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C. K. Gunsalus

C. K. Gunsalus and her team of colleagues at C. K. Gunsalus & Associates provide leadership development, training workshops and executive coaching for a range of age and skills, from entry-level professionals to executives. In problem situations, they can assess and improve the operation of dysfunctional workgroups.

She has a written book on survival skills for academic leaders published by the Harvard University Press, The College Administrator’s Survival Guide (2006), and one about preventing and responding to workplace challenges, The Young Professional’s Survival Guide: From Cab Fares to Moral Snares (Harvard Press, 2012). You can find C.K. on Linkedin here, and read her expanded biography here.

1. Most job postings cite “X” years of relevant work experience and specific education criteria as requirements to be considered for the position. With this in mind, what prior work experiences and degrees/certifications/training helped prepare you for your current role?

I’ve never held a position that existed before it was opened for me, so I’m not a great person to address this question. I’ve mostly created my own spots and positions through a combination of making suggestions, doing work that caught someone’s attention and being in the right place at the right time. The critical elements are being aware of the needs of others and ways that a new approach might prove useful or constructive. It’s all about applying some insight or talent or skill in a way that solves problems for other people. Another attribute that’s really made a difference in my career has been my willingness to write about what I’ve learned—often from making mistakes. So my most recent book, The Young Professional’s Survival Guide (Harvard Press, 2012), is, I hope, an accessible resource about how to avoid predictable problems at work, especially when you’re just starting out. My first book was about how to avoid and solve problems as a university administrator. Both are rooted in my experience and the experience of others I worked with or helped. 

1B. What (if any) additional knowledge or skills that you don’t currently have would make you even better at your job?

I would be better at my work if I was better declaring something “good enough.” I struggle with the reality that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and finding the line between the two efficiently and promptly. On a related note, I’d like to have more energy and more time.

2. Some jobs require the incumbent to be very analytical. Others require one to be a strong communicator, and others still require traits like patience, the ability to multitask, self-directedness, comfort with ambiguity, and exceptional attention to detail. Are there any behaviors and/or attributes that you would say are essential to performing the work that you do?

Being a good listener. It takes a commitment and emotional energy to focus fully on the other people in interactions, and it’s hard to go wrong with making sure you’ve really understood before concluding or providing possible approaches or solutions. In leadership development—whether in executive coaching or in courses or training programs—and in helping to improve dysfunctional work environments, listening is key.

3. Jobs guru Lou Adler says there are only 4 job types of jobs in the world (producers, improvers, builders, and thinkers). Which type of job are you in?

I’m a builder. I often go into a situation where there’s a problem, work to clean up the problem, devise new solutions or approaches, get it up and running and hand it off to someone else. My work also has an element of improving, as there’s rarely a blank sheet—usually, there’s something there, something not working, something that needs improving. 

4. Does your job involve either directly or indirectly supervising or managing people? If so, how many direct (or indirect) reports do you have?

That varies tremendously. In the ethics center I lead and in my consulting business, I only directly supervise one or two people. I coordinate many, many more. I have colleagues who are collaborators, associates who sign on for individual projects, contractors who provide specialized skills, and the teams I work with across a range of organizations. In creating and running Business 101, I was responsible for delivery of a course that involved up to 45 or 50 Section Leaders, a course management team of four, some support staff, and a range of colleagues who contributed to the course in various ways, all of which are essential for a successful learning experience for our students.  

5. How does what you do impact the business? Think complexity (different types of impacts) and scale (degree of impact). Put another way: Who and what would be impacted if your job wasn’t being done well, and why would it matter that they were impacted?

What I do is fundamental to the integrity of environments and leadership. If I do my job well, people and organizations I work with have a clearer sense of their mission and better approaches to working with each other, preventing and solving problems. 

6. Is your job safe? Rate its safety on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being “seated all day in an air conditioned vault” and 10 being “I’m an astronaut going into space”. If your job isn’t safe, what working conditions (specifically) make it hazardous?

I would rate it at a 3. My job is safe in terms of physical safety—if you leave aside the risk of travel and every day life and the emotional risk of putting myself out there every time I do a workshop, write something, teach a class or work with a troubled workplace. Talking with people about their core values and beliefs, as part of their professional tool kit, can lead to emotional moments, and managing those to be safe and constructive for the choices they make is key. 

7. Is there anything I missed that people should know about your job? Is there anything else you want to say about what you do?

Imagine yourself at work, doing your best to do a good job—and your boss asks you to do something that doesn’t feel right, like fudge a sales report, or lie to a customer. You have no idea how to handle the situation, and your boss is hovering. When you’re caught off guard, under pressure from someone more powerful, it’s easy to make a mistake. And having made one, it’s easier to rationalize the next one.

Or imagine being the manager of an office where this happens, and your front-line personnel don’t know how to handle the situation or how to get help effectively. My goal, and my most recent book, aim to help people head off problems that are predictable and to develop the skills to work through the unavoidable problems that arise when you work with other people. My overall goal is to provide professional skills and tools so those I work with can build—and support the building of— careers that makes them, their families, and their companies proud.

As always, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.