Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Is This the Job I Want?

A foreign correspondent writes:

I've been in and out of academia in my career in the creative sector, firstly with a five year stint in a small regional non-US CC equivalent where I learnt the ropes and helped establish a new programme and led development of some research infrastructure. Some family issues combined with a shift in my own research direction and some attractive consulting opportunities took me away for a while, and I began a PhD, which led me back to the academy and an enjoyable second teaching stint in a large research university which has recently come to a close. I've had advice that there is a viable book in the dissertation (which I am really enjoying); and my gut feeling has been to take on some sessional work or contract consulting or a permanent part-time gig at a CC which might be on the table and try and close out the PhD/book over the next two years, then go back to the job market when my partners' contract ends and we both have some geographical flexibility.

All this was disrupted by a call from a search firm representing a large local CC looking to appoint an administrator to develop a new centre in my field. The job description emphasises greenfields aspects including development of the business plan and developing stakeholder advisory groups to set a new strategy and develop new programmes, both of which I am experienced with through consulting work and previous employment. The commitment to innovative relationships with unique demographics and industries in the region is highly attractive. The catch is that the role is also charged with change management of the existing department and faculty who I understand are, with a few key exceptions, not well aligned with the new direction envisaged by the institution (the role description from the search firm includes the need to "rattle chains"). Everything I know about academic change management from experience and commentators like yourself tells me that bringing the group along will be very difficult.

Essentially I am unsure of the level of commitment of the CC to development of a new vision, when it seems that the search firm have incentives to play up the novelty of the role and undersell how difficult it may be to implement the necessary changes. My administrative bent is more entrepreneurial than bureaucratic, and my experience has more been in "off-the-ball" management support and internal consulting roles. Without long-term change management experience of a similar type I worry that for 3-5 years I'll be leaving aside the opportunity to solidify a research base (which would open future options) to take on a role which would be not only stressful, but may not be set up well to succeed.

I've had two phone interviews with the search firm and it looks like I'll be talking with the actual CC in the new year. What questions should I be asking to find out if I can succeed in the role and what some of the traps might be? A friend suggested finding out the approval process for new programmes to understand what the barriers were to getting them implemented (degrees are often partnered with the local R1 and offshore institutions). Any other questions that would help me understand what I might be getting into would be greatly appreciated, as well as any general thoughts on the larger career dilemma.

I'll start with the obligatory disclaimer: I don't know the specifics of higher ed organization in your country, so I'll trust that your descriptions are accurate, and I'll answer as I would answer someone in the American system. Keep in mind that something might get lost in translation.

To summarize your situation, it seems like the long-term plan was to cobble together a living for a couple of years while you finish the dissertation, and then to go on the market with your partner who, at that point, will be able to move with you. I like that plan a lot; it acknowledges the importance of finishing the dissertation, it sets you up to succeed over the long term, and it allows at least the possibility of combining a good career move with a good relationship move. It carries some risk, of course -- the dissertation may take longer than expected, say, or the market may not cooperate when you want it to. (We Americans have some experience with that.) But you have at least some control over the pace of your dissertation, and there's no such thing as a career move without economic risk. On balance, this plan strikes me as smart and plausible.

The alternative is to put aside the dissertation for several years, raising the very real possibility that it will never be finished. During those several years, you would spend most of your time engaged in a war of attrition between an upper administration that wants you to "rattle chains" -- !!!!!!!!!!!!!! -- and a faculty that wants the administration, and therefore you, to take a long walk off a short plank. Your own management bent is "entrepreneurial rather than bureaucratic," but you'd spend several years trying to get long-entrenched people to change their stripes.

I don't like it.

The upside strikes me as obscure, and the downside daunting. If you do a good job, you'll gain largely non-transferable experience in an idiosyncratic setting, and you'll be at the mercy of the shifting local political winds. And that's the upside. The downside involves the dissertation growing stale, your emotional energy getting sucked into a vortex of no-win conflict, your partner sacrificing geographic flexibility, and you winding up in a much weaker position from which to find the next job when this one crashes and burns, which it is likely to do.

One of the truths of higher ed here -- and again, this may or may not hold in your location -- is that administrations come and go, but (full-time) faculty are forever. This means that it's incredibly difficult to walk into a situation as an administrator charged with being a "change agent." The faculty are already lined up to defeat you, and even if they aren't openly confrontational, they can simply foot-drag and outlast you. The upper administration may want to see if a particular change can happen, but may well decide after some battling that it just isn't worth the cost, at which point you're left twisting in the wind.

Savvy administrations don't fall into this trap. They'll acknowledge the truth that what matters in a message isn't what you say, it's what they hear. Since some people can only hear themselves, the trick to getting a new idea across is to let them think the idea is actually theirs. Then once they've decided that the idea is theirs and therefore brilliant, you bring in people to help them achieve it. Announcing that the new guy will Shake Things Up sets you up to fail from the very first day.

If you're more desperate materially than you let on, so you need a full-time job posthaste to make ends meet, I'd ask some pointed questions of the administration. How long are they willing to endure significant political resistance? Whose baby is this, and is that person sticking around? How long have people in similar positions lasted? Where is the funding for this coming from? (This smells like 'soft money' -- that is, grant money -- to me, which usually implies a sunset clause.) If you do well with this, where does it lead? To whom would you report, and how do that person's other direct reports see him/her?

But that's only if you're really desperate. If you don't absolutely need the job, I'd politely thank the headhunter for her interest and decline.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what say you? Is there more upside here than I've suggested, or is this a disaster waiting to happen?

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