Friday, November 13, 2009

 

Ask the Administrator: The Etiquette of Postmortems

A regular correspondent whose chief academic officer abruptly stepped down writes:

When we start looking for a new academic dean, no doubt we will be enjoined to hire someone who is a people person, who has a clear vision of what a community college should do, who understands budgets, who shows a tireless concern for quality, whose organizational skills are stellar, who is able to work with diverse points of view, and so on.

But those are just the most general of bland categories. I understand that the president cannot tell us what went wrong between him and the cao, but when we start looking for a new cao, how can we have an intelligent search unless we've talked about what went right and what didn't in the past (more than five) years?

I don't mean gossip, backbiting, bitching, and breaching confidentiality.


He goes on to add that the erstwhile CAO will be returning to a faculty role, so she'll still be around.

It's a tricky situation. When someone leaves campus, it's easy to make her the scapegoat after the fact for all manner of things. But since she'll still be around, that won't be as easy. And that's probably just as well.

A study a few years ago found that the average length of service for a chief academic officer at an American college is three years. That's astonishingly short, but it makes sense when you consider the multiple and conflicting demands of the position. For someone to last as long as yours did, she must have been good at something.

Since you don't mention a change of Presidency, and you mention elsewhere in your note that the departure was abrupt, I have to assume either a conflict or a health/personal issue. A health/personal issue doesn't really tell you anything about the college, and a conflict could be about almost anything.

I'd try to steer the postmortem in a different direction. Rather than trying to guess what the CAO did wrong -- or what the President did wrong that the CAO wouldn't accept, which is also possible -- I'd use the opportunity to take a good, hard look at what the college needs now. Instead of playing 'pin the blame on the donkey,' this is a chance for the college to look at its own issues. Even if the last person was the right one at the time, what does the college need over the next several years? Figure that out, then draw up the desiderata for candidates later.

I have a pet theory that everybody has blind spots. From that theory it follows that having one person in a leadership role for a long time will lead to those blind spots getting neglected for a pretty long time. What are the long-neglected blind spots? The next person will have some of her own, but you should choose someone with different ones, just so nothing gets completely ignored for too long. Of course, that assumes a pretty high level of self-awareness on the part of the college as a whole. I've worked in places where the blind spots were so ingrained that people simply forgot they existed. If people at least know what they don't know, you have a chance.

From my own observation, I'll say that a CAO who can't work well with the President is in deep trouble. Someone who can both understand the academic mission and navigate the upper bureaucracy is a rare find. I wish you well.

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen an on-campus postmortem done well? Is there a graceful and productive way to do it?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Comments:
I have not seen a postmortem go well, and we have had plenty of opportunities to try. Usually, the President or HR VP tries to get away with saying something along the lines of, "we have decided to go in a different direction", but that only makes everyone want to know about the new different direction. Of course, there is no new direction, so the President is left mumbling about not yet being able to articulate the new direction.

It may not be possible to do well, because to do it well,someone would have to admit that there were certain areas in which the departee fell short - and nobody want to go there - for liability or other reasons.

The "different direction" routine works OK when most employees acknowledge that the departee in fact was not doing a good job. It works very badly when the departee was beloved and perceived as being effective. Then we are all left to speculate about what the heck 'really' happened.
 
"It's a tricky situation. When someone leaves campus, it's easy to make her the scapegoat after the fact for all manner of things. But since she'll still be around, that won't be as easy. And that's probably just as well."

I would call it a sad situation. Kudos for verbalizing what is the sad truth, which is that we humans can be spiteful wretches. We bully the weak, harass the powerless, and use those who have exited as scapegoats all the while sipping our lattes and believing we are something special. I find it interesting how we paint over the real problems with our vindictive natures.
 
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