Of Sheep, Goats, and the Quest for Certainty

Everyone who needs to select someone else for a particular job–CEO, head of school, teacher, coach, spouse–has a problem: the odds of success are terrifyingly low given the costs of failure. This uncertainty and risk drives a Moneyball-esque (see this item in Fast Company) for a psychometric test (or tests) that can tilt the odds in the buyers favor.

To be fair, the use of psychometrics as a hiring aid has a long history and has been championed by some of the biggest names in industrial psychology. As an example, Doug Bray’s groundbreaking work at AT&T in the second half of the 20th Century and his collaboration with William Byham to found Development Dimensions International (DDI) stands as a case in point. Their work, along with that of numerous others, is deeply rooted in the notion that psychological science can be used to separate the sheep from the goats when it comes to hiring leaders for organizations.

The desire to reduce uncertainty (what might be called error variation in the hiring process) is understandable, as is the need to efficiently differentiate among large numbers of candidates. Avionics, in its shift to a “fly by wire” approach to aviation, did much the same thing (at least philosophically) with tremendous success.

The problem is that the science of silicon and composites is fundamentally different from that of human behavior. One can use data to be virtually certain in the physical sciences (hence Six Sigma in manufacturing), where the same or even close are impossible when it comes to predicting “carbon units.” Moreover, one wonders what (or rather who) gets cast aside by the psychometrics. Would Steve Jobs have passed muster on assessment for an executive job at Apple? Likely not.

This does not mean that advanced psychometrics, anchored to a rigorous job analysis and sharing constructs in common with what the job requires, shouldn’t play a role. Data can inform the selection process and perhaps help narrow the field somewhat, but we caution against an exclusive reliance on fly-by-wire when it comes to selecting leadership talent.

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Portending the Apocalypse or a Brave New World?

More evidence that American higher education is in disarray comes in this item from the Chronicle of Higher Education about a major strategic move by the University of Akron, a STEM-focused public research university in Ohio. As the university phases out 80 degree programs, it will add a number of esports majors (read e-sports; i.e., gaming) largely  to generate demand from students not wanting more conventional academic majors.

Whether this is a sign of the academic apocalypse or just an inevitable change given then emergence of new fields (remember, biomedical engineering only became a major in the last 50 years) remains to be seen. But as evidence that many schools in crowded higher ed field are struggling to find solid footing is unmistakable. Stay tuned.

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The Importance of Board Independence

The possibility that Elon Musk will take Tesla private raises some interesting issues of corporate governance and oversight with possible implications for the future of independent and international schools (see this piece in the Financial Times). The specific issue is with the independence of board members, and the challenge in the Tesla case is that so many of the nine directors have close ties to Musk; indeed, some are relatives and business partners.

We have long been concerned about the lack of independence on private school boards. Members are conflicted by being tuition-paying parents, friends with each other (and their children are friends of other members’ children), alumni or relatives of alumni, and sometimes even spouses or partners of administrators and teachers. In international schools, expatriate board members and teachers frequently socialize outside of school as co-members of the same local community. While these conflicts are inevitable because were it not so most day schools probably wouldn’t be able to populate their boards, it does present issues when the board discusses a range of topics:

  • Tuition
  • Faculty Compensation and Benefits
  • Constructing New Facilities
  • Mergers and Acquisitions

It is this last area, mergers and acquisitions, that seems connected to schools and a likely future scenario for many. So far, the independent and international school sector has been slow to embrace either mergers or acquisitions, but a few are happening (see this example) and we believe more are in the cards. Boards need to have open, honest discussions, free from conflicts of interest, about whether the best scenario for a school’s future is solo or combo. It is the chair’s job to create the space for such deliberations and monitor the level of discourse as it happens.

NOTE: Triangle is facilitating an E.E. Ford Foundation-funded “summit conference” a variety of collaborative models for ADVIS, the Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools, October 17, 2018, near Philadelphia. Write us for more information.

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New Leading Trends on Governance

We posted a new Leading Trends piece on asymmetries in independent school leadership and governance. Downloadable from here.

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Does a Retail Logo Change Foreshadow Anything Else?

Burberry, the British luxury goods company, announced a reworking of its iconic brand. This sort of move by a long-established business is always interesting. Perhaps most interesting is their decision to prominently display “England” alongside “London” in the logo. Post-Brexit and pre-UK break-up maneuver?

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Optics Matter

As July transitions into August, a new cohort of school heads (and other administrators new to their roles) prepares for the first faculty meeting of the year and for welcoming students and their parents on the first day of school. This advice from David D. Perlmutter, dean of the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University, seems especially apt for new leaders in any institution–and a good reminder for veterans as well. Appearances and optics matter; whether we think they should or not is beside the point. Be thoughtful and intentional about the messages you transmit in actions as well as words.

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