Relationships Between Leadership Practices of Union and Activities Directors and Professional Outcomes of Entry-Level Professionals

As higher education institutions recognize fiscal challenges and call for greater accountability, the costs associated with high employee turnover rates can become both significant and detrimental to any organization. Recruiting, hiring, training, loss of institutional knowledge, and strains on quality of service all take a toll on both fiscal and human operations. The student affairs profession is no stranger to this dilemma, with research going back as far as the 1980s showing attrition rates of 60% for master’s level graduates leaving the field within six years. 

Top Five QuestionsThat same rate popped up again in research published in 2007, and then as recently in 2016 in work led by Sarah M. Marshall at Central Michigan University that estimated close to 20% of all student affairs professionals are new professionals with five or less years of experience and that 60% of those would leave the field within six years. The cost to replace these staff members can be significant to the campus and detrimental to the student experience. 

The purpose of this study was to examine how entry-level professionals perceive, assess, and describe the leadership practices of student union and campus activities directors and their own professional outcomes, as well as to uncover relationships between these two sets of variables. The four professional outcomes were job satisfaction, professional competency development, intention to leave, and engagement in the profession of student affairs. 

The leadership practices of the director were evaluated based on entry-level professionals’ perceptions of five practices of exemplary leadership of their supervisors, which include behaviors and attitudes that: model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, and encourage the heart. These practices were first introduced by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner in their 2002 book, The Leadership Challenge, after interviewing over a thousand leaders about leadership. In constructing this transformational leadership model, they noted that the model was “not about personality; it is about practice.” 

“Leaders are often hired or elected into their leadership role, but it is their behavior that wins them respect,” they wrote. “If leaders want to gain commitment and reach the highest standards, they must model the way.”

Using these five practices of exemplary leadership, with their emphasis on how leader behaviors impact organizational dynamics, allowed for this study to look deeper into how departmental leadership affects entry-level professionals. By exploring this relationship through the human resource lens, and applying a skills approach through the use of professional competencies, the relationships between leadership practices of directors and professional outcomes of entry-level professionals became clearer. 

Putting HR into Action

This examination identified that large, statistically significant relationships exist between an overall transformational leadership score developed for this research and job satisfaction, professional competency development, and intention to leave the field. Effective leaders constantly searched for ways to innovate, develop, grow, and improve their organization. They needed to enable others to act, to make it possible for others to do good work. They promoted teamwork and collaboration. Transformational leaders encouraged the heart by acknowledging the work of followers and rewarding them for their accomplishments, thus creating a culture of celebration. 

But does there remain a lack of focus on organizational human resources used to develop a successful relationship between a leadership framework and the way the organization functions? In “Promoting Effective Staffing Practices in Student Affairs,” published in the College Student Affairs Journal in 2011, Ashley Tull reviewed 10 years of conference data from the American College Personnel Association and NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education,covering 6,891 conference programs. What he found was that only 369, or 5%, were related to human resources practices. 

Both the literature on the broader student affairs field and this study’s findings suggest the need for directors to be cognizant of the impact their leadership style is having and to specifically look for ways to enable their entry-level professionals to act while providing them support and encouragement. This research explored implications and made recommendations for student union and campus activities directors, for student affairs division leadership, and for the overall profession. 

Developing The Study 

Data for the study were collected through surveys with qualitative items. The population included entry-level professionals working in campus activities and student unions on college campuses in the Midwest. An analysis of the data was completed exploring general descriptive statistics (means and standard deviations) to determine how the participants evaluated themselves and their director. Next, an inductive analysis was employed to evaluate the open-ended survey feedback. Then finally, Pearson’s correlations coefficient, which measures the strength of relationship between two variables, was used to determine the strength and the direction of the relationship between the director’s five exemplary practices of leadership (independent variables) and the new professional’s four professional outcomes (dependent variables). 

For the purpose of this research, “entry-level professional” was defined as any staff member in a position requiring no post-masters experience as well as staff in other positions who have been in the campus activities/student union field for six years or less. The study was limited to entry-level professionals working in student union and campus activities offices at institutions located within Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri, that were ACUI members. 

ACUI identified 104 professionals within the membership database who met the study criteria of entry-level professionals. Additionally, 304 members with the title “director” were emailed requests that they encourage participation of their entry-level professionals. A total of 469 people visited the survey, 111 agreed to the conditions of the survey, and 81 met the participant criteria. In basing the response rate on the total number of professionals identified by ACUI against the total number who met the participant criteria, the response rate was estimated to be 78%. Two-thirds of the participants were female, about 32% were male, and 4% transgender; 65% had a master’s degree, 29% a bachelor’s degree, and 5.6% an associate’s degree, GED, or high school diploma. Nearly 78% were white, 8% black, 7% Asian American, 4% were multiracial, and 3% Latino. 

The study was guided by the following research questions: 

  • How do entry-level professionals assess and describe their perceptions of unit directors on five exemplary practices of leadership? 
  • How do entry-level professionals assess and describe themselves on the four professional outcomes? 
  • Are the five perceived practices of exemplary leadership of unit directors correlated with the four perceived professional outcomes of entry-level professionals?  

The first question examined how entry-level professionals assess and describe their unit directors on the five exemplary practices (subscales) of leadership: model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, and encourage the heart. Each subsection included six questions (evaluated on strongly disagree, disagree, slightly disagree, slightly agree, agree, strongly agree, and no answer) and at least one open-ended question. 

The second question examined how entry-level professionals assess and describe themselves on the four professional outcomes (subscales) of job satisfaction, professional competency development, intention to leave the field, and engagement in student affairs professional associations. Each subsection included six questions (evaluated on a scale of strongly disagree, disagree, slightly disagree, slightly agree, agree, strongly agree, and no answer) and at least one open-ended question. 

The first two questions provided nine subscales, each of which was analyzed using a Cronbach alpha to measure how closely related the items were as a group. General descriptive statistics (means and standard deviations) were used to evaluate the nine subscales and to determine how the participants assessed their director on the five exemplary practices and themselves on the four professional outcomes. An inductive analysis was employed to evaluate how the participants described their unit director within each of the exemplary practices of leadership. 

The final question looked for any statistical significance of how the five practices of exemplary leadership of unit directors correlated with the four professional outcomes of entry-level professionals. A strength of relationship (small, medium, or large) was then determined. 

Upon analysis, correlations showed a large. statistically significant relationship between the five exemplary leadership practices and three of the four professional outcomes (job satisfaction, professional competency development, and intention to leave), with the largest relationships existing between the four professional outcomes and the leadership practices of enabling others to act and encouraging the heart. In fact, large, statistically significant relationships between the individual leadership practices of the director and the professional outcomes of entry-level professionals were found in 14 of 20 correlational analyses completed. 

Although all five leadership practices had large significant relationships with job satisfaction, professional competency development, and intention to leave the field, only encourage the heart had a medium relationship with engagement in the profession. Two leadership practices had the largest relationship with the professional outcomes: enable others to act and encourage the heart. Several themes emerged from the open-ended survey inductive analysis across all five of the leadership practices revealing that new professionals recognize and need from their leaders encouragement of self-care, public and private recognition, a strategic vision for the future, empowerment to make decisions autonomously, and the active engagement of their director. 

Quality of Leadership is Related to Employee Retention 

The findings established clear connections and relationships between all five of the leadership practices of student union and campus activity directors and all four of the professional outcomes of entry-level professionals. Seventy-five percent of the participants said they are both satisfied with and excited about their work, yet 60% said they had looked for a job outside of the profession. Given the importance of the director-new professional relationship, an implication and recommendation is for student affairs divisional leadership to prioritize staff development within the division for both directors and entry-level professionals. The quality of leadership and supervision received is directly related to employee retention.   

Another key finding was that when directors enable entry-level professionals to act and encourage their heart, they have a large, statistically significant relationship with their job satisfaction, their professional competency development, and their intention to leave the field. Therefore, directors should look for ways to empower their entry-level staff members to lead within their jobs and the department, should provide them with significant amounts of encouragement and recognition, and should
celebrate accomplishments. 

Only one-fourth of participants agreed that their director intentionally includes professional competency development in annual trainings, and only one-third agreed that they know which competencies they need to develop to further advance in the field of student affairs. Directors need to ensure that professional competency development is a priority for their departments and ensure that it is part of performance review processes. ACUI’s newly revised core competencies offer a direct way of facilitating that process. 

Entry-level professionals look to their director to challenge the process, but over two-thirds said they do not believe that their director encourages risk taking or challenging the status quo. Directors need to explore how to focus on change and transition management with their team. These leaders must strategically use data to challenge the “it’s always been this way” aspect of departments. Directors should lead their teams through an annual review of department policies, programs, and services, and should involve entry-level professionals in that annual review. Directors should also encourage entry-level staff members to engage in measured risk taking. Entry-level staff arrive filled with a passion and excitement to impact student lives but quickly become disillusioned by the inability to challenge and grow. As directors improve on challenging the process, it will have a significant impact on the professional outcomes of entry-level professionals. 

Entry-level professionals are struggling with stress management, work-life balance, career planning and goal setting, conflict management, and conflicting personal and professional life aspirations. They have a passion for their work and love working with students but struggle with these other aspects of being a newer professional. Addressing this at a department level, a division/institution level, and a profession level could have an impact on the overall staff attrition rates for our profession. 

It’s Not About Personality; It’s About Practice 

Staff who enter director level roles oftentimes receive little to no training on how to lead a department. This void in training has left many directors leading by reflecting on how their former leaders conduct themselves within their role. 

This study affirms Kouzes and Posner’s belief that if leaders want to gain commitment and reach the highest standards, they must model the way. Entry-level professionals look to their director to lead and set the vision for their department, but they also look for them to be engaged with employees at every level within the organization. They observe how the director models self-care and balance and, through those observations, they reflect on whether they personally can advance within the field and balance career aspirations with their own life goals. The working conditions in student affairs scare away many professionals due to the long hours and high stress, and those concerns were echoed through this study.  

Also congruent with the findings of past studies on the impact supervision and leadership has on new professional’s propensity to leave the field, there is great potential for directors to have an impact on entry-level professionals by improving on their transformational leadership practices remember that improvement is “not about personality; it is about practice.”


5 EXEMPLARY PRACTICES (SUBSCALES) OF LEADERSHIP  

Challenge the process

Challenge the process has been defined as the pursuit taken by leaders to change the status quo and to grow and improve the organization through innovative means.  

Inspire a shared vision

Inspire a shared vision has been defined as the ability of leaders to imagine the ideal future of an organization. Leaders need to be able to visualize where the organization is going and to be able to communicate that vision to others. Effective leaders also understand the needs of their followers and make sure that their vision helps meet those needs.

Enable other to act

Enabling others to act has been defined as the priority of leaders to involve and strengthen others through collaboration and teamwork. These leaders make it possible for others to do good work.  

Model the way

Model the way is defined as the manner by which leaders set standards of excellence and then set an example for others to follow. If leaders want to gain commitment and reach the highest standards, it is important for them to model the way.  

Encourage the heart

Encourage the heart has been defined as the efforts taken by leaders to recognize the contributions made by followers—acknowledging the work of followers and rewarding them for their accomplishments helps create a culture of celebration.  

4 PROFESSIONAL OUTCOMES (SUBSCALES) OF JOB SATISFACTION

Job satisfaction

Job satisfaction is the extent to which a person's hopes, desires, and expectations about the employment in which he or she is engaged are fulfilled.  

Professional competency development

Professional competency development is when student affairs professionals demonstrate their knowledge of and their ability to develop in knowledge within each competency area regardless of how they entered the profession.  

Intention to leave

Intention to leave is a measurement of whether an entry-level professional plans to leave a position due to their experience within the position, and a perception that other opportunities are better than the current position.

Professional engagement

Professional engagement is defined as the action of engaging within the profession of student affairs through involvement in professional associations, reading professional journals, and actively contributing to the profession through research and presentations.  

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