Susan Hagstrom has been on campus since 1992, starting as an L&S adviser. She has been the College of Environmental Design’s (CED) Director of Undergraduate Advising since 2009. She’s also an adult-onset triathlete who just signed up to attempt a swim from Alcatraz. We spoke in her office in Wurster Hall.
What have been the things that have really helped you develop your career at Cal?
There are three things that come to me as guiding principles in my career. One is partnerships and relationships: Whether that’s been through a formal leadership development program, or an informal mentor who was a supervisor or colleague, those relationships have been key in my development. There are so many people who’ve helped and encouraged me along the way, supervisors, managers, that’s 90 percent of it.
Another principle is taking calculated risks, whether that’s changing jobs, or accepting a responsibility that’s outside my comfort zone. Being curious about how something risky might work out.
Like swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco.
Exactly! What is there to fear?
Next and perhaps most important is to have a vision, to be clear on what my goal is. Even if I don’t have a perfect vision, to at least have components of it, an idea of what path I’m on, an intention, is really important. This allows me to marshall my time and resources in service of the destination, whether it be my career goal or the goals of my department
Perhaps most important is to have a vision, to be clear on what my goal is. Even if I don’t have a perfect vision, to at least have components of it, an idea of what path I’m on, an intention, is really important.
There are also some specific programs, both large and small, that have been key aspects of my career development, like the former Staff Internship Program. For a year I had an internship working with the Chancellor’s Office and Human Resources on improving staff appreciation at Cal. I did all this analytical work across campus, helping units do assessment and then set up programs. This is part of the risk-taking I mentioned, because it was an overwhelming job, through which I gained a lot of new skills and a lot of exposure. And some of the programs that came out of that work are still going today, like the years of service lunches. That set me up for my next opportunity, which was an analyst position within L&S Advising.
On a smaller scale, I took a class that was offered through Berkeley called “The Results Curve,” which was about increasing effectiveness through time and information management. That was transformational in how I manage my daily work. I learned a lot including how to effectively set up folders and tag messages, limit the time I’m working on email, creating 40 minute blocks of project “focus” time, planning realistic goals for the day, calendaring time related to those goals. I use many of these tools on a daily basis and still come back to what I learned in this class when I’m feeling overloaded, because the principles and the techniques are so sound.
Most recently, I took advantage of the free UC Extension courses to complete a year-long Women and Leadership program. In addition to making some great relationships, the courses helped me with visibility, networking, negotiation, exerting influence, how to recognize and wield power in positive ways.
For me, it’s important to stay up to date on what’s available and taking advantage of programs as they come up. [And subscribing to Wisdom Cafe! -Ed.]
On CSAC I learned a lot about the way the campus is structured, about key initiatives going on. It really was an incredible education about the university, and some people I worked with are still my close friends, 20 years later.
What are some of the projects or committees you’ve been involved with?
An early one was the Chancellor’s Staff Advisory Committee (CSAC). On CSAC I learned a lot about the way the campus is structured, about key initiatives going on. It really was an incredible education about the university, and some people I worked with are still my close friends, 20 years later.
When I first started in L&S, we did an assessment about student experiences with advising, in partnership with the Office of Student Research. That was pre-everything, so we did 800 phone interviews to learn about the student experience with advising. Managing that project ignited my interest in assessment and the importance of data.
When I was in L&S Advising, I took on the role of project manager for a student advising technology system that L&S was working on. It was one of those risks, doing something new, and it really paid off for me; I learned a lot about project management, doing a technology start-up.
Volunteering for the Domestic Partnership Task Force back in 1994 was also a pivotal opportunity for me. UC didn’t have health benefits for domestic partners at that time, and many people wanted to advocate for that change. Working with faculty, staff, students, and administrators, figuring out how to deploy everyone, identifying how best to make an impact, and ultimately succeeding in our efforts was a life-changing and powerful experience.
You talked about risks; one risk factor in doing campus-level service is that you still have your normal workload, and your supervisor and peers may not prioritize the campus-level work. What was your experience with that?
That goes back to all those people who encouraged me, the 90 percent. I became really efficient at getting my work done. And then your office gets the benefit of your new skills and relationships you’re building. Here in CED I always encourage my staff to engage in professional development and campus service; we have everyone go through the UnDocu Ally training, have everyone sit in on classes, everyone try to present at conferences. So it’s a culture and expectation that everyone is developing and growing, and we’ll cover for each other so everyone can take advantage of these opportunities.
I have long wanted to become known for supporting people in their professional development. I like to hire people who are really talented, so of course, they’re on a trajectory, and they’re going to leave at some point…I’ve just come to accept that. I want to keep hiring the best people.
Some managers fear that if they give their staff too much training, they’ll leave for better positions. What’s your view on that?
I have long wanted to become known for supporting people in their professional development. I like to hire people who are really talented, so of course, they’re on a trajectory, and they’re going to leave at some point. I think this is also a workforce trend, people are more mobile, I’ve just come to accept that. I want to keep hiring the best people, I want to provide the best environment I can for staff. And supporting people breeds loyalty; If people know that they’re really supported, that you’re doing everything you can to help them reach their goals, they’ll be more likely to stay. Sometimes they leave because they should, because they’ve found their next opportunity.
I also find that when staff are fully supported in meeting their professional development goals, they are more engaged in their work and provide better service to students and to each other. As managers, we want to find that sweet spot where the employee’s goals meet the organization’s goals, so the thing that the employee is working on is productive for your office, as well as for their career.
Coming to CED was your first chance to lead an office. How did you assess what your priorities would be?
I’m a person who’s always thinking ahead, and thinking about what the future could look like. When I first started in CED, I used pages of flipchart paper to brainstorm about the student experience: Where does advising touch the student in these different phases, the transition to Cal, the time as a student here, the transition out? How can we help students have the best possible experience at Cal? As L&S Dean Bob Jacobsen says, I like to “try a lot of stuff, throw it against the wall and see what sticks.”
Shortly after I started in CED, our Dean decided to consolidate undergraduate advising from the three departments into a single unit; that was something I was given and had to figure out how to make it effective.
A transition like that is always tricky; how do you work at getting people on board?
I find that I need to be really clear and open with people. Approach them in advance, let them know what’s coming, ask for their advice and concerns. Ask what could go wrong, what they need from you. Try to address their concerns, and check in with them afterwards, ask if they’re feeling more comfortable about the plan. And be prepared to deal with some conflict. I made some mistakes along the way and learned a lot as a result.
As I go through each day, I try to observe my own reactions before responding: “I’m feeling really wound up about this issue” or “Oh, I’m feeling uncomfortable in this situation.” If I keep looking at that vision, it’s easier for me to think, “OK, I can handle this, because it will help us get where we want to get.” I’ve learned that I need to stick with it and work through uncomfortable situations to be successful.
You seem to be good at staying calm and centered.
One of the things I learned in the Results Curve is to start each day by setting intentions and goals for what I plan to accomplish that day. I do that even before I turn on my computer. Then at the end of the day, I go back and look at what I accomplished and didn’t accomplish.
As I go through each day, I try to observe my own reactions before responding: “I’m feeling really wound up about this issue” or “Oh, I’m feeling uncomfortable in this situation.” I now better understand that conflict or discomfort is sometimes necessary to reach our goals. To become the best advising center we can be, we need to be open and honest with each other, to be able to tell each other the truth, so we can work together to get there. If I keep looking at that vision, it’s easier for me to think, “OK, I can handle this, because it will help us get where we want to get.” I’ve learned that I need to stick with it and work through uncomfortable situations to be successful.
In L&S, your scope was broad, because there are so many students, but shallower than CED, because major advising is distributed to the L&S departments. In CED you have full control of a smaller scope.
It’s true that moving to a professional college was a big change for me.,.
I love being in a college that’s intimate enough that I can really get to know and have a positive impact on the staff, the faculty, and the students. Because we’re a smaller college, we can pilot a lot of things: we piloted the first version of the student portal, we piloted strengths-based advising. I couldn’t do that in a college with 19,000 undergraduates. In CED, if we experiment with a new advising tool or program, we can change it tomorrow; it’s more nimble. And having such close contact with faculty and students makes it extremely rewarding.
I’ve swum to San Francisco from Alcatraz, from Treasure Island, so I know I can do it. It’s really overcoming the mental stuff: “These are big waves, but that’s OK, one stroke after another, one breath after another, and I’ll get there.”
One more question on overcoming obstacles: What’s the toughest open-water swim you’ve done so far?
It really depends on the situation more than the distance. Sometimes the water is rough, or I’m hyperventilating, and that’s when it’s hard. I’ve swum to San Francisco from Alcatraz, from Treasure Island, so I know I can do it. It’s really overcoming the mental stuff: “These are big waves, but that’s OK, one stroke after another, one breath after another, and I’ll get there.”
- The Accomplishing More With Less Workbook, Pierre Khawand
- College of Environmental Design Undergraduate Advising
- Chancellor’s Staff Advisory Committee
Susan was featured in the Staff Spotlight series for Staff Appreciation Week this year; check out this great video!