Our world prefers specialists. We prefer a surgeon with the most precise understanding of the body and a lawyer who knows exactly how to get that patent approved. We believe expertise is developed by masters, and masters are specialists.
We similarly love well-rounded people. How do we resolve those two? Where does our love of professionals make space for uniqueness, difference and variety?
Years ago, I interviewed for a job at the Department of Justice. The attorney that interviewed me took a lot of time to read my resume. It was two pages, but it highlighted my nearly embarrassingly wide variety of academic preparation and professional experiences. To the recruiter’s credit, she looked me in the eye and gave me the bad news. She said, nearly pointing a finger in my face, “Every item on your resume that highlights a skill or background that isn’t exactly what I want, those items detract from my candidacy overall.” Suddenly, what made me different made me non-competitive.
I always considered diversity of experience a strength. But as my interviewer made clear, many employers view diversity as a liability. If one candidate spent the last ten years doing the exact job for which she was hiring, and another candidate held a variety of jobs, it seemed like a good bet to go with the expert.
Malcolm Gladwell implicitly reinforced the value of mastery in his now-famous recounting that 10,000 is the number of hours needed to become a master. He implied we all want to be masters. Most people on the job market know it’s true. We all want to work with masters.
Or do we?
Schools are different. Schools historically employ people with a greater diversity of interests and backgrounds than is found in other workplaces. Part of the reason education embraces diversity is due to the nature of learning. Learning, unlike mastery, requires starting out as a non-master. We dont’t have to learn what we already know. Education loves that learning curve. Education loves non-mastery.
A second reason schools embrace diversity is tied to the people who become professional educators. Educators are a peculiar lot. People with diverse academic, professional, experiential, geographic, linguistic or cultural backgrounds often self-select into education in the first place.
Expertise may be desirable in every other profession. In education, the debate rages. Is it better for your child to have a teacher or principal with little expertise but much enthusiasm? Or, is it better for your child to have a teacher or principal with loads of expertise but immense passion? And what is expert teaching anyway? If Oliver learns well with experience-based learning, and Gabriela learns well going off to a corner and reading books, no one teacher works for every child in every situation. Educators love a good debate, debates best fleshed out from a marketplace of ideas emerging from a diverse group of educators.
Education happens amidst diversity.
Hiring managers for schools both know and don’t know this. Since most people who enter education early in life never leave (it’s that great of a profession), few professional educators understand how their own profession needs to welcome awkward, frustrating, slow-moving, challenging, upstart-loaded diversity in schools. In fact, most school leaders seek to recreate their own teaching and learning experience with all their hires. Work is much easier when the people with whom you are working think, look, sound and act like the person you see in the mirror every morning.
If you lead schools, you hire and promote people. Knowing when to seek and promote diversity is an essential element of the job, but most inexperienced school leaders understand this.
Successful school leaders follow these steps when hiring. Diversity is enormously valuable, but school leaders who go through these steps reap far greater diversity dividends over the long term.
First, is the work you want done better suited to a deliverables contract? This questions essentially asks whether the work you want done needs an employee at all. Few school leaders ask, much less answer, this question.
Work is almost always better suited to a deliverables contract when you know what you want. Think of it this way. Even if it's a repeated deliverable - let’s say you want a task completed annually, monthly or even weekly - a deliverables contract is almost always better than hiring an employee.
Schools are becoming increasingly sophisticated in using outcomes-based contracting. But most school leaders aren’t even given the authority to do this kind of non-employee contracting. At every learning institution I’ve visited over decades, much of the work being done would be better suited to a deliverables contract. The reason school leaders don’t use them is simple. School leaders have a hard time defining what they need. There are other reasons. Lack of authority for non-employee hiring, lack of incentive to take on the status quo, the reflex to re-fill positions that were previously filled, reticence to take the time to educate a school board or school owners about the value of contracting. For all those reasons and more, in the end school leaders have many more incentives to hire than to contract.
If you have answered the is-a-deliverables-contract-better question in the negative, the next step is asking whether you know exactly what you want from the person you will hire.
If you do not know what you want from a new hire, ask yourself why. Odds are good that you don’t know what you want because you are looking for innovation and creativity. You might have some essential duties, but if you don’t know exactly what you want, it’s because you want a new face and voice in the organization. If you recognize that you need a creative and innovative worker, you simultaneously realize that you want a diverse worker. You want a worker who will bring diverse learning and experiences to help your organization grow.
Once you’ve made the decision to hire, and now that you know you need a worker who might not be a specialist, it’s your chance to dream big. Look for the person with the most diverse background and take maximum advantages of the strength, innovation and inspiration that comes from difference.
For creative, innovative, or advisory work of all kinds, make sure your candidates are committed and inspired. Then, go out and hire the candidate with the most diverse background.