Having The Tickets Vs. Learning On The Job

Having The Tickets Vs. Learning On The Job


Leonard Zwelling

President Trump was to nominate Congressman John Ratcliffe of Texas to replace former Senator Dan Coates as Director of National Intelligence. (Then again, as of this writing, he is going to withdraw the name and pick someone else). This is the job of coordinating all of the information coming into the various U.S. security agencies and advising the president on matters of threats to America from outside parties, like Russia, China and Iran. This has traditionally been an apolitical post and Mr. Ratcliffe is anything but apolitical putting up a fierce argument to Robert Mueller last week during the former Special Prosecutor’s testimony. In addition to being very partisan, Mr. Ratcliffe is a relatively new member of the House with little hands-on intelligence experience having been a small-town mayor and a federal prosecutor before becoming a congressman. (Maybe even Trump figured this out, had second thoughts—does he have first ones—and will choose some one qualified. See rest of this blog).

This brings up one of my favorite quandaries. When choosing someone for a leadership role with a great deal of responsibility and a high public profile, do you choose the person with the most experience or the person most likely to grow into the job?

Picking the experienced person seems the safest choice. You know what you’re getting and you usually can count on the individual’s solidity and stability in the crises that inevitably occur. It also helps if the seasoned individual has experience in the area over which he or she will have jurisdiction. This was a big question with Mr. Ratcliffe who, aside from his hyper partisanship, had very little experience in matters of national intelligence. It was also true of Dr. Zwelling in 1995 when he was asked to steer the infrastructure for clinical research at Anderson. Hey, I’ve been there!

Picking the person with the greatest potential despite that person being relatively inexperienced in the area in question can be a roll of the dice on one hand, or the dawning of a new star on the other. It’s like casting an unknown in the leading role of a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a risk, but it could pay off handsomely as that person brings little preconceived notions about him or her to the screen and can turn in a stunning debut. Al Pacino was a relatively unknown actor when he starred in the first Godfather film. Ditto Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate or Goldie Hawn in Cactus Flower. Careers can be built on risk taking, but so can flops at the box office.

In the case of Mr. Ratcliffe, he would have first needed to be confirmed by a skeptical Senate whose members were very supportive of Mr. Coates as a former member of their club and a man of high repute and integrity who showed he could rise above partisanship and oppose President Trump on matters of intelligence, being very supportive of those in the intelligence community, even as the president denigrated them. That’s what the job calls for. Could Mr. Ratcliffe have done that? I guess, even Trump had doubts.

This same calculus needs to be considered for other top jobs.

Let’s consider the Chancellorship of UT.

Admiral McRaven is an American hero and a man of great integrity. He gave great service to the country. He gave a great speech at a UT commencement as well. But he struggled a bit as Chancellor of UT, not being able to see through what was transpiring at the MD Anderson campus when a change in leadership in Houston was called for on both financial and ethical grounds. His tenure as UT Chancellor was short.

His replacement, James Milliken, is an experienced educator and administrator with the right tickets for service in this key role. I predict that he will have an easier time coming to grips with the challenges of the Chancellor’s job.

On the subject of MD Anderson leadership, it seems both obvious and essential that the president of Anderson have a deep background in cancer diagnosis, treatment, research and prevention as well as medical and scientific education. It has been rare for the incumbent in the Anderson leadership position to have all of these attributes. John Mendelsohn probably came closest and had great success in the first five years of his leadership until he ran into some crises involving corporate aspects of MD Anderson’s business mixing it with that of his own interests.

Dr. DePinho was not a cancer doctor. That simply is not going to work and it didn’t. His lack of clinical depth was one of several deficiencies in his resume that precluded his success.

The newest president of MD Anderson has a deep clinical background but little experience in the other aspects of the MD Anderson mission. It is thus a reasonable presumption that he was hired for the potential to learn on the job, despite the steep slope of the learning curve. The twin crises of the Chinese firings and the CMS audit have been challenges to the new leadership. It remains to be seen how well that leadership can stumble up that learning curve. The success of the institution and its new leaders will depend upon the outcome of that struggle.

My kids always say that experience is overrated. Younger people need to get a chance, too. I agree with them. But I also think that when the hire is of the second kind, the person on the steep learning curve, the onus is on those doing the hiring to keep an eye on things and be ready to make changes if the slope of the learning curve gets steeper than that of the leader’s ability to learn.

1 thought on “Having The Tickets Vs. Learning On The Job”

  1. Good article Len! Even if it argues against the value of the elder generation.

    “…grow into the job..” you mean he can take orders and follow directions, right. The lack of qualified experience is like pulling up your rudder in a storm. An newly minted inexperienced CEO relies on your experience to make good decisions, which include a lot of bad decisions.

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