Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Interviewing Your Next Boss

A bufuddled correspondent writes:

We are in the process of interviewing for a new program director. I am a staff member in this particular program.

I've never been in a position where I have been able to interview the person that could potentially be my next boss. There are so many things that I want to know about this person - what type of leader is he? Is he the micromanager type or will he set the direction and let me decide how I manage daily work? Will he be collaborative or dictatorial? Will he be supportive of my current journey to my doctorate or will he be threatened? I currently have a couple major projects in the hopper and while I would like some support and assistance, I don't want him to be the type of person who comes and tells me everything I'm doing is wrong in order to make himself look better.

Furthermore, how do I diplomatically ask questions so that if he is eventually hired, I don't face retaliation. After all, I'm not a colleague, but rather a subordinate. I don't want to make enemies, but I also don't want a reincarnation of the previous director.

This is that rare case of "it's easier than it looks." I like those.

Every one of my administrative positions has involved being interviewed by, among other people, the people who would report directly to me. It's actually standard practice. I've also been in your shoes, interviewing prospective bosses of mine.

As you suggest, it's possible for this arrangement to go horribly wrong. People could try to pick bosses based on the degree to which they'll be manipulable from below, or they could somehow try to give the impression that the boss 'owes' the job to the underlying who fought for her in the search process. But in my observation, this tends not to happen. And it shouldn't.

While it's entirely understandable that you're concerned about your own fate with the arrival of a new boss -- no surprise there -- it's also bad form to be too blunt about it. You need to be able to take a leap of faith and assume that if you do your job well, and you get a boss who basically understands both the mission of the program and some basic principles of management, you'll be fine. So the trick is to see if the candidates understand the mission of the program and some basic principles of management.

The questions I've found the most useful are usually the most experience-based. Instead of asking "are you a micromanager?," to which nobody in the history of the universe has ever said "you betcha!," it's better to go with something like "can you tell us about a time when you faced an angry client/student/parent? How did you handle it?" You're moving at least one step away from your actual concern, but keeping it concrete enough to make answers like "I believe in working with people" clearly unacceptable. When you can get the discussion away from hypotheticals and into actual history, you can get much more revealing answers. Some managers will take complaints at face value, and immediately try to 'solve' them themselves. Others will follow protocols, and channel the complaints accordingly. Still others will simply dodge them altogether. (I'm a fan of the second strategy.) In the abstract, these can sound similar, but when you get down to cases, the differences emerge.

In terms of retaliation, you have a pretty good shot at controlling your own destiny. If you only ask fair questions, and you choose well, what's to retaliate against?

Since doctoral completion is a priority for you, you could ask about past practices regarding the development of his staff. That should give you some clue where he stands. (Past practices are much better guides than "what do you think about professional development?" As with the 'micromanager' question, the 'right' answer is far too clear to tell you very much.) Have people stayed on after completing graduate programs? Has he been flexible with time off for dissertation work? Or is it really a matter of your time and your dime?

Admittedly, experience-based questions don't work when dealing with a rookie manager. Every manager has a first gig at some point, and if you have a talented but green candidate, you'll have to allow for some abstraction in the responses. Here, it may be more effective to ask about practices he has observed that he liked. It isn't quite as good, but it's better than pure theory.

One question I personally like: "can you tell us about a mistake that you've made, and what you did when you realized it was a mistake?" It's a good way to sniff out Perfect People, who are toxic. It can also inadvertently reveal blame-shifters, who are even worse.

Wise and worldly readers, I imagine some of you have some contributions to make on this one. Any helpful hints (or horror stories) to share?

Good luck!

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