The Difference Maker: Capacity-Building at Work

Two people assume Director-level roles with a similar scope and size of institution in the same year. They graduated from strong masters programs and they came up through the professional ranks in higher education in traditional ways. They are universally liked and have similar skill sets. They have good co-workers and get along with their supervisor. Six months into their new roles, one person is completely floundering and the other is flourishing. So what is the difference-maker in this situation?


It is your professional capacity to successfully add more work to your plate that is a key indicator of career progression.

At entry and mid-level roles there is always a lot of work to be accomplished. Student issues. After hours events. Crises management. However as you move up the ranks your supervisor will not monitor your workload or limit the scope of your projects nearly as much as when you were first starting out in the field.

Having an increased capacity means that you will never assume that something is going to be taken off your plate by your supervisor. Instead it is up to you to manage your current workload, delegate when appropriate, and add new responsibilities often while managing the same level of success in completing those duties.

Five years ago a colleague and I made a documentary about women in higher education. We interviewed Donna Carroll, the president of Dominican University. When I asked her what strengths she possessed that made her an ideal person to be a university president she responded instantly.

“I have always known,” she said, “that I have a very large capacity for getting work done.”

I was surprised by her answer. I thought she would say she was a skilled fundraiser or possessed a strong financial mind but instead of focusing on skills or tasks she focused on the process of working.

Since that day I have talked with others in our field about this concept of “capacity” and wondered if each person has a set-point (meaning that they either have a large capacity or they do not) or if there are actual capacity-building techniques could help a person increase the amount of work they can produce. After careful thought I have identified four key areas that I believe are capacity-building strategies:

1) Creating strong organizational process to manage your day: There are about a million different ways to organize your work–to-do lists, planners, electronic calendars, setting reminders on your phone, etc.—however people who have high levels of work capacity have consistent processes that guide their day, manage their time and signal when their goals for the day have been accomplished. This includes any personal appointments, family commitments or anything else that needs to get done during the course of a single day. People with high capacity may have set days or times for errands, volunteering in their home communities and working on special projects. They are rigid with adhering to those set times. They always make sure they are on-time to meetings, events and activities because they always have a plan B (and C and D) when life’s little surprises occur.

2) Recruit, hire, maintain and promote an exceptional team: In order for everyone to increase their capacity, a high-level team must be created or else you (and your other team members) will be constantly working to compensate for their lack of productivity. The most important thing we do in our jobs is recruit and hire the most talented people we can find. Take that responsibility seriously. Recruitment is a 365 day a year process—it’s not just when you happen to have an opening in your department. Keep lists of folks who excel in particular areas in your professional field and create relationships with them. When an opening becomes available you’ll have a well-developed list of people to consider and recruit.

Conversely, know when you have to counsel someone out of the role who is no longer helping the goals of the team and/or their abilities do not align with their current position. This is a painful process and the dignity of the person must be preserved at all costs however an unwillingness to address a toxic or non-functioning staff member can cause serious damage to even an otherwise strong team.

3) A commitment to wellness: Eating well, exercising, getting a consistent amount of sleep and being spiritually centered (whatever that may mean to you) impacts your capacity. Another important part of this is the phrase “on a consistent basis.” If these components of wellness are a part of your daily routine they will lead to long-term capacity-building. The ability to wake up well-rested, fuel your body with things that will maximize the functions of your brain and body, and focus on particular tasks are all benefits of a healthy lifestyle. A key indicator of increased capacity for work is stamina—the ability to continue your work past your typical stopping points.

4) A commitment to a blended life: Capacity is increased when you can kill two birds with one stone. Many folks in higher education have enthusiastically embraced this concept. When you take your partner and/or children to a program on campus, is it considered work time or family time? It’s both. When you work on an article for a professional journal on a Saturday is it work time or personal time? It is both. By re-framing your life to simply be just that—one blended life—then you can focus attention on all areas without feeling a need to compartmentalize them.

Some of these areas may take years to perfect but I believe they are good steps towards increasing your productivity both at home and in your professional life. If not consciously developed, I believe that a lack of capacity-building can stall your career progression and can impact your happiness.

What are some capacity-building techniques that you employ in your daily work?

Follow me on Twitter: @annmarieklotz

About annmarieklotz

I write about all things education, personal & professional development and growth. Once is a question, twice is a discussion and three times is a blog post! Born and raised in Detroit Michigan but currently calling the Pacific Northwest home. I work at Oregon State University and belong to a fantastic community of higher ed professionals around the globe! Lover of theater and the arts. Live your best life!
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21 Responses to The Difference Maker: Capacity-Building at Work

  1. “Having an increased capacity means that you will never assume that something is going to be taken off your plate by your supervisor. Instead it is up to you to manage your current workload, delegate when appropriate, and add new responsibilities often while managing the same level of success in completing those duties.”
    Yep. I hear this often among entry-level professionals. “You want me to do this, but what are you going to take off my plate?” A small part of me gets that. I think there can certainly be a tendency to dump down – particularly in poor organizations. But, I want to say “nothing.” In fact, I want to say, “nothing and if you think that something should be taken off your plate, you either need to make a mindset adjustment or begin researching other careers that might be better suited to your values.” Of course, doing so tends to incites emotional responses from others that have a differing perspective of what it takes to be successful in our field.

  2. 🙂 thanks Matt. I think it always comes back to graduate school training. What are we teaching folks as they enter the field in terms of what “moving up” actually requires? While supporting colleagues is an important part of our work and their development, we are ultimately charged with doing our job–and doing it well–for the betterment of students. You get paid more as you move up becuase of the complexity of roles and duties, not simply becuase you “should” be paid more to do the same level and type of work. That’s where capacity-building techniques come in. Thanks for reading.

  3. AMK! Nice post! I particularly liked the comment about the asset of leading blended life. I’m pretty compartmentalized myself but I find myself blending in small ways over time. In reflecting on this gradual shift, I’ve realized that blending is probably me adapting to increased workload and responsibility…I don’t have the energy to compartmentalize as well anymore! Ha! In the future, with children and even more responsibility, I am sure that blending will continue to be something I work on in order to keep all the plates spinning and turning out excellent quality work in all the arenas of my life. Great, provocative post, AMK!

    • Thanks Vijay 🙂 I have absolutely seen the benefits of having a more blended existence especially at this level–and you are right, it almost takes too much effort to keep them separate! Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  4. Another prime example of how activity does not always mean productivity. Having a large capacity to #dowork means a) being able to handle the many tasks thrown in your general direction but b) completing them in timely fashions, doing them efficiently, and meeting the expectations of those relying upon you to complete the tasks. I see resumes full of “activity” but what I want to know from people is what was the outcome, what product did you produce, how did it leave a mark or have an impact.

    Love it AMK – keep it up!

  5. Pickrel, Catherine says:

    I needed this blog post today!! Thank you!

    Catherine B. Pickrel
    (972) 883-5357

  6. YES! I agree with all of this. I think technology is a great tool for creating capacity, but it’s important to learn how to use it and to accept the fact that it takes both effort and time to do so. Another capacity-building strategy is using reflective habits–being honest with yourself when you are reaching your capacity, and take action to either build more, or scale back. I learned that the hard way last year…

  7. Shelia Higgs Burkhalter says:

    Great piece Anne Marie! Wonderfully valid and insightful points. A computer tech was resetting my iPad the other day and wanted to know if I wanted my personal or professional calendar to show. I told him I live a blended life…I have one calendar and my staff helps to manage my one life. I live a fully integrated seamless existence as I live out my purpose and engage my passions. My family and purpose are inextricably tied.

  8. Hi Ann Marie – nice post! About the blended life, that’s how I’ve approached my career.

  9. Jenni Chadick says:

    I really enjoyed this post, and would love to hear more about how to help others build their capacity, without reducing people to “they have it or they don’t”, or resorting to the Peter Principle. Whether managing up or down, are there strategies folks have used to help build the capacity of those around them, before they are floundering in a new role?

    • Great questions Jenni. I think this will be an important issue for folks in all fields to consider. How do we build capacity in students and how does that look different in the professional world?? Thanks for reading!

  10. Let me say first, I completely agree with these points! But, now that I have spent a few days thinking about this and trying to observe myself and colleagues across the nation, my question is; why is there such a level of push back from so many professionals on this topic? Why does one assume that as you move up it becomes easier. I can think of one prime example – when we move from a student staff member to a professional position there often exists an assumption that you no longer have to program. It’s just not true, all of it!

    Okay, enough of my questioning and rambling. I thought this post really hit some great points home that many new/mid/more-seasoned professionals do not like to talk about! Thank you!

    • Thanks for reading Ryan! I’m unsure of the push back, too. Perhaps folks feel like they can’t manage another thing on their plate? I think it comes down to learning how to manage your time, commitments and obligations in a way that leaves you feeling whole and fulfilled. There is no magic formula but rather we should work on a plan that allows us to build our own capacity in ways that feel right for each of us. 🙂

  11. Hi, AMK–

    Thanks for this great blog post! I have been mulling it over for more than a week–I think just the idea of “capacity building” helped motivate me through a tough few days at work. I do have one thought to add:

    There are times when spiritual observance and a blended life are in direct conflict with one another. For people who observe a weekly sabbath/shabbos/day-of-no-work-due-to-religious-observance, it is very important to distinguish what is work and what is not. I have found this particularly challenging as a live-in professional; I am working when I walk through the lobby directly outside of my apartment and field a question from a resident. I am working when the fire alarm goes off and I facilitate evacuation and follow up with the fire department. I am working when we have a Midnight Breakfast event and I am asked to serve pancakes to our students before finals week. I am working even when these are things that I enjoying doing, if they fall on Sunday. I can avoid checking my email or going into the office on my day of observance, but there are real limitations to some of the other ways I can abstain from work.

    I do not feel a personal (or religious) conflict if I address an emergency situation on my day of rest–I believe helping someone in a crisis is the right thing to do, no matter what day of the week. However, I have been told by previous supervisors that if I choose to work in student affairs or, specifically, in Res Life, I should not expect to have a day off of work every week. I have been told that my job–even the mundane, non-emergency, pre-scheduled programming parts of my job–have to take precedence over religious observance. Because I signed up for the job and “that is just how it is.” I do not think that is a good answer. I find it absurd that there is such buzz around students’ spiritual development, but that staff should be prevented from role modeling it.

    I do not mean to throw the baby out with the bathwater and say that a blended life is impossible or a bad idea. I am curious to know what you think about the concept of a blended life as it relates to other aspects of wellness, like religious observance. What does that mean for capacity building?

  12. Reese – For me, my religious and spiritual being are not simply, or only, observed on one day, or at one time. I choose to work at places where I can share my faith, both directly and indirectly. I volunteer to help at organized religious services where students will see me being very visibly “faithful”. I ask questions about making meaning in conduct hearings. I share my faiths story with colleagues. I am sad that you have heard the message that you annot be both religiously faithful and have a career in res life or student affairs. It happens with more regularity as I get older, the benefits of being the supervisor I suppose, but should a staff member articulate a nee, I believe is critical to do what I an to make it happen. Certainly not a perfect answer but hoping I can let you be hopeful that you can have both. It is not ” how it is” any,ore, but perhaps “how it was”. Fit becomes critical. For me it was working at a place that shares my need to be “faithful” while working and maintaining all the SA tasks.

  13. Pingback: My Advice for the New SA Grad | Clemson Student Personnel Association

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