Check Your Ego at the Door: The Role of the AVPPart of the challenge of being number two is being a member of the team, rather than its leader.
Ever since the dean of women and dean of men positions morphed into the job of dean of students after World War II, women have traditionally been relegated to the number two position as assistant or associate vice president (AVP) of student affairs.
If you’re an AVP or see it as a rung on your career ladder, how do you successfully handle a role that’s essentially playing second fiddle? Whether in student affairs, academic affairs or elsewhere, it’s a unique leadership role that requires a small ego and large skill set in many different areas.
A panel of four women serving as assistant or associate VPs in student affairs shared their perceptions and advice at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) conference in Philadelphia in March:
• Dr. Amy Hecht, assistant VP of student affairs at Auburn University AL
• Dr. Brandi Hephner LaBanc, associate VP for student affairs at Northern Illinois University (NIU)
• Dr. Kelly Wesener, assistant VP for student services at NIU
• Karen Warren Coleman, associate VP of campus life and associate dean of students at the University of Chicago
As the number two administrator in a division, all four women reported being required to both represent the vision of her boss and to be seen as a leader in her own right. Performed successfully, this highwire balancing act can lead to a move to the senior vice presidency.
The job is not a bed of roses. Being the AVP can be isolating. Neither the director of a department nor the SVP, the AVP is a hybrid of sorts. To succeed as a number two, the women identified seven areas in which they must excel.
As an AVP, you make decisions that may be very different than those you would make as a director of a department. The director is an expert; the AVP must be a generalist.
LaBanc noted she’s there to represent the departments and to know what they need, even if that means working side by side with their directors for a while. Referring to the General Electric motto she said, “Excellence is not a spectator sport. Everyone is involved.”
A community of practice can help balance the AVP’s many facets including the constant meetings and events. They can build on teamwork and find commonalities between large and small departments.
The AVP’s leadership style must align with both the role’s responsibilities and the style of her supervisor. Whether your leadership style is authoritarian, participatory or delegative, you must own it. “You need to adapt and be flexible in that style,” said LaBanc.
Effective leaders lead down, across and up. They accept responsibility for their actions and the actions of those they represent. They must be able to motivate people to do their best.
“In some departments I have to lead to the vision,” she said, “while some need me to manage them.”
Part of the challenge of being number two is being a member of the team, rather than its leader. AVPs have a boss and their job is to serve. The view at this level changes from micro (the department) to macro (the campus).
When leading among their peers, AVPs need to demonstrate confidence with humility. They must understand whom they represent and make the shift from leading a specific department to working with all of student affairs.
Occasionally as an AVP you may advocate for a specific department, such as housing or health services. The bottom line? You’re always advocating for students.
LaBanc urged carving out time to be with students and not straying too far from the reason for the work.
Being number two means cultivating relationships in a complex and constantly changing landscape.
Coleman has been in the AVP position at the University of Chicago for 18 months. “What I thought the position is and what the VP wants for the division can be two different things,” she said. “It’s a dance through a political career.”
When interviewing for the position, she frequently heard the words, “institutional fit.” But much of what is considered fit happens over time.
Fit isn’t just between the person and the school. It’s also about how your division fits into the school, and whether it has a seat at the administrative table.
The definition can be expanded to include having the AVP’s skill set connect with that of her boss, the VP. She must also model for staff how they can build their skills.
One of Coleman’s duties is hiring staff. New staff should be hired not only for their competence and how their skills can be utilized, but also for their acumen and ability to navigate complex situations. If you hire only for skills, you may have to fire later for lack of political savvy.
• Emotional intelligence
AVPs need a strong sense of self. They must be able to motivate, build teams, develop relationships and communicate effectively.
“What got me the job is not what would allow me to keep the job,” said Hecht. “I’m not the task master. I had to ask myself, ‘Was I able to be open to the switch?’”
She admitted that her position is more scrutinized than others. AVPs must understand what the VP is doing and why, when to back the department directors and the politics involved throughout the school.
As an AVP, you’ll get to know your staff and allow them to know you—before they’re willing to really work for you.
• Administrative responsibility
Lack of ego is a key requirement for the job. AVPs do very public work without getting the credit for it. The VP doesn’t have time to create the answers, write the e-mails and make the phone calls.
Duties for the second fiddle include reading, writing and communicating the issues in the VP’s voice. You must understand the legal implications of your role and be efficient with administrative responsibility.
As an AVP you will write reports, conduct research and synthesize data. There are policies to craft and benchmarks to measure.
When you’re “behind the curtain,” it’s about service. While it’s your work, it’s not in your voice and all of it is sent out under the VP’s signature. AVPs get their satisfaction from seeing those words in print or being spoken by another.
All your administrative work certainly benefits the students, although the position doesn’t work with them directly.
• Budget and finance
As an AVP you’re concerned with the big picture. You’re budgeting for multiple units and division priorities. The money may come from various sources—operating, endowment, auxiliary or grants.
The school’s budget officer will become your best friend. AVPs have little money in their budgets compared to the budgets of directors, and they can’t go to the CFO asking for money. They must seek revenues from other pots while ensuring that student fees are being reserved for what they were meant to do.
A top priority for any new AVP, particularly at a state school, is to understand the budget and how money is allocated, Hecht noted. Ask questions, get to know and learn.
AVPs are responsible for knowing what’s going on at various levels of the organization at all times. This is where more is better.
The more you know, the better you can lead and the more effective your performance. AVPs need to know what’s “on the ground,” not just the “sanitized” version.
How does the issue look from the AVP position? Who is the audience you’re trying to reach? AVPs live in a world at 20,000 feet but still need to know what’s going on in the weeds. It’s a complex negotiation between time, transparency and information.
Transparency means different things at various levels. An AVP is not in a position to share as much with her staff as a director can. But she still needs to share enough to get her staff to buy in.
AVPs have to know who’s at the table and who’s got the information, as well as how people share information. It’s a delicate dance of what and how you share. “My style is more information can be shared and used,” said Coleman.
Don’t take having the information for granted, or assume that you know how people will receive it.
There is a reason why humans have two ears and one mouth. Learn to listen well to both verbal and nonverbal communications. Speak to your audience and understand their lives well enough to understand their intents, concerns and any land mines they may encounter. You don’t always need all the answers. Listening can be the most powerful leadership tool.
“You are only one spoke in the wheel, but so key to the overall forward movement,” said LaBanc. Stay connected to the students.
Because the AVP juggles multiple priorities, time is a challenge. You are responsible for your time. No one else can do it for you. “Get comfortable with being handed something you know nothing about and becoming the expert at it overnight,” said Wesener.
Realize that as the AVP, you always reflect the VP. Understand her vision, philosophy, and voice so you can represent her well all the time. Take time to build relationships across campus.
The transition from director to AVP can impact your psyche. You go from being a superstar to being a “nobody.” You get lots of information, but lack personal connections.
Understand that as a director, you were the leader, but the AVP position is one of service. When you become senior VP, you’ll lead again. The proximity of the office is what matters.
Another job of an AVP is to give feedback. Occasionally you’ll have to shut the door and say to your boss, “It looks to me like you’re wrong. Help me to know something or to understand what you’re saying.”
So you think you want to be an AVP? As a candidate for the job, you’ll want to be able to make assurances such as these to the senior VP who’s interviewing you:
Despite its challenges, the four women said they really enjoy the AVP position. Why? It provides connections to others. It gives them the opportunity to weigh in on important decisions. The position has a broad scope. It can become a life path to increased maturity.
Best of all, the AVP post is seen as “boot camp” training for the top job, VP of student affairs, where women can use their unique abilities to make a real difference in campus life for the students.
Hecht at firstname.lastname@example.org or 334.844.1326
LaBanc at email@example.com or 815.753.6170
Coleman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 773.702.3434
Wesener at email@example.com or 815.753.9651
Santovec, Mary Lou. (2011, June). Check Your Ego at the Door: The Role of the AVP. Women in Higher Education, 20(6), p. 13-14.