Why Authority is the Hardest Part of Evaluating a Job Opportunity
As you evaluate potential job offers and opportunities in higher education, there is a lot to consider. There's responsibility: What exactly will you be asked to do? There's accountability: How will you be evaluated, how will your work be measured, or what does success look like?
These are great questions for candidates to ask during a job interview, and clarity with responsibility and accountability might be all you need to accept or turn down a job. But there's one aspect of a role, especially in higher education, that can be murky and yet consequential to your success and job satisfaction. And that's authority.
"Authority is one of the tougher things to gauge when you are evaluating a new job that will expand your employable value within an organization," said John Rindy, assistant vice president for career and academic progress at Slippery Rock University. "You can ultimately neither be responsible nor accountable for that which you have little authority over."
For example, a vice president in charge of enrollment doesn't necessarily have authority over enrollment. They can't force students to come to their college. They have influence, and they can make decisions within their authority to net the most students enrolling. But they don't have authority in such a way that an entrepreneur might have over their company.
So, what is authority?
Rindy defines it with a question: "Are you going to be apportioned the appropriate organizational power-to-execute and span-of-control necessary to carry out your responsibilities, and meet those standards and expectations to which you will be accountable?" If yes, you have authority.
Many higher education professionals want to be promoted or offered higher-level positions to obtain authority. But according to Rindy, lower-level professionals have more authority than they might think. Because their work is localized, they can strongly influence what's happening around them.
An admissions counselor has authority over how well they conduct themselves at a college fair or how many applications they review. There are many other inherent authorities in higher education, especially when it comes to faculty having academic freedom in their classrooms.
But authority at the top is more complicated.
"Especially on the administrative side, authority is highly dependent on who your supervisor is," Rindy said.
Some supervisors are idealistic and envision lofty goals without a clear plan for what it takes to reach them. Other supervisors are more tactical by enforcing policy and having their direct reports do everything "by the book."
"Supervisors have to work somewhere in the middle if they want people to come to work for them and persist," Rindy said. "They have to use what authority they have to help folks do their jobs. The best leaders are people who deal well in the gray areas."
Many supervisors don't handle it well. They don't define authority for their employees or "apportion it appropriately," to borrow from Rindy's definition. There's a reason why managers account for at least 70 percent of variance in employee engagement scores. Employees quit bosses, not jobs, because lack of authority is often to blame.
It can also be very difficult to evaluate a job or career opportunity based on how much authority you'll be given. You can ask questions during interviews about how people work together and how things get done. But authority takes time.
"In higher education, a lot of (authority) is done through relationships and trust," Rindy said.
No one is going to know for sure how much authority they'll have based on the minutes they have in a job interview. It's not granted with a job offer either. The work to obtain authority is cultivated over an entire career. And the higher you climb, the harder it is to grasp.