Rejection, Resilience, Renaissance

Brian Taylor

May 25, 2010

"Success," said Winston Churchill, "is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm." My last failure on the job market was more than a year ago, when I was an unsuccessful candidate for a provost's position at a small, religious college in the Northeast. It's taken that long for the deep wounds of rejection to heal.

Approximately three and a half years before that search, I had decided to enter the frenetic and grueling world of administrative recruiting in higher education. As a dean at a state institution, I was seeking to move up the ranks into a position as provost and vice president for academic affairs. At some point in our lives, we've all heard the phrase "everything happens for a reason." However, I heard it far too many times throughout the long journey of myriad searches, and it fully lost its ability to be consolatory in the face of rejection.

During that time, I thought often about writing this essay, while working diligently to revive various leadership talents I actually thought I possessed.

Career consultants who write about dealing with rejection tell us to remind ourselves that "it's a numbers game" and that we all need to encounter a certain amount of failure before reaching success in a job search. What they don't tell us: Exactly how many failures should we endure before ending the quest?

Here are some hugely depressing numbers that chronicle my experience and seem to defy that sage career advice: 71 applications prepared and processed; 32 telephone interviews, both with search consultants and hiring committees; 21 neutral site (airport) interviews; and 15 finalist interviews completed on college campuses.

Some institutions never got back to me at all. Of my 60-odd rejection notices I did receive, some came via regular mail, while other curt messages arrived in my e-mail in box. An analysis of their content would be another study in itself. On more than one occasion, I received a verbal rejection via cell phone, while en route to another job interview. You can imagine the impact of that inopportune news on my self-esteem and confidence.

Regardless of rejection, I put all of my efforts into being resilient in my search. I wrote countless essays, completed search-firm questionnaires, developed and delivered PowerPoint presentations, and endured numerous demanding interview sessions. Over the course of the process, I met one on one with 20 different college and university presidents, as well as with faculty members, staff members, student leaders, and trustees.

For the positions in which I was a finalist, from what I can tell, I finished second or third, marginally behind people who: were already vice presidents and were, thus, making a lateral move; had previous experience at a similar institution; possessed more-impressive academic credentials; or were fortunate to be internal candidates. In a few cases, the institution decided to suspend the search and retain the interim candidate for another year.

Each time, my colleagues calmly assured me that the rejection had probably happened for a very good reason.

Being resilient generally means that one is able to bounce back, cope with disappointment, and revitalize in the face of difficult challenges. But when it became apparent that my earnest efforts were not going to reap a vice-presidential post, I found myself constantly questioning my own leadership abilities as dean. My resilience was jeopardized each time I failed to land the position at XYZ University—that magical place where all of my interviews had seemingly gone well, personalities had meshed, and my capabilities appeared to align perfectly with the institution's needs.

Closing the door on the search process, while demoralizing at first, was a huge positive step. It forced me to stop dwelling on rejections and focus on resilience. I found it intensely cathartic to acknowledge each and every one of my professional references for their undying support and constant encouragement. Then I spent the next year directing my energies toward creating a renaissance within the deanship I have held for more than a decade.

My decision to seek a provostship was never based on a lack of joy or satisfaction with my job as a dean. I simply wanted an opportunity to help shape institutional direction and culture at a higher administrative level in a new leadership environment. Fortunately, your resilience as a leader is enhanced when you work with good colleagues, as I do. After all of the failed searches, those colleagues helped me to emerge unscathed, fully charged to focus on succeeding at the job I already have.

The most important aspect of resilience in leadership is being able to accept the boundaries of your position and find the resolve to expand and invigorate your mission within those boundaries. If, for whatever reason, I was not meant to land an administrative appointment at the next level up the hierarchy, I wanted to be able to figure out what it would take to breathe new life into my own work and the education school I oversee.

Accepting the limits of your role and then figuring out how to succeed within those limits is the only way that veteran administrators can revive their leadership skills. It's how we can demonstrate to faculty and staff members that we are still growing, learning, and improving as academic leaders.

The months I spent reflecting on my failed search ultimately helped fuel the renaissance I have experienced in my deanship. I took on a variety of new assignments and challenges: establishment of a new revenue-generating institute in my school of educational leadership; acquisition of a major grant from the Wallace Foundation; complete restructuring and reconfiguring of duties and responsibilities within the dean's office; appointment of both a new assistant dean for accreditation and assessment and a new associate dean; and creation of additional partnerships with external agencies.

So when people tell you that you probably did not get the job at XYZ University "for a very good reason," don't regard the comment as a feeble excuse for condolence. Instead, respond with enthusiasm: "Why, of course, the entire process inspired me to revive my leadership talents and recreate the job I am already doing quite well!"

Linda Rae Markert is a professor and dean of the education school at the State University of New York at Oswego.