May 1, 2013 by John Douglas Belshaw
When a senior administrator in a PSE institution departs prematurely – and it doesn’t matter if they were pushed or if they jumped – what one hears by way of explanation is this: “The fit wasn’t quite right.” An important study out of the University of Victoria by President David Turpin shows an accelerating rate of change in the presidential suites of the nation’s universities. It’s happening in the college sector too, and the ‘revolving door’ phenomenon stretches through the veeps to the deans and directors as well. That’s a lot of ‘misfits.’ Not surprisingly, I have a theory or two.
If an institutional leader leaves to take up a job in another institution, it may be the case that the fit of the paycheque wasn’t right. There’s a huge salary differential across the sector and across the country. These days Capilano University’s Kris Bulcroft is facing down crowds and cameras as the institution implements cuts. Her danger-pay as president of a university in the expensive Greater Vancouver area: $199,000. Meanwhile, at Cambrian College in beautiful Sudbury, Ontario, where house prices are not quite as high, outgoing-President Sylvia Barnard pulls down $250k. The president of Algonquin College in Ottawa gets $332k and the President of Olds College in Alberta reportedly earns $328k. Of course, University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera puts them all in the shade with more than a million in salary, bonuses, and non-cash benefits.
So, when a member of the executive leadership team abandons a position in a BC college or university and heads somewhere with colder winters, chances are they’re getting more money. And a lower cost of living into the bargain.
But that doesn’t address the very large – and I would say, much larger – number of administrators who don’t jump to another, better-paid gig. Why are we seeing so many administrators being pushed out the door? Why is it that the ‘fit’ isn’t right so often? Time to put my cards on the table: I worked at an institution where the ‘fit’ was not right and we parted company. It’s given me pause to think what that means and why I am in such good company in this regard.
In academia, business, and life sports metaphors abound. It seems that in this case, however, the metaphor of the ‘fit’ is more suggestive of clothing than a game. Thus, in those situations where ‘the fit’s just not quite right,’ we might imagine a metaphorical monologue:
Ooooh, that’s a nice pair! Very smooth finish and I love what they’ve done with the heels. It will go with just about everything I own and they make me look taller and more powerful, too! No, I don’t care how much they cost … I have to have them! I’ll wear them right away, thanks. These are great! Wow! Hey, look out for me! New shoes! Woo-hoo! Bit of pinching but that’s, hey! What the hell was that? Is there a nail in these bastards?!? Am I bleeding? Sweet Jesus, I think my toe has sheered off!! Oh god please just get them off my feet… Oh, the humanity! [Carries on in this vein until pension cheques begin dropping through the mail slot.]
What do we learn here? First off, don’t look at the surfaces only. Hiring committees focus too often and too much on how a leader “presents.”
Hit pause for a sec. The word presents used to have two uses: first, as regards a gift (‘Here are your birthday presents,’ with the emphasis placed on the first syllable) and second, as a verb (‘Walt Disney presents…’ and the emphasis on the second syllable). Lately it is the word of choice for how someone appears to be. As in, ‘Walt Disney presents well, for a guy who is cryonically frozen.’ I digress, yes, but for a reason. In executive hiring committees the question of how the candidate presents is of critical importance. If they’re brilliant, talented, insightful, and canny, that’s all nice … but how does she present? If we asked, how does she appear or what’s his style, we’d be guilty of willful superficiality. How the candidate presents sounds so much more professional and knowing.
Of course there’s more to the choice-making than the cut of his jib or where she’s sent by the Sorting Hat. The point is, hiring committees look for something hopefully. And this leads them to overlook the inevitability of pinch-points in the days and months ahead. As a sage and learned colleague of mine very recently said on this topic, no one is prepared for the end of the honeymoon. And it will. End. Which, to return to the shoe metaphor, is about when the bunions show up.
So, expectations need to be realistic and it’s probably wise to explore what is inside those Hush Puppies. What drives the candidate? Who are they as an academic? What do they understand the institutional culture to be?
These seem reasonable things to explore except for (at least) three concerns.
First, we’re all really sensitive about privacy issues these days and there are some questions (like “Tell us something about your passions”) that involve skating close to thin ice. Or, to be consistent, teetering on stiletto heels.
Second, many institutional leaders are now interviewed in ‘stealth mode.’ They don’t want their home institution to know they’re speed-dating the competition. Nor do they want jungle drums beating out the news across the sector as a whole. Discrete meetings in airport hotels are pretty much the norm as a consequence and, yes, that does sound sleazy. In some ultra-secretive processes the successful candidate doesn’t even get a tour around campus before taking the job. No public lecture, no meeting with interested faculty, no tea with students or the board. If that doesn’t sound like hiring a depersonalized cog for an impersonal wheel, I don’t know what does.
Third, there are the dreaded ‘set questions’ devised by liability lawyers with a minor in HR. Can you tell us about a time when you made a decision that didn’t turn out as you had hoped, what you did about that, and what lessons you took away from that experience? (Translation: Do you learn from your mistakes? Spoiler alert: The right answer is ‘yes.’) What you won’t see in an interview is the employer outlining how lousy labour relations are and the place needs a fixer who’ll pull that together before the next round of bargaining. Nothing that straightforward is ever put on the table. Maybe behind closed doors, but if that’s the case then the rest of the committee doesn’t know those are the marching orders. And marching in mismatched footwear is going to end badly.
In my last blog I suggested that No Cut, No Quit contracts might help matters. If the candidate can’t run out on an existing gig, there’s no need for sneaking around hotel lobbies. The process comes out into the open. And if one is thinking about locking in for five years with a new employer or a new manager, some pointed questions are more likely to be asked and some home truths might be revealed as well. Discovering that the next Veep has a jones for online learning – and your institution’s mission does not – is important. Likewise, the new Director of International might want to know in advance that, expertise on Asian markets be damned, we’re goin’ to Brazil. Kind of like finding out that your new special person is allergic to all pets and hates to travel; how fair is it to either party to hide these details?
Let’s go back briefly to those shoes. What does every responsible shoe salesperson tell you? “You’ll probably have to break them in a bit.” That doesn’t mean you can turn loafers into sling-backs. It means you need to be patient; you’ll need to work with them, not against them. Your new administrator is going to experience a lot of pressure to bend this way and that, while struggling to retain integrity and purpose. This isn’t a simple call for mature flexibility: what I’m saying is that this is a partnership in which the leader has to learn what it is he or she is leading (and must be given the time necessary to do so) and the followers have to be prepared to get behind the leader with some enthusiasm.
The ‘Rise of the Misfits’ suggests that this is not happening across the sector. Based on my observations, flawed selection processes are largely to blame. And there’s something else, which I’ll explore in the next blog: followership.