Thursday, June 06, 2019
Admittedly coming from a different context, I was fascinated by the article in IHE on Thursday about new presidents starting with purges of senior staff. The article takes the position that purges are always bad. I’d replace ‘always’ with ‘almost always,’ and would expand the scope to include continuing leaders as well as new ones.
Having walked into a college as a vp a few years go that had a long history, and a history of hiring almost exclusively from within, I was quickly faced with having to suss out which direct reports had which strengths, whom I could trust, and who needed to move on to the next phase of their career. It’s difficult, not least because when you join a college already in progress, it doesn’t stop and wait for you. You have to get up to speed while everything is moving.
The most difficult part, especially in the early going, is figuring out where the unspoken land mines are. They’re different at every college. Sometimes it’s a long-simmering feud based on reasons nobody can quite remember. Sometimes it’s status anxiety around “only” being a community college. Sometimes it’s a pervasive nostalgia. Worse, people often don’t know where their own buttons are until they’re pushed, at which point you find out abruptly and gracelessly. Some level of that is probably inevitable, but it’s a challenge.
Below the president’s level, there’s the ever-present issue of folks’ already established relationships with the president. More than once, in more than one setting, I’ve stumbled across moves that would have made perfect sense if not for somebody’s abiding loyalty to someone else. In a more perfect world, people would be self-aware enough to give you a heads-up about that sort of thing. But often, they aren’t even aware it’s there until it’s threatened. Self-awareness is not evenly distributed.
Ego is, of course, an ever-present threat. Some presidents like to make impulsive decisions just to show that they can. That makes life difficult for the folks who report directly to them. It’s hard to build trust when the folks above you have a habit of turning on a dime. I’ll just say I’ve seen it personally (“keep them on their toes!”) and leave it at that.
Over time, even without purges, teams evolve. The ideal is a relatively steady pace, so at any given moment, the team has a good mix of newer and more established. Too much change brings obvious issues; too little brings issues less obvious, but just as real. The outside world is changing at an accelerating rate; if you have too many people who are too content with “that’s how we’ve always done it,” you’ll lose ground. It can also lead to folks tuning out, as they perceive a lack of opportunity to try anything new. Stability can become stagnation before anyone realizes it.
Sometimes your hand is forced. Someone falls ill, or dies, or takes a long-planned retirement. In those cases, the need for change is obvious, and there’s really nobody to blame for it.. Sometimes there’s misconduct or incompetence; those are the hardest cases. You’d be surprised how hard, or dirty, some people will fight to keep jobs they have no idea how to do. The fight gives them a distraction from their self-doubt. Their friends will rally to their aid; many others, who agree with you, will sit on their hands to avoid getting dirty. It’s frustrating, but if you think of it from the perspective of individual incentives, it makes some sense. It’s one of those things nobody tells you before going into administration.
The other side of the “purge” is the “mass exodus.” That’s when folks voluntarily abandon ship at an alarming pace. That should be a red flag, but I’ve seen places tolerate it at levels I consider mystifying. It’s usually a sign of toxic leadership, finances circling the drain, or both. Some leaders actually take pride in it, congratulating themselves on creating a new day. Color me skeptical. One or two people leaving when a new leader comes in is normal; an entire cohort leaving is a sign that something is wrong. Multiple exoduses (exodae? Exodi?) are even brighter red flags.
I don’t recommend that new leaders start with purges. I didn’t with my direct reports, either at Holyoke or at Brookdale. That’s not because change is always bad, though; it’s more a matter of pacing. It takes a while to learn who’s who, and they’ll do the same back at you. Over time, good leaders will find the right people. Bad ones will purge, and purge, and purge.