Wednesday, November 17, 2010


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?