We don’t say enough about what it is like to lead in our professional, continuing and online education (PCO) world. It’s different. Exciting. And challenging. Caught at the intersection of higher education and business, with myriad stakeholders, goals, funding and constituents, I am reminded of the old Sesame Street skit — one of these things is not like the others. We’re constantly swiveling. Looking ahead to see what’s coming, looking to the side to defend our relevancy and looking outward to serve our students. Our worlds in normal times are, well…complex.
These are not normal times. Even before the life-changing events of 2020, our worlds were being shaped by seismic shifts. Movements like climate change, populism, the gig economy and a long overdue racial reckoning have shifted the wants and needs of our students, faculty and staff members. Ambiguity is becoming the new norm and the pathways to career success and personal fulfillment are far from linear, but rather, highly individualized. Learner demands have changed and the ‘great resignation’ has begun. There is no longer one best way.
In many institutions, our star is rising. Due to a number of factors including the global health crisis, our colleagues in more traditional higher education roles have come to see the value in our work, especially as it relates to using technology and providing access and affordability as well as outstanding support to our diverse learning communities. As a result, we are being called to the table to help lead change.
To meet these new norms, leaders in the PCO world must confront challenges head-on with a level of agility never seen before. As our audiences reinvent themselves, so must we. Our work demands ambidexterity — the ability to explore new programs and services on one hand, and the ability to improve the existing on the other. This concept, first advanced by Michael Tushman and Charles O’Reilly in 1996, has never been more relevant than today. The tension between these worlds is where the PCO leader of today must live. Flexibility, creativity and the constant infusion of new ideas are tools with which we must become skilled.
So, how? How do we manage this shift, serve our students, take care of our employees all while being our authentic selves (as many leadership gurus have espoused)? There’s no easy answer, but it must include a collaborative, inclusive approach. Equity and inclusion must be at the center of our work. We must give voice to the diverse perspectives in our community. We must listen. We must be curious. We must learn.
We’ve seen before how our traditional higher ed colleagues eventually catch up with our leading CE practices, sometimes reluctantly. Through our UPCEA community of practice, let’s show them now what the leader of the future looks like.
Nancy J. Coleman, Ed.D. is Dean of Continuing Education and University Extension at Harvard University and is the 2021-2022 UPCEA Board President.