Moving from Ruin to Rebuild

Imagine if you came home and found your house in ruins. Would you buy or build another home the next day? Not likely. After getting over the shock, you would quickly search for interim shelter. Hotels, family, neighbors, and relief agencies would all be options for this temporary period, which could last months and beyond, not days or weeks.

Around this time of year, many schools find they are without a technology leader. The reasons vary greatly: egregious performance, personal circumstances, or an unsuccessful hiring effort, to name a few. Whatever the cause, a technology vacancy just a few weeks before opening days can make any school leader nervous.

Unfortunately, that anxiety can lead to an unwise hiring decision. When a school finds itself with an unexpected technology opening, the worst plan is often the most tempting: filling the position right away. And this advice comes from someone whose business helps schools hire full-time technology professionals.

What causes this anxiety? I observe two common sources. The first is a misunderstanding of IT. CFOs and heads of school confide in me that they worry about staffing disaster scenarios, such as the common hyperbole: What would we do if the director (or anyone else) were hit by a bus? The truth is that school environments are just not that complicated. By calling in the right IT contract firm, within 48-72 hours most services would be back online, if they had been offline at all.

The second frequent source of technology staffing anxiety comes from the accelerated nature of the industry itself. With new products and services launching all the time, it is easy for a management team to fear falling behind the technology curve if a whole year becomes transitional. This fear is heightened in school environments, where many perceive that an innovative technology department counterbalances a traditional school culture.

Thus, it is natural for a management team to react to fill a technology position the moment it becomes vacant during a stressful time like summer. However, if school leadership can resist the temptation to “solve” all their technology problems in one fell swoop, quite often an extended (but not indefinite) interim period can lay the foundation for an even stronger permanent solution.

Interim solutions run the gamut, from low-cost skeletal plans that leverage internal resources or part-time support labor, to higher-end full-service options that rely on outside firms or full-time acting managers. The most valuable piece of advice is the most obvious: good, interim leadership is not cheap — usually at least 25-30 percent more than what you would pay for the equivalent service in normal times. Anything less is a miracle — or a mirage.

If you can afford full-time interim leadership during your transition period, rarely will you be disappointed. An experienced interim director can double as an in-house consultant, identifying broken processes, inefficient workflows, and improper staffing without getting bogged down by the politics of permanent employment. If you can’t afford full-time interim leadership, consider three other options, which could be combined:

  • Temporarily shift management of the department to another director already on staff, and hire enough low-cost, tactical labor to get you through opening days. More than anything, that interim manager needs to have an operational mindset — a librarian or facilities director could be an ideal choice if a division head or CFO is not available. Now is not the time for an innovative academic entrepreneur to be introducing new ideas.
  • Bring in an outside, interim leader to work on-site one or two days each week and remotely as necessary. Even if that contractor comes with a travel cost, the monthly bill should be about equal to the cost of a full-time director.
  • Elevate one or more people within the department up a notch. Ensure that they are supported by an engaged supervisor — perhaps an interim director, or perhaps the CFO.

An interim plan should have one overarching objective: stabilize crises to avoid making long-term staffing decisions under duress. Once you get through the critical opening days, you can hire at a more appropriate time. And yes, no matter how well your interim period might be progressing, you do need to make an intentional exit from this transitional plan. I’ve seen too many examples of acting, part-time, contract managers who remain on staff indefinitely—leading to the slow decline of a technology program.

But there’s an upside to having a sudden vacancy this time of year. The fall is often the best time to hire because so few schools are recruiting that early in the season. In September you could launch a national search that publicizes a start date of July 2018, or sooner if available. Employing this strategy would allow you to move ahead of the springtime competition for experienced technology leaders, while keeping open the possibility of finding someone to start right away. With an interim solution to hold you over for the rest of the school year, you might find this rebuilding period is less about clearing the rubble, and more about designing the remodel.