, faculty members who are interested in growth for the future, further development, and future leadership roles, have a chance to talk about leadership ideas, develop ideas, explore them, and consciously grow their leadership skills.

Consider Forming a Leadership Growth Book Club

One of the best things that they shared in their workshop, and one that I really liked, was this idea of having a book club. They had a book club that was focused on breaking away from the day-to-day normal teaching duties and committee work. It focused intentionally on growing the leadership practice. Putting time toward the book club, as a university, also gives the participants the idea that developing their leadership skills is very important.

The tone of the book club shared in this workshop was an open, inquisitive one, allowing people to answer questions about lessons learned in a book and apply it to their lives. And then they held it on a flexible basis. The advice given was that a quarterly book club works best and then you rotate the book as you go. This was a safe environment to discuss their leadership thoughts, lessons, concerns, and practice the ideas and be intentional about developing leadership as human beings, not just an afterthought.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m very familiar with the idea that some people believe leaders are born. That’s the older, archaic idea that I mentioned before of trait-based leadership. Of course, it helps if you have traits that naturally lead to leadership, but everyone can learn leadership skills.

There are so many ways to do this. In the book club method, you might consider some of these books recommended, Leaders Eat Last, Bring Your Human to Work, Dare to Lead, The Leader You Want to Be, Give and Take, Extreme Ownership, The Culture Code, Start With Why, and Small Acts of Leadership.

In addition to this list that was shared by the team I attended their workshop for, I would add to that a book called Positive Academic Leadership. It has a lot of great ideas about how you can lead with a positive tone, even when times are difficult and we need to really dive into some troubling situations so we can still be optimistic at appropriate times and help motivate our team.

Develop a Mentoring Program

Another idea is to create mentors. Now, mentoring is a beneficial practice across an organization. In fact, it’s known that 71% of Fortune 500 companies offer employee mentoring programs and 76% of employees think mentors are important, but only 37% have one.

If you don’t have a mentor and you’re thinking you want to grow the leadership skills, find someone in your academic community who can serve as a mentor for you. And consider offering your services as a mentor to someone else younger in your field or less experienced.

The more we give our services to others, the more those come back to us. Really, as we build our leadership through one-on-one relationships and reciprocal mentorship and things like that, we’re going to have a lot more confidence. Of course we’re going to grow our skills, and best of all, we’re going to keep growing future leaders throughout the organization.

Now, you would never want to find yourself in a situation where a critical leader at your institution is no longer able to come to work and must immediately be replaced, but no one seems prepared to take that role. That does happen, believe it or not. Sometimes a person becomes seriously ill, someone might pass away, for some unforeseen reason someone resigns abruptly, or maybe there’s even an accident.

I’ve seen all of those things happen in organizations, but also in my faculty team. In my case, we merely just need to get a new instructor to finish teaching a course. But what if that is one of the leaders in your organization?

There’s someone that will need to step into that leadership role to keep it going. As we continue to nurture future leaders in higher education, we’ll have a lot more success with that, there’ll be a more positive energy because people continue to grow, and we ourselves will continue to think about our leadership skills all the time because we want to live what we expect others to learn.

Thank you for being with me today for thinking about cultivating leadership. I hope you’ll consider some of these ideas, and of course, check out the links in the transcript for this podcast to all of the books mentioned. And also the link to the original presentation that was shared for some additional ideas and strategies, and of course if you’d like to contact those presenters from the American College of Education.

I, myself, just want to attest to the fact that when we’re talking specifically about leadership, I personally am always thinking about growing my leadership, focusing on certain aspects, setting goals, rotating through them, and reflecting on my practice. I truly believe that the more we think about growing leaders and helping others along the way, the more we’re going to continue growing ourselves.

All right. Well, thank you again for being here. I wish you all the best in your online teaching this week and your leadership development over the next year to come.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit Bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

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