What’s the Big Idea? Take-a-ways from the Big Ideas Conference
(Editor’s Note, On May 17-18, our region witnessed a new approach to conferences called The Big Ideas in Higher Education Conference. While this was not a NASPA sponsored event, I was excited to see this event happen in our region and about the possible impact it could have on how we approach our work. I asked NASPA member Robyn Kaplan, Associate Director for Office of Student Leadership and Activities at Hofstra University, to offer an reflection on her own experience at the conference.)
After the Big Ideas Conference held at Rutgers University, I have been struggling to unpack my “big idea” tagline that encompasses the whole experience. It wasn’t until I sat down to write this post that I figured out why I struggled. I don’t have one take-away lesson or idea from the conference. Thanks to the diversity of speakers, the profound insight, and the innovative delivery, I have many.
- Embrace conflict – The master of ceremonies of the Big Ideas Conference, Matt Ferguson, opened with a radical definition of innovation: “If you want to change the world, you have to be willing to piss people off.” The presence of conflict is not always negative. Why should we avoid conflict? Any one of us is competent enough to prove a point, back-up an assertion with data, and facilitate a controversial discussion between two sides of an opposing viewpoint. Conflict is not a bad thing unless you don’t know how to manage it. Watch and learn the politics around you, and embrace the opportunity to create and then manage conflict because disagreements are what lead to innovation. Be the person willing to blaze new trails, and manage the fire.
- Believe you’re a Rock Star – Presenter Dayna Steele reminded us that rock stars have passion despite rejection, keep learning their trade and produce quality work, form selfless relationships with others, give back to the community, and show appreciation to those around them. So many of us, as student affairs practitioners, do this every day. We may not have the fashion sense that Lady Gaga has, but there are people in our networks that consider us rock stars. It’s about time we saw it in ourselves.
- Obtain perspective – It’s not enough for us to know what we’re doing. The big ideas come from the people who learn from other trades, who are educated about the world around them, and who are curious about who’s doing it better. There is obvious value in surrounding ourselves by other strengths, weaknesses, perspectives, and skills. As supervisors, we cannot assume that we have all the answers. We need to hire professionals who bring different perspectives to the table, remembering that it’s not about us… it’s about those we serve. The co-founder of the organization Krochet Kids Intl. drove this message when they explained that their definition of charity was altered when they realized the people of Uganda wanted to work rather than receive. Presenter Erik Qualman spoke about how social media is transforming the way we live and do business, reminding us that we must adapt our services to meet our students where they’re at. Be willing to redefine traditional practices once you figure out who your audience is, what they need, and how others would accommodate and serve them.
- Find the confidence to “not get it” – Cathy Bao Bean, author of The Chopsticks-Fork Principle, empowered us to ask questions about difference – different cultures, opinions, skills, biases, abilities. She explained that we shouldn’t habituate those around us to think there is a right and a wrong answer or approach. Rather, open them up to many possibilities, cultures, and perspectives so they don’t learn to reject all but “the right one.” And if you’re going to bring different perspectives around the table, you have to be willing to seek help in comprehending those perspectives. Don’t assume you know, but rather find the confidence to ask. By role modeling such behavior, you will show others the value in doing the same.
- See everything as an opportunity – “Perform Other Duties as Assigned.” That job description bullet is my favorite. You want me to learn the database that no one else understands and turn it into the clearinghouse for all clubs and organizations? Sure! That gives me the opportunity to educate myself on a tool I wouldn’t have had to learn, and then serve as the expert that teaches others. You’re asking me to work with Athletics to increase student attendance at basketball games? Sure! Find value in those opportunities and be open and adaptable to mastering them because the more you can attain in a well-rounded toolbox the more marketable you are in your industry. A presenter from Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s Advisory Services practice explained that they are looking to our college graduates to demonstrate that willingness, and too many students are graduating feeling entitled. We are never above what is asked of us. We must role model that for our colleagues and teach it to our students.
- Build relationships – We all understand the value of networking, but networking implies a mutual benefit. Build genuine relationships, and the networking takes care of itself. Be a connector, empower others, and do things for others without expecting anything in return. Presenter Jeffrey Robinson explained in his presentation on Social Entrepreneurship that “success is what you do for yourself. Greatness is what you do for others.”
- Show appreciation – None of us got where we are today without the guidance and empowerment of a mentor. We cannot do our jobs on a daily basis without the collaboration and willingness of a colleague. We would not reach a level of innovation without the pushback and challenge of a devil’s advocate. We would not be able to live our passion and test our skills without the openness and desire of a student. Remember to acknowledge and thank those people who push us towards excellence.
The Big Ideas Conference was another indication that our industry is inevitably changing. Founder of The Brainzooming Group reminded us that “We are preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist with technology that hasn’t been invented to solve problems we don’t know yet.” We’re not here to know the answer. We’re here to know how to find the answer. So as we all sit this summer in strategic planning meetings, don’t pull goals out of the air. Start with the problems and come up with creative and innovative ways to solve them. But in your approach, try using some of the take-a-ways reinforced at the Big Ideas Conference and decide for yourself – what is your big idea for the upcoming year?