4 lessons learned from a year in the director’s chair

It was just over a year ago I began my journey as a director of residence life. I have never learned so much in such a short amount of time! There is a book entitled “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful!” by M. Goldsmith and M. Reiter. The amount of truth in that title/statement, I believe, can only be understood once experienced. The skills needed to be a successful director is vastly different than those needed to be successful in earlier roles. As a director, one moves from being the human to get the work done to being the human inspiring and guiding others to get the work done. Each journey is different. Each institution is different. My hope is that readers will be able to take a few nuggets from my experience and apply them to their own journey.

Patience, young Padawan, your Jedi powers will come with time

As a new director, it is easy to get caught up in proving why you were the chosen candidate or that you can meet any goal/objective laid before you. However, it is crucial to spend time getting to to know your new environment. Even if you move up within the same organization, your new level, title, role, and responsibility all equate to a new environment as well. Who are the natural allies to your organization? How have those relationships worked in the past? What relationships need to be established? Who is on your team? How are all the people and stories connected? What can you learn from the organization’s past to help you and your organization move forward today? This type of learning takes time and the ability to understand what is not being said by those around you.

It’s not about you

Your words, your actions, your decisions, your silence, your ambivalence, all reflect directly on your organization in a way it never has before. I tell my team when I am struggling with an idea or concept or philosophy, “I am trying to decide if this is going to remain an Anne issue or if it needs to become an organization issue”. Meaning, I may have my own thoughts and views but are those right for the organization in the moment? Does it really matter how we get to the same or a similar solution/outcome? In some cases, it will matter and my issue does become an organization issue and we move forward with change. In many other cases, I have simply learned a new way to solve a problem by listening to those around me.

Learn the types of “weeds” that report to you but stay out of them

Learning as much as you can about your organization is a great idea however, caution against recommendations/suggestions/comments on the weeds as this will unintentionally take power away from those whose job is to manage the weeds. Said differently one comment about how you might prefer to do something differently than what is currently in place could easily be heard as an expectation from the director to change what we are doing, which could then spiral into the new director being a micro-manager. Your people need to know you trust them to think critically and solve problems at their level.

Capitalize on all the types of people

As you transition, you will need “your people” outside of the organization whom you can call upon to assist you. The people inside your organization may be great humans however, they are not your transitional support system.

Your administrative assistant, if you have one, can make or break you! When these humans are empowered and trusted to utilize all of their skills, they not only do great work for you, they also look out for your well-being (asking if you have eaten lunch yet today, recommending you step outside for a break, leaving you encouraging notes/candy to let you know your tough day will end soon and there is always tomorrow).

Partners inside and outside the organization and university are extremely valuable. Those relationships need to be built early and maintained as one would a garden of Orchids. The stories these humans have about your organization, the institution, the community, the state politics will prove to be invaluable to your success.

The humans in your organization will need you to be a strong leader and supervisor. They will be looking to you for vision, direction, development, and guidance. When these humans have what they need and are trusted to bring your vision to life, great things will happen. As you get to know the strengths and weaknesses of your team, intentional delegation that taps into each person’s strengths will allow the team members to feel valued, trusted, and empowered…never a bad thing!


There are many other tips and tricks to success as one transitions into the director’s chair. The four I have listed above have been particularly helpful in my transition over the last year. What additional tips would you add to the list?