I am one of thousands of PhDs who work in organizations connected to the higher education world. You’ll find us concentrated in Washington, DC, the home of big players like the American Council on Education and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, or scattered across the United States and Canada as staff members of scholarly associations such as the one I direct, the Modern Language Association.
Most of us didn’t earn our degrees in disciplines such as English, History, Philosophy, or Anthropology with the idea of working for a not-for-profit scholarly and professional association. When I talk with my colleagues in the Conference of Administrative Officers of the American Council of Learned Societies, I see myself in their trajectories. For the most part, we joined our associations early on in our careers, and we became active in governance, publications, and projects. At some point, the search for a new executive director “found” us, and we agreed to steer our careers in an entirely new direction.
In 2001 I was chairing the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at the University at Buffalo when I learned that I had been nominated for the position I currently hold. Fast forward through a cover letter, CV, rounds of interviews, job offer, apartment search, sale of home in Buffalo, and move to New York City (phew), I began working at the MLA with great enthusiasm and little experience. I understand now after over a decade in my position how much confidence the Executive Council had placed in me. They must have seen my potential and felt my passion for the MLA’s mission, because I certainly did not have all the “right stuff” in experience alone. In fact, the intensive learning I undertook in the first year or so left me overwhelmed at times, and I was putting up a brave front to cover my insecurities.
I admit it: somewhere in the second year I debated returning to my professorship and the comforts of an academic career. The MLA staff is incredibly talented, and the Executive Council has a long tradition of intelligent stewardship, so a transition at the top, while disruptive, would have caused minimal harm. But I really wanted to succeed at the job, not just handle it. Thanks to some brilliant advice and support from my older sister, I got myself an executive coach and embarked on more risky learning. This time, however, I was getting a greater perspective on organizational culture and on my own strengths and challenges. Coaching gave me the courage to take some big risks and to accept setbacks as a normal part of executive leadership. I finally understood that asking for the right kind of help from key MLA staff members and from the council would allow me to do my job better. Interdependency and trust as metrics of healthy organizational leadership: who knew?
Fast forward to today. I can assert that the best career move I ever made was leaving the classroom for the boardroom, faculty colleagues for staff colleagues, and the ivy-covered campus buildings (ok, not at Buffalo, but at the University of Rochester where I worked for 13 years!) for the former Standard Oil Building at 26 Broadway. Join me this week for a glimpse at what I do all day and evening. You’re in for some surprises!
Margaret Ferguson says
Great story–and we MLA members are very lucky that you followed that risky path away from being a department chair to leading an organization of close to three thousand members!
That’s THIRTY thousand members (more like 28,700).
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