Monday, May 19, 2014

The First Base Coach Problem

In thinking over the story of the dean at Saskatchewan who was fired for publicly disagreeing with his president, I thought about first-base coaches.

In baseball, the manager usually sits in the dugout throughout the game.  But when a team is batting, it dispatches other coaches to stand by first and third bases.  The job of the third base coach is to be the eyes in the back of the runner’s head; a runner coming from second towards third may not know whether it’s safe to run home, so he’ll look to the third base coach for a ‘go’ or ‘stop’ sign.  I’ve never been entirely clear on what first-base coaches do, since “run to first” is pretty much a given.  Maybe they relay signals to batters.  

The first and third base coaches are ranked below the manager, and report to him.  While they do carry some level of authority, the major strategic decisions are made by the manager.  The lower-level coaches’ role is to carry out the decisions made by the manager.  They have to use some judgment in the process, but the judgment is understood to be in service of the direction set by the manager.  If the manager decides to downplay base-stealing to maximize the chance of the three-run homer, then the base coach needs to respect that, even if he would rather send the runners.  

The reason for that is clear.  If every coach is allowed to freelance, it will be impossible to execute any given strategy consistently.  Players won’t know which cues to follow.  (Or, just as likely, they’ll follow the cues of the person with the highest rank, leaving the lower-level folk as irrelevant as they would have been anyway.)  A base coach who argues with a manager in view of the players is asking to be terminated.  Even if the coach is right in that particular case, there’s a serious issue of the manager’s standing with the players.  

That said, there’s nothing preventing a coach from arguing with a manager behind closed doors.  I would guess that the most effective teams are the ones that combine healthy private discussion -- a form of quality control for ideas -- with disciplined execution once the decision has been made.  

Replace ‘manager’ with ‘president’ and ‘coach’ with ‘dean,’ and I think it works.  The president has to be able to set the major directions, ideally in consultation with the Board.  (Replace ‘Board’ with ‘owner.’)  Deans and other administrators need to be able to use judgment in the service of the major directions set by the president.  In a well-run college, I would hope that deans and others would be free to raise questions during the decision-making phase; nobody has a monopoly on wisdom, and quality control matters.  But once the decision is made, it’s made.

The alternative is chaos.  If the president says x, the provost says y, and the dean says z, to whom should a professor listen?  It’s usually better to implement a pretty good idea than to debate endlessly which one is best.

So what should the dean do when faced with a decision from above that he just can’t abide?

I’m thinking he really has two options.  She can suck it up, put aside her misgivings, and do her job, or she can leave.  Either option can make sense, depending on circumstances and the level of disagreement. (In many cases, the disagreement is real but relatively minor.  If everybody quit in a huff every time they disagreed about something, nobody would ever get anything done.) But staying on as a thorn in the side, or footdragging and sabotaging, wouldn’t be right.

I’ve faced this issue myself.  When I was at DeVry, I had hoped to see things move in a particular direction.  For a while, they did.  But then they reversed, and over time, the backwards motion got faster.  It became clear to me that staying on would mean carrying out a series of decisions that struck me as increasingly ill-advised, so I started sending out applications.  When I left, a colleague described his reaction as “surprised, but not shocked,” which seemed about right.  Based on what I heard from former colleagues over subsequent years, it was the right call.  I was able to work someplace that was more congruent with my academic values, and they were able to move decisively in the direction they wanted, for better or worse.

The idea of the heroic martyr rallying resistance from within just doesn’t square with how organizations have to work.  One person’s gadfly is another’s prima donna.  Colleges are complicated enough, with enough moving parts, without adding intramural politicking.  As uncomfortable as it can sometimes be, the first base coach has to understand his role.