Professional Cohorts: A Little Help From Your Friends

By Jessica Knott
Associate Editor
Editor, Twitter

Cohort I

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Educause Midwest Regional Conference in Chicago, Illinois. While there, I attended a session by Brian Paige, IT Director of Calvin College, Bo Wandschneider, CIO (Chief Information Officer) of Queen’s University, and Melissa Woo, Vice Provost for Information Services and CIO at the University of Oregon entitled “Creating Peer Mentoring Networks for Leadership Development.” Calling themselves a “cohort,” these three, and others they have picked up since their initial meeting, have become a support group of sorts for each other as they navigate careers in leadership positions in the higher education field.

Bo Wandschneider, Melissa Woo, Pete Hoffswell, and Dan Ewart.

Bo Wandschneider, Melissa Woo, Pete Hoffswell, and Dan Ewart.

I asked them some questions about their experience, and, in true cohort fashion, they collaborated together in a Google document to answer. The following responses are the collaborative effort of Paige, Wandschneider, and Woo, as well as Pete Hoffswell of Davenport University and Dan Ewart of the University of Idaho.

What drew you to the people you ultimately grouped with?

What drew us to each other were our commonalities. We’re all in a more-or-less similar stage in our career progressions. As such, we face similar challenges and had a lot in common that we wanted to discuss. Currently four of the five of us are CIOs (and the rest of us are encouraging the fifth!). Interestingly only one of us was a CIO at the time of joining the group. Three of us became CIOs during the time we’ve been in the group. An additional motivating factor for one of the group’s members is that he’d seen presentations given by some of the members of the group and was excited about the chance to explore their ideas further. However, what’s probably most important and the one thing that really drew the people in the group to each other was the willingness to share and trust. 

What benefits have you drawn from the efforts you’ve put into the cohort?

The members agree that there are a variety of benefits to being a member of the cohort. In general, the group acts much like a personal “Cabinet.” We can bounce ideas off of the others as a sort of “sanity check,” and get quick, unbiased reviews of materials being prepared for presentations to campus. The group is a “safe” place to speak freely about the challenges on one’s campus with others who are not at the same institution. Perhaps one of the most important benefits is that the group provides a sense of camaraderie and reassurance that one isn’t facing challenges alone. When in a leadership role, it’s often far too easy to feel isolated and having others to consult who are facing similar challenges helps in reducing the sense of isolation.

It is interesting that when you asked this question you wanted us to compare the benefits to the effort we have put into it.  I think we all agree that the benefits far outweigh the efforts.  It is easy to get a significant return on our meetings, and at the end of the day that is likely why it is working so well and why we keep coming back. There are not many professional development activities that we have done that generate this kind of return.

How have your shared experiences shaped your professional development? You can play with this one a bit, trying to get at how you feel you’ve changed as a result of the experience.

Overall, each of us feels we’re better leaders for being part of the group. Some of the thoughts shared by members of the group on how it’s helped our professional development include:

  • “The others force me to think critically about my approach to some of the challenges I face.”
  • “Issues are raised by the others that I haven’t yet considered.”
  • “Sharing and collaborating with the others makes me a better, more thoughtful leader.”
  • “I am more confident that things for which I’m striving – increased transparency, strategic planning, etc. – are common among other progressive leaders.”
  • “I’m more willing to put crazy ideas out, as this group helps to refine and improve those ideas rather than dismiss them.”
  • “This group allows me to be a more progressive and thoughtful leader by pushing me to think about new ideas, and it encourages me to think outside of the box”

Why do you think others should consider this or do you? I know in your talk you said that there were some very key things that you thought each cohort should have. What are they?

Others should definitely consider forming cohorts of peers groups facing similar issues and challenges, as it’s important to have cohorts with shared experiences. It comes down to a desire to grow and develop within and beyond your current role. Anyone can form such a group — it’s just a matter of finding others and looking for some key attributes that such cohorts should have, such as:

  • Mutual trust
  • Honesty
  • Synergy
  • Shared experience
  • Transparency
  • Commitment
  • Willingness to learn and develop

Remember to keep the group small, as it helps to deliver on such things as mutual trust.  Larger peer groups can also be valuable but they also deliver something different.

Cohort II

Rachel Bicicchi, Tom Evans, Lorin Sheppard, and the author, Jess Knott.

Rachel Bicicchi, Tom Evans, Lorin Sheppard, and the author, Jess Knott.

This session was the talk of the conference. And, as a direct result of this session, another cohort was born:

  • Rachel Bicicchi – Assistant Professor, Educational Technology Coordinator and Research/Instruction Librarian at Milliken University
  • Tom Evans – Instructional Designer at Ohio State University
  • Lorin Sheppard – Director of Instructional Design for the Manchester University College of Pharmacy
  • Jess Knott – Instructional Designer at Michigan State University

I asked Rachel a bit about what interested her in the cohort idea as someone who was willing to jump on board.

What drew you to the cohort talk when you saw it in the program?

Honestly, it didn’t really jump out at me in the program, but there weren’t any other talks that were appealing to me during that particular time slot during the conference, either.  I saw that Melissa Woo was presenting, and I’ve communicated with her on Twitter and read about her in a recent Educause Review, so I decided to give her session a shot.

What made you think “Oh! This is something I should do?”

Well, it was pretty obvious immediately that the cohort was really successful for the presenting group, since four of the five are now CIOs, and I particularly liked the idea of being able to communicate with other people who do what I do. This is particularly important to me since I’m a “one woman band” at my institution as far as educational technology goes.  I see people at conferences, but it will be nice to have a group to meet with (even virtually) more often.

How did you identify cohort-mates?

Well, I was sitting next to you [Jess] at the table, and I had introduced myself earlier in the day (during dessert, I think?)  It all happened because I happened to be sitting next to your colleague Tatum and you happened to walk up, and I realized we’d been talking on twitter already.

What thoughts would you like to share about cohorts, their potential, what’s scary about them; all of it?

I’m excited about it right now.  I suppose it can be kind of scary to share information with people you don’t know well at the start, but I assume we’ll spend part of the first meeting getting to know each other.

Interested in cohorts? Interested in creating your own? Planning to? Let us know in the comments!

3 Responses

  1. Jess, this is the promise of social networking — that we’re all no longer restricted to geographically isolated pockets of peers. In pre-SN days, if we couldn’t find like-minded colleagues in offices close to ours, we were pretty much alone. And alone, we’re much more vulnerable to frustration and disappointment. SNs are, as we speak, changing the way we work as professionals, and this transformation is a vital clue to how administration, instruction, and institutions will change — from the inside out.

    As education professionals, we can go online to easily and naturally form informal cohorts for different purposes. In this way, we can consult with peers selected from the universe of peers. We can learn from others, inspire others, collaborate with others, and we can do this across institutions. Thus change is no longer limited to the enterprise but transcends the boundaries between enterprises, linking and organizing individuals by horizontal purpose rather than by vertical bureaucracy.

    But the really exciting part is still to come. What does this new dispersed, horizontal approach to change mean for the way we define learning, teaching, and what it means to be a student, a teacher? For the way we define schools and colleges? -Jim S

  2. Ok, I have to go grammar nazi on myself…”since four of the five is now a CIO…” Really?

    • Good catch, Rachel. I made the correction. I tend to overlook some mechanics in interview quotes to preserve the natural rhythm of dialogues. If someone other than the interviewee were to point out this agreement error, I would have left it as is and explained to the critic that the meaning is clear and the error is acceptable within the context of an interview.

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