6 skills for campus thought and practice leaders infographic

Top Campus Thought and Practice Leader Skills to Cultivate

The pandemic has many people rethinking… everything -the work that they do, career goals, personal goals, etc. This article focuses on the top campus thought and practice leader skills to cultivate — as you embark on change and help your organization pivot to meet new market needs. What are campus thought and practice leaders? In short – they are people who move the needle to advance the organization – even when they don’t hold formal positions of power. This is especially important during the “Great Reset.” Colleges and universities (as well as supporting higher education organizations) are pivoting, reimagining, reinventing… and every other ‘new’ way of thinking possible.

What is a Campus Thought and Practice Leader, Anyway?

6 skills for campus thought and practice leaders infographic

Here are a couple of additional definitions for a campus thought and practice leader that may be of interest.

“Thought leaders do more than lead, they set the course for advancement, for innovation or for success in a particular area. More than that, thought leaders share their vision with others and show them how to create success.” – Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges

“Thought leaders are the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success.” Denise Brosseau, Author of Ready to be a thought leader?

Assuming that this type of role interests you, read on! If you have already been doing campus thought and practice leader work – chances are, you’ve already developed many of these skills. Be sure to check out the self-assessment worksheet (details below). It will help you identify areas that you can focus on to further develop your campus thought and practice leader skills.

When you’ve finished reading through all the skills sections (buttons at the top) in the series, you can begin working on your own campus thought and practice leader journey by downloading our worksheet here and checking out our other blog topics.

In The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost celebrates the value in going where others have not. In higher education, you can have that experience by taking on the problems no one else wants to address. Tackling these tough problems is good advice. Especially if you aspire to be a campus thought and practice leader. Below, we share three reasons to encourage you to take on those challenges.Image of a wooded pathway blocked by a fallen branch symbolizing tough problems

You’ll Likely Be the Only Cook in The Kitchen.

If no one else wants to address the problem, then you likely won’t have competitors that seek to chair the committee. Campus leadership may even give you free rein to build a team to solve the problem – allowing you to select staff with the knowledge base and positive attitude to work together effectively.

You’ll Become A ‘Go To’ Person for The More Challenging Problems.

When (not if) you succeed in taking on a tough problem and finding a solution. . . decision-makers notice. And behind each set of tough problems that are visible to the masses is another layer of problems that only a subset of people know about. With some experience, campus leadership may begin to seek your opinion and assistance – as a campus thought and practice leader – with those challenges.

You Can Build on Your Accomplishments.

If you plan to stay at your current institution for a long time, tackling tough problems keeps you relevant. And if you are planning to leave (or aren’t sure when you might)… well … solving problems no one else has been able to address helps you assemble a list of significant accomplishments to share at future interviews. Perhaps this work could be a bridge to real professional growth!

There’s a reason no one wants certain campus problems. But there are likely very good reasons why taking some of them on would be a terrific professional move for you. If you want to be noticed, and viewed as a campus thought and practice leader, sometimes you have to go where no one else has been willing to tread.


Have you noticed “Cross-functional team management skills” required on recent job postings or asked about in interviews? I certainly have. But what does that really mean? It sounds like a clever way of saying ‘you’ll need to manage a group of people who do not report to you.’ Campus thought and practice leaders are often masters at this unique niche of management.

Who Are Cross-Functional Team Managers?

There are always at least a few people in any organization that have this special talent. They have an uncanny ability to read between the lines and build on common ground. That common ground may be a teeny-tiny-tiny pinpoint to stand on at first…but it’s a start.

I’m super intrigued by these people. And I observe them intently when I find them. I’d like to think that over my 20+ years in higher ed, I’ve picked up a few good tips from these folks – let’s call them Cross-Functional Team Managers. Here are a few things that I think are worth working on if you, like me, want to be a better Cross-Functional Team Manager.

Drawing of two hands clasped together filled with words like cooperate and connect

They Pre-Game.

No, they aren’t tailgating (though I’d bet they’d throw a heck of a tailgate). Rather, they meet with people in advance to hear their comments and concerns on a topic BEFORE the committee meeting. No one wants to be surprised in a meeting with negative or uncomfortable information. So Cross-Functional Team Managers get the information and feedback they need in advance. They don’t dictate what the meeting will be, nor do they make ‘surprise’ announcements. Rather, they seek input and expertise in forming the meeting agenda and content.

They Listen.

I mean really listen. They literally pause and think – in the middle of the meeting. These folks are comfortable with silence to ‘digest’ the information in real time.

They Have Empathy.

About 15 years ago, I read a sidebar in Fortune magazine indicating that empathy would be one of the most needed skills in the workplace over the next decade, but most lacking. Empathy? Now, technology keeps us connected to work 24/7 – especially during a pandemic when many of us are working from home. This leaves little down time and opportunity for recharging. Good Cross-Functional Team Managers care about people and see them as a whole person. And they express it more often than just on a staff member’s birthday.

They ask how employees are doing – both personally and professionally. And they pay attention to the answer. Also, they notice things – when a colleague has a new shirt, when an employee did a great job, if someone is consistently late to a meeting. Good Cross-Functional Team Managers know who has been caring for an elderly parent or sick child; they make sure to check in on the well-being of the caregiver and patient. They know who is training for a marathon, and they ask them about their preparation. And they know who is working hard, going above and beyond, and would value professional recognition. When they notice and acknowledge these things, they encourage employees–theirs and others on their cross-functional teams–to be the best they can be.

They Build on Each Pinpoint to Get Results.

After finding that pinpoint of common ground to stand on (as described above), they run with it. They get a team of people to move forward, building consensus with intention, so that the pinpoint turns into a full landing pad. This often results in something new and exciting that could not have been accomplished without collaboration across multiple teams.

So often, one of the biggest hurdles to using data and information effectively lies in the conversations we have about the data and information. What are we trying to accomplish? What data and information do we need? How should we collect it? What type of analyses will we do?

And COVID has added a complicated wrinkle to all these questions. With so many conversations to navigate, it’s important to create space for productive conversations.

Focus on The End Game

With so much uncertainty about what data and information will be needed during this time and how we can use it most effectively, it’s wise to connect with colleagues and leaders to find out what data and information goals they have for the year. Once you’ve done that, you can consider how to support them, given your role.

Bring Something to The Table

Delight a leader with new data and information they didn’t even know they were looking for (using minimal extra time on your part!). Most of us have a number of required reports due throughout the year. If you’re doing compliance work, take a second look at the data and information. Then, identify any areas that may be of interest and/or align with folks’ goals.

Multi-racial group of people with a man and woman shaking hands


So often, one of the biggest hurdles to using data and information effectively lies in the conversations we have about the data and information. What are we trying to accomplish? What data and information do we need? How should we collect it? What type of analyses will we do?

And COVID has added a complicated wrinkle to all these questions. With so many conversations to navigate, it’s important to create space for productive conversations.

If you’ve worked in higher education for any length of time, you have surely seen the staff wear a variety of “hats.” College and university professionals act as analysts, interpreters, advocates, among other things. One of the key roles higher ed professionals play is that of campus negotiator. And effective use of data and information can be key in that role. It’s not a skill that comes to everyone easily. But it is one you can develop.

Who is a Campus Negotiator?

Higher ed professionals find themselves facilitating a variety of negotiations to bring parties together in hopes of finding a common middle ground. Sometimes that means negotiating with another department. Other times, it may be creating the space for negotiations among other departments. No matter who the players are, campus professionals can rely on the following negotiation tips to help bring about agreements.

Image of two people among a group shaking hands

Tips for Facilitating Successful Negotiations

  • Identify the Parties’ Goal(s): It’s often recommended to begin with the end in mind. In the case of negotiation, knowing the desired outcomes of all sides is key to being able to work toward resolution.
  • Timing is Key: “There’s no time like the present” isn’t necessarily true when it comes to negotiations. When possible, timing negotiations for when all involved parties are ready to have the discussion will lead to better outcomes.
  • Never Waste a Voice Opportunity: Conversation is your friend. The more you discuss the topics at hand with the involved parties, the more you understand about their goals, motivations, concerns, etc. That information is invaluable as you work toward a common middle ground.
  • Be Present at Negotiation Meetings: Engagement matters! Keep your focus on the conversation at hand to see what isn’tbeing said aloud. Body language and sideways glances can give you a lot of information about how the negotiations are going and help you steer the conversation.
  • Listen Closely—Even When You Think You Know What is Going to Be Said: Before you begin negotiations, you may have an idea of each party’s sticking points, non-negotiables, and non-issues. But those may change as the negotiations progress. Don’t assume you know how the players will act, no matter how much you’ve prepared.
  • A Small Win is Still a Win: Guide the parties so they see where they’re in agreement. Sometimes folks get so wrapped up in advocating for their specific outcomes that they miss noticing the shared points.

Build Your Negotiation Skills

Skilled negotiation requires practice and patience. By seeking out opportunities to bring individuals or departments together to discuss data and information and ideas, you can grow your effectiveness as a campus negotiator. In addition, the IEHE works with individuals to help develop professional skills, such as negotiation skills, through our personalized coaching programs.

Go the Extra Mile

Take a few extra minutes to add another variable into the pivot table or other analysis for greater granularity. You’ll likely be pleasantly surprised at what you find! For example, if you typically provide data and information for your department as a total, try disaggregating the data and information by degree or major. This can serve as a ‘cross check.’ For example, is the largest number of students the institution’s largest major? In addition, it gives you another table to discuss in your data and information conversations with senior leaders.

Sharing Is Caring

Share your work widely. We all know to share our work up, but what about across and down? It is important that everyone is informed so that they can incorporate information into their own constructs. Thus – the more people know – the greater the likelihood they can make the connections that might otherwise be missed and offer valuable suggestions and solutions.

Unpopular ideas are just that . . . unpopular. So, when you have a new idea or way of looking at the data and information, you often wonder if you should go out on a limb to share it. Wouldn’t it be great if there were others who think like you on your campus? Certainly, the IR office is filled with data and information-wonks. But surely there are others on campus who love looking at numbers and making meaning from them.

If you could convene a group of data and information daredevils like yourself, you would have a bit more confidence to present your bold ideas. But where do you find these people . . . these Data and information Culture Ambassadors? And how can someone become one?

Look for Other Data and Information Lovers  

Two hands putting together puzzle pieces

Chances are the people who spend a lot of time with data and information know a lot about what the data and information say and what they don’t say. Befriend and learn from these folks. Everyone wants to find someone who speaks their language. They also may be looking for other Data and information Culture Ambassadors.

Nancy Floyd, Director of Institutional Analytics at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities coined the term “data and information lieutenant” to refer to the data and information guru a senior leader turns to with data and information questions. At large institutions, data and information are everywhere. And it can be challenging for leaders to make sense of it all. Most college and university leaders have a Data and information Lieutenant – the trusted person who provides them the information, reports, and context for the mountains of data and information they need to process. If you can connect with that person, you have a path to the senior leader. The Data and information Lieutenant is translating the data and information to leadership in a meaningful and confident way.

Share Best Data and information-Practices 

You can’t go completely rogue – you still need to follow sensible data and information rules, methodologies, says Nancy. If you’re going to be a Data and information Culture Ambassador at your college or university, you need to:

  • value sharing and learning best data and information practices
  • teach others to effectively use data and information
  • follow data and information standards and methodologies that other data and information culture ambassadors will understand

Help Solve Someone Else’s Problems with Data and information 

You are probably thinking “I have enough work myself.” And now I’m supposed to solve someone else’s problems? Well – not quite. Learning more about the challenges that others are facing will help you work toward your goals of building a data and information culture and being seen as a Data and information Culture Ambassador. Then consider the data and information that you have available to you and how it might be able to help. This approach flips the script from analyzing data and information and presenting it at your convenience to preparing analyses that support a leader in advancing their unit’s strategic goals.

Stack of books with eyeglasses on top - symbolizing resourcesWhy Aren’t Data and Information Creators Talking More?

If there are many data and information creators, where are the data and information discussion groups? Aside from being too busy, data and information creators and users can often have different approaches and access to data and information. While some people look at some data and information, others may not have access to it. So, we have a need to bring data and information people together to cross share their analyses more. There are several ways to do that . . .

  • Ask the questions that you wish people would ask you:  If you are a data and information wonk, you know that it’s not often that someone asks you about your recent analyses and what you find interesting. So, be that data and information person who asks others the questions you would want to be asked! This shows your interest in the person and their work, and you will learn the types of projects that they are working on. This is important for building relationships and cross-sharing info.
  • Coordinate a regular forum: Create a brown bag lunch, info session, seminar that allows for data and information folks to share some information about a recent report with other data and information wonks. You might need to hold it via Zoom for the moment, but it’s still important to engage in these learning opportunities. Why? People learn about other data and information that is available, ask questions, and make suggestions that will make future analyses better.
  • Send an article/resource to other data and information people: If you are reading this, chances are you read a variety of news services. When you see an article that you think may be relevant to someone’s work, send it to them. Instead of sending an “FYI” email with a link, include a note that indicates why you thought about them and what stood out in the article. This takes an extra 3-5 minutes of your time, but it now is a discussion topic the next time you see them. Or, better yet, include a proposal to grab coffee or lunch to talk more about it or pick their brain. Your conversation may lead to more ideas for how you can bring the data and information people on campus together.

We all love a good story. It hooks us from the very beginning. The scene and characters come alive in our minds. Before we know it, we’re hanging on every word. We get so wrapped up in the story, we lose track of time. We’re dying to find out how it ends. When we reach the end, we feel a sense of closure…and maybe a little wistfulness that the ride is over. Storytelling is a powerful tool.

Now imagine yourself in a meeting where someone is giving you a presentation involving data and information. Are you engaged? Are you dying to find out what happens next? Not usually, right?Image of a woman looking at t laptop with her hands raised in cheer - we can use data to tell an engaging story

Storytelling Makes Your Data and information Come Alive

But you could be! And when you’re up there giving the presentation, you could have your audience on the edge of their seats. You just need to look for ways to turn your data and information into a good story.

For example, suppose you need to report on an initiative that has increased graduation rates for its target population. It’s good news, so of course you could just share the numbers. But wouldn’t it be better if you told a story about some of the participants: where they came from, how they struggled, how the initiative helped them, how it helped other students, what it could mean for the future of the institution? Even without the details, the story is more interesting and memorable than just a few data and information points. And just maybe, it will keep people talking about it as they go about their day.

Draw on Your Experience

Turning your data and information into a story isn’t all that difficult. Sometimes there is a real-life example to build on. Other times, you can construct a storytelling scenario. Either way, remember to incorporate these principles:

  1. Make them care: Who is your audience? What is important to them? Make sure to align those things to capture their interest.
  2. Build anticipation: Include enough background detail to paint a picture in their minds.
  3. Follow a clear path: If your story is too complex or too hard to connect to the data and information, your audience may lose interest.
  4. Draw parallels: It may be clear to you how the data and information relates to your story, but make sure it is crystal clear for your audience.
  5. Clear conclusions: Your story is one example of the data and information, but make sure they see the bigger picture.

Tell A Better Institutional Story

College and university leaders want (and need) to piece together data and information into an understandable narrative. It’s important to be able to tell your institution’s student success story in a way that grabs the listener’s attention. But while that sounds simple, it is often anything but.

In striving to tell a better data and information story, sometimes it helps to look at an institution that does student success story-telling well. Why reinvent the wheel, right?

Make It Relevant 

Another important component of data and information storytelling is translating back to something the audience can relate to. Of course, this requires careful consideration of your audience. Let’s say that you are preparing a report for an accreditation reviewer. Putting the data and information into a familiar context – like using IPEDS data and information – might be your best strategy. In contrast, when talking with parents, tying your data and information to the narrative of a specific hypothetical student will likely be more successful. Having good data and information and insight won’t be enough if it isn’t relevant to the audience you’re trying to reach.