Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness at Segal

Stuck With Someone Else’s Mess

Full vitae someone else mess front

Image: iStock

A friend of mine recently accepted a big job and moved to a new campus. Before she began, she was excited. The president was supportive. Her advisory board included powerful and influential people. The department seemed strong, the budget was reasonable, and the community was described as welcoming.

But within a couple of weeks of her arrival, she had a sinking feeling. At the end of her second month on the job, she knew she’d made a terrible mistake.

The president was affable, but never all that interested in her work, or available to help. The advisory board was more honorific than actual, and its members were uninterested in offering advice, making connections, or supporting her fund-raising goals. The budget seemed large, but no one had mentioned upfront that it was insufficient to meet current obligations, much less offer a margin for new investments. And the department members? While they were gracious during her campus interview, they were surly and cantankerous after she moved across the country to join them.

During a late-night conversation — one in which I could hear her pouring a few glasses of wine — we talked about her campus interviews. We sought to retrace her steps to understand how her assessment of the opportunity could have been so inaccurate. Our conclusion: She had been intentionally misled.

  • When she asked to meet with advisory-board members, the response was, "These are important people, and you aren’t our only finalist."
  • When she asked to meet with the finance manager during the final interview visit, he was put on her itinerary. Yet when it came time to meet, he was suddenly unavailable because of a family emergency.
  • She was never allowed to meet one-on-one with members of the department. Every meeting included at least three department members, thereby ensuring that no single individual could whisper in her ear about challenges she might face.

"You were played," I said after we reviewed her final visit. "But there were obvious clues you missed because you wanted this job so much. The question now is: How will you move forward?"

Several years ago, I faced a similar situation and learned some hard lessons about the dangers of excessive trust and optimism and the risks that come from failing to conduct due diligence. After inheriting a mess, I behaved badly and spent an inordinate amount of time blaming my predecessor for leaving what I called "a file drawers of lies," and criticized the organization’s leadership for handing me a rat’s nest to untangle. I whined a lot.

"Don’t make the same mistake I made," I said to my friend. "Behave better than I did."

What does that mean? What is the best way to respond when you have inherited a terrible situation?

You could take the lead of U.S. presidents and blame your predecessors, but that will make you seem weak and whiny. It is not a strategy that works all that well, and it can also suggest that the colleagues you inherited were complicit in creating the mess you’re now trying to clean up. You will need their support to turn things around, so alienating them will only delay your progress.

So what should you do instead? Here are a few strategies to consider:

  • Speak as "us," rather than "you." As the newcomer, you may be tempted to distance yourself from the mess, but don’t. You now own it. Embrace your new organization and suggest that you are fully committed to turning things around.
  • Be clear about your values. In times of crisis, your people need to know what matters to you and whether you view them as key to the organization’s future. Be explicit about your expectations and what it will take to be successful when working with you.
  • Acknowledge what’s working. It’s important to be open about the many challenges facing the department. However, not everything is broken, so highlight points of pride.
  • Share the numbers. It’s easy to dismiss the need for change when challenges are not obvious. Give your people the facts: "Our applications are down 12 percent." Or, "15 percent of our graduates failed their board exams." Or, "We have a $2-million structural deficit." Defining the problem is a key first step in solving it.
  • Describe the future you imagine. Articulating a compelling vision offers a path forward and signals your optimism that things will eventually improve.
  • Don’t go it alone. As quickly as possible, determine who on your team is hungry and who might be helpful because you will need both phenotypes to master your mess. The hungry will work hard to make a name for themselves during the turnaround, and the helpful will be instrumental in providing the quiet, behind-the-scenes support that you will need to move things forward.
  • Embrace your mess as an opportunity. A sense of crisis can be a powerful bonding experience and can build long-term optimism and confidence by enabling organizational members to believe "We got through that, we can get through this."

While it can be exhilarating to turn around a struggling organization, it is typically demoralizing to be delivered such a challenge without warning. There are usually obvious signs in the hiring process that all is not well, but we may miss or dismiss them when we want a position too much.

If search-committee members deny your requests for information or limit your interactions on the campus, be prepared for an unhappy set of surprises once you arrive. It is good to be excited about a new job opportunity, but it is better to be skeptical.

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