Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Bossing the boss

Q: Many of you are entrepreneurs or otherwise self-employed or largely self-directed. Do you work harder, or less, than when you were an employee? Or do you just work differently? Do you feel like you have more autonomy, or are the challenges greater than they used to be?

Ever since I strapped on my first school safety patrol badge, I've taken my work very seriously -- too seriously at times, as my kindergarten teacher Sister Bridgetta discovered when she found me still standing at my post on the corridor steps long after the children had gone home.

In my first paid job as a camp counselor, I took the work no one else wanted -- helping the horse girl! -- because I had some kind of need to make myself the indispensable "go to" counselor. It worked! I got every odd job known to camp counselors. Learning to muck stalls well turned out to be good training for other jobs.

In high school, driven to succeed at the arcane talent of Latin sight translation, I spent hours at school during vacations so that the Latin nun could torture me and a few other "scholars" like me who were her championship team. We won quite often. I learned that sacrificing vacation time brought other rewards, like very shiny trophies, college scholarships and Sister Juanita's increasing benevolence.

Raised by hard-working parents and taught by take-no-prisoner nuns who preached about fulfilling the "duty in your state of life" as a cardinal virtue, I grew up thinking that working hard was simply expected.

Early on in my professional career, I discovered that a few of my bosses felt otherwise. One boss told me to leave early every day because I was making him look bad by working overtime so that we could improve our office productivity. He didn't last long, and I soon had his job.

But then I reported to someone else who turned out to be my worst boss ever. She found my work habits intimidating; she looked for reasons to find fault no matter how hard I tried to produce perfect reports. When she could not find errors in the reports, she took to criticizing my credentials, telling the entire assembled staff that just because I had a law degree I was no better than anyone else. She had never attended college and obviously felt threatened by my insistence on excellence.

Truth be told, I was also not very good at being a subordinate staffer. I wanted more freedom. Landing a chief executive position -- the college presidency -- was a perfect solution to my constant chafing against miserable supervisors. Free, at last! Well, not quite.

I quickly learned that there's no such thing as a "boss-free" environment! Even the CEO has supervisors -- the board of directors. More important, however, I soon came to realize that all of the other people in the organization -- faculty and staff, alums, and most important, students -- hold the president accountable.

Far from having no boss, being a president means having thousands of bosses -- in the sense that the people who rely on the university for their education and livelihoods expect the president to be their leader, to be accountable, to deliver high-quality work every single day. People on college campuses love to boss the boss, and I've come to expect that. But unlike my earlier jobs with those unpleasant bosses, I thrive in this environment. Being accountable for the life of an institution is a privilege and real joy.

Even as president, however, I've had colleagues who have disliked my dawn-to-dark work style. "I'm used to working with presidents who golf all afternoon," was the back-handed way one new senior staff member told me about her discomfort with the fact that I wanted weekly meetings and progress reports. She didn't last too long since, I soon learned, she, too, liked afternoons off.

Autonomy is an over-used word in higher education. Academic freedom is essential for the university-level work environment, and yet, in today's highly regulated corporate environment, academics are finding their once-unfettered freedoms increasingly constrained.

For example, at one time, a faculty member was free to create a course syllabus as she wished and deliver the course according to her own sense of pedagogy. Today, with a heavy emphasis on outcomes assessment imposed by the federal and state governments through accreditors, collegiate faculty must follow rules for assessment that many find to be an imposition on their autonomy.

On the administrative side, deans and presidents who once might have used prudential judgment to manage co-curricular affairs now have reams of risk management guidelines and policies to insulate them and the university from liability. Faculty members who want to take their classes on a field trips sometimes express great aggravation when confronted with the extensive procedures we require for field trips. Gone are the days when the dean, coach or History teacher would pile some students into their cars and drive to the game or museum.

A few years ago, I visited a friend of mine who was president of her school for 35 years. She asked me how I was doing and I commented that I thought it would be easier by now, but in fact, the challenges continue to be immense. She replied with a laugh, "It will only get harder and harder."

She was right. Being responsible for the lives and livelihoods of other people is a kind of pressure that never relents. And I would not have it any other way! The reward for so much hard work is clear in the success of my students and satisfaction of colleagues who know they've made a difference.

By Patricia McGuire  |  August 9, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Success in the workplace Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Thank you Ms. McGuire, for an insightful piece on the workplace.

Posted by: Raiche58 | August 11, 2010 10:44 AM
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When I worked for a boss, I had to fulfill contracts that I didn't make. And had to work more hours with some resentment and frustration. Now that I work for myself, I don't make contracts that are impossible and when I do work long hours it is with satisfaction and without the stress.

Posted by: pegwc1 | August 11, 2010 9:42 AM
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She is still an employee, susceptible to being terminated by, presumably, a board of visitors or something similar. Therefore, she's not an entrepreneur, in fact, the antithesis. Somebody who, by a combination of hard work, luck, and opportunity, made it to the top of her field. But she still works for somebody.

Posted by: observer23 | August 9, 2010 7:51 AM
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