Wednesday, November 17, 2010

 

Mini-Me

Academic administrators get tired of hearing the “cross over to the dark side” line. It’s tired, it’s arrogant, and it picks the wrong villain. Darth Vader isn’t the real villain; Mini-me is.

Fans of cheesy-bad movies will remember Mini-me as Dr. Evil’s sidekick/mascot in the Austin Powers movies. Dr. Evil had his share of great lines (“the Diet Coke of evil”), but his true awfulness shone forth in his creation of Mini-Me. Mini-me was exactly how he sounds -- a smaller, but recognizable, version of Dr. Evil himself.

I’ve seen managers hire Mini-me’s to help them, and I really have to wonder what they’re thinking. It’s much smarter to hire your opposites.

We all have strengths and weaknesses. Mini-me’s have the same strengths and weaknesses you have. That means that certain tasks will either get ignored or will get done badly, since they fall under everybody’s weaknesses. Hiring people with similar priorities to yours, but different strengths, makes delegation easier and far more effective. If I can play to my strengths and my staffers can play to theirs, and among us we get most things done, then everybody wins.

Differentiation also allows your people to have distinctive work identities. This doesn’t matter much in the early stages, but over time, it comes to matter quite a bit. Being seen as somebody else’s Mini-me is demeaning, and it doesn’t do much for one’s credibility. Being seen as the go-to person for (whatever) gives you some standing, though, and lets you carve out your own identity without having to sabotage the team effort. You don’t have to be contrary to draw notice.

Opposites will also be able to see in your blind spots, and you’ll be able to see in theirs. It will be much harder to fall into groupthink with people whose orientation to the world is different.

In committee settings, it’s easy to default to ‘consensus,’ which typically means the least-different candidate. This is a serious mistake, and it’s easy to make. Hiring opposites requires a certain level of self-awareness, as well as a certain level of self-confidence. As rare as those traits are in individuals, they’re that much rarer in groups. Academic departments frequently try to clone themselves in hiring, rather than looking for what isn’t already there.

Making opposites compatible takes some doing, but it can happen. Back when creatures called “Associate Deans” still roamed the earth, I had an associate dean whose training (and temperament) were as an accountant. It was wonderful. He handled some of the things I have to force myself to do, and I handled the icky personnel stuff that made him jumpy. Between the two of us, we covered most of what needed to be done, and we never had conflict over who should do what. My preferences and his were almost mutually exclusive, so we could each play to our respective strengths and still get the job done.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found successful and elegant ways to get search committees to reject the evil temptations of Mini-me?

Comments:
I was just reading about this in a class I'm taking this semester. William Cohen, in his book, "A Class with Drucker: The Lost Lessons of the World's Greatest Management Teacher" talks about the importance of clearly defining the job requirements when preparing to staff a position. He suggests the list of requirements should be brief and contain specifically those critical skills/experience areas that are mandatory for success in the position. Keeping the requirements list brief and focused can help ensure a maximal candidate and avoid someone who has a weaker showing across a broader set of criteria. Additionally it can make it harder for a hiring manager to tailor a job description specifically to fit one specific individual.

Management literature is also filled with the exhortation to build diverse working groups and teams and the resultant benefits they can provide. This is a hard point to drive home in any environment, as we all naturally tend to prefer harmony, and what better way to provide harmony than by hiring a "mini-me" who views things exactly the way we do. Diversity of life experience, perspective, and culture in a team and organization can provide for a more complete view of any situation and can increase the likelihood of having a broader perspective and lead to a more effective course of action. The challenge is in getting people to understand that conflict isn't always detrimental and can in fact be very beneficial.

With that said, there's a difference between hiring someone who has a very different perspective or experience than you and hiring an obstructionist who has a closed mind, himself/herself wants to create a cadre of mini-me's, and who's more interested in his/her own personal agenda than the betterment of the organization.
 
I don't know how to stop it, but if you do figure it out, maybe you can tell everyone in politics, too.
 
I hope someone on the hiring committee for the job I just applied for reads this. It's a position that I held before at another institution but do not currently hold. I was very, very good at it, too. But my background and other experiences don't look like the "fit" the employer probably "thinks" they want.
 
Patricia Pitcher wrote a book based on her thesis work: "
Artists, Craftsman and Technocrats : The Dreams, Realities and Illusions of Leadership." It ties in well with what you describe, as she explains how artists will tend to chose someone opposite to them, often a technocrat, but technocrats will instead tend to hire someone like them. This results in a growing representation of technocrats among administrators, and the shifts that follow regarding the creeping needs for more policies and more reports...

So get artists! And make sure that whoever writes the posting understands what's at stake.
 
First rate people hire first rate people. Second rate people hire third rate people.
 
On some level I'm in agreement with punditus, although this becomes circular (you know you have a first rate person because...)

As for hiring artists - yeah, sure, creativity, blah blah blah. Make sure they are competent managers though, if what they'll be doing in their day jobs is managing. A painter who has no ability to craft coalitions, or a flutist who can't stand to deal with budgets is hardly going to help you, if you put them in positions where those are things they need to do.

And finally, I don't think it is only about hiring diverse staffers. I think it is also about changing institutional cultures. I work in a place where sticking your head up to present an alternative view point is really asking for your head to be lopped off. People may have all kinds of different ideas, but they don't have much of a chance to get their voices heard. Until that changes at the very top, it won't matter too much who you hire in the middle and at the bottom. Either people will keep their thoughts to themselves (and stay employed), or they'll leave for places where they're able to speak up without fear.
 
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