Saturday, September 18, 2010

search for skills, hire experience, keep relationships

I have mentioned in passing that this year I have an additional role at Westminster College, where I now serve as an Interim Dean of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business.  It is a great honor (and a lot of fun) to work side-by-side with faculty and staff in the Gore School to, among other things, make sure that the college successfully hires a new full-time dean.

A couple of days ago I hosted an open forum for faculty and staff to discuss the dean search and win some consensus on how to describe the position and the school.  By the end of 90 minutes we had some to some agreement about the qualifications that an ideal dean would have.

It is likely no surprise that those characteristics were both wide-ranging and uncommon.  We want a person with a collaborative and direct approach to leadership who can handle the internal operations of the school while representing it well to outside constituents, and who can maintain our excellent programs while sparking innovation in curriculum and programs.  Or put another way, we want a person with serious business dean skills.

This of course makes sense, but it also raises some interesting questions about identifying, hiring, and retaining Deans (or any other employee in higher education for that matter).  We start by laying out a set of desired skills.  Those skills are conceptual--that is, they come from desire rather than some assessment of the likelihood that they exist in the real world.

At the hiring stage, the search often becomes an effort to match experience with skills described in concept.  In other words, we accept experience as evidence that the desired skills can be embodied.

Because the skills were conceptual or abstract at the beginning, the identification of candidates is usually a process of disenchantment, as it becomes clear that no one can show evidence of their ability to meet all of the aspirations of the committee. (For example, when I was hired for my first faculty job--not at Westminster--I found out later that I had been the third-ranked candidate for two open positions, and only a bit of horse-trading and my stated willingness to teach a class that no one else wanted to teach made it possible for me to have a job at all.)

After hiring, though, an interesting change takes place.  The ideal set of skills gets set aside, disenchantment is often forgotten, and the new person comes to be evaluated (at least informally)  on her/his ability to maintain relationships--to work well with others, to build new relationships with students, colleagues, and supporters, and to foster healthy relationships among members of the campus community.

Or, to put it as an aphorism, in higher ed we search for skills, hire experience, and keep relationships.

In this, higher education is  an outlier.  Most real world jobs come about because of existing relationships--employee X knows candidate Y and refers Y to boss Z who makes a hiring decision. (Here I am simply parroting, (probably not entirely well) the findings of Mark Granovetter's The Strength of Weak Ties.) Skills and experience are important, but secondary to the relationship.  Once hiring takes place, it is not unusual for the new employee to be required to develop a set of skills that they did not previously have, or to be expected to develop skills over time by means of experience.

I have no idea which approach--starting with ideal skills or starting with relationships--is better.  They both have trade-offs, to be sure.  If you start with relationships, the pool of actual candidates is always smaller than the set of potential candidates, and the chance of simply replicating the culture of the place is multiplied.  If you start with idealized skills, the potential pool is larger, but the commitment to the development of the selected candidate is weaker. And in either case, failed relationships can lead to job failure, whether or not the person delivers on the tasks they are supposed to do.

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