It has been four months since I joined ALT as their new COO. I can no longer use ‘it’s my first day’ as an excuse.
I had been a learning technologist, albeit with varying titles, for over ten years. I have worked at four different universities in that time. My last, was my longest.
I have been lucky, in all of my roles so far, to have been able to choose when to move on and I have been in situations that have allowed me to take my time and pick the right role for me. I know that is a privilege and not everyone’s experience.
I have left jobs because I saw no way to progress or develop. I have left others because there have been specific things which rendered a role too damaging to remain in. Again, I am privileged to have been able to escape those kinds of environments.
A job is just a job.
I say this in full knowledge of my own privilege.
Do not stay in a job that takes more than it gives.
If we are really lucky, we find a job that allows us to explore our passions. That develops us. That allows us to learn. That nurtures us and helps us to succeed.
If we are unlucky, we find ourselves in jobs that make us miserable. Those jobs where every day is a chore. Where something or someone makes every minute torturous. It is not always obvious or constant. A good job can become bad very easily. Equally, a job that looks great on paper is completely different in practice.
There was a time, I now recognise myself, where I put my ‘career’ ahead of my well being. Where getting ahead and earning more money was more important than anything else. The pandemic and my experience of work during that time, changed all of that.
I have come to understand, that in many organisations, especially the large ones, you are no more than a number on a spreadsheet. A salary. A job title. A pension contribution. Avoid overestimating your importance. I see now that everyone is expendable. That ‘loyalty’ is a luxury of good times. It doesn’t matter how good you are at your job, how much people like you or how important what you do is, zero f*cks are given when you leave by the ‘institution’.
The only people who understand your contribution are those who work with you and those you help. They are the ones who feel the void you leave.
Why the change?
It may seem an odd segue in a career as a learning technologist in universities but I needed a change. Ironically, I needed to get away from change or, more accurately, a lack thereof. I had been at my previous institution for over 5 years. I had been in a leadership role for ~4.5 years and had made frustratingly slow progress. I will not bore you with why as an entire thesis’ worth of research could be done on that organisation. Suffice to say there were lots of reasons. Not least of all being funding, strategic direction and leadership, of which at times there was very little.
Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly every billy-big-bollocks, who’d touched a keyboard, crawled out of the woodwork as an expert. Never mind the combined years of experience of my team or the collectively superior qualifications they held. No, no. Let the tw*ts who read a blog post on the toilet on HE transformation and disruption tell us how to do it or how we are doing it wrong. Forget the years of under-funding and the scarcity of strategy or vision. We were at fault.
Expertise and experience, it seemed counted for nought.
I have never worked so hard as I did during that first year of the pandemic. All for nought really. Although, that’s not true. We carried on teaching and helped so many people do that. I am just being hard on myself. This was not helped by a comment made by a senior leader that made it evident that our efforts were not understood or appreciated at all. They had seen ‘no change’ in all the years I’d been there. That was a kick in the gut especially following years of extreme hard work. I wish I had been quicker to respond that I had not seen any support, funding or strategic vision in that time either but alas, I was too slow and it was not the time. That was another nail in the coffin.
Add to that a change of department, leadership and a direction which I found impossible to understand. I saw no future for myself there and was never convinced by anyone that there was a place for me. Nothing excited me about the direction. I didn’t feel I had any part to play in what was going to happen. I didn’t feel consulted or listened to.
I applied for a promotion which I didn’t get. For the best, as these things so often turn out to be. But disheartening nonetheless. My ears were filled with the meaningless platitudes about ‘future opportunities’ and how I would be right for another role that would come up in future. As I suspected, that all came to nought. I am not stupid and I can see hollow promises a mile away.
I had an uneasy feeling. And, let me tell you, if you feel like you’re going to be screwed over, you definitely will be. Trust your gut. Mine was right and hasn’t steered me wrong yet.
I felt I had done my time and deserved to be recognised for it. That clearly wasn’t going to happen. So, rather than wait to be overlooked, I moved on.
Clearing the weeds
I do understand that sometimes, particularly when new people take over an existing team, that there is a desire to build their own team in their image. That sometimes, you have to clear the weeds before new things can grow.
Perhaps I was seen as a weed, preventing new growth. Those who know me would know that’s not true but I get it.
Why COO at ALT?
When the COO role at ALT was advertised, I considered it carefully. It wasn’t a direction I had considered before. Stepping away from being a ‘practitioner’ felt, and still feels, like a risk.
I knew of ALT, although I did not appreciate the range of things the organisation does or the fact that it is done by a very small mostly part-time team.
I knew Maren Deepwell, CEO of ALT, by reputation and through mutual colleagues on our networks. I did a little digging. Talked to some of my most trusted mentors and decided it was worth finding out more.
I got in touch with Maren and we had a brief discussion about the role. I would recommend this to anyone applying for a role. Always talk to the hiring manager! We discussed the role and the organisation, its values and challenges. I felt I understood what Maren was looking for and how I might be able to add value. So, I decided to apply.
As always, I managed my expectations to avoid disappointment. I had also applied for another role, and had an interview for it, whilst the application was under consideration so I was not putting all my eggs in that basket. I didn’t get the other role I applied for (rightly so, I would not have been right for it) and so I turned my energies to the ALT application.
The interview was an online day, split into three parts. A formal interview, HR role-play task and meeting the team. The formal interview involved a presentation. The HR simulation task involved being given a scenario about an employee who I would then talk to. ALT’s HR team played the role of the employee. Meeting the team involved a 30 minute chat where I would ask the team questions and they could ask me any they had. My abiding memory from that chat was getting far too enthused about spreadsheets.
I am a realist with borderline pessimism disorder. I thought it went OK, kicked myself over several answers I wish I had answered better, and overthought every follow up question.
I got on with my day expecting to hear a no.
Later that day Maren called me with the great news.
I took my time to consider the offer, there was much back and forth with Maren and Jo from HR. They were very patient. I talked it through with the people who know me best and whose advice I take very seriously.
Weighing up the options
My options were. Stay where I was and likely stagnate becoming ever more disappointed and bitter, or, take the job.
It was part-time, so there was a financial angle to consider. It is a small organisation with big responsibilities. Would Maren and I get on? Will I miss being a learning technologist ‘proper’?
Four months later
Four months on, I am certain I made the right choice.
I do worry about what next having moved out of my comfort zone. But, I have come to see that my career had stalled and the experience I needed to move on would not be gained at my previous institution.
I really enjoy working with this team. Everyone is friendly, enthusiastic and determined to see ALT succeed.
Thankfully, Maren and I get on well and it is nice to be managed by an inspiring and supportive leader (again).
My job is far from boring. There is plenty to do and more to come. It has its challenges but on the whole I feel much less stressed. I hadn’t realised how much my old role impacted me until I stepped away from it and looked at it objectively.
I will do a follow up blog post on all the things I’ve learned about ALT. I think it will be enlightening for a lot of members.