By: Cynthia Jackson-Elmoore

Why did you decide to be a mentor for the AAN Leadership Fellows program?

I value opportunities to pay attention to what others are doing, especially individuals who may be flying under the radar, in addition to those who have already been identified as “having leadership potential.”  It is in these ways that we can all help to advance the careers of others.  I also pursued this opportunity because I am interested in how institutions of higher education create and sustain diverse, equitable, and inclusive environments for campus stakeholders.  Mechanisms for doing that involve establishing pathways and pipelines for leadership in all aspects of university life and proactively engaging in succession planning for administration in particular.  The AAN Leadership Fellows program is one way that we can help expand the leadership potential and opportunities on campus.

Did participating in the program as a mentor advance your leadership skills?

Every interaction we have with colleagues provides an opportunity to advance one’s leadership skills.  One benefit of the AAN Leadership Fellows Program is that it provides for self-reflection and examination of the sometimes hidden aspects of one’s own leadership.  There were many times when Rob Roznowski, the fellow with whom I worked, would ask me questions about motivations, intent, outcomes, processes, and my approach to scenarios and situations.  In each instance, I would learn something about both of our approaches to leadership. Mentors can gain as much if not more from the experience than the fellows if we are open to examining our own leadership skill set.

What was your biggest takeaway from participating in the program?

In this type of program, you simply have to take trust and confidentiality as a given.   It is a gift to be willing to trust and be vulnerable with someone else with both the successes and the things we wish we could do differently.  It is also necessary in order to provide a peek behind the curtain of the inner workings of administration and one’s own approach to leadership.

Through the fellowship there is a shadowing component and the completion of a project; please talk about your role as a mentor for both aspects.

Rob Roznowski, head of acting and directing in the Department of Theatre is the fellow with whom I worked during the 2018-2019 academic year.  I was the primary mentor for the shadowing component and fellow dean Christopher Long, of the College of Arts and Letters, and I shared mentoring responsibilities for the project.

Shadowing:  Rob and I mutually determined that regular weekly one-on-one meetings would be the preferred mode of interaction.  We held these in my office most of the time; however when travel or schedules dictated we would hold our weekly meeting via phone.   We used this time to discuss any key issues/topics of interest, debrief on other meetings/activities, and explore Rob’s career interests.  A highlight of the shadowing experience was a joint read; it was an interesting and useful way to frame the broader experience.  Rob selected a leadership development book for the two of us to read, which we discussed during at least one meeting a month.  Rob attended the regular Honors College leadership team meetings, meetings I had with individuals in other units, and university-wide forums.  We had the opportunity to debrief following these various shadowing opportunities. My biggest role during the shadowing component was to work with Rob to achieve his personal and professional development goals and provide insights into my leadership approach.

Project:  One of my roles was to be a sounding board and provide space and feedback for Rob to decide what project to pursue.  Through early discussions, Rob determined which project might have the most immediate and sustained campus impact and also be of interest, enjoyment and provide a growth opportunity for him.  The project focused on providing resources to assist students in distress, and manage the personal strain and stress that one might experience when confronted with student mental health and behavioral issues. The scope and scale of the project serve as an exemplar for future cohorts of AAN Leadership Fellows.  It also demonstrates how we can have a sustained impact outside of our typical sphere of influence.  Because there were two mentors working with Rob on the project, one of my roles was to ensure coordination and collaboration with Dean Chris Long.  Our goal was to be on the same page and mutually support the work at all times. It was important to me to assist with the project in a variety of ways.  This included being available to talk through any and all aspects of the project, provide feedback on the work plan and ensuing progress, and make introductions and open doors for Rob to connect with individuals with whom he could pursue the various aspects of his work.  Most importantly, my role was to facilitate the work, not do it.  That meant providing encouragement and support through the project’s completion.

How has your role as a mentor changed after taking on a leadership role for the program?

Last year I served as a mentor to a colleague who was trying to decide if they were interested in higher education administration.  It was a one-on-one experience that was directed toward one individual.  This year, I aim to be a resource for all the current fellows.  This includes providing feedback on their projects and facilitating their learning journeys.  I also have the opportunity to work with my fellow deans in their roles as mentors. On that front, my goal is to encourage the mentors to explore how their own leadership style and mentoring approach is being shaped by the program.  We have had conversations about expectation setting and shared ideas about how to enhance the program experience for all involved.  Understanding the importance of respecting the approaches and experiences of the fellows and mentors, it is my goal to:

  • Be an authentic listener
  • Be a problem solver (even before any specific problem exists)
  • Be a voice that sometimes challenges the status quo and basic assumptions
  • Highlight the ways in which we, as a group and individually, find value in others

Why is it important for leaders to connect with mentors?

There are books, articles, podcasts and undoubtedly many forms of media on the importance of mentoring for leaders (aspiring and already identified as such).  There is no way in a few short sentences that I could do justice to this question.  So instead, I offer a few insights on what mentorship can provide to leaders.  First and foremost, engaging in a mentoring relationship gives us all permission to continue to grow professionally and personally and have someone help steer us clear of our inevitable blind spots. Mentors can also help leaders to identify and minimize learning curves; gain insight; test assumptions; and identify, develop and refine key skills, experiences, and attributes to be successful in current and future roles and endeavors.  Mentoring can also get us out of our own heads to gain a valuable perspective.

Additional comments

There are definitely times when it is not only necessary but appropriate to step into a formal leadership position.  However, it is important to help people appreciate that it’s okay to lead from where they are, even if it seems to be behind the scenes; and to similarly come to understand that it’s not always necessary to obtain a title to effect change. Participation as a mentor and leader with the AAN Leadership Fellows Program has provided me with an opportunity to remind our colleagues to celebrate the leadership potential in everyone.  It has been and continues to be a joy to work with Cindi Leverich and all of the AAN team in this endeavor.


Learn more about the AAN Leadership Fellows.