There’s No Such Thing as Perfection in Leadership…Strive for THIS instead

Sheri Rodriguez (@skrodriguez1) is an administrator with the University of Delaware. She is a dedicated higher education professional who is passionate about areas such as student success, retention, enrollment management, and academic advising especially among historically undeserved populations, including first generation college students, low-income students, students of color, community college transfers, and commuter students.

Dr. Sheri Rodriguez is an #EverydayLeader.

What are you passionate about? And what are you doing to deliver on this passion?

As a first-generation college student (meaning I was the first in my immediate family to attend college) who came from a low-income background now working in higher education, I am passionate about helping college students from all backgrounds succeed (in whatever way success is defined for them, since it’s really different for everyone), being part of an institution that embodies this philosophy as part of their mission and vision, and participating in initiatives that facilitate student success.

I think that I carry out this passion on several levels:

broadly, at the institutional level,
micro/smaller scale within my own unit, and then
outside of my day to day for my own professional development.

First, on a broader level, I try to position myself to be part of conversations regarding student success and serving students at my institution. This is usually takes the form of participating in working groups and committees that are charged with influencing and updating policies, and/or spearheading efforts to remove unnecessary barriers for students in higher education.

At the more micro level, or within my unit, I collaborate with a great team to constantly think of ways to improve our processes to maximize our service to students. This can include providing support to students who are on academic probation or finding ways to more efficiently clear students for graduation.

Finally, outside of my day to day, and to help with my professional development, I try to stay on top of trends in higher education. This helps me understand the bigger picture of how my own passion is aligned with national and global trends. The ways I engage in this include having general conversations with colleagues, attending or giving conference presentations, writing articles, reading articles in popular higher education publications, and staying active on social media platforms.

How do you go about leading? And how do you use your passion to align people to your vision?

I still consider myself a new leader, having been in leadership roles for less than five years, so I feel my leadership is still emerging, evolving, and growing, but I would say that I engage in “leading from the side”, so to speak. I consider myself to be a highly collaborative individual, and often consider myself more a team member than a leader.

In terms of using my passion to align my team and colleagues to my vision, I think student success is a vision we are all highly invested in, and even more specifically, removing obstacles to help students in being successful and earning their undergraduate degrees. I think looking for ways those on my team can leverage their skills and interests to support this vision is really key. For example, if someone on the team is really interested and skilled in working with data, let’s find a way to integrate that ability into our day to day to facilitate student success through doing something such as running reports and interpreting data to look for patterns.

Is there anything in your background not directly related to being a leader that has had an outsized impact on the way you lead?

As I mentioned earlier, being a first-generation student from a low-income background, I always feel like I have to work harder and “prove” myself. This has instilled a drive a me that, I believe, has translated into my leadership style, as I’m always interested in exploring making improvements to things. I’m really interested in bigger picture initiatives that make an impact, and I think this stems from me having to work so hard to get where I am.

If I can make it easier for the next person to come along who has a background similar to mine, I feel like I’ve made a difference.

What’s your philosophy on building a team? What do you search for? How do you go about selection? And how to do you approach managing performance?

I believe in diversity in a team for one. This can mean building a team with members from all walks of life, with a variety of skills and passions, and even with different institutional experiences (someone who has worked at a community college is going to have a different perspective than someone who is coming from a four-year, traditional Research 1 institution).

Perspectives are important, especially when it comes to serving a changing student demographic. While I look for experience and those skills aligned with the position, I also look for drive, enthusiasm, and the potential to be collaborative and a team player. This means that interview questions need to be carefully crafted to make sure we’re capturing these elements during the screening process.

Most higher education institutions, including the ones I’ve served at, have a specific search process for selecting candidates, such as creating a search committee to review resumes, conduct interviews, and select the candidate. Therefore, when finding members for a search committee, I identify colleagues who understand how our unit functions, are familiar with our unit’s culture, and represent a variety of units on-campus. Therefore, the committee is diverse and includes colleagues directly from our unit that would be working with the person, as well as others from units across campus that would interact with our office and the selected candidate.

In terms of managing performance, we have a university mandated performance appraisal process in place where we establish individual and unit goals, and give numerical scores in various areas related to employee performance.

However, I believe that someone’s performance is something that can always be discussed, doesn’t have to formalized, and that dialogues about someone’s goals and professional interests are an ongoing conversation.

I meet with my entire team on a monthly basis, and then have biweekly meetings with each team member. These meetings have been absolutely invaluable, especially coming from an institution where the culture, office functions, and processes have been so different from my previous one. Interacting with my team in this capacity has allowed me to get to know everyone on a more personal basis, makes us all feel invested in our day to day, and allows me to be transparent in letting everyone know what is going on, on a university level.

What data do you use to ensure you are leading effectively?

Wow, this is a great question! At this point, I would have to say that most of the data I use to evaluate my own style is anecdotal. One of the things that I’ve done, that has been helpful, is asking each team member periodically, and especially during performance evaluations, how I can be a better leader for them. While sometimes there is hesitation in answering this question, other times there is some great feedback.

For example, one team member, who I was under the impression was excited to work with a new software system we were piloting, actually disclosed to me that she wished to work on other projects. In a way, she was conveying to me that I was pigeon-holing her, since I deemed her the person that would be working on this software, when in reality she had a variety of interests. This was helpful feedback to know, and made me think about how others felt. This helped me to understand how to better diversity and “spread out” various projects among the team.

Another anecdotal form of data is feedback from my own supervisor. While she provides me with numerical scores from my own performance evaluation, and we discussed my own goals, my frequent conversations with her have been incredibly valuable. She has a lot of historical insight into our unit, so seeking feedback and perspective from her has been incredibly helpful in my leadership also.

What are some of the biggest mistakes today’s leaders are making? And how would you go about fixing it?

One of the biggest mistakes I see, and try to be conscious of in my leadership, is the lack of transparency and withholding information from a team.

I am nowhere near perfect, personally and professionally, but I try my hardest to always keep my team in the loop by sharing reports, data, updates from senior leadership, changes to policy, etc. Sometimes there is so much going on at once that I may overlook sharing something, but it’s not intentional.

I would offer that there is no perfect solution to this, but to just strive to share as much as possible. Yes, it will likely generate a lot of questions from team members, questions that you may not be able to answer (I think this is one of fears of information-sharing), and it may slow some decision-making processes down, but it is worth it. It builds trust, it helps things run smoothly in your absence since everyone feels empowered and they know what’s going on, and some great ideas can come out of opening up the discussion to others.

What do you see as the 2 or 3 greatest opportunities for leaders over the next several years?

Technology, technology, technology! With predictive analytics, big data, AI, social media, teleconferencing, and so much more, there are so many ways leaders can keep their finger on the pulse of things, stay up to date on trends, provide work flexibility for their employees, work with and leverage data, and encourage their teams to be creative. When used correctly, and for the greater good, it can do amazing things, and I see it playing a huge part in the ability to lead over the next several years. Although, I would offer, it should not replace face to face interactions with team members, as leaders can “hide” behind things such as email to deliver unsavory news, creating a negative or toxic work environment. It should be used for the positive, and getting employee feedback on how to best do this is a great start.

Another opportunity I see is the ability to incorporate diverse generations, such as recent college graduates and baby boomers for example, into an evolving workforce, and balancing and appreciating their abilities and perspectives. Working in higher education specifically, there is certainly a benefit to a student interacting with a seasoned professional that has been with their institution for several years, and also with a recently hired millennial, so keeping in mind how integrating various generations with their skills sets, experiences, and insight, will certainly make for a vibrant work environment, especially as leadership opportunities for these groups become available.

Finally, I believe we are moving away from a transactional, top-down, management style, overall in leadership. This is my own perspective working in higher education, others may have different thoughts on this depending on their own industries. I believe that between the changes in technology we’re seeing and the diversity of generations in the workplace as I mentioned above, combined with a changing economy and the desire for work-life balance, there is shift going on to empower teams more and have a more flattened management structure in more organizations. It will be interesting to see how this continues to evolve and grow over time.

Do you have any final words of wisdom for Everyday Leaders?

I see leadership as a cyclical process, where leaders are always learning from one another.
I think mentorship plays an important part in learning to lead, and growing personally and professionally.
My advice and words of wisdom would be to identify a mentor, someone you trust and admire, who you can celebrate wins with (no matter how small!), and who can provide you with guidance, support, and feedback on your leadership journey.

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