Sunday, March 4, 2012

Spellbinding, Yet Clueless


New President Interview -- Part 12*

Q> When you were in college Dr. Laurence J. Peter (1919-1990) wrote the book, The Peter Principle : Why Things Always Go Wrong (1969). You wrote a paper that was later published saying that what they said was not new.  You traced the idea that competent people get promoted to a level of incompetence appeared in 1767 in the comedy  Minna von Barnhelm by the German playwright,  Gotthold Ephraim Lessing[1]

 A> In Lessing’s drama, the character Major von Tellhein suggests that Paul Warner (an old sergeant) should become something more than a sergeant. Warner answers, “To become something more than a sergeant! I do not think of that. I am a good sergeant; I might easily make a bad captain, and certainly a worse general.”    Warner knew that everyone has his own level of comfort and competence.  

I was young[2] when I wrote that paper yet I understood the roots of the Peter Principle are in the book of Deuteronomy 16:18 “Judges and officers shall you appoint for yourself”, and  the next verse, “You shall not plant for yourself an Asherah of any kind of tree”   Asherah is a tree associated with idolatry. Anything connected to idolatry totally forbidden. An organization is responsible for appointing people to the right positions and making sure they are competent. The point at which an employee is no longer able to perform at with competency, demonstrates the Peter Principle.  At the time I didn’t understand the connection between connection between the hiring agent and a level of competency.

Q> I’m a little lost.  What have you learned since you wrote the paper about the process to hire competent people?

A> Remember I wrote the first article as an undergraduate almost 40 years ago.  I understood literature and history more than I understood management.   The teacher, Resh Lakish, in the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 7b: explains the Biblical verse in such a way to show us that the appointing or hiring body has a pivotal role appointing the best judges.  An organization must appoint people to the right jobs.

For example a person who gives spelling binding speeches and tells people what they want to hear may get elected to a high political office, but giving great speeches does not indicate an ability to govern, make decisions and lead.  An arrogant leader, who does not recognize his or her limitations, soon will reach a level of incompetence and drag down the entire organization.

A good speaker with a command of language and the material is but one indication of competence. One has to be articulate, but spell binding is not a requirement.  Sometimes the speech is all we have to judge someone, but actions speak louder than words.

In another college, where a friend is the librarian, the dean who supervised the library was really quite clueless as to what is required for a library to function.  Based on postings in library listservs this is not uncommon.  The business functions of the library are very different from an instructional department.  Instructional department budgets mostly consist of personnel.  Libraries need to purchase books, databases, and other resources so they can serve everyone in the college.

I encouraged all the deans and program directors meet with the librarians to figure out ways to be on the same team.  When we conducted a search for new assistant dean of instruction, we found several candidates who had not been in a library or used library resources in such a long time, they couldn’t their last visit.  These candidates had not written an academic paper since they left college. These candidates never made the first cut.

Q> How does this translate to the College? How does the College make sure people are in the right positions?

A great teacher or professor does not make a great dean. Someone who knows how to say the right things at the right times may advance to higher and higher positions, but that does not mean they are competent.  Part of the job of an administration is learning how to make people feel good who work for you. That is motivation.  It’s my job as president to make sure my department head have the tools to get their jobs done.   Competency requires the worker to use the tools and produce value for the organization.  If the tools are not working, it is hard to do a good job.  People get frustrated when they have faulty equipment or systems. 

Good leaders know how to choose team members who complement each other.  A manager needs to trust the people s/he works with.  Team members know they can’t all have the same knowledge, background and expertise.  Team members know how to share information so that the team works as a single body 

 Q> How does sharing information help the team?

Imagine someone walking into a college building for the first time and needing to attend a meeting.  This visitor does not know which room to go.  The person asks the security guard for help.  In team player organization, the security guard would have the tools to either tell the visitor where to go or know how to find a person who could help the visitor.  In a customer centered organization, any staff member should be able to help a visitor or caller find the right place to be or find the phone of someone who can.

I once visited a college for a meeting.  I was told to meet on the first floor of the building and someone would come to get me.  I asked which building.  And they said none of the buildings have names or numbers on them.  Since I was meeting with a librarian, I found the building with the library and waited at the desk near the entrance.  The appointed time came and no one showed up. I asked for help in the library and no one knew where the person I was meeting could be found.  I was finally told, I was in the wrong building.  This was an information failure.  Not only did they fail to give me accurate and precise information, the college was not properly marked, and no one knew how to help me.
Projects within the college need to pay attention to how they impact both the students and those who deliver services to the students.  After several shootings at universities the College made a plan for emergency notifications.  This system, in place before I joined the college, is used to inform students, faculty and staff of any urgent situations.  For example when the College closed because of a winter snow storm, the system was activated.  

All the photocopiers in the College were replaced in January.  This was a huge project that impacted to way we do business in every office.  Before I approved the project I insisted that we include a notification plan for everyone involved including the students.  I did not want anyone to be surprised.  Training to operate the new copiers was begun before the first one walked through the door.  It amazed me that the project leaders did not even think of how to communicate the changes.  This is an example of a time that I had to be very insistent so that we can be more of a team.

Q> Is there a cure for the Peter Principle?

It depends on what you mean by a cure.  People need tools to succeed.  The tools include things they can hold and touch and systems and procedures that are intangible. We need to continuously identify the skills and tools needed for success. We need faculty development to show them both how our organization works and encourage them to attend classes, workshops, and training sessions so they keep up with the profession and meet fellow professionals in similar organizations. We need to fund ways to let they do research, writing and study. We need to find ways to get to “yes.”

If an employee performs well we need to find ways to make sure they do not become disillusioned and stagnant. We have to separate the ability to spellbind the audience from the skills needed to get the job done. The ability to carry out the duties and responsibilities should be primary reason for getting appointed to a position. Before a promotion, one must show the ability to perform the new duties of the job.

Q>  What is the cure for being clueless?

Learning never ceases.  When one completes one area of learning, it is time to start new learning.  In other words, never stop learning. "He who adds not to his learning diminishes it." [3] One must always be aware that we are knowledge workers.  One person does not know everything and you can not expert your associates, colleagues, or student to be mind readers.  If someone in the organization is not asking questions, no one is learning enough.    "There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and this is not learning from experience." [4] One must not only understand the organization, but never stop learning outside of what you are competent in today. 

The head of the organization must set the example for those who work below.  I was impressed last week when I heard a scholarly lecture from the dean and chief academic officer of a college.  Not only was he an excellent administrator, but also and expert in and aspect of 16th-17th century German history.

Someone who is considered clueless is not making connections between areas of knowledge.  The cure is to learn about areas outside your department and area of comfort.
Q> Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.

*Part twelve of an imaginary interview with the recently appointed president of the College.   Note this is just for your information and edification. Any connection to a real college president is strictly coincidental.
[1] I used an e-book from Google books.  Full citation:  Lessing , Gotthold Ephraim. Minna von Barnhelm / with an introduction by Edward Brooks. Philadelphia, D. McKay [1899].

[2] Remember I was Bible major.

[3] Rabbi Hillel in the Talmud, Avot  13:1.

[4] This thought is often attributed to Laurence Peter, but it seems to have first been written by Archibald McLeish, poet, writer, and Librarian of Congress. There are at least 40 books that include this quote, but none give the name of the original source.

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