julia foulkes

When to Say What to Whom

Last week featured talks by three candidates for Dean of our odd collection of programs. It’s not an easy job, and I am grateful to—and inspired by—the three women interested in the position.

The talks stoked old musings on leadership and I found myself asking two of the candidates about their experience managing people. Because if there’s one thing I learned from being in a heavy administrative position (and watching friends move on to even heavier ones), it’s that these jobs are predominantly about personnel. So, yeah, yeah, yeah, collaborative management style: how do you do that effectively?

I suspect most academics do not want to hear that these jobs are mainly about managing personnel. We want to hear about vision, process, initiatives. All that is where we think we live, in ideas. But, of course, the best ideas are only that if they are not implemented, and that requires other people. They must be persuaded. And lots of faculty, in particular, don’t take kindly to persuasion or demand and often just ignore an administrator’s request or—even more delightful!—complain about it. This happens among staff as well, but there’s a difference when your job could be on the line. (Thanks, tenure.)

I come to the question about management partly because of a mistake I made. There was some difficult news to pass along to someone, and I reacted as I thought was appropriate: get the hard stuff over with as soon as possible. Someone wiser than me asked me whether the delivery of the news needed to be quite so immediate given the involvement of this person in critical activities the next day. But I had the meeting scheduled, was dreading the conversation, and thought that there would never be a good time for difficult news, so I went ahead.

It was a mistake. There was no need for it to be done that day and I had certainly worsened the person’s attention to critical work that he was leading the next day. I regret this still. A friend of mine in charge of far more than I will ever be crystallized the issue as “when to tell what to whom.” That is: it’s not just a matter of good “communication,” as the shorthand has it. Consideration must be given as to who needs to know information before someone else and, in my case, what timing works best given many factors, not just the need to confront a difficult conversation. There is much that can be wrapped up in this question of what, when, who, as it speaks to the overlap of relations and priorities. I would argue that a leader needs to be thinking very much about precisely these issues.

The other management lesson I have learned is from the philosophy of pragmatism. John Dewey et al. suggest that the primary philosophical—or existential—dilemma is to first fully understand the problem. Defining the problem correctly is the only chance at a solution. Too often we are spinning our wheels because we’re concentrating on solutions that have little relation to the actual problem. Defining the problem usually requires research, consultation, deliberation. But I have been in a number of situations where if we can push aside the extraneous issues—that may indeed be their own problems but not the one most pressing—then a path to a solution becomes more clear.

And then there’s always: respect, listening, courtesy, and a helluva lot of effort.