Occupational hazards

For months, Nicholas Tesla has endured interviews, psychometric testing and inedible food. Yet despite being eminently qualified, the management role he seeks remains elusive. So is his approach to blame or does the fault lie with the selection process itself?

September 10, 2009

The conversation always begins the same way: "I'm terribly sorry, but I haven't got good news for you." For once, I appreciate the banal training of our vast fleets of university human resources personnel. They deliver the coup de grace in textbook fashion, silently quivering about whether the legal processes have been followed correctly, or whether this call will be the one that puts their procedures in the dock. They are well schooled in moving swiftly to the fact that, once again, I have not got the job.

They invariably follow this up by informing me that they have offered the work "elsewhere", as if the successful candidate, with whom I have often shared a considerable period of time, is a place and not a person. All this, I understand, is to mitigate the shock to my ego that I have failed to convince yet another panel of my worthiness to lead in the modern university. I am offered feedback, which I don't always want, about why it won't be me. Unless I am more than usually confused about how a group of senior management professionals in higher education could fail to resist my charms, I decline it. It is usually about protecting them, not helping me, and it won't make any difference now. It also won't apply to the next opportunity I let slip through my fingers. Fifteen applications and seven interviews in the past 18 months have taught me that much at least: institutional justifications are easy to manufacture, nowhere more so than in the selection process, conducted as it is in mystical secrecy.

In January last year, as part of reflecting on where my career and work were heading, I resolved to move on. This was a complex decision given that I was in a fantastic situation: well paid, well funded, able to pursue my research and intellectual interests in a fairly untrammelled manner, and working in a respected department. At that time, the real issue for me was progression, in my career and in my influence over the institution in which I worked. I decided it was time for the next phase of my working life to begin and I was aiming to secure something by September that year.

Instead, I had an interesting tour of our higher education system, at its expense, becoming more or less a professional candidate for management jobs that I just couldn't get. It was a demoralising, frustrating and sometimes alarming process that left me with painful insights into the selection and recruitment process. By association I developed a particular perspective on how our universities are run and for whose benefit. This is not merely sour grapes at not being admitted to their club. There has been a distinct shift in what the executive class of the sector thinks is its purpose. That this has gone thoroughly unremarked is a grievous omission.

I began by reading a range of books on how to secure interviews, prepare for them and conduct yourself during them, and I took the advice seriously (I am an academic, after all). The jobs I was applying for ranged from associate dean and above, and I achieved interviews on a regular basis. The format, from the application form onwards, varies very little between institutions, though all have some kind of web-based application system. The irritation that they are not exactly the same simply gives rise to an ability to develop advanced cut-and-paste skills. I used virtually the same personal statement to each university to obtain interviews from them, with only slight localisations necessary for what has become a generic process.

I was pleased that I was shortlisted so often. This was not so surprising. I have a strong record of managing complex projects and implementing effective institutional change for long-term strategic gains, while retaining a commitment to research and teaching. My external funding expertise was also certainly a factor in getting so far. My contempt for this part of the process is aimed at those institutions that can't be bothered to respond at all. Forget the riders saying, "If you haven't heard by ..." People spending their Sunday afternoon preparing an application for them deserve more than supercilious silence. One place did it to me twice.

Interviews for a senior post vary in experience, if not in structure. All require a presentation of some sort and a formal interview. The presentation is usually on a toe-curlingly awful topic, such as setting out your manifesto on how you would do the job when you aren't actually furnished with the information that might help you make decisions and prioritise your policy objectives. This is usually given to staff who may become colleagues, though sometimes it is just to anyone standing around without anything better to do.

As an experienced presenter, I tend to try to avoid saying anything controversial, and mostly explain the work I am already doing and how that relates to the post being offered. I always assume that in the days of the internet it is expected that you will have done some research on them and their situation, but the attendees look shocked or give wry smiles when this happens, depending on whether they have made their minds up on you or not.

Apart from the one or two senior managers who might be there, their opinion doesn't appear to matter much, which is just as well, as they have so little information to work with. I had to introduce myself to one group, who admitted later that they had learned of my name only when I told it to them.

Usually, but not always, there is a tour of something and an "informal" discussion with staff who might be affected by the appointment. This is often the least useful aspect, really designed to quieten people with concerns about who their new boss will be, and to have something to speculate about after the appointment is made. After all, everyone, especially the candidate, is on their best behaviour, and giving up too much in this format is a mistake. Twice I have had to submit to psychometric testing and, on at least one occasion, the results put me out of the running long before I entered the interview room ("Please do not describe me as a culture-breaker," I begged, during the follow-up to the test. It was to no avail. They clearly did, and I ended up fielding questions about my respect for authority and support for other people all afternoon). The lunch is usually a gruelling affair, lots of forced smiles and discussion with competing candidates over the universal awfulness of catering standards.

Interviews themselves are fairly formulaic. The chairman always asks why you have applied for the job and I always work very hard on my answer. This has never failed to impress the panel, and if the interviews had stopped at this point, I probably would have had my pick of seven jobs. One of the panellists then goes through my career, focusing on anything unusual (in my case, there is plenty), looking for inconsistencies or any evidence that suggests that you lack the commitment to die for the university. As far as the job itself is concerned, the person who will be your line manager is usually the one to ask: "What is it that you would tackle first in this role?" Invariably, the information I have is incomplete, though I have been in higher education long enough to guess why it is that someone wants to put someone else between them and their problems. This is especially true if it is the creation of a new post, though this knowledge is not always an advantage. The attempt to keep the integrity of the existing structure despite the pressure to change is an unerring instinct among our managers, and new posts are essentially independent solutions to the need to dampen down more serious structural issues. I have seen the horror forming on the faces of the panel as I describe how successful approaches ultimately change the character of the institution. I know that I have failed again.

You get asked about your strengths and weaknesses. I once made the perfectly correct but suicidal point that I had never seen a strength not turn into a weakness in the wrong context, and vice versa. It was a nadir in my career as a professional interviewee. As soon as it was out of my mouth I knew it was over, and it was only the second question.

A similar question, habitually asked by the HR person, is an invitation to the auto-da-fe. The move to "competence interviewing", where the candidate is asked short, direct questions about their previous work, has been fairly complete in the sector. After asking about successful things (I have not yet seen an HR representative take a note after this question), the candidate is invited to talk about "a time when things didn't go so well". After the first time, I got my story straight: there are no failures in HE, only qualified successes but ... and at this point I give a mild example of a mildly difficult situation. But the excited scribblings they make once this cat is out of the bag makes me wonder why this question has been asked. Do HR managers ever make mistakes? Is dependence on this question one of them? Do they want recovering failures to manage our institutions?

Development needs are another subtle way to lose a job. If you have none, you are arrogant. If you have some, you are not qualified sufficiently. I have given both answers at times, though having done most of the things that deans are expected to do at some point or other, I now talk about making sure I keep my skills up to date. It still doesn't impress them.

The external member of the panel is always in a bit of a quandary. They are flattered to be invited and want to assert themselves as technically competent in the area of the post, and this tends to see them act as rivals rather than as assistants to the panel. I usually avoid asserting direct competence in their area of specialism, whatever it is, as the encounter is so unbalanced that a discussion can have only one result. One arrogant young professor in my field could have done with a spanking for her ignorance of both my subject and the selection process, but it was neither the time nor the place, and she had her way. I wasn't appointed.

Despite all this, I think my own opportunity to ask questions is where I have done myself the most damage. Questions that I think are fairly innocent but necessary to make an informed decision about the job have inadvertently exposed internal ructions, indecision, lack of investment and, in one case, prompted an out-and-out lie that made the rest of the panel blush. It matters not that I have asked a pertinent question, but that I have proven that I will be difficult to handle, and my aspirations for the job evaporate as I watch the internecine strife I have unwittingly exposed sink my chances.

Panellists like to think they are inscrutable, and often an interview can be an exhilarating experience because one's ideas have been listened to with apparent seriousness. This isn't true. The panellists may not interrupt so much, but they give the game away regularly, with hands-to-the-mouth signals, pretences at reading CVs when they have already switched off, staring out of the window and the glances they exchange when I am answering someone else's question. They are rarely as prepared as they should be, haven't heard of the internet, and often ask questions of insulting ignorance. I have had questions that contravene Equal Opportunities policies (I was born and had my early education abroad), and in one case was asked to share the confidential details of a policy decision of my current university that was known to the questioner. I feel I can usually pick the number of votes I have. It is never a majority, though the humanity of some of my supporters has been appreciated. The sincere departmental head who shook my hand at the end and said how pleased he was to have met me was also secretly communicating that I did not have the votes. The emails to my private account when I went for an internal post warned me in advance that I hadn't got it, though I already suspected as much.

Are we doing all this the right way? The relationship between candidate and institution is so one-sided that it favours fawning obedience rather than intelligence, spiritless mediocrity above creative thinkers and convention above innovation. At its worst, the process reflects the unrepresentative prejudices of the managers of the university, whose record is often questionable at best, making important decisions in determining the direction of an institution on criteria that are shrouded in mystery and provide cover for their ineptitude. The evidence is in the shambolic fashion these encounters are run, with candidates often expected to show up at ludicrous times, sit kicking their heels for hours, given barely edible university food, or thrust into direct competition with one another in the presence of university staff. Leaving me cooling my heels in a room overlooking a motorway hardly sold one university to me, nor did leaving me with four hours between a presentation and an interview. The process invariably runs late, it takes months to get your expenses back, and what passes for feedback is qualified by the fear of litigation and thus rendered meaningless. How close did I ever come? One of the jobs was readvertised four times, another was never filled at all and a third had a prompt resignation of the "successful" candidate.

At its best, and an interview at one university comes to mind, having submitted some published essays and been given a list of questions that I would be asked in advance, I completely understood the decision, despite not agreeing with it. They had genuinely identified the one weakness that made me less appropriate for their job than another candidate. After seven attempts, it is not exactly time to put the cue in the rack, but to work on that tangible imperfection before having another shot. I just doubt that those who have rejected me have put any further thought into how they decide their university's destiny. Apparently it is theirs to dispose of as they see fit.

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