Years ago, when I returned to my home state of Michigan to assume a new professional position, the president of the university I was working for asked me to serve as institutional representative to our Michigan American Council on Education (ACE) Network for Women Leaders in Higher Education. With no idea of what that entailed—but with full clarity that when the president asks you to step up, the answer is always yes—I agreed.
I nervously walked into my first Michigan ACE Network meeting and met the organization’s state coordinator, Martha Tack. She was accomplished, knowledgeable, and inclusive. She almost made me turn around and run out of the meeting room when she announced: “Kenya, you’ll be this organization’s next state leader.” I couldn’t imagine that Martha’s statement had any merit. Clearly, I was wrong.
Within the Michigan ACE Network, I became state coordinator-elect and (as Martha predicted) state coordinator. I also received national professional development opportunities through ACE and became an ACE Fellow with Chancellor Renu Khator of the University of Houston System as mentor in 2015–16. I deeply appreciate the mentors who have seen promise in me and opened doors on my behalf. I am grateful for the significant investment that ACE has made in my professional growth through their emphasis on inclusive excellence.
I love the expression that if diversity is inviting everyone to a party, inclusion is asking each person to dance. As leaders, each of us brings something unique and wonderful to the higher education landscape. As I reflect on where I have been professionally, I offer some lessons learned:
Value your own journey. Despite successes I have experienced, I have often been quite tough on myself by thinking I should be further along in my career or concerned that I have somehow forfeited opportunity. I have learned that as we focus on leading from where we are, opportunity ultimately knocks. It is easy to see another person’s successes, but rarely do we see the challenges others have faced along the way. We grow as we embrace the journey on which we find ourselves rather than comparing our pace against that of others.
Elevate your focus. It is vital for each of us to celebrate what we have accomplished and what we have available to us by way of networks as opposed to what we are lacking. Yet how often do we focus on the latter? Imagine how much better positioned we would be to support the success of others and to attain our own success if only we focused on the resources that we have at hand.
Know your leadership worth. Positional leadership is said to be given, while influential leadership is earned. At one point in my career, I went from having 150 direct reports (positional leadership) to having two direct reports but oversight for a regional network (influential leadership). Did having fewer people under my purview make me any less of a leader? Not at all. Did I still have significant responsibilities? Absolutely. In fact, in the new role with fewer direct reports, I found myself leading a regional organization and learning leadership lessons I might have otherwise missed. In some ways my leadership skills were truly put to the test because I had to lead solely by relationship.
Each step in our professional journey somehow prepares us for the next. We learn to value our own journey, to elevate our focus and to know our leadership worth wherever we find ourselves working within academia. We learn that we cannot rush the advancement process. As we lead where we have been planted, we are strategically positioned to help others and at the opportune moment someone steps up to help us as well.
Kenya Ayers, Vice President and Board Chair, Northwest Educational Council for Student Success