Dawn Z. Hodges is vice president for academic affairs at Southern Crescent Technical College. Email her at dhodges@sctech.edu.

Recently I attended a webinar that debuted John Maxwell’s new book, Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn: Life’s Greatest Lessons Are Gained From Our Losses. On the cover of the book, the word “learn” is written over the word “lose.” About the book, Maxwell said, “I really believe that hope is the difference-maker. Whenever you lose, it’s hope that gives you the desire to overcome the loss. Hope for something better is the catalyst for wanting to learn.”

The webinar and book got me thinking about my own career and some of the learning/losing I have done along the way. For anyone who is considering becoming a dean or a chief academic officer, my learning from losing might be helpful to you. I hope so.

Before I became a chief academic officer, I applied and interviewed for the job five times at three different colleges. That process took place over a seven-year period. So the first lesson learned is the obvious one: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. I told people for years, I will be a chief academic officer. I never quit believing in myself. I knew by the age of 35 what my ultimate career goal was. I first applied at the age of 45 and was 52 before it came to fruition.

So I learned to be patient. When I finally got the job I had wanted for years, all the stars were aligned. I am convinced now that it could not have worked out in a different time frame. Circumstances that had to line up for me to get my dream job included that the Technical College System of Georgia decided to merge several colleges into new colleges, and presidents had to be shifted from one to another. Plus I had to leave the college where I worked and colleagues I had worked with for 12 years and move on to a new location. Sometimes that is hard to do. But as Henry Cloud talks about in his book Necessary Endings, “The tomorrow that you desire and envision may never come to pass if you do not end some things you are doing today.”

You see, getting the position or title you want is not the same as getting your dream job. Because everything worked out “just right,” my dream job has been everything I thought it would be — and more. It is by far the best job I have ever had. But I believe that the circumstances had to be just right for it to all fall together. The leadership team I work with is excellent, and I am convinced that I work for the most supportive president there could ever be.

I’ve not told this story publicly until now, but I think it is an important one to tell. The first time I applied for the job as chief academic officer at my former college, I ended up among the top two candidates. I was the inside candidate, with the other candidate from the outside. When the other candidate was selected, it was a real blow to my ego. I felt a sense of failure because obviously there was something known about me that caused the leadership of the college to choose an unknown.

I didn’t know what that known factor was and still don’t to this day. But the following three years were the most difficult of my career. I really struggled with it and truly never could see what it was about the person chosen that convinced the leadership he was a better choice than I would have been. But what I learned from the experience was humility. While I struggled, I tried not to be bitter. I have always felt that bitterness is a pitiful trait. Robert Menzies, the 12th Prime Minister of Australia, said, “It is a simple but sometimes forgotten truth that the greatest enemy to present joy and high hopes is the cultivation of retrospective bitterness.”

After three years, my new boss left the college. I don’t think either the job or the college were the right fit for him. After he left, we had two interim chief academic officers. Then the commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia announced the impending mergers. Life as all of us knew it ceased to exist. The college merged with two others in the system. I applied and interviewed for the position of CAO of the “new” college. But still it was not meant to be. I kept my job as a dean and once again did my job with all my heart and worked well with my new boss.

In the meantime, what preparation did I do to get my dream job? I spent my energy building my curriculum vita. I presented at multiple conferences and published many articles in peer-reviewed and other educational journals. Fortunately, because I worked hard and did some creative things, I was recognized at my old and the new college and was afforded many opportunities to participate in wonderful activities and extensive travel.

I interviewed for many jobs in a variety of areas, sometimes just to get the experience of interviewing with panels of people. When you apply for a dean or chief academic officer position, you often interview over a period of two or three days and talk with all types of people, often in group situations.

Also, I volunteered for, or was appointed to, every kind of committee there is. Over the years, I have been on probably a hundred committees, including student discipline, institutional effectiveness, curriculum, professional development, admissions, athletics, new student orientation and grant writing. I believe the more you know about the college as a whole and how the different divisions work together, the more effective you can be as a dean or a chief academic officer — and the more valuable you are to the college.

Networking has always been critical to landing your dream job. The old adage is “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” I don’t believe that to be wholly true, but I do think that knowing the right people to contact when you need help with something you are working on is extremely important.

While I didn’t know anyone at the college that hired me as the chief academic officer, I did know someone who knew someone. He wrote me a very nice reference.

In just a few weeks, I will celebrate my third anniversary as a chief academic officer. I have achieved the dream job that I set my sights on some 20 years ago. In three years my colleagues and I have accomplished some amazing things working together. I am very happy in my dream job. The losing and learning has all been worth it! I hope my story has been helpful to you. I wish you the very best on your journey to your dream job.

Use these tips to land your dream job

To be hired for your dream job as a dean or chief academic officer:

  • Earn a doctorate.
  • Understand the big picture of how colleges operate.
  • Gain experience as a faculty member.
  • Get appointed as a department chair.
  • Volunteer to serve on various committees.
  • Understand the value of hard work.
  • Don’t fly under the radar: Get noticed.
  • Build a network of professionals.
  • Never burn bridges.
  • Practice interviewing with panels.
  • Present at conferences.
  • Publish in peer-reviewed and other journals.
  • Be patient.
  • Believe in yourself and your dream.