Saturday, April 02, 2005

In the Valley of the Blind, Identify the Guy Who Just Happens to Enjoy Wearing Dark Glasses

When you are interviewing for a job, it's hard to know when you should boil over and when a nice simmer will do just fine. I am talking about the serial interview, when you are passed from person to person, though you can have about the same experience in a group interview with you on one side of the table and what looks like the Michael Jackson defense team is on the other. But only one of them can be Johnnie Cochran, right?

I mean toward whom do you direct the heat, the sparkle, the snap, the crackle, the pop. Who are all these people? It's like looking at mug shots after you've witnessed a crime. Who matters and who doesn't? Who do I really have to sell?

I am thinking about this because we are in the middle of hiring a new faculty member, and I am on the search committee. I recall 15 years ago when I was beginning the move from the newspaper to academe. I interviewed at a midwestern university where it seemed I talked to everyone. I went from office to office to office as if I were speed dating. One man in particular seemed a player. He was a full professor, beefy and confident, with a window with a view and a huge wooden rolltop desk that must have exacted a mighty toll in hernias getting it into place. Hire me? He was talking about the future of the unit five years down the road long after I was hired. Turned out he was a departmental pariah, one of those guys you often find in academia, someone who was once a mandarin and a deal maker but who has since been shunted aside, though no one takes away his office, his title or, in this case, his patina of self-importance. Indeed, I think my visit with him was an opportunity to give that patina a bit of a polish.

The misunderstanding on my part of what was in essence a masquerade led to some disappointment, also on my part, later on.

A year later I interviewed at USF. One of the members of the search committee took me aside and told me about "the dean," the person I would be talking with who really mattered, adding a tip or two for handling him, the most useful one being that he did not suffer fools gladly. He really didn't like fools. You needed to present, perform and score some points when you interviewed with him. If he dismissed you as a lightweight, you were done, no matter how much the hiring committee liked you. My source added this was a good guy, a smart guy, a guy who seemed to have the knack for hiring good people. He was not advising me to placate the lunatic, only that the next hour was the game and that no matter how many points I had scored earlier in the day, here the contest would be decided.

I did not wet my pants. I did what needed to be done. (And by the way my young friends: There is no greater source of strength and calm than applying for a job you might like while occupying a job you do like. Need is poison.)

The dean and I talked as men of the world will talk, as men of respect -- I believe this is a Sicilian term -- eyeing one another and gauging strength, weakness and mutual advantage. The rest is glorious history. I've given would-be hires much the same warning since, though now we have a new dean and the warning is quite properly a little different.

I sometimes add a little something extra. When it's a big hiring committee I'm on, and the job being filled covers something I know little about and the person who fills it will not be working closely with me, naturally I will defer to my colleagues. My job is not to guess but to second-guess, once others have expressed their preference. So I have sometimes told job candidates that I am the least important person they will talk to during their time on campus and to dispense with trying to sell me on something I know almost nothing about. Ask me questions, I say. Don't play to me. Pump me. Oh of course this is also an interviewing ploy on my part, but I only say it if my description of my relative status is also true, if I might be able to tip the scales but certainly not to set the balance.

By the way, in regard to the current search this is not the case. Booyah. I am kicking the tires and checking under the hood and slamming the doors, sometimes hard. I am sitting at the table with both elbows on it.

I told my wife:

Don't tread on me. Dr. No is in the house.

1 comment:

B. Wieder said...

Actually, Dr. No is in the Senate. Majority Leader, in fact.