Monday, November 20, 2006

On Power

In the years that I have been hiring fresh out of college students to work in my consulting firm, I have noticed that many younger students have no clue how to deal with real power and hierarchies, which makes my life as an employer difficult--and students' lives potentially very difficult once they leave the university. While it's hardly the role of higher education to turn students into little worker drones (even as a professor in a professional program I agree with this principle), it does not hurt to think about how investing in yourself, challenging yourself, and developing good work habits and manners as a student can help you when you get out (so you can succeed at your fancy schmancy buy-our-houses-to-turn-into-parking-lots career.)

I know it's frustrating for students who think professors are just pompous, but it is important to encounter professors strategically. If you are adept and self-aware about power, you see it and you understand how all your acquaintances in your professional network, profs and classroom peers, can hurt or help you. For example, in an accounting class, some of your colleagues may get hired at the same firm as you. Some may get promoted over you. Do you want them remembering you as that little prick who came to class with his ass hanging out, never ready? Or do you want them to remember you as the person who worked hard, helped out when asked, was a pleasant compatriot, and came prepared?

Let's think about this more systematically: How do professors have power?

  1. Recommendations. I am routinely asked, for example, to write letters and fill out forms recommending students for positions, law school, or MBA programs. Maybe people ignore my recommendations, so that a crappy or lukewarm one from me doesn't mean anything. But I don't think so. I certainly don't ignore recommendations when I am hiring. I am a nice person and don't take out grudges on students, but others do. Being savvy about power means you don't trust my niceness and grace--or anybody else's--unnecessarily by being an idiot, lying to me, cheating, cutting corners, telling me my class matters less than your frat's ear-wax removal activity (it may be very important you; just don't tell me), or any doing any other thing you know you shouldn't do but try anyway because you think you can get away it.

  2. Recommendations (II). I have an extensive network of people I know in my field. These people hire. They ask me often to recommend students for internships and new positions. If I don't like you, I can't fire you, but I also won't use the power I have to help you, and that's unfortunate...for you. Because for every one of you idiot/snotty students we have, I also have some students who make me proud to recommend them to my professional contacts. No, you don't have to suck up to me--you'll find that I can smell that 1,000 yards away. I just need to see the following in various doses: desire, motivation, time management, commitment, some smarts, good sense, the ability to cope with people who don't agree with you, and the ability to understand that "it's not about you." That's it.

  3. I can keep students from attaining credentials they want. I teach two required courses in one of our undergraduate degree programs. I can, in fact, prevent these students from graduating. If you are failing my class, I can prove to an outside authority that you are failing and therefore do not deserve to graduate. And I publish 8 papers a year and sit on $6 million in grants; my university could care less about whether you complain to the Dean about me or not--I am worth way more than your tuition dollars. Good sense suggests you couch your appeal to me in this context as "I am struggling, and I need some help in the class. Can you help guide me to additional resources?" rather than "Your grading sucks. I need at least a B."

  4. Departmental support and other goodies. If I have goodies to hand out, like assistantships or fellowship opportunities (and I do), then I won't give them to you if you piss me off. Why would I? There are employments opportunities for lively undergrads in my department because I sweat my ass off writing grants. I don't actually have to do as much of that ass-sweating as I do, and I can hire anybody I want. If you keep your relations with me positive and collegial and show me you have tact and good sense, I'll be much more likely to give these kind of opportunities to you than if you are unpleasant. For those of you on fellowships, we do regularly staff students, and on federal fellowships, I often evaluate students' progress toward the degree. So in other words, I can influence whether you get to a) have or b) get to keep the nice funding packages that pay your tuition and give you a stipend.

In other words, I was utterly shocked as an assistant professor at how much power I really do have. Not worlds of it. But more than I ever thought as a grad student. And I try very hard to respect my students. I don't generally ask that students pay me compliments and treat me like the great "I Am" (at least I hope not). But that doesn't mean I want to put up with some student's crap and over-familiarity and that, if subject to same, it doesn't hurt that student in any meaningful way. It can.

So the bottom line is that if you want a cat to sit on your lap, you don't rub its fur the wrong direction. Some people need to have their egos stroked in order to give you the candy they have (and sometimes they won't share, not even then). We are talking EQ here--emotional intelligence--that can help serve you well if you use your education as a chance to hone your institutional smarts, instead of as a 24-hour party line at McUniversity full of dumb ol' professors.