25 Pieces of Advice From VPSAs

Helpful Tips

Almost a year ago I accepted the VPSA position at NYIT. This is my first VP position, so I reached out to 31 veteran VPs/Deans of Students for their advice. I asked them four questions:

  • What general advice or suggestions do you have for a new VPSA?
  • What should be my priorities in the first few weeks?
  • What should be my priorities in the first semester?
  • Looking back, what would you do differently in the beginning of your job?

I heard back from 24 of the 31. That almost 80% response is a remarkable rate for any type of questionnaire and most especially from a group of very busy executive leaders. I feel very fortunate to have such caring colleagues who were so willing to assist me in my transition.

I ended up with 20 single-spaced pages of advice—all of it great. Some of it was not surprising, but much of it was thought provoking. I will write several posts on this information broken down by themes (once a qualitative researcher, always a qualitative researcher), but for this first one I am starting with the basic advice that stood out to me as coming up in multiple responses.

As I review this list, some of it is advice that any professional can use. I know the list will be beneficial to anyone starting a VP or Dean job, but I also realize that with very little tweaking virtually all of this can be applied to anyone directing a unit within a student affairs division.

Here is the list:

  1. The number one piece of advice – Listen, listen, and listen. Meet people and get to know them and their issues. Be intentional about meeting as many people in and out of the division as possible.
  2. Be yourself. You may feel some internal or external pressure to live up to some notion of what a Vice President is. Do not succumb. Be yourself. They hired you to be the VP, not someone else.
  3. Use “we” as often as possible when referring to your current institution, and “they” when referring to your former institution.
  4. Avoid references to your previous institutions unless absolutely necessary.
  5. Work to understand the priorities of the President and the Provost/Academic VP.
  6. Get to know CFO and the budget people very well.
  7. Make appearances at events, not just where you are expected to attend.
  8. Give more credit than is due.
  9. Seek collaborative opportunities.
  10. Be careful with what you communicate verbally, in writing, and via email.
  11. Always be ready to give a welcome talk to a group of students, faculty, staff, or visitors.
  12. Pay attention to the rest of the President’s cabinet.
  13. Withhold final judgments for a couple of months.
  14. Use the phrase “Tell me more about that” often.
  15. Try not to say “no” to any opportunity or invitation.
  16. Journal every day. Use the time to reflect and learn.
  17. Carve out time for future planning. It is too easy to get completely involved in the day-to-day.
  18. Schedule project time.
  19. Identify high impact learning practices.
  20. Always take care of the President’s priorities first.  Over-prepare for meetings, be first with reports asked of all VP’s, and be more thorough than asked.
  21. Visit frontline staff in their offices.
  22. Don’t wait too long when your gut instinct and data tell you that you need to make personnel changes.  Others in your organization will feel support if you make necessary changes.  It may take some time to realize what needs to be done but you should have some assessment in the first 6-8 months if not sooner.  After the first year, all of the staff are yours.
  23. Take advantage of colleagues and friends across the country, because the VPSA can be an isolated position.
  24. Do not get caught in in the weeds unless your president expects you to or you must be to solve a problem.
  25. Your group of trusted confidants will need to be very small and select…and ideally not in your division (or even better, not at your institution).

I haven’t been perfect in applying this advice, but I return to this list regularly as a way to hold myself accountable to my goal of being an effective and successful Vice President.

While all of these are, in my opinion, good advice, the pieces that stand out as being so valuable to me during my first year have been numbers 6, 10, and 12.

#6 – I spent more time with the CFO and his staff during my first semester than with the president and it paid off in my being able to convince him to support me in my quest to have the president approve additional, necessary resources for our athletics program.

#10 – I learned in previous positions to be careful about what is put in writing, but this was reinforced by several sensitive situations during my first semester. As my current president told me, “Don’t think about what the message sounds like now, think about how it will sound three years from now in a court room.”

#12 – My colleagues on the President’s Cabinet have been the best surprise of becoming a VPSA. Because of this advice, instead of focusing solely on my division, I sought out the other VPs, met with each of them, and connected with several. These people understand working at this organizational level at this particular institution, they have been my sounding board for the testing of ideas, and they have been available for me to check my sanity level (i.e., It isn’t just me!).

What is the best advice you have ever received?

Reactions, comments, and criticisms are most welcome!

 

 

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3 comments

  1. I agree with you. Very useful and practical to any unit or divisional leader. While not a VP I can see the value in almost all of these and some are part of my mantra with my team this year.
    I am suprised (and not at the same time) at the lack of student focused advice you were given.

  2. Patrick, although I think this is good advice I noticed that there didn’t seem to be any advice on maintaining any connection with students or even student staff/leaders. The biggest difference I have noticed between those I consider the best VPs and the worse VPs I have ever worked for tends to be what they do to stay connected to the students. Personally, I think those who try to maintain that connection are better off for it.

    James H Manley Jr., PhD
    Director of Residential Campus Life
    The Culinary Institute of America

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