by Zach Greenlee, Missouri Baptist University
There is a point in life where you realize that you don’t know everything, can’t do everything, and that the world will keep spinning without you. This point must be when you become a Financial Aid Director. I joke, but this seemed to be a tacit lesson of every larger point being made at the New & Aspiring Aid Director’s conference in D.C. last week. Before the conference began, there were several pages of comments gathered from veteran financial aid directors on the topic of what they wished they had known when they first became directors. Lessons on training staff, delegating, and growing the skills of others were all brought up on several times. As we discussed all of this gathered wisdom at the conference, Ron Day made a point that hit it all home for me. Compliance is not a major part of your job, and at best, should be about 10% of your job.
Now if this seems like a “Whatever does he mean?” kind of statement to you, as it did to me when I first heard it, let me qualify it by saying that a director still signs their name on the Program Participation Agreement (PPA) to declare that funds and programs will be administered correctly. That said, a director’s job cannot be so “in the weeds” just to make sure that everything is being done correctly that they overlook all of their other responsibilities. If you can accept that compliance is not your only responsibility, you must reconcile how it can be an institutional priority without you as the only person maintaining it. Thus, all the advice on delegating and having a well-trained staff starts to make sense.
For those of us who are or recently were so “in-the-weeds” of compliance, going up the ladder of responsibility seemed synonymous with giving more attention to all the complexities of administering federal aid. What it really means is that you have to focus less on what makes you successful and more on what makes your staff successful. One person’s wisdom put it this way, “… nurturing and growing staff, allowing them to become experts and the public face to the university community on their areas of expertise… keeping in regular communication with them means that my staff now takes ownership over making sure we are following all the rules and regulations.”
Strangely, the struggle of focusing less on one’s self and more on others might possibly be achieved by focusing more on yourself! Quite the contradiction, yes? Justin Draeger led a session on the importance of developing a better work-life balance. One of the shared tips involved understanding the Pareto principle (aka the 80/20 rule) in your daily life. Justin also shared on learning when to say that okay is good enough for a project. As a director, we do not need to prove ourselves by showing off how capable we can be and how well we can lead, especially if it means driving ourselves into the ground. For many of us, we see this next step as a director to probably be a position we will maintain for years to come, and for some it will be our last position until we retire. If we don’t want to be a candle that burns out overnight, we have to learn to live and let live.
As all of these ideas and suggestions from the experts of our industry were sinking in, I revisited that first explicit lesson of the conference: that I don’t have to know everything. Aspriring to be a director, I’m challenged to learn and see how my staff can share in this endeavor, how our knowledge of specifics can cover the whole, how I can be more efficient with my time, and how to have a life where I am present in each moment. I do not have to know everything. I need to know enough, and then I need to know who else knows the rest. I’m thankful for the opportunities to not only learn from some of the best NASFAA has to offer, but to also network with them and others who share my aspirations.
P.S. Let’s keep the discussion going. Those who attended the conference each received a copy of “You’re the Director: A Guide to Leadership in Student Financial Aid.” If there is interest in moving through this book with colleagues by forming an online discussion group, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a Subject line of “Reading Group: You’re the Director.” If we can get 10-15 people interested, I will put together a group to begin in mid-April. If you do not have a copy, you can order one from NASFAA at www.nasfaa.org/yourethedirector and it could take 2-4 weeks for delivery.