Becoming a director

Something strange happens when one is promoted to a director. No, the planets don’t realign nor do the magnetic poles of the Earth swap, but things are definitely different. Whenever I promote members of my staff into “big D” roles, whether assistant director, associate director, or director, I sit down with them and talk through what it means to be a director. Having “director” in one’s title is not merely a formality that includes a pay grade, it carries attributes and expectations that go well beyond what a position description can properly express.

When I was promoted to director of Instructional Technology in 1998, the associate provost for IT sat down in my office, handed me an offer letter, and started our conversation with “now, before you accept…” We had a great discussion about many things and it was through our conversation that I realized being a director was going to be different than managing a team. Yes, I was going to take over a large budget, my staff was going to grow 20-fold, and I’d need to tackle strategic planning, but these many years later I can say that’s not what the conversation was about. Success for a director in academic computing is not merely about showing up and doing one’s job; it is measured in an entirely different way and encompasses much more.

Most colleges and universities profess that they don’t care about rankings, but in reality institutions do. When U.S. News & World Report publishes its annual “Best Colleges” guide, every college administrator secretly sneaks to the bookstore to flip through the issue or surfs online to see where the institution falls amongst its peers. The reality is that rank is deniably everything, and so it should come as no surprise that the same is true for titles. Colleges are filled with a wide variety of fellows, lecturers, professors, deans, and provosts in addition to the corporate title range of supervisors, managers, and directors. Each variation in title carries some element of political advantage and baggage that is uniquely perceived on multiple fronts, from within an organization, on both the academic and administrative sides of an institution, and in general across campus.

For staff, progressing through the ranks to manager tends to have an internal impact. For example, a programmer that moves into a team lead or supervisor role will experience changes in how her staff interacts with her on a daily basis and usually that’s as far as it goes. But when “director” lands in the title of someone in a campus information technology organization, things change rather significantly. The first thing a new director usually notices is that the social networks they were once a part of change. Conversations that were open and comfortable become tense and awkward. The reason is simple: the director is now part of the leadership team and not in the trenches with everyone else. This behavior can be disorienting and at times, unnerving to a new director.

From there, one of two things happen next: either the director is invited to a whole new set of meetings, lunches, and gatherings or he/she is uninvited from everything and suddenly out of the loop. In being invited to everything, the director is the newbie and drawn into every conceivable project and discussion (even if it is not related to scope of the director’s responsibility at all). The point of over-inclusion is usually two-fold. First, people want to get to know the new person in action. Second, people perceive the new person as being an agent of change. The trap a new director can quickly fall into is being a perceived managerial solution to systemic problems that others are trying to avoid. In other words, blame the new guy.

The second situation of ending up out of the loop is a different thing. Some believe that being left out is really a hostile reaction to a change in leadership. What I’ve found in IT within higher education is that such behavior is rarely the case. College IT organizations tend to be more like families than work groups and as such, everybody assumes everyone around them knows who to connect with and what to do. No one recognizes that the role of a director entails new connections, so in the end the director is left to figure it out. The important point to remember is that it usually isn’t some kind of weird hazing ritual — it just happens.

As the social and professional networks start to change, the director next realizes they’re in charge and have the power to affect change. I remember when it happened to me. I was about a month into the job and our public computing labs were not in the best technical shape. Two students and a frustrated manager and technical supervisor were trying to hold the operation together after years of financial neglect. Things were stalling and failing because no one felt empowered to make a decision. Up until that point, my MO as a working manager was to either talk about issues and seek community consensus before proceeding or more often was the case, do it myself. When I sat down with the students and the staff, we started discussing the issues and it became clear to me what needed to happen. As we dithered in the meeting wondering about what to do next, I suddenly realized we didn’t need to talk about it anymore because the buck stopped with me. A second later I abruptly halted discussion and proclaimed my first edict. I directed my staff to do something. They had to figure out how, but I gave them the okay with resources to solve the problem.

Things start to get weird for a academic computing director when people begin asking them about the larger umbrella organization’s perspective or “position” on campus issues. Those new to the role often fail to realize is that “director” carries a responsibility to represent the umbrella organization to the staff, administration, students, and faculty even if what one is being asked to represent is far afield from their area of expertise or scope of responsibility. From my admitted limited perspective, the behavior typically manifests itself in one of three ways:

Situation 1: A reporter from the student newspaper contacts the director for a perspective on a particular campus issue. To the student reporter, a director in any part of the information technology organization should be capable of representing the entire organization and able to explain what’s going on in any part of the organization at any time. Of course, this is rarely true but the reporter doesn’t know that.

Situation 2: Staff who work for a different director within the same IT organization come to the new director with their particular management or leadership issues because they’re not comfortable talking with their own director or manager. The unstated question is “you’re new, so can you help me?”

Situation 3: The academic computing director is invited to a meeting with faculty and is viewed by them a proxy for the head of the IT organization who has not been invited and the director doesn’t know that until he/she arrives at the meeting. The director is ready to talk about learning technology or research computing and he/she suddenly is blind-sided by complaints and questions stemming from an increase in telecommunications rates charged to departments or problems encountered with obscure administrative systems and processes.

For a director of academic computing, representing the whole IT organization is a bit of a song-and-dance and unfortunately no one is ever fully prepared for these situations. It is tricky because academic computing straddles the boundary between the academic and administrative sides of an institution. Straying too far on either side creates a thornier issue — appear too academic and the rest of the IT technology organization will write off academic computing as boutique and strange. Appear too administrative and
the faculty will view academic computing as merely an extension of the administrative overhead of the institution. In short, new directors need to learn all they can about the other units with the organization to effectively “walk the line” when necessary.

There are many more things to think about when one has the “big D” in the title, but I’m only going to focus on two more. At some point in every director’s career, he/she will be required to make a snap decision that will go way beyond the comfort zone of the individual. A director must be willing and able to do that while expressing confidence even when he/she has little experience or confidence at all. Here’s an extreme example from my past. I represents a situation that I sincerely hope and pray will never happen again.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I arrived in the office about an hour after the attacks on New York and Washington. Not to surprisingly, I discovered all of my staff gathered in one room and glued to the only television in the building. The situation was frazzled at best and I sensed the room would soon erupt into something ugly as a growing roil of fear, sadness, confusion, hatred, and anger filled the space. The moment crystallized for me when one person turned and asked in a low voice “what do we do?” Whether they knew it or not, their actions said to me, “I’m putting my trust in you, so help me deal with this.” So I did — the details of which are between my staff and I.

Which brings me to the last point: trust. Being a director means being a leader and a leader today builds a reputation on trust. If your staff doesn’t trust you, then nothing will happen. If they can’t trust you, then chances are they won’t trust each other and shortly thereafter, the whole organization will start a process of disintegrating until there’s nothing left. When the organization falls apart because of a lack of trust, it isn’t pretty and takes years to fix. What I’ve found (and others have told me), academic computing organizations are particularly difficult groups to pull together because there is is no staffing stereotype. Academic computing thrives on diversity and as such, commonalities such as skills, approaches, processes or procedures simply don’t work. Therefore, trust can be and often is the only common denominator holding the organization together. Trust is everything; lose it and you have nothing.

These are just a few things that are different when one becomes a director. How does one address these and other changes not mentioned here? Well, that depends a lot on the culture of the institution and organization. There is no magic bullet, no single cookbook to turn to. Academic computing directors need to be ready for nearly anything and the first step is to recognize that being a director is not just a manager with a fancy title. The title of director carries a lot of responsibility.