Managing High Performers in Higher Education

No one on his deathbed has ever said, I wish I spent more time in the office. ~ Paul Tsongas

My first president when I began working in California was an incredibly honest and straight forward type of person. At one point we got into a discussion about management philosophy and he came straight out with what his philosophy was, he called it the thoroughbred race horse theory of management. What he said was that he got on the best horse he could find, rode it as fast and as far as it would go, and when it collapsed, he’d get on a new horse. Sounds terrible doesn’t it. The sad thing is, without being honest about it, this is the management theory most leaders in higher education employ.

The other maxim that I’ve understood about higher education, that I learned way back in my graduate school days, was that the better the job you do, the more competent you are, the more they will pile on you. When I was working on my PhD in Ecology our comprehensive exams were an absolute bear. First, there were the written exams, six to eight hour exams each day for a week. Then you would move on, a couple of weeks later, to to the oral exams. This is where your committee would take everything you got wrong, or didn’t answer as completely as they wanted and they would torture you over it. Typically they would grill you for two to three hours, get you as close to your breaking point then say ok, now let’s go to the pub. So you would stagger back to your office where your friends in the program were waiting to take you to the pub and pour beer down your throat until the pain was numbed.

It always seemed that the better the student, the worse their committee tortured them. I guess I should have accepted my three hours of hell as a compliment. There was a student in our program who wasn’t the best student, they weren’t good under pressure and broke pretty easily. The day of their orals, we gathered early to wait for the results. We all were really afraid their committee would crush them and they’d come running back to their office in tears. We got part of it right, they showed up in their office only an hour after the start time. They came in smiling and laughing, what happened we asked? They said, “my committee was great, they were so nice and supportive.” A lot of really interesting glances shot around the room and then we headed to the pub.

We’ve all seen this pattern play itself out in our work life. We all know that manager or faculty member who really isn’t very good at their job, who breaks under pressure. We also watch our bosses never overload these folks. Yet the managers and faculty members who are the highest performers, who are innovative, hard working and highly competent are the first ones we think of when there’s a new project or a new initiative to be led, no matter how many other initiatives they are already leading. We often look at what’s best for the institution, not what’s best for the employee.

So what’s the lesson to be learned? Honestly, it seems that the smartest thing you could do in your job, would be to do a mediocre job. Keep your head down, get easily overburdened and not make an extra effort. The fact is by doing that, you work less hours, get less loaded on to your plate and likely have far less stress at work. On the opposite side, the high performers work more hours, have far too much on their plate and deal with a lot more stress. For high performing faculty, sometimes there are timesheets involved so at least you make a bit more money. However for managers that’s not the case. Every high performing manager is thoroughly familiar with the phrase in our contracts that says, “and other duties as assigned.” Those other duties rarely have extra pay connected to them.

Over my career other duties as assigned has included, over an above my primary assignment, serving as: Project Director; Division Dean, Site Dean and even Athletic Director. And once three of those at the same time. Over the last 10 months I’ve carried the jobs of Division Dean and Center Director, both full-time gigs with you guessed it, only one full-time salary.

Of course, it’s exactly what defines high performers that keeps them from ever just doing a mediocre job. Not doing their best, not working hard is just not in their nature and if they’re put into that position they usually find another job.

So how do we fix this? In higher education we rarely have the opportunity to award merit pay or provide a promotion, particularly in public education systems. So how do reward high performers in higher education? I have a few suggestions. First off, we could start by abandoning the thoroughbred theory of management. Second, we could take better care to pay attention to and truly care about the worklife balance of these people, of all of our people for that matter.

But I think the biggest suggestion I could make to how we can do a better job of managing high performers can be summed up in one word, freedom. What do I mean by this? First off, provide them the freedom to be a little more flexible with their schedules. I realize there are limits due to contracts, but perhaps giving them greater opportunity to work from home. Being more flexible with their daily schedule. Is your high performer a night owl, perhaps give them the flexibility to come in later in the morning. Perhaps you can recognize their work by allowing them to take a few days for an alternative assignment to work on whatever they want. Essentially give them the space and time to utilize their skills and talents in the way they would most like to utilize them.

One of reasons people often related as the reason they are unhappy at work, is a lack of recognition and respect. One of the best ways you can reward your high performers is to make sure they understand their contributions and input are important. While recognition is important often recognition doesn’t mean that much. For example, have you ever worked anywhere, where the president didn’t talk about how your college was the best place ever on the first day. Personally, I’ve worked at eight different colleges, and each one of those colleges coincidentally had the best group of faculty the president had ever encountered. When we spend all of our time saying how great everyone is, all the time, telling your high performers they are doing a good job might not have the weight you think it does. However, give that same high performer some time and attention, maybe an opportunity to provide feedback and have input into decisions and they will feel more valued.

This is more important than ever during the great resignation or as it’s referred to in education journals as the great disillusionment. In the past, employees were more likely to stick it out in a place, even if they didn’t feel appreciated and/or felt overworked. However, the COVID pandemic has made a lot of people take a hard look at what they really want out of life including life outside of work. Add to that a labor market with lots of openings and rising salaries and people are much more willing to move on to greener pastures these days. So the consequences of not appreciating your high performers can be lost talent and lost institutional knowledge, especially if we don’t have effective transition plans in place.

Published by Michael Kane

Michael Kane is a writer, photographer, educator, speaker, adventurer and a general sampler of life. His books on hiking and poetry are available in soft cover and Kindle on Amazon.

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