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What Can the Abbreviated Tenure of John Maeda Teach RISD about Hiring a New Leader

Most parents don’t lie awake at night praying that their children will grow up to be struggling artists. Dazzled by the wonders of a career in STEM, most high school seniors don’t see an art school as one of their top picks. For those reasons alone, leading an art college has to be among the world’s toughest jobs. In 2008, when the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) hired John Maeda to be its new leader, the tanking economy and the underfunding of arts education made the job even more challenging.

When Maeda was chosen as the new president to succeed Roger Mandle (1993–2008), it appeared that the RISD Board of Trustees had found the perfect successor. Maeda had degrees in software engineering, design and business. He had an academic background. He was a prolific writer and designer. He seemed to have precisely the skills to transform RISD into a major player in the new age of technology. But in the end, although he appeared capable of all things, Maeda was unable to stay at RISD long enough to institutionalize his vision and see his plans to completion.

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My goal in this post is not to relive every skid and stumble of Maeda’s abruptly abbreviated five-year tenure, nor to divulge some new morsel of inside information – of which I have none. Perhaps Maeda faced unique problems above and beyond those that all university presidents must overcome. He certainly faced harsh criticism for his methods of high-tech communication, his cleaning house of over twenty administrators, his disregard for faculty input, his willingness to upend long-standing courses, programs and requirements, and his tin ear to the essence of RISD. Whether or not these criticisms were justified, they certainly prevented Maeda from being the change agent that he was hired to be.

Instead, I want to make a critical point:

What happened during John Maeda’s tenure presents a road map for how to hire the next leader at RISD.

If we’re going to look backward at all, we need to ask these questions: Back in 2008, did the RISD Board of Trustees determine if Maeda had the temperament, the patience and consensus-building skills to stay the course? Did the Board carefully the study the abundance of readily available writings that so clearly defined Maeda? Did the Board too easily overlook his lack of experience in the usual training grounds for college leaders? Did the Board buy into his tempting vision without looking too closely at how he meant to get to the Promised Land?

Let me put a few ideas on the table for the RISD Board to consider before it chooses its next president.

First, RISD should give itself a healthy amount of time to vet its next leader.

When a board is hiring at the highest level – whether it’s the CEO of a for-profit corporation or the president of a nonprofit organization –there is a natural tendency to look for a superstar. That makes a lot of sense. After all, it’s an important role.

But all to often, superstars have less visible inadequacies in key areas that are overshadowed by their public persona. In the end, the cost of a flawed leader can far exceed his notoriety value. Only careful vetting can ensure that any identified weaknesses can be compensated for – by hiring the appropriate senior staff, by redefining of the mission of the leader, or simply by announcing more realistic expectations. Vetting a prospective leader is not necessarily a job for a private investigator. In fact, it is rarely the case that a candidate’s less visible inadequacies are hidden from the public view. Quite often, these inadequacies can be identified and analyzed if the decision makers on the Board have the motivation to do so.

Second, when the RISD Board evaluates candidates to be the new leader, it should have a good idea of who will stay and who will leave.

It is not uncommon for a new leader to “clean house.” In fact, it is often a good thing for a university or for any organization. But there is a right and wrong way to go about it. Turnover is costly in terms of severance pay, morale, institutional knowledge and efficiency. Turnover should not be an end in itself, but a tool to effect strategic goals. People should be let go because there is a clearly articulated business need for someone different. It is frustrating when qualified people are let go because their views are inconsistent with the new goals of the organization, yet these so-called new goals remain unclear and the funds and compensation aren’t there to support them.

Third, the RISD Board must ensure that the next leader will be able to cultivate trust and communicate effectively to all interested parties.

Communication is key. But communication that is superficial or inauthentic is useless. Before the different parts of an organization can communicate real ideas and tolerate real criticism, there must be trust. If a leader is not trusted, and people don’t believe that their ideas will be received fairly without retaliation, then communication fails. Communication without trust not only fails to improve the organization, but it becomes a basis for polarization and inflexibility.

Fourth, the RISD Board must agree that there is an essence of the institution, a look and feel that will not change.

The culture of an organization is made up of lots of little things – customs, signs, traditions, the configuration of its spaces, titles, schedules and institutional stories and key figures.  Changing these little things is rarely worth the pain and bad feelings that it engenders. There are some areas where a leader is well advised to tread lightly.

Fifth, the new leader must have a vision that is consistent with the values of the organization, feasible to achieve and forward looking.

The vision must come first. It is the basis on which the goals and plans are based. The new leader must believe in the vision and be able to get all parts of the organization to buy into and cooperate with this vision.

The Road Ahead

Maeda’s five-year tenure appears to have been accompanied by many successes. The School is ranked highly. The student body is more diverse. Job placement seems high. Tuition is stable. Fundraising is rebounding. RISD is a strong voice in the global conversation about the role of art in innovation and economic progress. The task of RISD’s Board is to find someone who will not only build upon these successes, but also minimize future disruption and dissension.

Copyright © 2013–2014 Johanna Harris

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been on the board of directors of seven nonprofit organizations, most recently as Co-Chairman of Preserve Rhode Island, as well as in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book is USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback).