The female equivalent of a work-related golf outing, says Central State University Provost A. Toy Caldwell-Colbert, PhD, is hitting the gym with colleagues. In the company of her assistants and other university personnel, Caldwell-Colbert takes Jazzercise classes, walks on the treadmill and does step exercises. Just as many men on the golf course do, Caldwell-Colbert and her colleagues mix work with recreation.
Sweating it out with her co-workers reflects a level of friendship that Caldwell-Colbert says has been consistent across all of her professional appointments.
"I have heard individuals talk about how you can't be friends with the people you work with," she says. "I would say that probably in every position I've had, the people I've worked with are my friends."
Such relationships benefit both Caldwell-Colbert and her colleagues, she says. Knowing her co-workers on a personal level allows her to better understand them and be sensitive to their needs, she says. It also makes it easier to work out professional shortcomings that may have their roots in personal problems-an area where Caldwell-Colbert's psychological training shines. For example, Caldwell-Colbert helped one struggling employee who was preoccupied with marriage problems.
After talking with the woman about how her relationships were affecting her self-esteem and how she could cope with them more effectively, including by seeking professional counseling, the woman said "I am so glad you noticed that I am having a difficult time, and that I didn't know exactly what to do," says Caldwell-Colbert.
The benefits swing both ways. For Caldwell-Colbert, being friends with her co-workers gives her a sense of balance in her life, as well as opportunities for relaxation and an outlet for work stress.
That outlet has benefited Caldwell-Colbert throughout her 27-year career in higher education, which includes administrative, research, faculty and clinical positions at the University of Illinois, the University of Kansas and Indiana State University. Before joining Central State, located in Wilberforce, Ohio, one of the oldest black-administered institutions of higher education in the nation, she served as the first female chief academic officer and provost at Howard University. There, she oversaw the university's 12 colleges and schools, and its divisions of student affairs, research administration, administrative services, health affairs and information systems. She also led the implementation of an ambitious school-wide strategic plan, "The Strategic Framework for Action," which included the development of a core curriculum, a review of all existing academic programs, campus renovations and additions, including new law and health-sciences libraries.
As a high-level manager, though, she admits that the roles of both supervisor and friend are sometimes tricky to balance. A longtime friend and dean at one university she worked at was once taken aback when Caldwell-Colbert insisted the woman meet a project deadline. The woman requested a meeting and asked Caldwell-Colbert if she was trying to stab her in the back.
"I was shocked to even be involved in that conversation," says Caldwell-Colbert. "I said, 'I have no intentions of doing anything to harm your career or say you aren't doing a good job, but we have deadlines, and we need to stick to deadlines.'"
Caldwell-Colbert sees the story as a cautionary tale about blending work and friendship.
"You have to go into it with your eyes wide open and recognize that you can be the professional and the friend, but you have to make sure that others don't misinterpret that as favoritism," she says. "Be consistent and treat people the same no matter who they are."
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