Your Career

Don’t Pass Me Over

Here comes a new chief executive, and you're about to be passed over for that promotion in favor of someone hand-picked. What do you do now?

Don't Pass Me OverJUDY (NAME CHANGED TO PROTECT the innocent) saw the writing on the wall early. Her Eastern Seaboard university had brought in a new president tasked with turning the campus into a world-class institution. Bolstered by the recommendations from a well-known consulting firm, the president had replaced, one by one, every key person in the administration. Over the course of 18 months, the president reorganized and hired new leadership in the Provost's office, Communications, the Library, the Alumni Association, the Business office, and in at least two colleges-a total of nine positions. In only one situation did the new chief exec hire internally for the leadership spots.

Judy, who had been acting as the college's de facto CIO for nearly a decade, knew it was only a matter of time before the president would turn full attention to the IT organization. In fact, one aspect of the inevitable upcoming changes had already become public: the decision to hire a chief information officer who possessed a graduate degree, something Judy lacked. Now, Judy had to make a decision about how hard she should fight to retain her position. Should she ask to be interviewed for the post, begin looking for a new job, wait for the ax to fall, or some combination of all three options?

Act Quickly, Be Savvy

In such a situation, says Kathlene Collins, publisher of InsideHigherEd.com and an expert on recruiting issues in higher education, "There's no downside to requesting a meeting to talk through what you have to contribute and why this is a role you should be playing." Collins offers a clear path for setting up that conversation:

  • Get profile documents together, simply stating who you are and why you're so well-suited to the job. This gives you a framework for revealing your contributions that may have been under the radar. "There's a funny catch-22 when we do a great job," says Collins. "What we end up doing is creating the perception that there's no effort involved. Work contributions are rarely recognized." This is particularly true when you've been in the position for a long time, says Collins, and that's why keeping a record of your job responsibilities and achievements is so important. "If you look at any recruitment ad, what you're going to see is, 'Send us a resume, cover letter, and letter of recommendation,'" she notes. Yet, often when someone has spent years in a post, he or she doesn't have those profile documents prepared, even to share internally-and that means the individual may be overlooked for an internal promotion, despite being an excellent candidate.
  • Write a memo communicating that you understand that big changes are coming in the organization, and that you would like to discuss how you fit into those changes. In a non-defensive and non-confrontational way, demonstrate that you really care about the institution and the job. "There's no negative that can come out of that," says Collins. The point is to show early on that you're a team player and you want to be part of the new president's team.

    And what about that graduate degree requirement, which wasn't in place before? Collins suggests tackling it head-on in that memo, by making the argument up front that your professional development is worth investment: "If your concern is that I don't have experience in a particular area, then help me get there."
  • Think hard about your 'value proposition,' and come up with an appropriate closing to your memo, depending on the situation. If a candidate search has been opened for the CIO position, your conclusion should focus on what you can contribute and how/why you can take your contribution to the next level; something along the lines of, "You're getting everything out of me that the current structure requires, but I can do so much more; for instance…." If the new C-level executive has already been hired, your tack could be to explain why you should be a key member of the IT team; add that you'd like to discuss what your role is going to be. If the reorganization or hiring is still in the discussion phase, focus on the great ideas you have that you wish to put on the table.
  • Be the deputy to the dazzle. If the hiring committee's response is that "dazzling" credentials are essential to the post, says Collins, it's possible that an impressive new CIO will need a deputy who knows where the keys to all the lockers are. (This approach is predicated on the theory that the hiring institution has brought in somebody with better credentials and broader experience than your own.) After all, she says, any dazzling paper credentials you can come up with may not be "nearly as useful as institutional memory and a clear understanding of the system and where the fault lines are." If it turns out that you don't get the C-level slot, someone more "luminous" does, and you end up the deputy, says Collins, take advantage of your chance to acquire more dazzle: By all means, "position yourself to be mentored by that person." Your greatest challenge will be to set aside your ego and make yourself indispensable to the new executive.

    In fact, this situation is precisely what Collins herself witnessed, in one work environment. But in the case of the colleague overlooked for the post, the person brought in was "awful." Collins' associate stayed on for a year to see if she could make it work, but ultimately, she left. "Obviously," says the recruiting pro, "so much depends on [the chemistry of] the individuals involved."
“The natural instinct is to be resentful, but it’s going to be a lot more constructive to say, ‘OK, what’s the opportunity here, and how do I take advantage of it?’ As satisfying as it might be, it’s never smart to flame everybody on the way out.” -Kathlene Collins, InsideHigherEd.com

When All Else Fails

What if it's not possible to work your way into the desired post? Or worse, what if the hiring committee has communicated that you just don't have what it takes and that, in time, you may be phased out? If you perceive that's the case, as scary as it may feel it's always best to leave on your own terms rather than waiting for your position to be eliminated, says Collins. "This is absolutely conventional wisdom, but it's true," she concedes, although she acknowledges that people hate to face it. "You are always better off getting a job while you have a job."

That's exactly what Judy wound up doing. She began putting out feelers for new jobs outside the university while at the same time she evaluated her chances of surviving in her current position. In the end, she opted to move on gracefully. As it turned out, her grace under fire was a smart tactic, too: In her new position she actually interfaces with her now-former school.

And that brings up a final bit of advice from Collins: "The natural instinct is to be resentful: 'How dare they not recognize what I do here?' But it's going to be a lot more constructive- and psychologically gentler in the long run-if you say, 'OK, what's the opportunity here, and how do I take advantage of it?' Frankly, as satisfying as it might be, it's never a smart move to flame everybody on the way out."

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