David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Administration 101: Winning Over ‘the Final Decider’

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst

A friend interviewed for the provostship of a large public research university and proved to be a terrific candidate. After his campus visit, a faculty survey showed more than 90 percent in favor of hiring him over the rival finalists.

He did not get an offer.

The job went to another outside candidate — a well-known protégé of the president. The lesson: Not everyone’s opinion is equal in a leadership search. A "final hiring authority" (or more colloquially, "final decider") — typically the person to whom the candidate would directly report — often has the ultimate aye or nay. You may hit every ball out of the park with your candidacy, but you can still strike out if the search outcome is preordained or if you fail to sway one key person. Many people’s opinions may matter, but only one person decides.

The Admin 101 series explores both the administrative hiring process and, in future columns, the job itself. (Browse the series so far here.) Now the series turns to perhaps the most important meeting you will have as a finalist for a leadership post: the one-on-one session with the lone executive who decides whether to offer you the job (or not).

For a chair’s position, the final hiring authority will be the dean of the college; for deanships, the provost; for provosts and vice presidents, the president. (The exception is presidents, whose hiring is often determined by the governing board.) Here’s what finalists need to discover about their final deciders.

Conduct an intellectual background check. For more than 25 years, I have been teaching political communication. One of the basic principles I offer students is "know your audience." The most skillful "great communicators" adjust their tone, style, and even word choice depending on whom are they are talking to.

Likewise for the encounter with the final decider. Your first bit of prep is to ask: Who is this person? Questions to answer may include:

  • What is her personal narrative — upbringing, culture?
  • What is his career history?
  • What is her home field, area of research and study, and professional background?
  • What is his leadership style?

Basically you want to build a picture of the person who may become your boss. The goal is not to change who you are or to mimic another personality. No need to suddenly adopt an accent (to fit the final decider’s native patois) or become a sycophant (agreeing with everything the administrator says). But you want to know more about what makes final deciders tick, and gets them animated about their job and position.

Study their priorities and vision. In last month’s Admin 101 column, I related how the candidate’s vision must align with that of the institution and its leadership. Before meeting with the final decider, try to determine:

  • What are her key metrics and strategic goals?
  • What are his priorities?
  • What is her timeline for those goals and priorities?
  • And what would be your role in achieving them? (Note: Details will probably emerge in the interview itself.)

You want to know where this leader wants to go — and by when. Gathering that information will help you understand challenges and opportunities facing the institution itself, because the final decider’s "to-do list" is grounded in them.

Identify key words and phrases. Your time with the final decider will be limited. The interviewer has a certain profile in mind for who will fill the position, and the impression you leave must match that. Beyond sharing a common vision, you can convey how you fit the profile by the words and phrases you use.

For example, when a colleague interviewed for a deanship, it was clear that — although he would meet the university’s president — the provost was the final deciding authority for the hire. So my friend studied up on the university’s strategic plan as well as the history and goals of the college he would oversee if hired as dean. But he particularly scanned online resources, published essays, and private intel, looking for key terms and phrases that the provost had uttered about what a successful college meant to him.

Please note: I am not recommending that you simply parrot catchphrases. All I’m saying is that people reveal themselves by repetition and reinforcement. Let’s say, for instance, you are applying for department chair and you discover that the dean has repeatedly stressed the importance of "expanding the distance offerings" and "rethinking pedagogical practices of the past." In your conversation with the dean, it would behoove you to highlight your experience with, or interest in, those topics.

Make the case for connections and alignments. It is not enough to declare you fit the requirements of a particular academic leadership position. You must make the case that your specific experiences and skills prove that you could fulfill the ambitions of the post. Your evidence might include:

  • Case studies in which, under your leadership, a department or college has achieved outcomes similar to those important to the final decider.
  • Instances when you solved problems that you might foresee facing in the leadership position.
  • Observations drawn from what you have learned about the hiring institution and what you have seen and heard during your meetings and interviews.

That last point is crucial. In my own meetings with job candidates, whenever they share shrewd insights about my institution drawn from their time here, I appreciate that this is someone who can: (a) fit in with great ease and dexterity, and (b) add value to our campus.

Gauge the vibe. Hiring, whether for a postdoc or a president, is not a one-way street. Candidates must decide if a campus and a position are right for them as much as the other way around. I have heard from people who became disenchanted with — or even repelled by — the job or the campus after their finalist visits. Sometimes the final decider is the one who convinces you, "Nope, this gig is not for me!" — often unintentionally.

To take one example, an acquaintance described interviewing for a provost position at a small liberal-arts college. Everything went fine until she met with the final decider — in this case, the president of the college. He told her that he was looking to hire someone who would be able to implement drastic budget cuts that would include firing professors. In other words, the president wanted a provost to do his dirty work. My friend also suspected, with good reason, that she was being set up to be the "fall gal" when the inevitable campus outrage and backlash erupted.

Your meeting with the final decider is also your last chance to figure out what kind of working relationship the two of you might have. Remember, most tenured professors have a high degree of job security. Administrators who "serve at the pleasure" have nearly none. If you are unsure you can work well — perhaps for many years! — with your potential supervisor, now is the time to bail.

Ultimately, the final decider is not just the person who determines the hire but also the one who will have the most control over the resources you have access to in the job, and the support you will receive for your work. It is almost like a marriage: Every "we hit it off" moment in the interview — as well as every psychological warning sign — is worthy of deep scrutiny and analysis.

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