Advice

Reasons for Leaving

September 28, 2005

On an overcast day last winter, I waited impatiently with hundreds of faculty and staff members for the president of the college where I work to make what had been billed as an important announcement. Flanked by his wife and the head of our board of trustees, the president addressed us, as always, as "good friends." Then he tearfully announced his retirement.

Craning my neck to assess the audience's reaction, I saw that just about everyone's eyes were misty, even those of a few fractious faculty members who had sometimes grumbled about the president during his eleven years in office. His tenure had been a good one, bringing the college increased quality and quantity of enrollments, exceptional fund-raising success, and greater visibility.

Although no one could fault the president's desire to leave while his successes were still fresh, we were all worried that the college's fortunes would wane without his leadership.

While I can't think of anyone who isn't apprehensive about the period of uncertainty surrounding the president's departure and his replacement's arrival, the prospect is particularly dire for my department. The president has been our strongest supporter. And support we have needed, since our expertise -- marketing -- is relatively new to higher education, and therefore viewed with some suspicion (if not the outright contempt it inspired when it was formally introduced at the college three years ago).

My department's work in that time has more than justified the president's and the trustees' faith in us. The board's support will continue, but the president's day-to-day negotiation of our needs versus those of other units of the college, and his articulation of the ways in which our department's work advances the entire institution's mission and goals will be lost.

As if that weren't bad enough, shortly after the president made his announcement, my boss, the vice president for marketing, gave her notice. Under her direction, the college began expressing its value, as well as its values, effectively. We have improved the way we look and speak to the world through our advertising, publications, and recruiting materials, winning numerous awards in the process.

I'm not at all sure that I want to face the big leadership transitions that are in the works now. I admire my friends who, over many decades at the college, have endured major transitions, and it's true that my own career as a marketing communications director at the college prospered with the arrival of our vice president of marketing. But can I possibly expect such good fortune to repeat itself? It feels like a pretty dicey proposition.

Now that more colleges are acknowledging the need to market themselves, many institutions are seeking professionals with my skills and experience. Still, finding a position that compares favorably to the one I have will be difficult.

As I tell headhunters who call me, I'm a hard sell. I'm paid exceptionally well. I do interesting, challenging work, and I garner a great deal of recognition for my efforts. I earned my master's degree at this institution, so I have an alumna's sentimental attachment to it.

And there are even more personal reasons for my reluctance to leave my job: In my nearly nine years at the college, I have been comfortable in its culture, which can be rare for a person of color to achieve in her professional home. The joy I feel at seeing students and staff members (and even a few professors) of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latin American descent in corridors, classrooms, and conference spaces is unmatched in my professional experience.

I have friends of many different ethnic backgrounds on nearly every level of the hierarchy, a stark contrast to my experience in private business, where I was most often the lone minority in the room, especially in any group composed solely of managers and professionals. Now I sit in meetings where I am one of several people of color.

If I'm doubtful about finding the job I want, it's because I'm very clear about my skills, the work I want to do, and the kind of environment I want to do it in. I once turned down a position largely because I couldn't bear to exchange my college's century-old grandeur for the cinder blocks and torn carpeting of a community college.

(I was also unnerved by the president of that institution repeatedly snapping during my interview, "What did they tell you?" whenever I mentioned something I had learned from her executive committee. But maybe she just wanted to be sure her team remained "on message.")

Last spring, after learning that my boss would be leaving, I applied for a job at a top-tier university near my house. The deans and others I met with were interested in my experience and easily grasped how I could apply it at their institution. They were so enthusiastic about me that I thought they might pinch my cheeks at the sheer pleasure of knowing me.

Through the search firm, I was assured that the salary range for the position would be extended, since my compensation was already above it. Those folks knew how to conduct a courtship. But, just as the search firm was about to discuss an offer, I let it be known that I would not welcome one. As much as I wanted to work with the people at the hiring institution, the scope of the job was just too narrow; I would have been bored within weeks.

A couple of months ago, I submitted my résumé for a position at a small religious college in the state where I live. As executive director of marketing, I would be in charge of branding for the college -- leading where I now follow. It seemed a perfect next step in my career.

Only after I applied did it dawn on me that I would be in constant conflict with my new employers, whose socially conservative views would clash with my pro-choice fervor and my opposition to their "don't ask, don't tell" response to gay, lesbian, and transsexual undergraduates wishing to have their own student organization. As it turned out though, by the time the college had received my résumé, it had already made an offer to another candidate.

I'm at the top of my job-search game now. I know about preparing for interviews and insisting on conditions that are favorable for both the interviewer and the job seeker. I cringe remembering that I once allowed myself to be coerced into interviewing when I was feverish and congested. At the time, I explained that I was ill and asked the hiring company to postpone the interview for a few days. But the company insisted that I come right away. In my flu-fogged state, my resolve was weak, so I acquiesced. Not surprisingly, the interview was a disaster. I suspect it was also ludicrous, since my interviewers wore bemused smiles throughout our meeting, which made me wonder what on earth I was saying to them.

I don't have much faith in the interview ritual, anyway. It's too artificial to elicit meaningful information beyond whether the candidate might possess some of the essential skills required to do the job. All the really important stuff -- like whether the person I would report to is a notorious lunatic whom other employees have made it a practice to avoid, or whether the new kid will be expected to fire a dysfunctional, but entrenched, staff -- is absent.

Personally, I prefer a more productive conversational format, in which both sides ask and answer questions naturally, in the course of an in-depth discussion, rather than the frustrating practice of being grilled for an hour and a half, and having to wait until the interview's end to ask my own questions. I can think of a few occasions on which, had I been able to ask my questions in the beginning, I could have saved all of us a lot of time and trouble.

Starting this fall, I will be a member of a committee working to fill an administrative director's position at my college. I can only hope that dual lens will serve me well, as I scan the horizon for a suitable position for myself.

My Next Column: Should I apply for my boss's job?

Lauren Moore is the pseudonym of a marketing director for a small institution on the East coast. She will be chronicling her search this academic year for a new job.