Listening to the Wrong People

When new presidents take office, they need to make judgments based on good information, or they will get rid of those they may most need, writes Tara M. Samuels.

April 14, 2014
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Over the past 14 years, I have served as the chief academic officer of undergraduate colleges, all in small to midsized private institutions. The job was pretty much the same in all four institutions in which I served, despite the fact that the titles varied wildly. In two of the four cases, the job did not resemble at all what I thought I had applied for — the dean was little more than an assistant to the provost, with limited decision-making authority.  (Conversely, in a third case, the position was understood to be chief academic officer, but it carried an unfortunate title, associate dean, and thus bore certain limitations. The institution finally upgraded the title to dean after I left.) Despite confusion about titles and roles at these smaller institutions, I was able to build relationships and, I thought, have a positive effect at my four institutions.

That is, until a new president came.

Twice in my 14 years as dean, a new president came to the institution and I was let go without cause. No explanation, no thank-you for the grueling hours and long days I had put in to get three of the four institutions accredited. I survived seven presidents and six provosts over those years; all in all, I was the direct report (either to a president, provost, or executive director) to 11 different individuals over the span of 14 years. When I count the 11 supervisors plus the 5 presidents to whom they reported, I calculate 16 individuals over the years who had the power to fire me. And two did it, without cause, without taking the time to get to know me or my track record with the faculty. The net effect has been was to wreak havoc on my professional career, as I have attempted to explain this diplomatically to future employers.

What went wrong? How can a dean or provost keep her job in the context of leadership transition at the very top? How is it that academic leaders who have a strong base of support get terminated suddenly and without explanation when a new president arrives?

My case is an interesting one and, I believe, instructive. After all, I had survived changes in leadership among 14 other individuals without getting fired. If anyone could handle presidential/supervisor transition, it was I. Over the years, I had made it my business to study the characteristics and style of the various individuals to whom I reported. I had to, after all – I experienced, on average, about one leadership change each year I served as a dean or provost. So, what was it about these two presidents who terminated me that made them stand out from the rest of the group?  

In short, they listened to the wrong people.

Now that is an easy thing to say. And of course we all want to save our jobs, and we want to blame our job loss on others. But my cases present an interesting example. In both of my cases, the two presidents experienced some change of heart much later, after I had gone: One of them terminated my successor, who had aggressively sought out my position for her own. The other new president exited the provost who had gotten me fired (I had been the dean). Thus, in both cases, there is clear evidence that both presidents came to see that they could not rely on these key individuals for good counsel, to the point that they got rid of them as well.

Why were these presidents so quick to listen to people who later proved to be unreliable? The obvious answer, of course, is that these new presidents moved too quickly, failing to take sufficient time to evaluate key personnel carefully. One might say that the situations read like a Shakespearean drama: It was hubris, in the end, that caused an unnecessary termination and led to other regrettable damages. While I do believe that hubris played into these situations (and would warn all presidents to guard against it), let me offer some more nuanced suggestions to presidents new to their institution:  

First, the new leader needs to take time to get to know the members of the leadership team. And I don’t mean just a dinner together or working together for a couple weeks. To evaluate the team members as sources of information, let alone as sources of talent and insight, takes some time — weeks and even months. The new leader needs to see the team members in action. In both of my two cases of termination, I had barely met each of the two presidents. Neither one offered me the chance of sufficient face time with him so that he could discern my skills and background for himself.

Second, the new campus leader need to hold in abeyance the first narrative or explanation that makes it to the leader’s ears. The individual who gives the first explanation does not necessarily have the only or best explanation. This fact becomes especially important as the new leader sizes up the members of the team and decides whom to keep and whom to transition out. The first person across the goal line of “telling the story” should not necessarily be treated as the most privileged of the tellers. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and a wise president needs to consciously resist it.

As a corollary, I would add that simply because an individual occupies a high office at the institution, this does not necessarily mean that he or she has the most valid explanation or opinion, or even that the person is competent in the job. In looking beyond the senior officers, the president would do well to consider the views of the people “in the trenches” – staff members and faculty, especially those who do not seek out the president’s ear. These individuals often have amazing insight. Those who might seem to be the least likely to know what is going on are exactly the ones in the know, because they are observant, they have learned to keep their opinions to themselves, and they are not part of a strong faction lobbying for power.

At one of my institutions, we used to talk about the people “who had drunk the Kool-Aid” and those who had not — that is, the people who were sucked into the dysfunctional culture and those who resisted it and kept their distance. A good leader will seek out the people who have not drunk the Kool-Aid.

Third, we can learn from the Book of Proverbs: “Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” Most of us would agree that it is folly to plunge forward and not seek out individuals’ perspectives on the institution, on its history, and on its culture and morale when newly appointed to a leadership position. However, it is just as foolish to listen to the perspective of only one or two people. I have seen new presidents listen to only one or two individuals on their team, only to find out later that the individual’s perspective was deeply flawed

Fourth, the new leader needs to resist confusing charisma with talent. Our culture values extroversion, good looks, youth, masculinity, and power. When we allow these to substitute for character, wisdom, and proven competence as a leader, we will miss out on gathering wise counselors around us. These biases often influence us to overlook the perspective of those who are low key or introverted, and those who don't "look right" -- perhaps they look "too old" or "too young," are unattractive (however we want to define that), or overweight; or a woman and/or a person of color. Whatever the case, we can't let unconscious biases rule. The new leader needs to take the time to size up carefully each member of his or her leadership team and not confuse charisma or even intelligence with talent. The people who are the most vocal should not necessarily have the most privileged perspective.

Fifth, the new leader needs to be fully cognizant of the campus as a system (a la Peter Senge, in his classic The Fifth Discipline.) When presidents listen to the wrong people, they often do so because they fail to consider the institution as a system, that is, an organization in which not only the designated leaders influence what happens (i.e., a top-down understanding), but also, one in which these very same leaders are acted upon, by other individuals in the university, in a circle of causality. When new presidents take office, they do not simply receive clean, reliable information from their direct reports (vice presidents, provost, etc.). Rather, information is received in a web of causality and influence: One vice president influences her direct report in positive or negative ways, who in turn extends his influence back to the VP.

Let me offer an example. At my last institution, an interim provost was put into place precipitously when the sitting provost announced his imminent departure for another university. The interim provost had never been an academic leader – he had never served as a department chair, dean, or provost. He had not even had an administrative assistant. Now he was in charge of the entire academic enterprise of the university. He gained his position either through friendship with the sitting president and/or, as many faculty and staff thought, as a favor for certain contributions he had made. Whatever the case, it was clear that this individual had not gained his position due to prior experience and skills and certainly not through a national search.

Suppose that this inexperienced provost falls subject to the influence of a small but powerful faction of the faculty. Suppose that this small handful of individuals is able to get the ear of the provost and keep it by maintaining a flow of information directly to him, working around their chair and dean to have direct access to the provost.  It can be awfully tempting to listen to such information – you can feel that you have “special” information when it comes from the trenches. Meanwhile, by giving audience to these faculty, the provost himself communicates the value of what they are doing.  A circle of causality is thus established: The small faction of faculty acts upon the provost (giving information to him) while the provost in turn rewards them by continuing to invite it, through verbal or nonverbal means. The circle is in place.

And now let’s add another element to this hypothetical circle. Suppose that the dean replaces one of his office staff who, unbeknownst to the dean, had high value to this faction and to the individual who would later become the provost. Suppose that when the dean was first hired at the university (through a legitimate, duly conducted national search), the dean found the employee’s performance substandard and took steps to communicate that to the employee. The employee eventually (and suddenly) quits, and the dean, having conducted some systematic assessment of the positions in his office, reconfigures the two office positions.

Little does he know, however, that the now-exited employee has provided specific service to the future provost (the one who would later become the dean's boss) as well as to that faction described above. The dean has acted upon the employee by disciplining the employee and holding her accountable; now, the circle of friends of the employee will react, pushing back upon the dean, in the circle of causality. One faculty member might be overheard talking in the hallway, for instance, wondering how long it would take the group to “run out” the dean.

When new presidents evaluate the information they are receiving, they need to be aware that circles of causality (such as these) are in place. If the provost tells the new president that a dean needs to be fired because “the faculty” say so, what group are we talking about, and what has been the nature of the dynamic between the provost and that group? (Does that group really speak for all?). Has the information been gathered in a systematic way? How have other individuals who have sought to exert influence in appropriate or inappropriate ways themselves been influenced?

With its shared governance and its multiple perspectives associated with a variety of academic disciplines, the campus is much more an anocracy than anything else — a system of governance in which influence is wielded based on an association with a specific group. On campus, these groups might be academic departments, faculty with shared interests, junior versus senior faculty, and so on. As much as a new president wants to believe that the new campus is devoid of dysfunction and inappropriate practices of influence, the influence is still there.

Given the anocratic nature of campus governance -- this mix of democratic and autocratic, with groups forming the basis of governance and wielding influence -- being aware that circles of causality continually operate on campus, between and among these groups, becomes crucial. Good, wise presidents recognize that the campus is a complex system with complex patterns of influence. All is not as simple as it first appears.

A sixth suggestion: If a new president should discern a negative theme about one of the president’s team members based on the multitude of voices he or she consults, why not start by leveling with that out-of-favor team member and giving the individual a chance to improve? We do that with poor employees at lower levels. Why not do it also with our most senior leaders — individuals who have taken years to grow professionally and who have obviously been of some value to the institution over the years?

Finally, let me recommend that the new leader not  make major adjustments (i.e., at the senior levels) until at least six months into the job. Presidents, this is your leadership team we’re talking about – people who are critical to your success. It’s going to take at least six months until the “honeymoon period” wears off for you (meaning, everyone is on their best behavior) and you are really getting a grip on how this particular university works. Good leadership requires patience:  good discernment and formulation of key strategies does take time. Only a fool would act precipitously with so much at stake (unless of course there is something so egregious and obvious to the organization that it must be dealt with immediately and swiftly).

Effective presidential leadership is not easy. It means setting aside ego, examining one’s own assumptions and predilections, and walking into the leadership position with eyes wide open. Above all, it means not listening to the wrong people – listening not simply because of their title and position, because they got to us first, because they have charisma or even because they seem to be smart. An effective president will take the time and make the effort to listen carefully, ask the right questions, and  consult a variety of individuals, including those who do not occupy high stations. It is all too easy to flatline the careers of valuable, seasoned academic leaders –and rob the organization of developed talent-- simply because a president listened to the wrong people.


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Tara M. Samuels is the pseudonym of a former dean in the arts and sciences at a private university in the east.


Tara M. Samuels

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