“Embracing the ZigZag” By Robin Arnsperger Selzer, Ph.D.

During January of 2011, I launched a strategic career assessment. I went to Miami for NASPA’s Alice Manicur Symposium and have since been accepted to my university’s internal women’s leadership development program (WILD).

To back up a bit, during the spring 2010, I had begun looking for a new position. I had 12 years of experience in higher education at a variety of types of institutions (public, private, adult-oriented, distance-learning, faith-based) in a variety of departments (Student Affairs, Admissions, Academics, Alumni Relations) and been consistently promoted or hired into leadership roles. Then it happened. I was not hired for a position for which I had been building a resume. I had been moving around with intention and purpose… to be multi-dimensional. But later learned, I hadn’t articulated my zig-zagged path that way. I needed to do a better job of connecting the dots for others. Early on, I was told by an elder “not to pigeon-hole myself.” Good advice, yet now I wondered if staying in one area would have benefitted me more.

This led to the challenge of finding a new position while staying flexible. This is when I began to experiment. I had to think about what should not change. What was essential for me? I knew I needed a flexible supervisor as a working parent. I knew I needed an environment where I could continue to integrate my passion for social justice issues. I also needed a place that could leverage my strengths, which I later formally identified as a part of the Alice Manicur experience. Ultimately, I landed ANOTHER new area, Academic Advising. I took a cut in pay and title. And it is has been a great fit, mostly because it has provided congruency with what is most important to me at my core. Often, you don’t know your true values until they are tested.

Heifetz, Grashow, & Linksy (2009) discuss leadership skills that are needed in today’s time of uncertainty. They emphasize the need for adaptability, embracing ambiguity, and using times of crisis as opportunities to think about conservation and reinvention. One of the recent approaches that I have taken to navigate my career assessment is practicing improvisational leadership. My intent here is to reinvent myself and my related career goals as opportunities are presented to me. For example, there was an opportunity for an elected Convener position for the Undergraduate Academic Advising Community and I ran for it. I didn’t worry about the fact that I had less than a year of experience in this field. Instead, it was a spontaneous leadership decision, where I trusted my intuition and transferable skills. Just allowing myself to be flexible went a long way.

At the ACE Ohio Women’s Network meeting this past November, there was a panel of 4 college women Presidents. Dr. Para Jones of Stark State College said something that really resonated and has become more and more relevant to my professional path. She said that women hold themselves back professionally because we think “everything has to be perfect first.” Perfectionism really doesn’t ever serve us. I’ve come to realize that being worried about having a zig-zagged career path was about external expectations, which is what perfectionism is all about. The truth is I’ve finally grown weary from trying to create a perfect career path, striving for the next leadership (read: position of authority and responsibility) role. There are so many ways to lead from within an organization, where you are at. Just because I don’t have a Director or VP title, doesn’t mean I’m not leading in the ways I want to. Now I know my abilities, so I know where my fit is, even if it is not at the top of the organizational chart. I don’t have to be at the top of my organization to continually discover my leadership potential.  So these days, I’m managing my aspirations more, embracing the zig-zag – and explaining it better. The key for me seems to be moving away from external validation for my personal achievements and towards my intrinsic motivation to have a fulfilled work life.

Early on in my career, I was trying so hard to establish myself, I left little time for exploration. Lily Tomlin said, “for fast-acting relief, try slowing down.” Brene Brown was recently interviewed in an On Leadership article in the Washington Post entitled, “Exhaustion is not a Status Symbol.” I loved this title. This thought is now the underlying foundation for reframing my future career goals. My career development journey is a gradual process of uncovering who I am and what I want to do with my one wild and precious life (shout out to poet Mary Oliver). Now I’m driven by my inner values, talents and not by the job title or paycheck. And I’m taking the time I need to do this. So the next time something comes your way, or perhaps you will seek it out,  consider thinking not about the “proper” or “perfect” response or position, dream up your answer as it comes. You may just discover something better along the way.

Robin Arnsperger Selzer, Ph.D.
Assistant Director in the Pre-Professional Advising Center
University of Cincinnati

 Follow Robin on Twitter @RobinSelzer


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2 responses to ““Embracing the ZigZag” By Robin Arnsperger Selzer, Ph.D.

  1. Charles Montgomery

    Dear Dr. Selzer—a thought provoking article indeed–one that certainly causes me to look at managing my aspirations and enjoying the journey on my career path. Oft times we do romanticize titles but you have helped me to realize that you don’t have to have a title to be in the right position!

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