Critical Listening, Abstract Thinking, and Connecting the Dots

Jan W. Lyddon is a Data Coach for Achieving the Dream and a consultant affiliated with Organizational Effectiveness Consultants and the Collaborative Brain Trust. 

Interview by Leah Ewing Ross 

Lyddon_Jan-resized.jpgeAIR: Please briefly describe your professional background and experience.

My background includes work in policy analysis, strategic planning, and gathering, analyzing or structuring information for executive decision-making. An early career move was especially important in shaping how I’ve continued to work; I was a research analyst for the Michigan Legislature, focusing mostly on higher education policy and budgets. It gave me a high-level perspective and forced me to improve my written and oral communication skills because writing and delivering speeches was a huge share of my work. I’ve also worked in a variety of campus settings, mostly directing institutional research and planning offices at both public and private universities and at community colleges in Michigan, Ohio, and Texas. I think because of my policy-level perspective, I’ve been called upon to lead campus-wide strategic planning efforts, and to then turn to development of measures and evaluation of the results of those plans.

Some of my most satisfying work, though, has been over the past (almost) 10 years as a Data Coach for Achieving the Dream. In that role I’ve worked with 12 community colleges, ranging from very large to very small, and urban to rural locations. I was thrilled when El Paso Community College received the Leah Myer Austin Award for 2011, because it was a great recognition of the transformative change they’ve gone through in improving student success. Another college with which I work, Zane State College (Ohio), won the award in 2012, and several others have been identified as Leader Colleges in Achieving the Dream.

In addition, I am affiliated with the Collaborative Brain Trust and I also work independently with colleges and nonprofits. I’ve served in interim assignments, one as interim Director of IR for Ivy Tech Community College, and currently with the Assessment Office at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).

One characteristic of my career I truly value is the variety of settings in which I’ve been able to use my abilities.

eAIR: What excites you about your work and gives you the energy you need for all of your activities?

I’ve often said that IR is exciting because we get paid to be curious – though in a very rigorous way. I like the opportunity to explore issues, clarify the problem and help find evidence-based ways to address it. Another thing that keeps me going is the variety; I’m fortunate because I’ve been able to live in several parts of the country, and now I work with colleges all over the place. Now, while I see a lot of airports, I also see a lot of different campuses and ways of doing things. I get especially excited when people show they understand the data, and then use data to inform their actions…that’s at the core of IR and planning.

eAIR: In your roles as coach and consultant, what take-aways do you share with IR professionals most often?

As a coach and consultant (the roles are a little different), there are a lot of things I’ve used in day-to-day work. The main thing is to start with good questions, and follow up with even more questions. I joke sometimes that I give myself permission to act like a 4-year-old in asking “why” repeatedly. That leads to the next take-away, which is that we need to try to solve the right problems, not just address the obvious symptoms. Higher education is in a time of great change, and evidence-based work is more vital now than ever. It’s truly a wonderful – albeit challenging – time to be in IR.

Another take-away is to tell the story with data. Merely throwing tables and graphs (including – shudder – 3-D graphs) may confuse more than inform people. Without being biased, I try to cut to the main thread running through a series of data points to help users understand. The extra time on my part is well worth it to ensure usefulness. I guess my early background as a speech writer (a major chunk of my work for the Legislature) honed my story-telling interests.

eAIR: What advice would you offer IR colleagues to prepare for the future of IR?

I suggest new IR people work to develop excellent critical listening skills. This is, to my mind, both listening and critical thinking (not judgment). The President of FIT (Dr. Joyce Brown) recently said that she has “a third ear. I listen, and I really pay attention and try very hard to understand the nuances” (New York Times, The Corner Office, August 4, 2013).

Listening is probably the hardest skill I’ve had to learn—to listen not just at the surface of what’s being said. To think through the context and issues behind what a person is saying is very important. It sometimes means the difference between producing something the user really wants and wasting time on what a request “seemed like.”

Another skill is being able to think abstractly so you can connect the dots better. It enables the thinker to leverage one project to benefit another one. With many business intelligence tools becoming more common, IR people will have less “data jockey” work and will have to listen carefully and help others connect the dots.

eAIR: How has your involvement with AIR supported your myriad professional interests and endeavors?

AIR has been a great source of information and – most important – connections. I jokingly say that I use the “CASE” method (Copy And Steal Everything), and I rely on my colleagues’ formats and approaches to improve my own work. Moreover, we often work in one- or two-person IR shops, so we can’t be experts at everything. But in AIR, there are experts in areas for which we might not have the background or experience.

As such, I urge people to attend the AIR Forum and their regional association meetings, and to take a lot of energy and business cards with them. Spend time over a meal or between sessions getting to know people on a level other than their formal presentations. Follow up with people by email or phone. Find ways to volunteer – I learn a lot in reading proposals for the Forum and as a peer reviewer for AIR Publications, and it doesn’t take a huge amount of time. AIR and the regional groups are worth it!

eAIR: What do you do for fun?

When I’m not actively at work, I do a lot of other things. I’m in a couple of choirs, and singing has always been a way to shift my brain to another realm. I also take a class in which I’m learning another language. That one’s a challenge because it’s heavy on grammar and spelling rules, something I applied but didn’t learn in that way in English! And I sew, though that runs in spurts depending on when I have time at home. Sometimes I sketch a garment while I’m in a meeting and then I go home and make it. I also can’t seem to go anywhere without a book or two to read. The iPad, though, makes it a lot lighter to travel with a whole library of books.