Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Talent Scouting

About a year ago I was at a workshop in which the participants were asked to write down their managerial superpowers.  I wrote “talent scout.”  I stand by it.

Talent scouting in academia is different than in sports or show business.  In sports and show business, you’re seeing people play or act, just as you’re scouting them to do.  You may be looking for clues as to how they’ll perform at a higher level of competition, but the basic tasks are the same.  A high school baseball player does the same tasks as a college or professional one.  And usually, the prospective players or actors go out of their way to get noticed.

Talent scouting here is different.  

In teaching, sometimes it means delivering the tap on the shoulder to let a particular student know that she’s better than she thinks.  Clint Smith’s tweet yesterday reminded me of that.  I’ve had a few students over the years who were much more thoughtful than they gave themselves credit for; once I gave them explicit permission to be smart, they took off.  Teachers have that power, at least sometimes.  

Using that power well means distinguishing between the perfection of a flawless task and the errors of growth.  Flawless execution of set tasks is well and good.  But the ambitious ones who sometimes stretch a little farther than their reach -- the rookies who gets thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double, to extend the baseball metaphor -- are often the ones who benefit from being noticed.  Errors of sloppiness or apathy are fundamentally different from errors of growth; the best teachers know immediately which are which.  The catch is that sometimes the students themselves don’t know the difference, and can undermine themselves by focusing on their mistakes. When you single out the one who’s stretching and offer constructive praise, the results can be amazing.

In administration, talent scouting often means finding latent abilities in people other than the ones they were hired for, and are paid to perform.  That’s very different from the baseball scout who watches the high school pitcher.  It’s closer to figuring out which player would make the best manager.  The skills overlap to some degree, but they’re distinct enough that the best at one role are not necessarily the best at the other.

When I moved from full-time teaching to full-time administration, I used to describe the change as being like switching from sprinting to distance running.  They’re both demanding, but in different ways.  The best sprinter may or may not be the best distance runner, and vice versa.

I’ve known some absolutely amazing classroom performers who leveraged their considerable charisma and flair for the dramatic to deliver lectures for which they could have sold tickets.  When they were on stage, they commanded it.  In the right setting, with the right boundaries, that can be wildly effective.  But that doesn’t really translate to administration, where the tasks are often more about collaboration, diplomacy, and patience than about owning the room.  

In discussing a controversial campus proposal, for example, I’m typically more impressed by a really good question than by a fire-breathing tirade.  The person who can come up with the third, better option to a dilemma catches my eye.  And the one who can see past what’s said to get at what’s meant -- even if the speaker isn’t consciously aware of it -- and build a solution on that, is a star.  

The limited hiring of the last few years has been frustrating, not least because it has it reduced the relevance of talent scouting.  But it never stops mattering.  Sometimes education is about showing someone a talent he didn’t know he had, whether it’s a professor with a project or a third grader with a poem.  

Thank you, Clint Smith, for a timely reminder.