The Smart Money Bets on Culture

This item by Matthew Tzuker in the Chronicle of Higher Education brings up an almost metaphysical question for those of us in the education sector: Just how different are we from other sectors, and which differences are endemic—must be honored no matter what—and which are malleable—subject to change given the right convergence of forces. Tzuker, an executive recruiter who used to work in higher education, argues that the industry standard model for recruiting university presidents, like that for independent K-12 school heads, is dysfunctional in that it allows rank-and-file faculty to weigh in on who will be their new boss. Instead, Tzuker would have recruitment, interviewing and placement be a quick, private thing, entirely outside public view, much as is the norm in the for-profit corporate sector.

We understand Tzuker’s frustration, having orchestrated searches ourselves, only to watch things derail on subjective and openly hostile feedback from a rogue faculty member. Tzuker’s quote above could have been my sentiments late in the evening after a long day of chaperoning candidates through interviews at a school. However, I am also mindful of Peter Drucker’s famous dictum that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and faculty engagement in the executive hiring process is part and parcel with independent and international school culture. As long as this is the case, boards and search committees should think twice (or three times) before trying something blatantly counter-cultural. Such acts rarely go well, and, in several international school cases of which we are aware, have ended quite disastrously.

Almost no corporate middle manager, let alone front-line worker, expects to have a say in who should be their next CEO. Almost all teachers (at least in the western world) fully expect to be consulted and behave as if they own the school. Interestingly, many CEO’s I have spoken with over the years wish their subordinates felt more ownership of what happens in the company. They wish their front-line retail personnel (for example) acted as if they owned the place. Maybe there are no unmitigated goods; that is, in exchange for employees that do act as owners, as a great many academicians do, the price we pay is inefficiency and frustration in giving them a say about important matters like who will be the next boss.

In any event, tempted as I am to chuckle at Tzuker’s quips and agree with his main premise, I quickly pull myself back from that abyss (and it is very much an abyss) as I remember Drucker. In academia, it is never a good idea to be counter-cultural, and in organizational life it is always prudent to respect someone like Drucker. The bottom line is that stakeholder input into leadership search is cultural to our sector whereas it is not in the corporate sector. 

Business and leadership, Governance, Headship  |  permalink

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