Make exceptions judiciously. These two phrases combined were an important leadership lesson I learned early in my career.
My first full-time job was as Associate Dean of Students at McMurry College (now McMurry University.) It was a great first job. I served as Director of Housing for our four residence halls which housed about 450 students. I was co-advisor of student government with the Dean of Students. I was what passed for a student activities programmer, though even in 1982, $3,000 a semester wasn’t much of a programming budget. And I was the advisor to the Women’s Social Club Council, our version of a Panhellenic council for our local social clubs. As you might imagine, I learned a lot in that job.
Of course, part of what I was learning came from shifting from one type of campus to another. I had attended two large public universities and now I was working at a small private campus. There is much to love about working at a smaller campus. By the time I was in my second year, between the Dean of Students and me, we knew, or at least could identify, most of the full-time students by name. Conversely, one of the items I had to adjust to was our culture around deadlines. Faculty and staff both regularly let students turn in forms and applications after the deadlines. While I appreciated the flexibility, I often found myself wondering what we were teaching students.
I came face to face with this conundrum in the spring semester of my first year. McMurry held Social Club Rush/Recruitment in the second semester which meant there was a GPA requirement. As soon as students returned to campus a woman came to me to ask for a GPA exception. The Dean and I both knew her because she had had a tough fall semester. She had been very ill, missed a lot of class, and to her credit, toughed out the fall semester. But she didn’t have the GPA to participate. So I sat down with the Dean of Students to ask what we should do. The Dean, Walter Urban is one of the kindest humans I’ve ever worked for (and I’ve worked for a lot of good humans). He’d give you the shirt off his back, paint your office (as he did mine), and generally go out of his way to help anyone who needed it. His advice – make the exception.
It’s what I wanted to hear. So I did. I’m sure you know what happened next. I don’t think we made it until the end of the day, before the next request came in. And she too had had a rough semester, just not one that had come to our attention. But still a legitimate request. Walter and I had another conversation about the purpose of the policy. Quite simply, of course, it was about academic success. If a student had struggled in their first semester, no matter the reason, the second semester would be difficult. After some soul searching, I felt I had made a mistake and needed to change my decision.
Telling the student I was changing my decision still ranks up there as one of my least favorite conversations ever. Remembering that helps me stop and think in similar situations. I absolutely believe in leading with my heart. Caring for the people with whom we work, with people we lead, is critical. And we still need to make exceptions, all decisions actually, judiciously. Leading with the heart doesn’t mean we’re wishy, washy. It doesn’t mean we’re a pushover. It doesn’t make us a doormat. It means we lead responsibly with care and concern for people and for our organizations.
As more and more organizations begin bringing people back to campus, I think this idea is an important one. Some people are going to ask to continue working at home. A blanket ‘yes’ doesn’t work, but neither does a blanket ‘no’. It won’t be easy, but it may be necessary to analyze each person’s personal and job situation. Two people doing similar jobs may deserve/need dissimilar answers. And that will be okay, if those deciding have done the work to distinguish between the situations and made the best decisions they can. We may get it wrong and have to change our minds. We may get it right and have to listen to the unhappy person, openly sharing what we can and acknowledging what we cannot share. What’s best for an individual and what’s best for the organization won’t always line up neatly, but they are often more aligned than we allow for. We’re more likely to get it right if we bring both head and heart into our work. Best of luck to everyone as the semester winds up and your organizations begin another round of change!