Change your view of the fishbowl


In student affairs there is a lot of messaging around being watched. From our first days of RA training to our interviews for mid and upper level positions we are constantly being told that “people are watching you.” We expect our staffs and ourselves to constantly be on, to always serve as role models, to never make a misstep. Or, if you do, don’t ever do it publicly. This is exhausting. I remember being a senior in college sitting in RA training and absolutely panicking during these speeches lectures. “Am I ready for this? What would happen if I stumbled? Would I lose my job that I really, really needed to help pay for school and that I really, really wanted because I saw myself as someone with something to offer students and my university?” #AMDG!

Yesterday was our all college retreat. It was an invigorating day. When the president of the university makes time to come speak to you (we’re one of the smallest colleges on campus) that’s a big deal and speaks volumes about who and what she values. When the new Dean stands up and says, “We move forward together or we sink together” that’s a great gut check.

I had to check myself.

I’ve gotten in my own way because I have been seeing myself and my career from inside the fishbowl, rather than outside it. I have let the messaging about executive presence and role modeling and blah blah turn into noise instead of what it is- good advice.

Yesterday I arrived extra early so I had time to get settled, finish my coffee, and check-in to the event without rushing. (I am not a morning person.) Yesterday I wore a skirt and a jacket. I felt and looked great. Turns out, these were good decisions as the Dean saw me walk in and I got to spend a few minutes chatting with him. Now, I didn’t do these things to falsely create an interaction with the dean- it just happened. But, it happened because I was here and ready to go. It happened because I chose to put myself in a good light. That will only help me.

One of my many goals for the 2015-2016 year is to see myself and my career as outside the fishbowl. Instead of thinking of it as pressure, I am flipping the script and seeing it as opportunity. People are watching. Always. We make mental notes about each other. That sounds sneaky and sometimes it is (that’s another post). But, it’s true. People remember. I am going to work smarter to let them catch me doing something well. I am choosing to see the fishbowl as an opportunity to shine.

We need to change the messaging about our roles in higher education. We need to encourage and teach our students, colleagues, and ourselves to see the fishbowl as a chance to show people what you’re capable of. I remember my brother said to me once that if you’re prepared, the test can be fun. The same can be true of work. Prepare (whatever that looks like for you). Then when the “test” comes, you’re ready. It shouldn’t be about fear. It’s a gift.

Truthfully, most of us are more ready than we give ourselves credit for. Shine and swim on, friends!

(Fishbowl Image from:

We’re confusing presence with actual work

The latest buzzword in student affairs seems to be executive presence. In short, it means gravitas. Can you command a room and inspire confidence in others?

Executive presence can be coached. It can be taught. It can be faked.

The problem with ideas like presence is that they take on a life of their own, like a runaway freight train. They have momentum but lack purpose and direction. Who defines it? Who enforces it? And when? Does it apply to everyone? Or just candidates in a job search? Only new professionals and not mid or senior level people? Executive presence, IMO, is becoming about cis-gender, hetero-normative speech and dress, with little regard for individual behavior, intent, and impact.

Should we all have presence? Maybe. But I fear that we will continue to hire, promote, and sponsor all the same people. People who dress, and think, and act like us. That is not only completely counter to our supposed commitment to social justice and the common good, but it’s also dangerous. It leads to group think. It leads to heroes and zeroes. It makes us look silly. It will make us obsolete.

And this rhetoric is taking us away from the real work of our profession- students– and making it about us as “professionals.” We are becoming self-focused instead of getting back to our roots of service for and about others. When did we make our work about ourselves???

Presence is about perception, not performance.

Actual work cannot be faked.

Service to others cannot be faked.

I fear we have lost our way. I am becoming less and less enamored of this “profession” and less and less willing to tolerate these nuances of our profession’s “culture.” Twitter and blogging have given everyone a platform and a microphone, which in turn makes some people think they’re entitled to expert status. The proliferation of people and the veracity with which they speak is having the opposite effect- at least for me. It feels like noisy fluff.

I see people in our circles being put on impossibly high pedestals only to be cut down and shamed later for one mistake or one misplaced comment. And, those doing the shaming were the same people who made the pedestal. I see people being idolized for their clothes, while we turn a blind eye to their behavior.

Our profession used to be about impacting others. Our metric used to be impact on the students. I was (am) a successful administrator if the people/club/organization/individual with whom I have worked is/are better after their time with me than they were before. With your behavior did you make a positive impact?

If we all get back to our roots (myself included) and over ourselves, our work will speak for itself and presence will naturally follow. “Go to work today and do something for someone else.”