Sunday, January 04, 2015

The Tap on the Shoulder

“You should be on the radio.”

One night in my freshman year of college, several of us were hanging out in a dorm room.  We had the stereo tuned to the campus radio station, and we were doing the urgent/overlapping conversation thing that happens at that age.  At a pause in the discussion, one of my friends said, from out of nowhere, that I should be on the radio.  When I asked him why -- I think my exact word was “huh?” -- he just said he thought I’d sound good.  I had never really thought about it, but once the seed was planted, that was that.  I joined the station, and it was one of my favorite parts of college for the rest of my time there.  (“440 watts of raw power!”)

Where that idea came from, I don’t know.  And I probably wouldn’t have come up with it myself.  But when I got the proverbial tap on the shoulder, it did some real good.

I’ve seen students respond to the tap on the shoulder from professors.  One of my favorites from my teaching days was a young woman who was very quiet in class, but whose writing showed real depth and talent.  I made a point one day of letting her know that her work was extraordinary, and that I’d be happy to see her participate more in class.  From that point, she did, and it was like watching a rocket launch.  She just needed permission to be smart.  

Taps on shoulders are less common than they probably should be.  I’m increasingly convinced that one of the jobs of experienced administrators is to look for administrative talent in the faculty, and to offer those taps when appropriate.  Some of the best ones don’t think of themselves that way, and might not step up if left unprompted.

Granted, in this setting the tap on the shoulder can be problematic.  The widespread faculty taboo against “crossing over to the dark side” can lead to some folks taking it the wrong way.  And encouragement can look like favoritism to the folks who don’t receive it.  It’s important to frame the discussion around untapped capabilities, rather than implied promises.

Done right, it can lead to some very good people stepping in, where otherwise they would not.  Given the challenges that higher education is facing at this point, it needs all the talent it can get.  When the wrong people step up, or people step up for the wrong reasons, well, we all know what happens.  (The Twitter feed @ass_deans offers a pretty good example of nightmare admins.)  Over time, good hires lead to more good hires, as smart people start to see that the job can be done well.  Conversely, lousy hires lead to lousy hires, as good people keep their distance in a version of Gresham’s Law.  (“Bad money drives out good.”)  

Part of the trick is making a conscious effort to avoid just seeking out younger versions of yourself.  Talent comes in different ages, colors, genders, and temperaments, and it would be naive not to acknowledge that some people see it more readily in some groups than in others.  Whether consciously or not, some folks tend to seek out Mini-Me’s.  That’s one of the arguments for diversity -- if everyone has blind spots, better at least to make sure that the blind spots are evenly distributed, so they can cancel each other out -- but I don’t think that gets anyone off the hook to guard against their own blind spots.  

As the first wave of Boomers starts to retire, the next cohort is starting to matter a lot more.  Yes, taps on the shoulder can fail or backfire, but they can also lead to some very good people stepping up.  I look back fondly on my radio days, and honestly believe that I did a decent job of it.  I just needed someone to point it out.