David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Administration 101: The Vision Thing

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The hiring profile for a campus-leadership position is often an elaborate, committee-drawn projection of myriad hopes and contradictory needs. Certain meta-qualities, however, tend to stand out as universally sought after, whether the opening is for a department chair or a president. Foremost among them is "vision."

As in: "The university seeks a president who is a proven visionary." Or: "The ideal provost candidate will develop an academic vision in which student success is a top priority." Or: "The next chair of the department of English will have a vision of the humanities focused on growth in enrollment while maintaining academic rigor."

During their campus interviews, finalists will be expected to express their vision across many documents, meetings, and meals, but most formally in an actual "vision presentation."

This Admin 101 series explores the hiring process for academic leaders, and the components of the job itself. This month’s column focuses on vision as the best vehicle for expressing your strengths for a position in campus administration.

Demonstrate your mastery of the basics.The focus of a vision presentation will vary considerably, depending on whether you are interviewing for director of a languages center at a small liberal-arts college or vice president for diversity at a Big 10 public research university. However, the vision you proffer must have certain basic aspects, whatever the job. The ideal leader will have a:

  • Comprehensive vision of the global environment facing the type of institution or department doing the hiring.
  • Diagnostic vision of the local issues.
  • Prescriptive vision of how to achieve the employer’s stated goals.

In sum, finalists with a strong vison will project a big picture, a realistic assessment, and a narrow forecast.

Show the facts that support your vision. We live in the era of "big data," or so say 1,000 headlines. I can testify that, as a dean, I spend a considerable part of my day preparing data about my college for reports in areas as diverse as risk management, federal funding, faculty productivity, sick-leave accumulation, budget allocation, and enrollment. Then I spend another part of my day analyzing reports and scrutinizing in-depth dashboards of accumulated stats.

The lesson: Do not go into administration unless you feel comfortable with quantitative data collection and analysis. We all have to be a bit wonky today.

Accordingly, your vision must be data-driven. While many in your audience will not welcome a full-on spreadsheet in your PowerPoint, neither will they appreciate vague slogans, catch phrases, or stock photos.

Having a quantitative basis for your vision also allows you to demonstrate that you’ve done your homework. For instance, a finalist for a deanship could offer a chart or infographic comparing the hiring college with its peers, both current and aspirational. Alternately, you might provide a simple list that shows the metrics the college would need to fulfill the "top 50" rank mentioned in its strategic plan.

Above all, calibrate the complexity and level of detail to the audience. The "numbers" expectations for a potential department head in actuarial science will be different from those for chair of a music department.

Humanize your vision. Even accounting departments do not desire a leader who is all stats and cannot think in terms of humans. Faculty members, for example, want to know that you can count beans, but they hope that numbers will not hypnotize you. In your vision talk, you should find ways to ensure that everyone understands you see the people and the ideals amid all the spreadsheets and dashboards.

For example, a candidate for dean at an arts college wanted to offer a bold vision and knew that the No. 1 expectation for the job was raising lots of money for new arts facilities. He was an experienced fund raiser, so he was able to project quantitative fund-raising goals, metrics, and strategies. But in his vision presentation, he went one step further: He connected each major gift he’d helped acquire in the past to a compelling human story behind it. His audience grew convinced that here was someone who "knew the numbers" but also could deftly work with people.

Know whether you need to create a vision or fulfill one. A friend at a Western public university described the major "vision fail" of a would-be provost. The candidate presented an ambitious and intoxicating vision of where the campus needed to go, along with a set of clear goals and plausible metrics. The catch — which sank her chances for the job — was that the university had just completed its strategic-planning process. It already had goals and metrics, which had resulted from two years of campus meetings. Moreover, the hiring profile had specifically stated, "The next provost will lead us to success through our newly announced strategic plan."

Great vision. Wrong campus. No job offer.

Sometimes the original job ad will be unclear. Is the college yearning for someone to help discover a vision, or someone to make the existing one a reality? Ask the search firm or search committee, do some web research, and talk with local sources.

Don’t overpromise. An axiom of successful leadership: Do not promise what you cannot be sure to deliver. That presents finalists who are trying to convey their vision with a dilemma.

On the one hand, most reasonable professors, staff members, students, alumni, and administrators recognize that no department chair or vice president for research can be a Santa Claus who won’t say no to anything. I have never seen an ad for an academic-leadership position that reads: "We are looking for someone to hand out lots of money, because we are overfunded. Please help!" Even the choice position of founding dean of a newly endowed college will entail saying no to some beloved projects.

On the other hand, your audiences still seek a problem-solver, a goods-deliverer. A faculty friend in a STEM field put it this way: "I get that deans are not miracle workers, but no one wants a dean who can’t solve challenges."

Making promises during your vision talk is, thus, both tempting and dangerous. Say, for example, that you are applying for a deanship at an arts-and-sciences college where the senior professors are up in arms over salary compression — new hires are making a lot more than long-time faculty members. Your vision includes a set of best practices on faculty retention and morale building. You thump the podium and swear to deliver big pay raises in your first year on the job. The provost, with whom you speak later that day, might not appreciate your largess with money you may never get. In fact, not a few professors in the audience at the vision talk might question how you would pay the tab.

Be confident in your vision — just hold off giving away anything you do not yet have (and may never get). Or, to quote a wise Tolkien character, "Give with a free hand, but give only your own."

I first wrote about leadership and vision more than two decades ago, in a book on the physical visualization (in art and photography) of warfare from prehistory to the close of the previous millennium. I devoted a chapter to wartime leaders and found many who owed their success to their ability to penetrate the fog of war with a clear vision of victory. Intriguingly, wartime leaders who failed had their own visions of victory, but those turned out to be delusionary.

Likewise, academic leaders can rally a department or a campus around a path to progress. Those most likely to fulfill a vision are realistic in their assessments and deliberate in their methods. Your vision presentation is an opportunity to express what the future may hold and your reasonable strategy to get there, if you are hired.

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