The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

It’s Up to Me


A 20-something is just three years out of grad school when he decides to leave his position in the private sector to start a new job as employment manager for a mid-sized university. He works hard and makes what he thinks are significant contributions and improvements to his job and the HR department in which he works. He spends time developing collaborative working relationships with employees and managers across campus. The HR director, the associate director and others across campus frequently praise his work.

Twelve months into his position as employment manager, a new job, assistant director of HR, is created and posted. The 20-something applies for the position, hoping that his MBA, his background in the private sector and his contributions during the last 12 months have demonstrated his willingness and ability to accept greater levels of responsibility.

The offer is made … to another candidate from outside the university. The HR director explains to the 20-something that the chosen candidate has more experience in the HR focus areas that will constitute the majority of the new assistant director’s job. The 20-something says he understands, even though he really doesn’t understand at all.

In my experience, situations like this usually happen for one of three reasons:

  1. we believe that we have to find a person who has all the requisite skills and abilities AND a specific number of years of applicable experience in a narrowly defined role;
  2. “the grass is always greener” mentality — surely that external candidate (who performed extraordinarily well during the interview) will be a stronger performer than the internal candidate that we have worked with every day for several years; or
  3. we haven’t prepared our 20-somethings and 30-somethings (or others regardless of their age) so that they can have the opportunity to be successful in a broader (or different) role.

Three months after he was turned down for the assistant HR director job at his current university, the 20-something is offered and accepts the director of HR position at a smaller university. This opportunity provided him with a tremendous challenge and opportunities that shaped his career. Would the assistant director position have created just as much challenge and opportunity? We’ll never know.

Regardless, this 20-something learned a valuable lesson early in his career — one that we should all be so lucky to have learned. The lesson? There is only one person responsible for your career and your career path, and that person is you. While the mid-sized university could have been more intentional about its focus on its entry- and mid-level employees and the development and preparation of these individuals for increasingly responsible roles, the bottom line is that the 20-something’s career development is his responsibility … even (and especially!) if his employer does not make it a priority.

Should leadership development be more of a focus for many colleges and universities? Definitely. Will the lack of succession planning potentially create a crisis for many campuses during the next decade? Most likely. Are our career opportunities the responsibility of our college or university? Absolutely not. If we simply sit back and wait for those promotions and those leadership opportunities to present themselves, we’ll likely be stuck in place for years to come.

In case you haven’t already figured it out, this 20-something, who recently turned 50, is me. That speed bump early in my career changed my career path and helped make me the professional that I am today. I hope you consider any speed bumps or detours in your career path to be defining moments where you choose to take control and make your career what you want it to be … not what someone else may prescribe as the path for you.

I know that many of you have had interesting career path experiences. I hope you will share these experiences as a response to this blog!