Small discussion groups are a hallmark of cohort learning at the Harvard Institutes for Higher Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They provide an opportunity for members to work through case studies, experience peer-to-peer learning, and gain new insights from participants with different perspectives.
And sometimes, these small group sessions offer their members something even more powerful – an enduring connection.
In the summer of 2017, eight higher education leaders were assigned to “Group 5” as part of their participation in the Management Development Program (MDP), an HIHE flagship program that helps mid-level higher education managers cultivate and strengthen their leadership skills. During the two-week intensive summer institute, participants gained the tools and insights necessary to think more strategically, balance competing demands, and engage in more forward-thinking, institutional-focused leadership.
Each day following their MDP program sessions and activities, the participants who comprised Group 5 would gather together for their small group discussion time. They soon realized their group possessed a strong connection that bridged participants’ diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. As the program drew to a close, members decided to keep the group discussions going post-MDP through monthly video conference meetings.
Today, nearly two years after the program’s conclusion, the group is still connected. Each month, the members gather for a virtual meeting. They say the insights and kinship derived from these discussions remain vitally important to them, both professionally and personally.
Recently, we spoke with five members of Group 5, including Michael Nuttall, Associate Director/COO, Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, Santa Clara University, who coordinates the monthly meetings; Melissa Padfield, Interim Vice-Provost and University Registrar, the University of Alberta; Joseph Cassady, Professor and Head, Department of Animal Science, South Dakota State University; Shari Saunders, Professor of Clinical Practice, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and Educator Preparation, University of Michigan School of Education; and Jesús Castro-Balbi, American Council on Education Fellow; Professor, Texas Christian University.
In the interview below, these members reflected on the role MDP and Group 5 have played in their development as higher education leaders – sharing what inspired them to attend MDP, what they continue to take away from their monthly virtual discussions, and what the incoming MDP cohort can do to get the most out of the experience.
HGSE: First of all, can you share with us what inspired you to attend MDP? Did you initially have a specific goal in mind?
Michael: I was offered the opportunity to attend by our university president during a time of transition, and it was clear from my research that this was a high-value opportunity. My goal was to better understand the complexities of higher education across diverse institutions and to develop my own skill set in leadership.
Melissa: MDP was suggested to me by my boss at the time who had attended one of the HGSE (leadership) institutes. She sang its praises as a truly transformative experience and something I wasn’t likely to find anywhere else. When I attended, I was at a point in my career where I was questioning what my direction might be in higher education, and I was looking for a place to enhance my skills for a higher-level position.
Joseph: I wanted to further develop my leadership skills. MDP was recommended to me by a former participant. My specific goal was to gain new perspectives with regard to leadership strategies.
Shari: I was serving in my first year as an associate dean and was looking for professional learning opportunities to support my growth as a leader. One of my colleagues from another higher education institution highly recommended MDP, so she really inspired me to attend. My goal was to build my knowledge and skill base in the various facets of leadership.
Jesús: My goal in attending MDP was to develop a better understanding of leadership and higher education.
HGSE: It’s been nearly two years since you finished MDP. Can you talk a little bit about how attending the program has impacted your work and leadership?
Shari: I was fortunate to be assigned to a group of really different people who connected well. Monthly meetings with this group have had the most impact on my work and leadership, as group members help me make sense of situations that I am experiencing and give useful feedback in real time.
Michael: On a basic level, I gained a more well-rounded perspective of how institutions work and the myriad of issues that impact various sectors of institutions – it helped me see beyond my bubble. On a practical level, the language of the four frames* has deeply impacted my thinking over the last two years and the way I work through issues and strategies with my colleagues.
*Defined as a leadership model from authors Lee Bolman and Terry Deal that looks at issues from the following frames – structural, human resource, political, and symbolic.
Melissa: MDP has had a significant impact on my work and leadership. I regularly use the theories and constructs that we discussed and have taken many of my staff on a journey through the ‘four frames’ when we are considering issues. As a career administrator, it also gave me added insight into the pressures and realities faced by my colleagues that come from academia. It has been a real asset moving forward to be able to recall and reflect on the perspectives of chairs and associate deans that were shared during the program when I am working with colleagues in those roles at my institution.
Jesús: The faculty and colleagues at MDP gave me invaluable food for reflection to this day.
HGSE: Looking back at your MDP experience – was there a particular session or moment that most resonated with you?
Melissa: When people ask me about MDP, I describe it as the best professional development experience I have ever had. The reason I feel this way is because, for the first time, I was in a room of 100 people who ALL contributed to the learning. Not a single person failed to participate, and they all had insightful, challenging, and uplifting things to share. The program was structured to support this engagement and personal connection – whether it was with our morning celebrations or providing space to discuss serious and unexpected issues and group dynamics. My brain and my heart were ignited in the most positive way the entire two weeks!
Michael: The two that continue to stand out for me are the exercises of being forced to look at issues across all four frames, as well as the constituent mapping activity to support the development of an effective outreach strategy.
Shari: What most resonated with me was how group members would share challenges we were facing in our contexts coupled with engaging in a process of questioning, clarifying, and problem-solving to support us in sense-making and thinking through next steps back at our home institutions.
Jesús: The wealth of opportunities to be challenged and the pedagogical alignment throughout the program most impressed me.
HGSE: Your group has kept in touch for nearly two years post-MDP. Did you observe a special synergy within the group during the program that made you think you would stay in touch? Or has this long-term connectivity surprised you?
Joseph: Our group is diverse in many ways, but we quickly developed a mutual respect and appreciation for each other. While we are all strong leaders, we respect each other enough to allow the team to gel. In other words, we avoided the potential problem of everyone wanting to be in charge. Michael is a very good organizer. His willingness to schedule our monthly video conferences has been critical. I think we were fortunate that our group came together so easily, but we have made the most of the opportunity.
Jesús: Sincerity and authenticity were key to building caring and meaningful personal connections within Group 5. I am so grateful for this great team!
Melissa: Our group seemed to connect very early on in the MDP experience. Everyone came with a genuine openness to learn from one another and a deep respect for each of our very different personalities and perspectives. We also made time to connect outside of the formal program a few times during MDP and this allowed us to get to know each other as individuals and that started to form a real bond. Another key was that we had someone in the group (shout out to Michael!) who was a real driver for us getting together and took on the heavy lifting for the logistics behind our monthly video chats.
Shari: I’m not sure that I ‘observed’ a special synergy, I think it’s just something we felt. Staying in touch seemed like an obvious outgrowth of the two weeks of getting to know each other, learning together, and having conversations across our differences.
Michael: During the time at MDP, I thought our small group sessions were going well, and I was struck that we had such diverse experience and perspectives along with high degrees of self-awareness and empathy that allowed the group to find common ground among differences. With that said, I would not have believed you if you told me we’d be in touch two years later!
HGSE: All of you have such busy schedules – but in spite of that, these video conferences have continued for nearly two years. What do you think everyone takes away from these monthly meetings?
Shari: We probably take different things away from these meetings, and it probably depends upon what we talk about. I enjoy hearing about accomplishments, encouraging my group members as they pursue personal and professional goals, and laughing with them. From these things I take away a feeling of joy. I also find it immensely helpful to have their input on challenges I face. With so many different perspectives, I usually walk away with new ways to think about situations and practical next steps.
Michael: I think the beauty of this arrangement is that it varies. Some months, I get direct advice on how to deal with a pressing issue. Sometimes I just get to vent about a problem to folks not at my institution and who will simply listen. Other times I share my own thoughts on how I might address an issue or additional strategies to consider. Sometimes it’s all of the above. We keep it flexible; we keep it simple so that it is sustainable.
Melissa: Our flexibility is a real feature that holds us together. There is allowance for people to join as they are able, and there is no pressure or judgment if people need to step back for a couple months. The other, and probably most important piece of what keeps us going, is the deep support we provide each other, and this extends to everything from personal challenges and success, to work issues and opportunities. We find ways to push each other to think differently about problems and provide a safe space to vent when we need to. This group has given me a real foundation, free from the politics and pressures of my campus, where I can test my assumptions and receive support from an awesome and diverse group of people.
Joseph: We care about each other. We genuinely want each other to succeed. The monthly meetings provide an opportunity to share successes, frustrations, and challenges in a safe environment. I know that the feedback I get from the other members of Group 5 is with my best interests at heart. We have become friends. We share both personal and professional successes and challenges. We have had two babies born among the group, job changes, challenges with bosses, challenges with employees, career opportunities, etc. All of these are discussed among the group. When the next month rolls around, it is typical that someone will ask for an update on the challenges, which were discussed during the previous session.
HGSE: With the Summer 2019 cohort just around the corner, what would you recommend participants do to get the most out of their MDP experience?
Michael: Keep a running list of follow-up steps throughout all of the sessions and calendar in time shortly after the experience is over to develop your long-term action plan. There is so much content and so many ideas that come up in short time, the inventory and triage are key to successful implementation.
Melissa: Come with an open mind and seek out opportunities to be challenged and test your comfort zone. Share candidly with your group and the larger cohort and make time to get to know a lot of people. I would also say make time for personal reflection. Try to de-link from work as much as possible, so you can really be where you are and get the most out of this. Allow the vast diversity of the speakers and your cohort to help you better understand and define your own leadership practice and values. Most importantly, have fun! MDP is the best summer camp you will ever attend!
Joseph: I think it is important to unplug and disconnect from your day-to-day job during the two weeks at MDP. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control, I was not able to do that completely, but to the extent one can block everything else out and focus on MDP, it will be to their advantage.
Shari: This depends on the person. Do whatever you think will help you get the most out of the MDP experience (read, talk with others, take quiet time, try out local restaurants, etc.).
Jesús: Bring lots of questions, complete your readings, and prepare to be amazed by faculty, staff, and peers.
HGSE: Any words of wisdom to share with educators thinking about attending MDP?
Joseph: Come with an open mind and a willingness to consider new viewpoints.
Shari: Read strategically. Do not over-stress about reading everything deeply.
Jesús: This is a truly worthwhile experience for you and, hopefully, for your institution.
Melissa: The investment of time and resources is worth it!
HGSE: What’s on the horizon for this group? How do you think this collaboration will continue to evolve?
Melissa: Who knows where this will go or for how long? All I know is for the time that this lasts, it is a real gift in my life! Go Team 5!!
Michael: We have no idea! We didn’t even notice how long we had been connected until recently. I imagine at some point it will start to taper off, and that will be OK. But until then we’ll just schedule the next call and keep on staying connected!
Shari: Who knows? I don’t think we have ever planned anything. We just show up and the magic happens!
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