As institutional researchers, we hold a plethora of knowledge that would be helpful for our institutions, yet we often find ourselves in positions where we have little authority to actually make change. There are historical and structural reasons for this, and at some institutions, it is changing. With access to and familiarity with data across the institution, we have holistic and contextual awareness that informs our desire to make our institutions stronger. Even without a leadership title or position, there are ways in which we can positively impact our students and institutions from where we are. We can be expert followers.
Many institutional research offices emerged from a need for data reporting, which is generally a reactive, transactional activity. We responded to external data requests and conducted surveys, reporting information back to those who requested it. In time, some institutional research offices began to advise on how those data might be structured in our databases to maximize efficacy of reporting. And now, there are some that lead assessment committees or data governance committees. Even with this evolution, staff such as analysts and assistant directors may feel the need to lead and at the same time feel a lack of authority to do so. This conundrum is not unique to institutional research.
Over three decades ago, as institutional research was gaining strength on our campuses, Robert Kelley wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review: “In Praise of Followers.” The article posits that leadership is a process, not a person, and that success is not built on a person, but rather a clear goal with parameters for achieving it. Kelley says that, “What distinguishes an effective from an ineffective follower is enthusiastic, intelligent, and self-reliant participation—without star billing—in the pursuit of an organizational goal.” So perhaps, instead of focusing on how to lead, we need to think about the role of followership as essential to making a difference at our institutions. Indeed, what is the benefit of leadership if there are not strong followers? Institutional researchers are enthusiastic, and we are curious. We don’t seek the spotlight, and we are certainly self-directed. Given these characteristics, if we lean into followership, regardless of our roles within our organizations, we can effect change.
Kelley defines four characteristics of good followers: self-management, commitment, competence and focus, and courage. These characteristics can be leveraged at any level within the organization when there is a shared goal with clear parameters for achieving it. Kelley describes self-management as independent thinking. It means not only doing our assigned work by bringing our specific expertise to bear but also challenging ideas—with respect and care—in order to achieve the goal of the work. As a component of followership, self-management is built on trust and strong relationships (that’s another article in itself). The integrity of the data, which institutional researchers hold so dear, is meaningless without the integrity of the institutional researcher as a person, who does what they say they will and speaks up when they cannot. As an example, when the leader’s goal is to show the relationship between major and career field, IR can employ self-management and independent thinking to propose a data visualization, or challenge a suggestion to ignore second majors in the visualization (which would minimize language majors). The institutional researcher can help set parameters by determining what is doable given the data and when it is doable, specifying that deliverable and timeline, and producing the visualization as promised.
The second component of followership is commitment to the shared goal. For institutions as a whole, this is the mission and it usually has to do with what students will gain from their time at the institution. Regardless of role within the institution, the institutional researcher can make that connection explicit. And sometimes, smaller goals build on one another— the goal to show the relationship between major and career is one way of demonstrating the value of the curriculum. The commitment of institutional researcher to show that relationship informs their proposal to visualize the data in particular ways and allows the work of institutional research to be meaningful and fulfilling.
Work that requires followers is teamwork. In this third component of Kelley’s model of followership, each member of the team brings specific skills, strengths, and expertise to the work that makes it stronger. The competence and focus of the follower are what allow institutional researchers to be critical partners in the work, whether through deep understanding of the data, skill in data visualization, or keen storytelling with the data. That work complements the work of colleagues in admission or marketing who need to communicate the value of the curriculum or help colleagues in assessment or accreditation show how academic major contributes to career outcomes. As a team, each bring their needs— and their expertise— to the work along with institutional research, generating strength in the final product. In some cases, the institutional researcher may notice a story that isn’t being told. Through deep understanding of the data, the institutional researcher notices that careers change over time, and the visualization needs to tell another story— one that can better help the other members of the team communicate the value of the curriculum. That contribution makes the work better; it creates clarity while still achieving the goal of the work.
Finally, followers employ courage. This may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes, the institutional researcher must share an unpopular truth. If the data aren’t clean and the visualization would draw inaccurate conclusions, it is incumbent upon the institutional researcher to speak up. This is tricky, especially for nonsupervisory staff, but with framing around the goal of the project, and a clear understanding of the needs of colleagues, it can be done. In the example of data visualization about majors, if the career data are not consistent, the institutional researcher can share that the resulting visualization will be misleading, inaccurate, and harmful to the goal to demonstrate the curriculum’s value.
Interestingly, the characteristics of followers seem similar to those of leaders. If leadership is seen as a process, not a person, followership is part of that process. As Kelley says, “Self-confident followers see colleagues as allies and leaders as equals.” For institutional researchers at all levels to make a meaningful difference at our institutions, strong followership is an approach to leading the way.