Making Management Misfits

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May 9, 2013 by John Douglas Belshaw

The Misfits was released in 1961. In less than five years all three stars were gone. [Insert conspiracy theory here.]

The Misfits was released in 1961. In less than five years all three stars were gone. [Insert conspiracy theory here.]

My last two blogs have got fingers caught in the ‘revolving door’ in academic management.  It’s not quite an epidemic, but at this moment Canadian PSE institutions seem to be hemorrhaging folks in leadership positions.  We should be concerned.  Too much leadership turnover creates dysfunction and a loss of confidence.  It costs the taxpayers and the institutions A Lot Of Money.  And it looks bad and it’s likely to continue.

Last blog considered some aspects of the hiring process that increase the risk of hiring someone who doesn’t know what they’re getting into and whose employer doesn’t know what they’re getting.  Without a doubt, the greatest obstacle to success in this regard is the multiplicity of institutional mandates in the sector. And that’s something relatively new.

In the 1990s British Columbia began creating ‘special purpose universities,’ which at least had the merit of belling the cat.  Royal Roads U., Thompson Rivers U. – they’re not like the others, and you can tell because it says so right there in the legislation: “special purpose university.”  The fact that both institutions do their special thing and also want to do what less ‘special’ universities do muddies the water ever so slightly.  Then there’s the cadre of former university-colleges that have become universities (i.e.: Kwantlen, Vancouver Island, Fraser Valley), a college that was raised to university status without the intermediary u/c phase (that is, Capilano), and an institute that had an up-do (Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design became the EC University of A&D). Add in private-sector Quest University, faith-based Trinity Western (privately-funded but constituted under provincial legislation), the subsuming of part of Okanagan University-College under the banner of UBC-Okanagan, a few other struggling privates, and the proliferation of degree-granting ‘two-year’ colleges, and the landscape is anything but straightforward.  Mount Royal and Grant MacEwan in Alberta are colleges-become-universities as well. Indeed, although the changes in British Columbia have been the most dramatic, they are exceptional only in their scope.  Most regions have seen similar transformations.

There was a time when the U of T and McGill and Dal and UBC were pretty much the model and most if not all universities in Canada had a similar mandate, structure, and (yicky word) product.  That’s simply not the case any longer.  When a new president or director gets hired into any of these institutions, they’re entering into uncertain territory.  If the Board and the Faculty and everyone who serves in between them do not share an understanding of that landscape, things will not go well.

That observation is consistent with the findings of UVic President David Turpin, who says the top job has changed dramatically in the last decade or so.  “There are far more stakeholders involved, and I think expectations have increased dramatically. The president not only has to be the lead academic but is also responsible for running a billion-dollar or multibillion-dollar operation and has huge external responsibilities to the government and the private sector.”

Too true.  Used to be the President paid homage to the Minister, the Board of Commerce, and a few other movers and shakers.  Okay, that’s an oversimplification; it is true, however, that academic leaders now have to engage directly in the recruitment of international students, the forging of partnerships, raising funds for scholarships, capital projects, research initiatives.  When most (yes, most) of institutional revenue comes from sources other than the provincial grant, you can bet that the President’s job has changed.

So, too, have the jobs of VPs and other managers. It is easy to lose sight of this fact in the scramble to “get the right people on the bus.”  Or off it.  Or under it.  At least we may be sure that public transit has a role to play.

The leadership jobs are changing so fast, in fact, that it is a commonly heard complaint among managers that they don’t have a job description.  [Pause for effect.] Allow me to restate that: it is unclear to the leaders of hugely expensive public enterprises as to whether they are doing their job or not, simply because no one has drafted up a set of expectations.  Balance the budget, find new revenue sources, advance the reputation of the institution … fine, but what if the Board wants you to do something else?  Hey, it’s the passive/aggressives’ favourite: ‘Guess What I’m Thinking.’  That game is no fun in relationships and it is no fun at work.

Still, we’ve got to hire people into these positions.  There are some serious systemic obstacles that need addressing.

Obstacle #1: The Hiring Committee.  Let’s be frank: most members lack the skills necessary to conduct or participate in a successful search. Why would it be otherwise? It’s not like people get a lot of practice hiring Presidents or Deans (one hopes).  And, of the dozen or two dozen faculty, staff, and administrators on the hiring committee, isn’t it inevitable that some will be better equipped than others to execute their responsibilities? I feel for headhunters in this environment: I’ve watched them struggle to stickhandle (unsuccessfully) a search committee away from a bad call and towards a better candidate.  By the same token – and this is bleedingly obvious – some headhunters are just better at it than others. And, of course, the headhunter has a dog in this fight (it’s never good to have a failed search).

Obstacle #2: The Wrong Stuff.  The candidates these days just aren’t as good as they once were.  Well, that’s what some folks say, but you’d think that a hiring committee of 20 self-described experts would be able to see through that one. Somehow this theory simply does not seem plausible.  I worked under deans and VPs who held their jobs for years and years and yet, if one looks at their preparation for the job, they were no more ready than the generation that followed them.  Some, naturally, were far less prepared and less able.  There’s more support available now for managers, in the form of coaching, pro-development, mentoring, and suggestions and guidance galore on the interwebs, more than ever existed before.  If I spend just 5 minutes a day reading the latest tips on LinkedIn, in a year’s time I’ll have done more Pro-D than most 1990s-era administrators did in the whole of their career.  A manager or a VP who lacks some skills – they’re almost iron-clad, gold-plated guaranteed to have some of the necessary skills – can find many ways of bridging the gaps.  And it’s simply a failure of supervision if those gaps aren’t bridged. Whether there’s a job-description or not, the boss has an obligation to make expectations clear and to show a somewhat-struggling administrator how to get from here to there.

Obstacle #3: Responsibility.  Without straining a synapse I can think of two Canadian university presidents whose recent tenures in the job lasted for less than one year. The fact that both of them were women is, I think, an important fact.  Their respective Boards decided they weren’t cut out for the job after all and they were sent packing.  They are, not to belabor the point, in good company. Where does responsibility for this mess reside?  When the ‘fit’ isn’t right, the office-holder takes the fall.  Why? To date I have yet to hear of a Board or a President hauling over the coals a hiring committee who picked a fated candidate.  Nor do they typically say, “You hired this person. It’s your responsibility if it doesn’t work. So make it work.” Nor does a Board that hired ‘the Wrong Stuff’ ever fall on its own sword.  “Mea culpa!  Alas, it was I who hired the President and it is I who must therefore pay the price!”  No, no, no, that doesn’t happen.

As usual one may turn to Oscar Wilde for wisdom on this front:  “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Likewise to lose prematurely a senior administrator is a shame; to shed them the way a dog sheds fleas is just plain sloppy.  Some institutions, as I mentioned two blogs ago, are burning through managers.  None, to the best of my knowledge, has hurled the Director of HR onto the pyre for botching the hiring process or for failure to ensure that the institution got best value from its new human resource.

Getting buy-in from the outset from the hiring committee is essential. Part of their mandate might include identifying where supports will be needed, where gaps in the knowledge or skills of the newcomer will need to be spanned. The hiring committee is often the first point of contact for a newcomer; it makes sense that they could play a longer-term role as mentors, tutors, counselors, coaches.  Some very clever and usually very large institutions will assign to an incoming President his/her very own eminence gris, an old hand whose job it is stand behind the throne and whisper into the President’s ear explanations of who the players are, what roles they occupy, and what it all mean politically and culturally to the institution.  Smart move.

The final piece that the sector seems to be missing is a culture of followership. This is neither blind nor slavish unquestioning loyalty to the manager.  It requires an understanding of the mechanics of administrative structures, accountability, and the chain of authority, all of which are poorly comprehended by faculty and staff in post-secondaries.

Anyone who has spent any time in the administrative trenches has been asked, more than a few times, “What is it that a director/dean/AVP/VP/President does, anyhow?”  A better question is this, “What purpose does this manager serve?”  And if the purpose of the institution or the sector is in any way unclear, then the answer will be equally opaque.  It is impossible to build followership behind a leader who serves an uncertain purpose.

Even an understanding of the existence of this ambiguity, however, enables some degree of followership.  Thompson Rivers University, with which I have an ongoing connection, is often flagged as both a successful institution and a dysfunctional workplace.  Which is to say it has many things going for it and followership is not one of them.  In 2009 the university’s board “turfed” a president whose first year warranty was still good.  This year three Deans have announced their resignations, and none of them has completed the full tour of duty.  One of the Deans, Dr. Michael Mehta, was summarily pilloried in the local press, a development that reflects far worse on the faculty involved, the faculty union, and to some extent even the employer – and certainly the media – than ever it might on Dr. Mehta.  This episode, like so many others, underlines the singular absence of followership, an insistence that everything the manager does is subject to scrutiny and criticism (of an order far beyond anything faculty would ever accept for themselves), and a labour environment that isolates the manager from the faculty.

If the sector is to prize limbs out of the revolving door and to re-establish continuity and stability in administration – both of which are key to making sound fiscal decisions that will save jobs, support students, and serve communities – then followership and flawed hiring structures need to be reassessed.  One cannot command followers to follow – they’ll have to find their way there themselves – but hirings can be conducted with more transparency, professionalism, engagement (before, during, and after), and responsibility.  Certainly, if no Board may sack a President without accepting first that they screwed up, if no President may terminate a VP without wearing sackcloth and ashes for a spell, and if no Faculty Association may turn on a Dean or Director without paying costs commensurate with the scale of its members’ role in hiring said manager, then we’ll see a significant modification in behaviours.

Brutus, having dismissed Caesar without giving formal notice.

Brutus, having dismissed Caesar without giving formal notice.

More than anything else, the purpose of universities and colleges needs to be absolutely clear.  Living with ambiguity is one thing; there should be no ambiguity, however, in what it is an institution funded with public monies is meant to do.  All of this will lead to greater security in the job and that will lead to better and more responsible choices, more intense institutional loyalty, and it will get managers’ noses out of the University Affairs Careers pages.  Fewer hiring committees means more money for education.  And if that’s all we get out of it, that would be A Very Good Thing.

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