WIWDD #4: The Specialist

Posted by jlubans on October 17, 2020


Caption: In Admiration of the First Celebrity Specialist, Lem Putt

The Specialist continues my reflections on What I Would Do Differently (WIWDD) in my career.
Most organizations of a certain size feature specialists. These are usually one or two person units with an often-esoteric focus, not unlike Lem Putt who specialized in outhouse construction: one holers and up.
Now, most specialists, like Lem, earn their keep. They provide good service and benefit the organization. But, and this is a big but, a few specialists are in it more for themselves than the organization. Of course, we all put ourselves first - which is healthy - but we make sure what we do ultimately benefits the organization.
One time I was asked/assigned to supervise a specialist. I knew full well this was a problematic individual. He used his position for self-aggrandizement and he had, if not an unsavory reputation it was a sketchy one.
He could be charming, yet prickly and nasty, and could “go musicologist” (like “going postal”) viciously fighting over minutiae. He had made enemies but, to his credit, he did have some supporters.
Since our environment was higher education, part of how he operated was much like many other professors. Those with tenure have a great deal of freedom and, if they engage in wrong doing, are rarely held accountable.
My new supervisee was a quasi-faculty member, so some of his behavior emulated the professoriate. Bear in mind that the faculty member is a solo player. She may collaborate on research and publication but she remains a soloist.
My specialist failed to make his specialty relevant to the students and other professors; instead he focused on narrow research topics.
Often he would be invited to do research at exotic locations. (I found out that many in his circle of specialists – including influential donors - played a round robin of inviting each other.
(Certainly, this goes on at many campuses not just for my specialist and his international cronies.)
However, there is a certain shamelessness, I’ve discovered, in a small segment of the faculty. They count on not being called out and if put on the spot, wriggling out of any accountability.
Ambiguity can be a scoundrel’s best friend.
WWIDD: I should have questioned this new assignment much more closely than I did. I’d ask, Why me?
Why is the previous supervisor unable to continue?
I should have had a frank talk with my boss to get answers to:
What was he expecting me to do?
When the specialist again did something ethically questionable, what was I to do?
How much support would I have from the boss?
Fundamentally, I should have gotten an answer as to how important was what the Specialist supposedly was doing. Did what this person do matter to the organization? How much did it matter?
I had learned over many years that higher education avoids being embarrassed. If push came to shove, as they say, would my boss back me in disciplining my new charge?
And, I should have spoken with the “old” supervisor.
What was his experience?
Why was he willing to give up this direct report?
Too blithely, I accepted this assignment.
My supervision of the specialist was how I worked with all of my two dozen or so direct reports. Regular meetings and no micromanaging. Instead I modeled what was expected: high quality and respectful treatment of clients with careful attention to new initiatives and technological applications. Given freedom, some of my direct reports soared.
Others, had a hard time lifting off. They obviously needed far more guidance and direction than I provided.
The Specialist, as it turned out, continued his self-serving ways. Marginally, what he did was beneficial but generally he was the beneficiary more than the organization.
Dismayingly, as soon as I took over, his previous supervisor began to carp about the Specialist’s performance. That criticism was aimed at me as much as the Specialist! I was judged guilty by association!
While the Specialist did some of his job, it was never really what I was hoping for. The Specialist and I should have had a frank talk early on. I should have provided more direction and been clearer about expectations. Instead we muddled along.
I don’t recall reviewing a job description. That might have helped. My expecting him (and others) to figure it for themselves, was not always the best strategy.
Probably I should have refused to take on the Specialist job; I had plenty to do.

*As immortalized in Charles “Chick” Sale's best seller of 1930, The Specialist.

Copyright all text John Lubans 2020

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