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9 Virtues Blog

Things Leaders Should Never Say: Work Smarter, Not Harder

by Rob Jenkins

09/26/2016

For this week’s post, I’d like to expand on my occasional series about buzzwords to include phrases leaders often use but probably shouldn’t. No doubt, these lines are intended to sound clever, pithy, and inspirational; unfortunately, they usually come across as patronizing, out of touch, and insulting.

Understand that I’m speaking here not only as someone who has held a variety of leadership positions over the past 30 years, but—more importantly—as someone who has worked for a lot of different leaders. Some of them were pretty good, others not so much, but all of them said things from time to time that didn’t sit well with me—or with most of my colleagues.

Exhibit A is “work smarter, not harder,” which some department head or VP is bound to spout anytime a loss of resources (like budget cuts or a reduction in staff hours) appears to threaten productivity. Of course, we all understand what they mean: We’re going to have to do more with less.

Well, duh. We knew that the moment we heard there was going to be another round of budget cuts. For many of us, especially those of us who work in education, that’s not exactly something new. We’re well accustomed to doing more with less, and we’re actually pretty good at it.

The work-smarter-not-harder mantra, however, is insulting on a number of levels. First of all, it assumes that we haven’t been working smart up until now—or at least we haven’t been as smart as we could be. It’s essentially a nice(ish) way of saying, “Hey, the fact that we’re losing three full-time positions wouldn’t be such a big deal if you people weren’t so stupid.”

Second, it assumes that up to this point, we haven’t been working as hard as we could. How could we, if it’s still possible for us to work harder? In fact, it kind of implies that we’re lazy, because the message is, “Hey, folks, don’t panic. We’re not asking you to work harder. Just smarter.”

And finally, the WSNH mantra is insulting—not to mention patronizing—because it ignores the real problem. The problem is NOT that we haven’t been working hard enough. It’s NOT that we aren’t smart enough. The problem is that we’re going to have to continue doing the same job—and perhaps more besides—and we’re expected to get the same results—if not even better—despite having less money and fewer staff to work with.

If that’s the case, fine. We’re big boys and girls. Just be straight with us. Tell us up front that we’re going to have to do more with less, and why. You’ll generally find that, if we know the situation, we tend to rise to the occasion.

Just don’t try to sugar-coat it with slick one-liners. And whatever you do, don’t slap us in the face by suggesting that we’re not already working as hard and as smart as we can.

The Value of a Committee

by Rob Jenkins

09/19/2016

Last spring I served on my 423rd faculty search committee. OK, not really, but sometimes it seems like that many. The real number, as I begin my 32nd year in academe, is probably somewhere in the low 20’s, and I’ve chaired about half of those.

This time around, I graciously declined to chair — to the extent one can describe a snort as gracious. Of the five other people on the committee, only one had ever served on a search panel before, and she only once. Even the chair, who ended up doing a marvelous job, was a first-timer. So although I wasn’t the official leader, I found the other members all looking to me for advice and wisdom. I was, quite literally, the graybeard of the group.

And yet, as often happens in such situations, I believe I was the one who learned the most. That didn’t make the job of digging through mountains of application materials, contacting busy references, and sitting through hours of interviews any less tedious, but it did make it more rewarding.

When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, there’s a real tendency to assume you’ve seen it all. But the world — yes, even the hidebound world of academe — is always waiting to offer us something new and different if we’re open to it: a new approach, a different perspective, a unique take on an old topic. Looking at the candidates and their applications through the eyes of my neophyte fellow committee members reminded me of that. Not only was our committee diverse in terms of age and experience, we were also diverse in just about every other way you can imagine, including ethnically and culturally.

Several times during the process, I thought I had a candidate pegged, only to listen to the perspective of one of my colleagues and discover that I really hadn’t given the applicant the full consideration he or she deserved. Items on a CV or in a cover letter that I considered unimportant or irrelevant caught the eye of other committee members, who were then able to argue persuasively that those factors should be considered.

Simply put, my colleagues on the committee saw things I didn’t. A couple of candidates who I never would have interviewed, had I been making that decision on my own, turned out to be terrific. I’d like to think I contributed to the process as well. Mainly, my colleagues helped to open my eyes, but I hope I was able to reciprocate in some small way.

In any case, the experience left me thinking about the main difference between the way we go about hiring people in higher education and the way the process works in most other professions: We turn the job over to small groups of people, committees, rather than leaving it in the hands of any one person. At times, that can make the hiring process seem ponderously slow (especially to outsiders) and possibly open it up to bureaucratic complications and political infighting.

And yet, despite those drawbacks, there is tremendous wisdom in hiring via committee, as I was powerfully reminded by this search. Hiring decisions that will shape the intellectual climate and culture of the institution for decades are too important to be left to any one person. Moreover, no one person, however much institutional knowledge and experience he or she may possess, has a broad enough perspective to consider all the important variables.

That, for better or worse, requires a committee.

Sometimes It Really Is Who You Know

by Rob Jenkins

09/12/2016

Academics are notoriously bad at what other professionals call “networking.”

That’s partly because we tend to be loners and introverts by nature. The whole idea behind networking—meeting people just to say that we’ve met them, cultivating relationships based on self-interest rather than on mutual interests, making “contacts” instead of actual friends—seems foreign to those of us who have spent our lives in libraries or laboratories, working alone or in small groups.

But we also fail at networking in part because—let’s be honest—we tend to regard the whole business with distaste. Getting to know people just so that one day they can help us out—and then calling on them when we need their help—strikes us as calculating, undignified, perhaps even unethical.

Having spent all our lives in a supposed meritocracy, we prefer to rely on more empirical measures of ability and preparedness, such as degrees earned, years of experience, and professional activities. The idea that getting a job may come down to who you know and not what you know offends us.

Perhaps we forget, or decline to acknowledge, that there’s a human factor in the hiring equation, and that human beings are social animals. Simply put, sometimes it is who you know.

A few months ago, I learned that a good friend of mine had applied for a teaching post at my institution, yet he hadn’t listed me as a reference or even mentioned to me that he was applying. When I asked him why he hadn’t used my name, he replied, “I didn’t want to bother you.”

As it turns out, the person who chaired that search committee was a colleague with whom I have an excellent working relationship. I would have been happy to call that person and put in a good word for my friend.

Unfortunately, he did not get invited for an interview. But if he hadn’t been so hesitant to use a strong asset—a relationship with someone who already worked there—who knows? He might have gotten a foot in the door.

I’m not suggesting that, at your next academic conference, you start glad-handing folks you hardly know like some sleazy politician. But I would recommend that you break out of your shell long enough to meet a few people with whom you seem to have some common interests.

And in the meantime, how about those friends from graduate school that you’ve lost contact with? Do you know where they are now? What about some of the younger professors? Are they still there at the same institution, or have they moved on? If you’re looking for actions you can take right now to improve your chances of landing your dream job, reconnecting with some of those folks would be a good place to start.

After all, you never know when one of them might be in a position to put in a good word for you. And if you find out that’s the case, for goodness’ sake, don’t hesitate to ask.

Buzzwords That Belittle

by Rob Jenkins

09/02/2016

Continuing my occasional series on buzzwords (you can read the first installment here), I’d like to talk this week about two that I sometimes find particularly troubling: “team” and “family.” Remember my definition of buzzwords from that earlier post: terms that, if not inherently trite and meaningless, are rendered trite and meaningless by overuse and perhaps even cynical manipulation on the part of the person using them.

Admittedly, I’m approaching this topic from the perspective of a college professor and former mid-level administrator. But I believe that most of what I say here could apply to any group of highly-intelligent, well-educated, independent-minded people, whether they work at a university, a tech firm or a law office. Such individuals—who typically, of course, make the most productive employees—recognize when they’re being patronized or manipulated, and they don’t appreciate it. This happens all the time in higher education, and I imagine it happens in other industries, too.

A few years ago, the college where I teach endured a severe financial crisis that left us $25 million in the hole and led to the departure of our president and several other top administrators. Our newly-appointed interim president—someone from outside the institution—immediately called a meeting of faculty and staff. To say we were filled with trepidation as we entered the auditorium would be a gross understatement. We knew the news would not be good.

It wasn’t. For at least the next academic year, we were told, and probably two, we could expect larger classes, increased teaching loads, furlough days, a virtual moratorium on travel, and perhaps even layoffs. And yet, as we filed out afterwards, the prevailing mood seemed to be one of optimism. That was partly, I think, because we had confidence in our new “pilot” to pull the plane out of its nosedive, based on his previous successes with struggling institutions. But it was also due, in no small part, to the fact that we had just been addressed as if we were intelligent adults.

Missing completely from the interim president’s remarks were meaningless assurances, patronizing platitudes, and blatant aggrandizement. In their place were difficult truths, stated plainly and succinctly, with little in the way of sugarcoating. It would be impossible to overstate how refreshing that was. Normally, few settings are more conducive to a good, old-fashioned game of Buzzword Bingo than a college faculty meeting. Most of these well-worn words and phrases are harmless enough: “synergy,” “quality enhancement,” “win-win.” But a few, I fear, are more insidious, indicative of the condescending attitude that too many college leaders have toward faculty.

That’s why I always wince when I hear an administrator refer to faculty and staff as a “team.” Although the term may at first seem completely innocuous, on further consideration it raises a number of questions: If we are a team, does that mean the leader is our coach? And if so, are we therefore utterly accountable to him or her alone? What if one individual doesn’t go along with the team? Might he or she be cut? After all, there is no “I” in “team.”

Speaking as someone who has both participated in and coached team sports at the collegiate level, I can tell you that teams are almost always dictatorships. Benevolent, perhaps, but dictatorships nonetheless. The coach always has the last word, and divergence from the team concept is punished swiftly and surely. That sort of approach might be necessary if you’re trying to win a basketball game, but is that how we see ourselves as professionals–as dutiful members of the team, answerable solely to the coach … or else?

Even more cringe-worthy is the word “family.” It always makes me slightly uncomfortable when someone to whom I am not even particularly close, and to whom I am certainly not related, refers to me as family. And once again, use of the word in a professional setting raises obvious questions: If we’re a family, then who is the parent? And what happens to us if we’re bad? Fundamentally, the word “patronize” means to treat someone as if you are the parent and he or she is the child. If referring to college faculty and staff as a “family” isn’t patronizing by that definition, then I don’t know what is.

I’m sure most leaders who use such buzzwords do so innocently enough, without really thinking about what they’re saying. No doubt they mean no harm and would perhaps be mortified to know what faculty and staff members really think about their “inspiring” comments. But I would encourage those who truly understand the faculty role in campus governance to avoid such pabulum in the future, as our interim president did in his first meeting with us. Just tell us what we need to know, as straightforwardly as possible, however difficult it may be.

After all, we’re big boys and girls.