Sharon Schaff, MSOD '13
Unchecked bias and group dynamics hinder understanding and surfacing the best solution
About Josh Epperson
For the past decade, Josh has worked at Navalent helping leaders and organization overcome their business challenges. He works with a variety of organizations and leaders ranging from community-based NGOs to privately owned business to multi-billion dollar public corporations.
Josh: Sharon, tell me a little bit about what you’re up to.
Sharon: I oversee the career services and internship programs for Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, the largest and most diverse community college in Massachusetts with 14,000 students and 75 languages spoken. I’ve helped with visioning and creating a culture shift from traditional 1:1 counseling to a career services build-out that helps our mostly non-traditional students access services, better prepare, and gain experience across the full student life-cycle.
We’ve developed an entry framework of Career Planning Milestones that map to a student’s progress at the institution, and have scaled service offerings to include 3 new web/technology implementations, expanded group workshops, and suggested activities for faculty to integrate into the classroom.
For students ready to field-test their skills, our academic internship programs are a flagship model of success that have quadrupled in growth to support ~400 students annually in over 20 majors interning at companies like Raytheon and EMC, and winning 3 national awards for best practices, best partnership, and student achievement.
For graduation-ready students, we’ve recently initiated our first dedicated employer relations and targeted job placement support strategies.
The people in the program are the ones who make it what it is.
Josh: Tell me a little about your experience in the MSOD program.
Sharon: Most of the people I am working with don’t have a clue what OD is. I tell them the program is a combination of business and psychology, ‘every organization is perfectly designed to get the results it’s getting.’
The program gave me a fundamental framework of theory. I am a biologist by initial training so I like to look at a lot of data and bucket it from the smallest individual unit all the way to the large system. Learning about the models that work across those was very helpful; it was a good foundation for me.
The people in the program are the ones who make it what it is. Peers and faculty, that’s what contributes to your learning and development. I went in very open, but expecting more tangible, hard skills than I got. What I did take away was our cohort’s vibrant sense of community. I wasn’t expecting that at all. We’re working professionals across the globe, but we gelled around common values as a point of view. You could feel the power of a community coming together.
Josh: We’re there any ‘defining moments’ for you during the program?
Sharon: China and the consulting assignment comes to mind. This was our third consulting project. I had a strong connection with our client and by default became the project lead. In that moment I just went with it to support the team. They were looking to me for leadership. We didn’t understand all the dynamics at play with this client early on and that caused some challenges.
Our team tried hard to re-contract with our client and it wasn’t working. We had this uncomfortable 45 minutes of trying to save face with them. We finally realized that we needed to the let the interpreters save face and just go with what they were saying.
Afterwards, we reflected on that moment as a team and realized that the interaction went awry a lot earlier than what we first realized. Our Western notion to clarify put us at direct odds with the nuanced nature of Chinese business relationships. It took a while for us to agree on a path forward with our client, but in the end we got there.
Josh: How do you connect the dots between your experience in China and what you have to accomplish in your day job?
Open Space could help us surface intrinsic drivers and better embrace complexity for a future vision.
Sharon: We have a lot of international students that we place in internships and they often have cultural barriers when it comes to communicating with their manager or professor. Every semester I have the opportunity to draw on my experience in China. Our classes are diverse. I love drawing students out to encourage each other in cross-cultural challenges. I can relate to where they might be at, because I lived through it.
Also, awareness that one of my strengths is to connect with my clients. I can be in a meeting when people get lost in the facts and miss the ‘why.’ I see that happen with our employer partners and I get to bring everyone back to the client-focused facts. I’ve had to stop a whole presentation to understand what the client really wanted.
I think you can always look further back to understand what happened in an interaction. I respond to what I am aware of yet because of my biases I might not see everything. I might be more comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity than others and as a result they’re going to see things about the dynamic I won’t. I have to work a lot across a siloed system with fractured communication structures. Stepping back, taking the reflection one step deeper, and including others often times helps me realize that the problem really isn’t about what it seems like at first.
Josh: What sorts of things are you yet to incorporate from your MSOD experience into your work at Bunker Hill?
Sharon: Top of mind for me are things that have to do with culture and visioning. I care about helping my current institution overcome broader challenges. Last summer I did some A.I. (Appreciative Inquiry) and visioning work with my own team. It’s important for us to look at the larger expanded area and clarify how we’re going to collectively serve students. Open Space and allowing people to bring their voices into the room would be great for our culture to experience. We’re a tall hierarchy and leadership doesn’t always hear what they may need across lower levels. Open Space could help us surface intrinsic drivers and better embrace complexity for a future vision.
I also love the study of company culture and how that impacts our students’ career values and civic engagement. In my space I work with different faculty and a variety of stakeholders. I would like to explore bringing more data into the room in a large group, diverse way that helps us become a better experiential teaching and learning institute.
Josh: Anything else you’d like to add before we close?
Sharon: MSOD was my real source of manager leadership training. When I started MSOD I became a Director of two disparate groups and we have zero in-house training for that sort of thing. It was very valuable to talk to folks in our cohort who had experience, ideas about how to address challenges and strategies to overcome them. Plus, the program built personal insights on my own Johari window and leadership style. Having that awareness, support, and the principles behind it to create new stories and create value in identifying what people are thinking was critical for me.