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Archive for the ‘advice’ Category

You have just received your Ph.D. and are seeking a tenure track position at a distinguished university.   Following are three ‘huge’ mistakes made by new Ph.D.’s that I have witnessed over the past four to five years.   In each case, the candidate was the search committee’s top pick until they made their faux pas.

Episode 1 – Two $60 Bottles of Wine

This candidate had it all – a degree from a top university, a budding research record, and strong interpersonal skills with faculty, students and administration.    After a full day of interviews and a well-received presentation to the faculty, the search committee took our candidate to dinner.   At the dinner table, as the search committee deliberated over what to have to drink with their evening meal, our candidate took charge and ordered two relatively expensive bottles of wine.    Not good.    As it turns out, the freely flowing wine uncovered the true nature of our candidate.   It turns out that our candidate was a highly opinionated and arrogant individual who managed to offend everyone by the end of the evening.    While I was not pleased at the search committee spending $120 for wine at a search committee meal, it turns out that this was money well spent.   We avoided a terrible hire!

Episode 2 –  Not Following Instructions for Research Presentation

Another top candidate – another disaster.   Like all tenure-track candidates at our school, this newly minted Ph.D. was given specific instructions to provide an overview of his research agenda and to discuss how this research agenda would fit with the department and school.   The department and search committee know that these instructions are not the ‘normal’ research presentation, so we go to great pains to make sure that the candidate is aware of our research presentation requirements.   What baffles me in this case is that I was the one who spoke to the candidate on the phone and went over the protocol step-by-step for our research presentation.   This candidate chose to give a typical ‘dissertation defense’ research presentation with absolutely no overview and with absolutely no discussion of our department or school.   What truly amazed me is that this candidate was extremely disappointed that he didn’t get a job offer.    Arrogance?  Inability to follow instructions?   Again, we were happy we learned this up front and avoided a bad hire.

Episode 3 – No Energy or Enthusiasm

This story saddens me.   This Ph.D. candidate was a non-traditional candidate.  He had spent 15 years working before going back to school for a Ph.D.   His research and teaching record were strong and a good fit for our department and university.   Importantly, several phone conversations with our candidate left me with the clear impression he definitely wanted to be at our university.  The interview day started off well.   Yet as the day went on, our candidate was unable to sustain energy or enthusiasm with faculty and students.   Somehow, he was quite ‘high-energy’ with all of the administrators and some of the senior faculty.   Yet to a person, our junior faculty and students just didn’t feel the energy.    Obviously, we didn’t extend an offer.   Later, I talked to a colleague at another university who interviewed the same candidate.  He related the same story – no energy, little enthusiasm.    Advice to all of you Ph.D. candidates out there – energy and enthusiasm are very, very important during the job interview process!!!

Other mistakes to avoid in the academic job search process can be found here – read carefully!

from the pen of Dr. Percy Trappe

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squareWhat words of wisdom could Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and the founder and CEO of Square,  possibly have for the academic dean?   In a National Public Radio interview with Kai Ryssdal on May 21, 2015, Dorsey discussed his management style.    In particular, he discussed a management style similar to my own.   One where people and their ideas are highly-valued, one where decision-making is pushed closer to the stakeholder, and one where organizational leadership is key.   Following is a quote from the interview with Jack Dorsey:

I say that if I have to make a decision, we have an organizational failure. (That’s) because I don’t have the same context as someone who is working day to day with the data, with the understanding of the customer. I definitely see the organization and the people in it as the ones to make the decisions, because they have the greatest context for what needs to be done.

How many academic leaders can honestly agree with a management philosophy where “my job is to make sure that decisions get made” and where “there is an organizational failure if I am making the decisions”?  I would like to re-frame Jack Dorsey’s quote to make it applicable in a university setting:

I say that if a provost, dean or department head has to make a decision affecting academic program curriculum, the university has an organizational failure. This is because the provost, dean or department head does not have the same context as someone who is working day to day with an understanding of the students and the expected learning outcomes of the academic program.  The provost, dean or department head should definitely see the university and the faculty in it as the ones to make the curricular decisions, because they have the greatest context for what needs to be done.  (quote: Dr. Percy Trappe)

What do you think?   Does this ring true?  Is this your experience?   I would suggest that department heads, deans and provosts have much to learn from Jack Dorsey.

from the pen of Dr. Percy Trappe   

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DetectiveIf you serve on a dean search committee, I have some advice that you cannot afford to ignore.  Advice that comes from personal experience – as a committee member, as a former candidate and as a faculty member.

This advice starts with a story.     A colleague from another university was ranting about how his university had been hoodwinked by their new dean.   From my colleague’s perspective, their new dean turned out to be a fraud – someone who during the interview process had presented himself as a collaborative leader who fully embraced faculty governance and transparent decision-making.    What really infuriated my colleague is that he had been a member of the dean search committee.   We both agreed that better reference checking would have headed off this disaster during the search process.

When calling references, here are some suggested lines of questioning:

  1. When calling references use the self-described leadership style presented in the cover letter and ask whether or not it agrees with the references’s experience.  Following is a direct quote from the cover letter of my colleague’s current dean:”My leadership style has been described as participative.  I know the importance of listening and showing respect, of coaching rather than directing, and of finding the champion for a project and empowering him to succeed.”  From my colleague’s perspective, none of this description is remotely true.  Subsequent conversations with former faculty familiar with the new dean, confirmed the fanciful leadership style description.
  2. Be sure to call references, on and off the list, that are peers, direct reports and superiors.   No matter how strong the candidate appears on paper, contact references that can give a 360 degree perspective on the candidate.   How does the candidate interact with peers in other colleges?   Do direct reports feel respected and part of a team?   How have past relationships with superiors progressed?    How did the candidate handle constructive criticism from prior directors?     Do not limit phone calls to people on the candidate’s reference list.
  3. When calling references be sure to probe self-described explanations for leaving a prior leadership role, particularly if the individual was in the role for a short period of time (4 years or less).   When a candidate takes time in their cover letter to explain an early departure from a leadership position, be sure to probe.     Again, get a 360 degree perspective.    Was the candidate effective in this prior role?    Was the candidate having problems that were unresolvable?     What did the candidate learn from this prior early departure?   Did they play a role in this departure?   I would suggest that if the candidate did not learn from the prior early departure, then there most certainly is a problem.

The Dean Search Committee must be permitted to call references and there must be agreement on how the committee will handle the feedback.    Many search firms will attempt to do the reference calling themselves and often will discourage the committee from placing calls.     Many search committees will create standardized “vanilla” questions for reference calls.     My experience is that these are of little use.   You must develop individualized reference call questions for each candidate – building on key dimensions of the candidate’s cover letter and CV.     Failure to do so may mean years with a “dean from hell”.    Just ask my colleague!

– from the pen of Dr. Percy Trappe

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Pete Carroll-198x300Pete Carroll, football coach for the Seattle Seahawks, in his 2010 book Win Forever: Live, Work, and Play Like a Champion, described in detail a conversation between himself and Jim Valvano, legendary college basketball coach.   The conversation was about Coach Valvano’s insights into the hiring process.   Coach Carroll recalls Valvano’s ‘interviewing tactics’.

Coach Valvano told me that my goal should be to leave the interview with “no negatives”.  Every comment, every phrase, or story must be positive, and I must be prepared to talk only about things that put me in the best light.  No matter what the topic, it was my job to turn every answer into a response that highlighted my strong points.  Like his point guard, who controlled the court, or my middle linebacker who controlled our defense, I had to control the interview.

Carroll summarized his conversation with Valvano:

He taught me that if they asked a questions I couldn’t answer, then I shouldn’t answer it but instead find a way to turn the question to something I could talk about comfortably, positively and honestly.  ……   He explained the importance of being disciplined in the setting and avoiding any and all negative thoughts.  If I spoke with positivity and confidence, it would be evident that I believed in myself, and that belief was what the interviewer would be looking for.

Actually, there is more to the story.   When Carroll had to apply these lessons when interviewing for the head football coach at the University of Southern California, he consistently responded to questions with answers that reflected a consistent theme about his vision and philosophy.

When it was time for me to present my vision and plan, I stated my intentions in the clearest and boldest way that I could think of. ….. I took them through my philosophical approach, discussing everything from the central theme of competition that would be synonymous with the program, ……   With each statement I gave, I felt more confident.   The more confident I felt, the more excited I became.

As I reflect on academic searches at the President, Provost, Vice-Provost and Dean levels, I certainly buy into Jim Valvano’s tactic of ‘leave the interview with no negatives’ and Pete Carroll’s strategy of ‘consistently responding with answers that reflect your vision and philosophy’.    I have witnessed several successful candidates at our university that were able to leave the interviews with ‘no negatives’.   However, I do not recall any candidates in my twenty years of academic experience who have left the interview process having effectively communicated a consistent vision and philosophy.   I’m still waiting!!!

– from the pen of Dr. Percy Trappe

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Dean Search Provost Search We All Want to be DifferentMilton Greenberg, in the article ‘You Don’t Need a Search Firm to Hire a President’ (Chronicle of Higher Education, September 2014), recently developed a list of commonly cited characteristics for a university president. Here they are:

  • the ability to articulate a vision,
  • a collaborative working style,
  • capacity to lead and inspire diverse groups,
  • a commitment to excellence,
  • superb communication skills,
  • distinguished scholarly and professional achievement,
  • well-developed interpersonal skills,
  • an ability to work effectively with a wide range of constituents, and
  • a commitment to diversity.

In discussing presidential searches, Greenberg makes the point that the pool of likely candidates for major posts is quite small.   He emphasizes that the finalists for a position will typically be limited to:

  • leaders at colleges similar to the searching institution who are at a certain stage of their careers, and
  • individuals who know about the institution and a few of its major figures

According to Greenberg, the chances for an academic leader of getting on the shortlist are enhanced by a limited and careful targeting of possibilities.

Greenberg’s observations were based on presidential searches.    Do these observations apply to searches for provosts and deans?    I think so.

– from the pen of Dr. Percy Trappe

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skype-interviewI recently sat through video conference interviews for seven associate dean candidates.   Each candidate had a strong curriculum vitae and an effective cover letter.   Not surprisingly, few were effective with the online interview.    In my opinion, it is important to leave the search committee with a favorable impression by answering questions about strengths, motivations and fit.

Many folks have provided tips for successful video conference or phone interviews.   Here are the areas where I believe associate dean candidates need help with online interviews:

  1. Do not drone on. Academics tend to ramble and over-explain. Keep your answers short and to the point.   Summarize your answer when wrapping up the question.
  2. Use specific examples to validate your answer.   Academics tend to give conceptual answers.   This is okay – but reinforce the conceptual answer with a specific, concrete story.  The story should be memorable and reinforce the point you are trying to make.
  3. Be prepared.    Anticipate the questions.   Make sure that there is congruency between your curriculum vitae and your answers.
  4. Have a strategy.   Highlight what makes you distinctive.   During the phone interview stage, you are trying to separate yourself from ‘the pack’.   Review the job description.  Have a plan to highlight 2-3 characteristics & accomplishments that make you stand out from the rest.

Associate dean candidates, do yourself a favor and plan for the online interview.   Practice responding to the kinds of questions you will be asked.   See my lists of interview questions for the Associate Dean candidate:

  1. Academic Dean – Job Interview Questions
  2. Questions for the Associate Dean
  3. Academic Dean – Job Interview Questions (Part II)
  4. Interview Questions for the Associate Dean (Part III)

If you take the time to prepare, it will not be difficult to present yourself as a leading candidate.

– from the pen of Dr. Percy Trappe

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slide-1-638When seeking a Dean’s position, the candidate’s interactions with the search firm will have a significant impact on the search process.   Currently, a vast majority of dean positions are filled with the assistance of an executive search firm.   In my opinion, institutions of higher education that do not hire an executive search firm to fill executive positions are sending two signals to the academic marketplace: (1) as an institution we do not value this position enough to recruit the very best, and/or (2) we have an internal candidate hand-picked for the position and we are simply going through the motions of an external search.

Having been through dean and vice provost searches on both sides of the fence (search committee member and dean candidate), I can unequivocally say that the knowledge and professionalism that (most) search firms bring to the table is simply not found on the university campus.

To begin with, most faculty-led executive searches begin with the mind-set used when looking to hire a newly minted assistant professor.    This mind-set starts with an attitude of superiority and distrust.    Faculty committees, without proper coaching, often send all kinds of negative signals about the university and the position. I have experienced the following negative signals from university search committees (for deans and vice presidents) in searches unassisted by a search firm:

  1. After contacting two of the applicant’s references, not contacting the applicant for a five week time period and then inviting the applicant to campus as ‘the leading candidate’.   The applicant declined the visit.
  2. A  search committee conducting a video conference interview in which 2/3 of the search committee was absent and only one committee member spoke during the interview.
  3. A search process where a particular video conferencing technology was consistently used throughout the search process even though on each occasion it was used it failed.   This reflected very poorly on the institution.
  4. At a hotel interview with the search committee, one faculty member stated that the biggest problem with their institution was that 80% of the faculty were total disengaged from the university and did not bother to come into the office because most faculty were teaching only online classes.  No other faculty members bothered to correct or clarify this statement.    The applicant declined a campus visit.

Executive search firms are not a panacea.    However, a good search firm will effectively guide the search committee through the search process and minimize the negatives.

from the pen of Dr. Percy Trappe

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