Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Curse of the Ombudsman

I’ve been corresponding with a reader not far from Northern Town who is thinking of moving into administration. A position opened up at his college, and he applied, but now that he sees some of the details, he’s thinking of withdrawing. The Chronicle had a similar piece yesterday about someone in college marketing. Reading the email and the article just a few minutes apart got me thinking about how to analyze a potential admin job, and what warning signs to look for that the job has been (whether intentionally or not) set up to fail.

Some of them are obvious. If the ad mentions anything about functioning well in an environment of ambiguity, STAY AWAY. That’s the HR department’s equivalent of air horns and sirens telling you that the organization’s head is firmly implanted in its keister. Keep an eye out, too, for phrases like “highly politicized environment.” I’ve actually seen that one a few times, and I honestly have to wonder who would apply for that.

More commonly, the ad is fine, but bad stuff turns up on closer examination of the position itself. Who do you report to? Does it make sense that you report to that person? Are you eligible for tenure? (If the position involves supervising tenured faculty, this is huge.) Do you have dedicated staff support? Is the mission of your nook of the organization clearly understood? Does it make sense? Is your nook of the organization consistent with the larger goals and direction of the college? Does your concept of the job match that of whomever you’d report to?

I got nailed on that last one once. I had imagined the position involving using professional judgment to bring particulars in line with the overall direction of the school. My manager imagined it as errand boy for his micro-level diktats. Not good.

Turnover can be revealing. The ideal, I think, is slow-but-steady turnover, in which change is neither unheard of nor all-at-once. If six positions, all in a vertical row (VP of academics, deans of academic areas, department chairs) are being advertised at once, there was probably a purge. (The same is true if multiple very senior positions are advertised at once – say, three vice presidents.) I’d be concerned about the next purge. If you’re the first new hire since the Eisenhower administration, be prepared for all manner of forehead-slapping moments as you try to make sense of patches and overrides encrusted with layers of history, and for all manner of distrust as your very presence serves to remind some very defensive people of their own mortality.

Would you have the leverage to get done what you need to? I call this The Curse of the Ombudsman. In every organization I’ve seen that actually had an Ombudsman, nobody would take her calls, since they were never good. So the Ombudsman became what Tom Wolfe called a flak-catcher, absorbing blows from angry students/parents/clients/citizens on behalf of the organization, but without the power to do much of anything about them. Departments treated the Ombudsman as something between a mascot and a mosquito.

These aren’t always easy to spot upfront, of course, but a few strategically-directed inquiries can be helpful. How large a budget do you have? Are you relying on other departments to do work for you, and if you are, what incentive do they have to comply? Ask to see an organizational chart (very few places put these on their websites, which I consider a terrible shame), and study it very carefully. And don’t take a job when the sirens are flashing before you’re even there.

I don’t think positions that are set up to fail are usually the result of malice. If anything, most of the time, organizations aren’t fully aware of what they’ve done. Most people aren’t that good at systems thinking, and it’s always easier to blame the incumbent than to redesign a structure entirely. Throw in the chronic budget shortages and a dose of optimism, and you have prime conditions for creating positions that won’t work.

Have you ever had a position that was set up to fail?