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Am I Ready? Taking the Leap with the NAGAP Leadership Academy

I’m Mary Pascarella. I’ve worked in higher education for 14 years and prior to that, I was a software training implementation consultant. I am excited to bring my 30-plus years of work experience to some blog articles for NAGAP. This is an organization that I hold near and dear to my heart. NAGAP has allowed me to create my own career fun and meet some pretty great people who are experts in their field. I’m grateful for the friends I have made and the opportunities to learn from this group, so I want to give back. My goal for my posts will be to spark some curiosity and maybe a conversation or two. Some of my topics will be around GEM operations and career and professional development with one or two takeaway ideas.

Since I’ve disclosed that I’ve worked for 30 years, it is natural to wonder how old I am. I am a GenX’er and we don’t age. That’s exactly how old I am. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I was asked to make my first blog about my experience with the NAGAP Leadership Academy. Naturally, this made me think of jumping from the second story window of an unbuilt house.

A childhood memory and taking the leap

When I was about 10 years old, new houses suddenly started going up at the edge of my suburban Midwest neighborhood. Blocks and blocks of them. My friends and I called them the "unbuilt houses." We spent all summer there. After the construction crews would go home, we’d vector in to explore. One day, we were in a house on the second floor looking out and below us was a tall pile of sand. My friends wanted to jump out, but I was scared. I held back and jumped last because I was worried there was a pitchfork buried in that pile of sand.

That’s kind of how applying to the Leadership Academy felt for me. My supervisor asked me to apply. I wanted to do it, but I held back and never approached her about it. I didn’t think I was in a Leadership position that justified the expense. At the time, my role felt a lot like one of those unbuilt houses and if I took the leap, I wasn’t quite sure if the sand below would be soft.

I applied to the Academy nervous I’d be the only person who didn’t have a career ladder ahead of her. That topic never even came-up because we were busy from day one. We had our assessments to dissect; our workbook was thick with lessons around communication, coaching, and problem-solving. Management Concepts, NAGAP's partner for the Leadership Academy, provided a lot of material that we covered and each person in my class was in a different place in their job and lives. We all had pathways presented to us that would allow us to move forward.

Coaching uncovers a blind spot

One of my Academy exercises was a 360 Assessment. Mine showed that learning how to listen was an area that I could develop. While I perceived myself as a good listener, my supervisors and peers did not. The "me" and "peer" dots couldn’t have been further apart on the graph. As a result, the first page of my office notebook are the coaching questions that I developed in conjunction with our career counselor in the Leadership Academy. I bring them to my meetings and use them on my calls and emails, too. It’s titled “Coaches Don’t Judge.”

My coaching questions were developed to help me gain understanding and work past my inclination to move right to action and start fixing a problem. This is my comfort zone because when you move right to a solution, you avoid conflict. However, moving to a solution before you have a full understanding of the situation can alienate the people you are trying to help. I think this is what was on that assessment graph, and I’m not sure I would have had any idea unless I’d gone through that feedback process.

Eye-opening insights from our coaching experience

We already know some of the coaching questions in my notebook like, “Would you be willing to explain that to me?” Taking time to ask that question, even if you think you know the answer, has changed many aspects of my job. Others are more subtle. “What do you think was going on before this happened?” is one of my favorites. I asked that yesterday about a small population of students with incomplete checklists. It turns out we were asking them to submit a form that no one uses anymore. Had I approached that question differently and asked, “Why are these files incomplete because of this missing requirement?” I might have stifled the conversation or put people on the defense.

Other questions in my notebook I use because I have the tendency to see pitchforks where there aren’t any. Saying, “Tell me more about that,” sometimes feels like jumping out of that second-floor window when you are dealing with a complaint. I have learned, though, that what it is really doing is giving that other person space to be heard and me a chance to pivot and see things from another point of view.

The last coaching question

The last coaching question in my notebook is inspired by the book The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier and it is how I try to end my calls and meetings. It’s how I’d like to end my blog today. Whereas before I’d ask, “what’s our next step?” Now I often ask, “what’s the most helpful thing that we talked about?”

If you're thinking about applying to the NAGAP Leadership Academy program, I highly recommend you make the leap! You can learn more about the program here, including details about applying, getting a fellowship, and informational webinars.


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