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January 14, 2021

From: Denise K. Magner

Subject: The Quick Tip: When You're Stuck With Someone Else's Mess

What's the best way to respond when your dream job in administration turns into a nightmare?

While it can be exhilarating to turn around a struggling department or organization, it is demoralizing to be delivered such a challenge without warning. There are usually obvious signs in the hiring process that all is not well, but you may miss or dismiss them when you want the job too much.

So how best to respond when you have inherited a terrible situation? You could take the lead of American presidents and blame your predecessors, but that will make you seem weak and whiny. It is not a strategy that works all that well, and it can also suggest that the colleagues you inherited were complicit in creating the mess you’re now trying to clean up. You will need their support to turn things around, so alienating them will only delay your progress.

Instead, consider these strategies:

  • Speak as “us” rather than “you.” As the newcomer, you may be tempted to distance yourself from the mess, but don’t. You now own it. Embrace your new organization, and suggest that you are fully committed to turning things around.
  • Acknowledge what’s working. It’s important to be open about the many challenges facing the department. However, not everything is broken, so highlight points of pride.
  • Share the numbers. It’s easy to dismiss the need for change when challenges are not obvious. Give your people the facts.

Continue reading: "Stuck With Someone Else's Mess," by Allison M. Vaillancourt

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Denise K. Magner is senior editor of The Chronicle’s advice section, which features articles written by academics for academics on faculty and administrative career issues.