How does one truly measure their professional impact? For most of my career, I answered that question based on the size of my professional stage. At the start of my career, as I was working for U.S. Senators with names most recognized, I defined my success by winning elections, helping pass legislation to ban “drive-through” deliveries for young mothers, and protecting the sole supplier of U.S. currency and passport paper from international competition.
As I gained more experience and moved into the education space, I still defined my professional worth based on the size of the stage. My work with the National Reading Panel and the National Skill Standards Board. Consulting with Fortune 500 companies on curriculum and family engagement.
This belief continued as I was working with a national operating foundation, building and promoting programs that transformed teacher education, history education, and higher education policy. My professional success was defined by the number of dollars I could raise, the prominence of the headlines I could secure, and the elected officials and philanthropists I met with.
As I was spending far too many days on airplanes in the name of impact, I began using what little personal time I had coaching my daughter’s competition cheerleading squad. I originally did it because my daughter asked me to. I continued to do it in search of the big impact, helping coach my 19 tween girls to a top 10 finish at Pop Warner Nationals and a second place finish at YCADA Globals.
While COVID brought an end to my cheer career, it provided me a great deal of time to reflect on the impact I was having and the role I should be playing. Writing of my experiences as a cheer coach, now available as Dad in a Cheer Bow, I came to see that the value I offered was not displayed in the trophies we won or the champion jackets we earned. Instead, the impact came from the closeness that developed with my daughter, the relationships that blossomed between me and all of my cheer daughters, and how it all made me a better husband, father, and man, learning and growing in a world I was completely unprepared for.
These personal reflections also had tremendous impact on my professional view. After spending nearly a quarter of a century measuring my professional value based on the size of my playing field, I started to see the benefit of the human connection. As the son of educators, I saw, for instance, why my mother was so driven by her time in a high school classroom and why she still misses it today.
Less than a year ago, I accepted a vice presidency at Coker University, a small, private college in Hartsville, SC. After seven years in New Jersey, a move to South Carolina was a big change for my family. For me, focusing my professional efforts on a southern college stage was a bigger one. But one I embraced with all of my professional and personal commitment.
Five months after I started at Coker, I was asked to take on an additional role. In August, I became the university’s vice president of college experience, involving me in everything from admissions and financial aid to residence life and dining services to student success and TRIO to campus safety and career services. Since August, my professional life has been a true baptism by fire, as I strive to work with our president to instill gold star customer service in every corner of the university and develop a “student first” approach to all of our collective work.
While I still may measure my impact by the number of news articles I can generate about Coker or the 25 percent increase in applications we have this year, I find greater value in my dealings with our students. For me today, solving a residence issue, finding a student an internship, or advising a student during a time of concern provides me far greater satisfaction that the TV segments we are gaining as a result of our work. Working with first-generation students as they navigate their campus experience offers more positive feelings than my previous “national impact” work. Seeing and hearing the immediate impact my passion, my concern, and my hard work is having on students is far more satisfying than any national policy I helped bring forward on a national level.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Ann Hiatt explored how one figured out what one wants next on the career path. Hiatt noted that “reminding ourselves of what we value most in our lives and careers can illuminate empowering opportunities that would otherwise go unnoticed.” She goes on to explain how purpose, people, and pace can define that value.
I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it a year ago, but today, as we start 2022, I can say that Coker University is now providing me the purpose, people, and pace that I have long sought. In a short period of time, I can see the potential legacy I am creating in the students I interact with every day. I am working with an incredible team of people that are invested, 100 percent, in transforming the university and equipping it to success for many decades to come. And I am fortunate enough to lead a team focused on the student and committed to the same professional values that I embrace.
My time as a cheer coach to a gaggle of tween girls helped me finally start to see what it was that I valued most in my life. My time at Coker University is now that empowering opportunity that is letting me have the sort of impact I once dreamt of. While neither was ever part of the ol’ life plan, both have helped me see the difference I can make and how to truly measure professional success. And both have been some of the hardest work I have ever done.