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Management Training vs. Trial by Fire

One of the things I have really enjoyed in the past several years of writing for On Hiring is the feedback I have received in the comments section and occasionally in direct e-mails. I have even (mostly) enjoyed the negative comments, as they invite me to reflect further on what I have said and refine my thinking in productive ways and have, I hope, made me a better commenter on higher education. I like to know what people around the country are thinking about things that matter to me and to engage in a conversation with them.

My last entry on the differences between chairing a small department and a much larger one elicited from “Jennifer” the questions, “Do you think formal training would help for those aspiring to similar positions? Or is trial by fire the best way?” This is an issue I’ve thought about a good deal, particularly in the last couple of years as I’ve been a presenter at two of the Council of Independent Colleges’ workshops for department and division chairs, which I’ve discussed previously.

So: formal training or trial by fire?

There are some things that a new chair can and probably should learn through training. If one comes in from the outside, all the various faculty-handbook procedures and policies are potential matters for training, for example. (If one has come up from the inside, presumably one knows these things already.) Careful primers on the budgeting process, purchasing and spending regulations, the broader issues of institutional governance, some basic legal information, the appropriate conduct of searches, human-resources rules, and other similar matters such as specific regulations can also be subjects for training. I would characterize most of these as “process” matters—things that you need to know how to do correctly, and that are the important routine operations of the institution.

The real problem, though, is that the most difficult parts of being a chair or any other kind of administrator are the ad hoc, the weird, the unforeseen, and the circumstantial. One of the things the CIC likes presenters to do in the department- and division-chair workshops is develop scenarios for the chairs to work through in table groups as part of each presentation. These scenarios are small-scale simulations of the kinds of challenges we believe chairs are going to encounter, and are an exercise in speculative problem solving in a safe place.

In my two times helping to lead these workshops, the presenters, all of whom were experienced chief academic officers, had prepared our scenarios and shared them ahead of time among ourselves to ensure that the four workshop locations had comparable material for the participating chairs to discuss. The scenarios I wrote were directly derived from personal experiences I had had with the relevant issues, as were those prepared by my colleagues. In other words, they were veiled or altered narratives of incidents that had actually happened at our institutions and as such were a realistic representation of the range of challenges that a chair might face in his or her work.

The feedback from my session, and the sessions on the same issues at the other three of the four workshops in the spring of 2012, suggested that the chairs were not convinced of the value and relevance of the particular scenarios we presented. Upon receiving this feedback, several of us had further conversations about how we might do better the next time, and ensure that chairs were receiving maximum benefit from the workshops. As our discussions proceeded, however, we began to consider the root of the chairs’ skepticism. It is one thing to say that a department will never face a particular issue with contingent faculty (our group’s theme for the workshops was recruiting and supporting adjunct faculty) because it never uses adjuncts, but it is quite another to say that a scenario seems implausible because “people simply don’t act that way.”

I am here to tell you: People do act that way, pretty much whatever “that way” may be. In our further conversations, one of the conclusions the CAO’s reached was that at least one reason the chairs found our scenarios unconvincing was because they actually were new or relatively new chairs—they had not yet seen the panoply of leadership challenges the role could well offer them, nor the way a severe crisis could rise up, full-blown, in a single business day, nor the profoundly counterintuitive and sometimes unreasonable ways people might act, even against their own interests. It’s certainly possible that our scenarios were also not very good, but given that they drew from real events it’s definitely not the case that they were not credible.

As I’ve thought about it, I have decided our experience with these scenarios indicates why training, by itself, is never actually going to prepare anyone for a role in academic leadership. Many of you probably attended graduate programs where you received little or no training as a teaching assistant—I know my program didn’t provide very much back when I started teaching. We did spend a couple of days at the beginning of the summer before starting to teach in a seminar doing some activities related to grading, basic course rules, and similar administrative matters, but as far as actually standing up in front of the classroom and helping students learn: nothing. Even as we worked our way through the grading exercises, however, the whole process happened in a conspicuous vacuum. We had no context into which to place the exercises. A few months later, in our first classes, some of those lessons became a lot clearer, but I am not so sure that they were particularly valuable at the time they were given.

It’s similar with administration. You really just can’t know what you’re going to encounter until you encounter it. Certainly, some people have much better skills in management, interpersonal relationships, organization, strategic thinking, and so on than others do, but a lot of this comes from whatever previous experiences and inclinations they bring to their leadership role. The real lessons come as you walk through the fire. Given that, it’s perhaps better to have continuing real-time development and opportunities to brainstorm with peers than it is to have a full-blown training session before one assumes the role in the first place. Another excellent option is to have kind, thoughtful, and patient mentors who can help, preferably in a safe, off-the-record context. One of the best things about the CIC workshops is that they begin to provide a network for chairs, and give new chairs access to advice from off campus in a safe space where simply asking about a problem doesn’t pose any risks at the home institution. We have also thought about ways to clarify the relevance of the activities we ask the chairs to undertake as at least potential anticipations of the kinds of challenges they are probably going to face in the job.

Even the best training in the world is worth little if there’s no context and no application into which it can be put. It’s great to be a master of processes and rules, but to lead, you have to know the contingencies of an individual situation before you can really understand what to do. Training is certainly valuable, but it needs to be clearly and sustainably linked to the continuing experience of the job for it to provide the best possible help.

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