How to Become a Thought Leader on Campus

Manny Contomanolis, Director of the Mignone Center for Career Success at Harvard University, shares how career services professionals can become thought leaders on campus. 

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Manny Contomanolis, Director of the Mignone Center for Career Success at Harvard University, shares how career services professionals can become thought leaders on campus. 

Manny discusses why thought leadership is so important and provides strategies for becoming a thought leader, such as asking hard questions, leveraging external trends, and being a good storyteller. He encourages career leaders to make time for thought leadership and to seek support from others in their network.

He also emphasizes the need for career leaders to stay up to date on external trends and to connect them to their institution’s goals and values.

“The ability to pull that information together, to curate it, to tell a story that’s of interest to faculty, senior leaders, and other stakeholders and make it relevant to the particular institutional setting, and related to the activities that the office is undertaking is incredibly powerful, and is a very visible sign of thought leadership,” Manny said. 

He also shares how career services leaders can use their thought leader status to advance the work, mission, and goals of the career center. 

“One of the tangible ways thought leadership contributes is the way the office and team are positioned in the broader way that the university is thinking.

For example, being pointed out as a center for excellence, as the office that accomplishes what needs to be done and does it well. All of these things influence funding support. They influence relationships and where career services can be involved or brought into discussions, especially when they go beyond just career services to impact and touch on other areas of university life.

It’s that feeling of pride that the office feels collectively, and that individual team members feel for being part of that organization,” Manny said. 

Resources from the episode:


Meredith Metsker:

Hey everyone. Welcome back to the Career Everywhere podcast. I’m your host, Meredith Metsker. And today I am joined by Manny Contomanolis. He’s the director of the Mignone Center for Career Success at Harvard University. Thank you for being here, Manny.

Manny Contomanolis:

Thank you for having me, Meredith. I’m delighted to join the show.

Meredith Metsker:

I’m so glad to have you, and I’m really excited to talk to you today about how career services leaders can become thought leaders on campus. You spoke about this a little bit during our Career Everywhere Roadshow event in Boston back in August.

And I wanted to have you on the show so we can dive a little deeper into this topic. But before I get into my questions, Manny, is there anything else you’d like to add about yourself, your background, or your role there at Harvard?

Manny Contomanolis:

Well, I think I would just simply say that I’ve enjoyed every minute of every day I’ve been at Harvard. And now I’m starting my third year, I’m into my third year here.

But it was such a good timing move for me, having been involved in this space for as many years as I have and working at different institutions. It’s the perfect time to be at Harvard. Change is afoot. As traditional as Harvard and the other Ivys have been, this is an exciting time to be in that space.

So I feel really fortunate to be here working with amazing colleagues, working with amazing students, and being at the center of many things, both good and challenging, that are happening in higher education today.

Meredith Metsker:

Yeah. And you mentioned all of this change that’s occurring, and I would be willing to bet that you are one of the change makers behind a lot of these positive things.

Manny Contomanolis:

Well, let’s just say my toes are dipped in a lot of waters.

Meredith Metsker:

I believe it. I believe it. All right. So Manny, before I get into my more specific questions about our topic, I do want to kick us off with a question I ask all of our guests, and that’s what does Career Everywhere mean to you?

Manny Contomanolis:

Well, I think that’s a great question. Let me answer it by saying, whenever people mention Career Everywhere… Let me tell you how I feel when I hear it.

The first time I heard the concept and understood what uConnect was trying to accomplish with this initiative, I had this sense of positive energy, of excitement.

And that’s the way I always feel when we talk about Career Everywhere, the idea of really making an impact, of doing it in a way that provides equity of access and support that involves creating an ecosystem with all the partnerships and the collaborations that are associated with that.

That’s what Career Everywhere means to me. But it’s also the way it makes me feel, which is that sense of excitement and energy and positivity.

So I always enjoy talking about it, not only because of its importance but how it also makes me feel about the field, and the opportunities, and all the things we can accomplish together.

Meredith Metsker:

I love that. I love that you specified particularly how it makes you feel because that’s important, that’s what’s motivating and keeps us all in the game.

Manny Contomanolis:

That’s right.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay, great. Well, now I want to move into our topic today, which again is how career services can become thought leaders on campus. But I think before we dig into the how, I think it would be good to define what thought leadership means. So I’m curious, what does thought leadership mean to you and what does it look like?

Manny Contomanolis:

Yeah. Well, I think that’s a really important question because when you say the term, I am not sure if people always understand exactly what you mean.

So let me really start by saying, what does it look like? How do you know when thought leadership exists? So first, I always like to talk about thought leadership at both the individual level and also the collective level or the organizational level.

So thought leadership can be demonstrated by an individual or group of individuals that are on a career services team or the office, the organization of career services, can be viewed as providing thought leadership.

So what does that look like? Well, you see evidence of this when career services is brought into the discussions, when there is a perception in the community that, “You know what, career services has something to say about this, and we should make sure that we hear what they have to say.”

They should be at the table for discussions that touch on their areas of expertise because they can help us think it through. So really, what any office wants within the organizational or institutional structure is to be thought of positively, to be considered an asset to the organization, not a liability.

And to really be on the cutting edge of what’s happening, not just in terms of the institutional context, serving the learners in that institution, working effectively with stakeholders and others.

But also beyond that, that the individuals in the office are thinking about the field broadly, that they can relate the trends to the specific needs within a given organization.

That sense of, “That office is ahead of the wave. They’re thinking strategically, not reacting to situations. They’re on top of their work. They’re able to talk about it. They’re able to talk about it in a broad way, in a meaningful way. They have data to support the types of things that they’re doing.”

And ultimately, at the end of the day it’s, “We have trust in the individuals and in the organization.” And trust is enormously important because what we’re really striving for from a thought leadership standpoint is what might be referred to as referent authority.

That goes beyond just that realm of responsibility to, “You know what, there’re smart people there. There’re smart people that are thoughtful, analytical, strategic, and we want them to be involved in a broader array of decisions and thought processes we may be having at the institution.” So in a nutshell, when you think about institutional brand, personal brand, that thought leadership is an important dimension of that.

Meredith Metsker:

Right. As you said, it’s about building that trust and making people want to have you at the table.

Manny Contomanolis:


Meredith Metsker:

Okay, great. Well, now that we’ve defined that a little bit, here’s the big question. How can career services leaders become thought leaders on campus?

Manny Contomanolis:

Well, let’s talk about that a little bit because I know when I discussed this topic with individuals or with a team of people in career services, sometimes the response that you get is like, “Oh, you don’t know our faculty.”

Or, “You don’t know our deans,” or, “You don’t know our provost,” or, “You don’t know our president,” or, “We don’t have resources.” It’s usually all the reasons why it can’t happen, instead of how do we really think upon building on our strengths to make it happen?

So one of the important things I always like to share at first is you can do this. I don’t care what size office you are, from a one person shop to a big organization, you can absolutely establish yourself and your office as a thought leader.

It takes time and effort. It takes focus. As I always like to say, the only difference between a flashlight and a laser is focus and intensity. And it also takes a plan.

And that plan is really based on the specific idiosyncrasies or context within your institution, within the division of which you are a part. So as I think about the steps involved in becoming or demonstrating that thought leadership, there is something of a process.

And it really begins with a commitment to doing so, a willingness to invest the time and effort in doing so. And a real thoughtful analysis about what makes sense and how thought leadership might be defined within your particular institutional context.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay. So how do you go about figuring out what that looks like in an institutional context?

Manny Contomanolis:

So I think that there are some initial first steps that you need to take. First is you need to approach this with an open mind. In other words, you have to be prepared to maybe disclose, uncover, talk about, expose not only the things that an office does well, or that you do well as a member of that office team, or as the leader of that office team.

But also maybe those gaps in service gaps in perceptions, those things that maybe we don’t do as well as we need to or as well as either our learners or institution need or want from us.

So the first place is to do a self-analysis, an office review to really say, “What do we do well? What don’t we do so well? And how do those things align with what’s important at the college or university setting?”

So I often find that many of us in career services especially think we are aligned with the institutional mission, values, principles, that senior leadership knows exactly what’s going on in our operations, has a clear sense of how we fit in.

But often find that those are big assumptions. So consequently, beyond that self-analysis, that next step is really understanding from senior leadership, what are the expectations for career services? In other words, what are those things we really, really need to be accountable for?

And secondly, how are we really tracking and assessing those things? And how are we telling our story on the basis of that? So there’s an alignment, if you will.

What we’re striving for and what you’re trying to do through these processes is say, what’s really important to the institution? What determines what’s a successful career office at this institution?

And within the structure that the office is in, maybe it’s student affairs, maybe it’s enrollment management, maybe it’s academic affairs, what are the culture, the pressures, the kinds of things that…?

The direct leadership of career services, in other words, who the leader reports to, what is their thinking? What are their values? What are their styles?

There is a certain degree of leading up that’s involved in becoming a thought leader, as well as leading your office and leading your office team.

And by the way, I should clarify, I use the term leader here because I think there is an important role for the director or whoever the leader is of the office.

But sometimes we think about thought leadership as only coming from that person. But I advocate that anybody within the career services organization, regardless of role, can demonstrate respectively thought leadership in their particular areas of responsibility.

And that collectively, this kind of expertise is woven together into this idea of as an office, we have this incredible team that’s staying abreast of what’s happening, that is thinking about what those implications are for this particular setting.

And it’s developing those relationships, those partnerships where you can demonstrate that value proposition and demonstrate that expertise and thought leadership.

So all of these kinds of process steps are setting that up to begin to think about specific strategies and opportunities in order to begin to demonstrate that thought leadership, prove that value proposition and continue to evolve that visibility, that trust, and that integrity within the institution.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay. Yeah, that sounds like a lot of really great groundwork that you can lay to really become a thought leader. So now I want to dig into those strategies you mentioned. So what are some of those strategies for becoming a thought leader?

Manny Contomanolis:

I think one of the most obvious ones include asking some hard questions, making sure with your direct supervisor or the division area that oversees career services, as well as the senior leadership at an institution, the provost, the president, the chancellor, whatever the structure may be.

I think it’s really important to ask some hard questions. What is the most important thing career services can be doing, from your vantage point? How do you describe a highly successful career services organization?

This might seem to be basic work or something people like, “Well, I’m not sure. Can I really have that conversation?” I think you can, and I think you must because again, that alignment is the starting off point to a specific strategy development.

Once you have that alignment, in essence what you’re hearing from the most influential people is what are those things that you need to focus on? And that begins to form your strategy.

So as an example, one of the things that we don’t often think about in career services work is we have enormous access, much of it free frankly, to all sorts of information about careers, career trends.

Speaking broadly, not to mention what we know about the students at our own institutions or the students that we work with through our office.

So one of the key strategies is the ability to take external trends to leverage, if you will, the information that NACE regularly provides that you can access through all sorts of foundation reports from the future of work, from the various publicly sourced newsletters, recruiter information, workforce trends.

To take that information and say, “How does any of this relate to our institution, our learners, our setting?” Once you can do that, once you can take that data and start to say, “Well, what are the implications for what we do here?”

There’s two significant advantages. One, it helps inform the kinds of things you should be focused on for your learners. If you’re working, for example, with students in the arts and humanities, the more you understand about that shifting marketplace, as an example.

The more you understand about how hiring is changing and how talent is being evaluated, you can begin to tell a story about why arts, humanities, the liberal arts continue to be areas in demand.

Not as particular disciplinary areas, so to speak, but because of the skills and competencies and strengths that students develop as a result of pursuing that.

So once you have these insights and you’ve related them to what’s happening at your institution, now you can communicate this and articulate it.

You can reach out to faculty and say, “Thought you might like to see this little white paper assessment of what we’ve been able to glean about trends in hiring in the arts and humanity.”

The ability to take that information together, to curate it, to tell a story that’s of interest to those faculty and other stakeholders and make it relevant to the particular institutional setting, and related to the activities that the office is undertaking is incredibly powerful, and is a very visible sign of thought leadership.

I think another example of that is at the individual level, when team members are interacting with other stakeholders, when an office leader is in front of a group or serving on a committee, that ability to project that way of thinking strategically, of thinking broadly, of relating external trends and topics and developments to the work that we’re doing, that’s a sign of a thought leader.

So that ability to be in those settings and to show that you can think beyond just the career implications, but fold the career implications into these various discussions, I think that’s enormously important.

I’d mentioned earlier this idea of leading up. That’s a big part of the thought leader strategy. It’s this understanding of, “Well, I have a lot to say about careers, but how do I really communicate that?”

Well, that messaging should really depend on the audience. So thought leadership, how you might take these insights and share them with students is different than you might share them with faculty, is different than you might share them with administrators.

Is different than you might share it with external stakeholders, board of overseers, boards of trustees, employer partners. So that’s why I said earlier that it takes time and effort to develop this. It doesn’t just happen, or you don’t just walk in the door with it.

But one of the specific things I like to tell people when dealing with senior leadership about these topics or in response to things that they want is I’ve learned never to say, “Yes, but…” but to always say, “Yes, and…”

So it’s very different if you say, “Yes, that’s a great idea, but I don’t know where we’re going to find the resources.” That has a certain way people react to that.

To, “Yes, and if we can acquire the resources, we’ll be able to move this forward at a much faster pace or concentrate on this population.” So I think this idea of, “Yes, and…” is inviting, that this is a partnership, that we can work together.

And that I’m trying to find a way to make it work, as opposed to trying to identify reasons why it’s not going to work and have obstacles. So again, as we think about strategies, it’s leveraging all this information we have access to.

And when I say leveraging, it’s putting it in an institutional context for our learners, our faculty, our community. It’s being able to have that mindset and start to coach ourselves about how we communicate these things, how we talk about them, how we present ourselves as people who are knowledgeable, staying abreast of this.

And of course, at the end of the day, no office or no individual can really be a thought leader if you’re not demonstrating the value proposition. So that’s what I like to say.

It’s amazing how successful you can be if you can focus on getting things done, and do it in a cooperative positive way. It’s amazing how successful you can be if you focus just on those two things.

Meredith Metsker:

Just on being positive and cooperative. It’s almost sad how hard it can be to find that sometimes.

Manny Contomanolis:

Yeah, unfortunately. I know many people who’ll be listening to this will say, “Yeah. Yep, that makes sense, Manny, but the environment is working against me.’.

And I certainly appreciate and do not discount it, but I also think we could find reasons not to do things. It’s pretty easy to find reasons not to do things or to be intimidated or daunted.

But it’s slow progress. Even incremental progress is progress. And sometimes it’s like the way the ocean hits a certain section of a mountain. It takes a long time, but believe me, it carves out that spot in the stone.

And I think we really need to think about this as not something that’s a sprint but a marathon. And oh, by the way, when you do feel like you’re a thought leader, that’s also one of the most tenuous times because you don’t just achieve it like a merit badge and you’re done.

You have to constantly work at it because our field, the way recruiting is done, the nature of the whole hiring process is constantly changing. So part of that thought leadership is staying abreast of those things.

And by the way, it’s not just knowing what are the best practices in career services work or the ability to talk with institutional leaders about, “Well, here’s our benchmark institutions. And we know what they’re doing, and we know what we’re doing relative to them.”

I think that’s necessary. It’s not sufficient. What you also need to be able to say is, “This is what’s happening in the hiring and recruiting world. This is how those changes are affecting how we need to think.”

And that’s why a good example of that is if we’re really not… If in the career services world, we’re not abreast of and conversant with this trend toward hiring for skills and competencies and understanding the shifts in certain industries and understanding the kinds of roles and the kinds of skills that are necessary for success…

If we’re not conversant with that and able to fold that into the discussion, then in a way we’re a one-trick pony. And that’s not what thought leadership is all about.

So that ability to think on multiple planes, to be in the head of the recruiter, in the head of the career services person, in the head of those institutional stakeholders, understanding, forming those relationships, having those communication pipelines… Combine all those things together, that’s typically representative of thought leaders and thought leader organizations.

Meredith Metsker:

So it really sounds like to be a thought leader, you have to be the ultimate connector. Connector of people. Connector of ideas. Taking that external information, like you were saying, connecting it with the institutional information. It sounds like it’s all about connecting people, ideas, things and all of that.

Manny Contomanolis:

It is. I think that’s a good way to capture it, Meredith. Remember, it aligns with the Career Everywhere concept. It’s this idea of we… We meaning the team, meaning me as an individual, meaning our office. It should be at the center of that ecosystem.

We should be vital partners. The way I like to describe it to my team here is nothing should be going on relative to career activities that we are not either initiating, partnering with, or very minimally aware of and understanding and supporting.

Meredith Metsker:

Yeah, absolutely. That is a nice segue into my next question, which is how can career leaders use their thought leader status to advance the mission of the career center?

Manny Contomanolis:

Well, I think that there’s a number of ways where that thought leadership becomes an iterative process. You can continue to develop your office brand by being successful at meeting your goals, clearly articulating those goals, making sure people understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. That contributes to thought leadership.

Then when you have some of that thought leadership and you have those conversations about how those goals are shifting and changing, then it reinforces your personal and institution and office brand.

So it’s this iterative process that’s constantly… You’re constantly working at and adjusting. But what’s the goal of thought leadership? Well, that’s to advance your efforts as an individual, to advance the efforts that you might be advocating for on the part of individual members of your team or your team collectively.

And it’s certainly advancing the interests of your office. So once you have that trust, once you have that integrity, once you have that performance record…

When there’s conversations about how do we apply resources, which is very often in the higher education world, a zero-sum game… There’s prioritizing. Not everyone is able to get everything that they want.

So priorities, investments are also not just what’s important, what’s a problem, but also what’s going well that you want to continue to develop.

So one of the tangible ways that thought leadership contributes to is the way the office and the team is positioned in the broader way that the university is thinking.

For example, being pointed out as a center for excellence, as the office that accomplishes what needs to be done and does it well. All of these things influence funding support.

They influence relationships and where career services can be involved or brought into discussions, especially when they go beyond just career services to impact and touch on other areas of university life. It’s that feeling of pride that the office feels collectively, but that individual team members feel for being part of that organization.

It, frankly, oftentimes helps you recruit talent to the organization because people go, “Wow, that’s one of the offices that… If you can get into that office, that’s one of the offices that you really want to focus on because they’re doing amazing work. They’re recognized by the university. They’re held with respect.”

Those are the kinds of things, the kinds of people and the kind of organizations people want to be associated with. So you have those benefits as well.

And so the impact can really be significant and well worth the time investment, so to speak, in doing some of these things, which I know as I talk about it people are like, “Oh my God, when am I going to do that? Doesn’t he realize that I have a two person office?”

And again, that’s all fair. But the reality is you have to work at it. Now, if this is not important to you or you don’t feel the return on the investment of your time and energy and focus is worth it, well, that’s obviously a decision everyone needs to make.

But I would be hard pressed to really say, “No, you shouldn’t think about driving that thought leadership train because all these other things are more important or more front of mind.”

Meredith Metsker:

Right. Yeah, it sounds like it is of critical importance. So with that in mind, and what you were just saying, do you have any advice for career leaders about making time to really be purposeful about thought leadership?

Manny Contomanolis:

Yeah, I think that there’s a couple of things. First of all, at both the individual and office level, you were really good at adding things on. I think we have to get a lot better at if we’re going to add something on, what are we dropping?

I think we have to be more purposeful about carving out thinking time. And I think that sometimes we feel, “Well, we can’t do that. I have to be available to talk to students,” or, “I have to be available to talk to my team,” or, “I have to commit to these meetings.”

I think when it’s important… The adage, “Give a busy person something to do and it gets done,” I think that is true in this case. I think that you have to carve out some time.

You have to, by the way, also elicit support. Thought leadership doesn’t have to be on one person’s shoulder. You can have an internal group that’s focused on these kinds of issues.

Sometimes there’s an expectation that directors are good at everything and can do everything. I think that the reality is all of us feel like there are things we do well.

But there are things that hey, we can use some help and support. And also things that are always better because of the diversity of perspectives and ideas and suggestions.

So I think if you think about a thought leadership strategy, it isn’t only on the back of one person. And I think one of the things to think about, again, to glean these benefits, to find that time is spread the wealth a little bit.

Get a working group together, to help you think through this to create another regular time where you can get together to talk about these things. I also think like everything else, doing good work demands time, and sometimes it demands some of our personal time.

And I don’t think that’s asking too much of us as professionals, especially those people who aspire to bigger and better things or want more for their office or organization.

You carve out a little time on the weekend perhaps to do a little research while something else is going on, to spend a little time in the evening or at the end of the day.

Or carve out 30 minutes or an hour in your schedule on a regular basis to say, “Let me do a little research. Let me read through some of these things that I’ve gleaned together and ask myself what are the implications of this for the work that we’re doing, and who in my organization would be interested in knowing this?”

One of the other strategies that I think helps build thought leadership are advisory boards. Bringing faculty in, bringing students in, in separate efforts to continue to get feedback.

Your ability to demonstrate that you actually care what your clients and stakeholders think, it’s enormously impactful. It gets a lot of respect in ways that isn’t always obvious to us.

But it also, again, leverages this ecosystem, this Career Everywhere thinking that really becomes important in looking at different strategies and things that work specific to your office and to that institution.

Meredith Metsker:

Yeah, I love that. And it all just keeps coming back to this ecosystem idea and involving multiple perspectives, connecting multiple people across campus. I love it.

I had a logistical question for you. So earlier you were talking about how it’s really important for career leaders to stay up to date on external trends, so that you can connect them to what’s going on at your institution.

How do you stay up to date on those external trends? Do you have some specific places you go to learn more to stay up to date? I’m just curious what that looks like for you.

Manny Contomanolis:

Well, one of the trends in career services work that’s been noticeable over the years is the growth in affinity groups, benchmarking groups. Sometimes they’re associated with athletic conferences, sometimes they’re associated with type of institutions.

Sometimes they’re regional or local. Sometimes they are national, as might be made possible through an organization like NACE or any of the regional career organizations or other professional organizations.

I find that is a rich source of information, and I try and stay on top of that. Benchmarking groups are incredibly important and impactful. Just using Harvard as an example, there is an IvyPlus group.

That’s a tremendous way that we can all share information with one another, stay on top of trends, compare what’s happening in one similar institution to another. So I think that’s something any career services person can do. So membership and engagement in these professional associations.

I love to stay on top of publicly available information. So the World Economic Forum, for example, is a great source of global trends on talent and talent development. It’s amazing, by the way, how few people really spend time talking with their employer partners about trends and efforts.

So I think whether that’s through a Zoom call once or twice a year where you invite employers that work closely with the organization and say, “Just want to hop on a call and help me understand what are some of the trends that you’re seeing? What do you think it’s going to be like a year from now? How are things changing right now in your hiring patterns?” Those kinds of things.

Sometimes we’re able to talk about those topics deeply when employers are on campus or engaging with our teams. But I think you could make that more strategic and more common where you can carve out a time where people can do a little bit deeper dive, feel like they have a little bit more time to talk about those sorts of things.

So I also find that there are a number of LinkedIn groups that are very easy to join. All sorts of sources of that information that really vary. It could be very, very narrowly focused.

If you’re really interested in what’s happening in engineering, let’s say, or computing, or you want to think much more broadly about global trends in hiring, there are literally free resources that any kind of search effort would immediately glean to you.

And obviously, just like we encourage students to do their research and we help them curate that and figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t.

I think anyone in the career services space can do that, and begin to identify those sources that are frankly closest to what really aligns with the interests of their learners, their institution, what’s front of mind for them.

So I find I’ve spent a lot of time doing that. I spend a lot of time following workforce efforts, for example, at Georgetown or Northeastern University or national and global forums like the World Economic Forum, as per example.

Harvard has research centers in this particular space. The future of work, the future of talent, that white papers are regularly developed and made available.

I tend to be a little bit of a geek on staying on top of those things because I always find… By the way, and I think this is an important part of that thought leadership, there’s knowledge to be gleaned everywhere.

I’m working at an IvyPlus institution, but there’s a lot of things I can learn from Bunker Hill Community College, which is right down the road, if I have an open mind in thinking about that.

So I do think that’s how you can shift your paradigm. It’s affirming and positive when you’re talking to institutions like you and following those kinds of patterns. But not everybody can do, let’s say, what works at Stanford or what works at Michigan or what works at Harvard.

So I tend to feel like we learn broadly. And sometimes the best insights we get are from those areas where we would never expect it to get those insights because it’s a different paradigm and way of thinking.

Meredith Metsker:

Yeah, I love that. It sounds like it’s really just about being purposeful and making time and space to just find that information and think about it, analyze it, figure out how it applies.

Manny Contomanolis:

Data is so important, but data alone is not enough. We now collect all sorts of data. Institutions collect all sorts of data. We know a lot of things about the students that we serve.

If you use any platform in today’s modern career services world, you have insights. You have reporting capabilities. That’s great, but it’s the analysis of that that separates the wheat from the chaff. Just dumping data is meaningless. It’s making sense of that data that really makes a difference.

And the other part of that is telling a story. So once you have the data and you could be thoughtful about it and analyze it and say, “Well, what am I seeing here? What is this telling me? Or what kinds of questions is this answering or raising for me?”

Once you have those thoughts, then you could say, “Well, okay, so what are the implications? How can I communicate this? And who would want to understand this? And who would be interested in it?” Those additional steps that demonstrate that, that’s clear demonstration of thought leadership.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay. So what I’m hearing is that thought leaders are good storytellers.

Manny Contomanolis:

Yes. Once again, it’s amazing how successful you can be if you’re a good storyteller.

Meredith Metsker:


Manny Contomanolis:

Like I say to our team, I hate… I don’t want to start a conversation with, “Well, anecdotally I can tell you,” blah, blah, blah. It’s very, very important to know what is important.

Remember what we said earlier, understanding what’s important. Once you understand what’s important, then you need to know what you have to track.

And you need to know what kind of story you need to tell relative to that. Because again, it all goes back to what’s important? What’s driving the institution? What are those areas of strength, but what are those areas of opportunity?

And when you put all those together, all of a sudden the roadmap begins to become more and more clear. And then again, if you accept some of these principles I’m suggesting, ways of thinking, your paradigm about what you need to do and how you need to go about committing to that thought leadership, all of a sudden things become much clearer about what’s important, how you need to spend your time and the stories you need to tell.

Meredith Metsker:

Right. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I’m curious, Manny, what results have you seen there at Harvard as you’ve worked to become a thought leader?

Manny Contomanolis:

Yeah. Well, I think I was fortunate in many ways to come into Harvard at a time where they were ready for some change. Like many institutions, there’s hubris. And you have to find the right time for change.

And fortunately for me, I came to Harvard at that right time. I came to Harvard with a fair amount of experience that made me an attractive candidate, but that also gave me some gravitas walking in the door.

Well, I was going to leverage that for as long as I could. But what really turns the corner, I think, is having that good headstart, but really sticking with it and leveraging it.

Spending time with faculty, doing listening tours, doing my homework before I met with someone, talking with others like, “So where’s this person at? What are the important things? What are you hearing, or what are the perceptions of what our office does or doesn’t do?”

So part of that is listening. Part of that is doing your research so that you know the questions to ask as you get to these people. And part of it is just an openness to say, “Yeah, I’m happy to work together with you to figure out how we might be able to address that, or enhance that, or create that, or develop that.”

I think that can-do approach was really helpful to me, in terms of establishing that kind of thought leadership within a Harvard context. I think here, like many Ivy institutions, probably like all institutions, relationships with the faculty are important.

So being able to identify the challenges academic departments and programs have, especially relative to career services and outcomes and student support… And being able to glean those and being able to develop the strategy to address them was a really, really important part.

Sometimes faculty think, “Well, nobody ever asks me, so I feel obliged to tell.” Or sometimes, especially at certain institutions, there’s a feeling like, “Well, we can’t talk to the faculty about that. We can’t talk to administrators about that.”

So getting in front of groups was a key part of the strategy for me, and I think was very influential. I think the other thing was having a very clear sense of what are we about and how is it different?

So one of the things I did here was to develop essentially a one-pager about the Mignone Center for Career Success: “This is our mission. These are the principles that we employ in achieving our mission. Here’s the goals that we’re responsible for, and here’s our values in doing that work.”

And what I found was that that was incredibly powerful in helping people get a reset or a refresh on the goals of our office, what we were trying to achieve.

And the ability to articulate that in a way people could say, “Oh, okay, so this is really what you’re focusing on. This is really what you’re trying to do. This is what’s different,” I think is an essential part of that strategy. So that has served me well at Harvard, and I suspect it would serve anybody equally well in their particular settings.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay. Is that one-pager something that we could share with the audience by chance?

Manny Contomanolis:

Sure, of course. I’d be happy to pass it along.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay, great. Yeah. So for anyone watching or listening, I’ll be sure to include a link to that in the show notes so you can check it out. Well, Manny, I know we’re coming up towards the end of our time, so I want to be mindful of our time here. But is there anything else that you would like to add? Any final advice you’d like to give to anyone watching or listening?

Manny Contomanolis:

I know we’ve covered a lot of ground. I think two things maybe I’d like to close with. One, to affirm that you can do this. You really can. And certainly, I’m absolutely convinced that you can make a difference at your institution, and that’s really what you’re striving for.

There’s no one single strategy to use. There’s no reason in my mind to look at certain institutions and try and model after them. I think we can learn from them.

But no matter what the institution, no matter what the office, you can begin to think about these strategies. You can begin to move towards that, along that thought leadership continuum, if you will. So I really want to reinforce that because it is doable.

Secondly, you don’t have to be alone in attempting this. Here we are, I’m sharing some of my insights. I’m always happy to talk to individuals about this topic. So are many of my colleagues who have been doing the same thing in their particular settings across the entire spectrum of higher education.

So I think that when we’re undertaking these kinds of efforts, it’s really important to seek out others, to create your own network of people who can help you think through it, who can be resources to you, who can help you through those really frustrating moments.

Because this is all really, in many ways, change management. And Lord knows we’ve all been through a lot of changes. So being able to share and find others to help you think through that is something maybe I wasn’t as explicit about. But I want to make sure to make that point because I think that makes the doing of it a little bit more accessible and a little bit less intimidating.

Meredith Metsker:

So on that note, if people would like to connect with you or learn more from you, where’s a good place for them to do that?

Manny Contomanolis:

I always invite people to reach out to me through LinkedIn or of course, just email me directly. Like most of us, we’re not hard to find. And I always welcome those kinds of inquiries.

I’ve always felt fortunate in my career that others have helped me and have looked out for me. So I’ve always felt one of the things that I should do is pay that forward.

And I think anyone who knows me knows that I spend a lot of time talking with people and trying to help them think through their various challenges, or at least be there and try and be supportive of them.

I just think it’s a value all of us should have. It’s one that my father taught me. He said, “Never forget who you are, and always remember that you should always be lifting a hand to help somebody else.”

Meredith Metsker:

I love that. That’s beautiful advice. All right. So at the end of every interview, I like to do this answer a question, leave a question thing. So I’ll ask you a question that our last guest left for you, and then you will leave a question for the next guest.

Manny Contomanolis:


Meredith Metsker:

So our last guests, Kerry Spitze and Steve Russell of Bowling Green State University left this very important question for you: Coke or Pepsi?

Manny Contomanolis:

So I have to tell you, with all honesty, that I did my master’s degree at Bowling Green.

Meredith Metsker:

Oh, really?

Manny Contomanolis:

Yep. I loved my two years experience there, and I certainly think very fondly of the place. And I will also tell you, I know that as an institution, they were involved in the Coke, Pepsi Wars. But my honest answer is neither. But if I had to answer it, if I had to pick my poison between the two, it would definitely be Coke.

Meredith Metsker:

Nice. Love it. So Manny, what question would you like to leave for the next guest?

Manny Contomanolis:

So I think maybe in a lot of ways we’ve been talking about leadership in this conversation, so maybe that’s a good segue for your next guest on the podcast by asking them that question of, what was the single best piece of leadership advice you ever received?

Meredith Metsker:

Ooh, I like that. That’s a good question.

Manny Contomanolis:

Well, I’m happy to offer it up. And you know I’ll be tuning in because I’ll be interested in hearing what the next person says.

Meredith Metsker:

Yeah. That’s a really good question and a big question too, so I love it. All right. Well, Manny, thank you so much for taking the time to join me on the podcast today.

This was such a fun conversation full of just really thoughtful, tangible nuggets that I know our audience is going to take and be able to use in their day-to-day work. So just thank you so much again.

Manny Contomanolis:

Well, thank you, Meredith, for having me as a guest. And I too always enjoy these conversations. And I recognize this is not an easy thing and there’s nuances and levels to it, so I appreciate that.

That’s why I want to always be sure that we’re continuing to talk about this broadly. And that where I can be a resource to people about it, I’m always happy to do so. Thanks so much.

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