/ 22 July 2008

How to secure that early golden handshake

There is apparently a manual for student travellers that tells you how to get around the world with almost no money.

It advises you which flights are always over-booked, and which airlines compensate “bumped off” passengers the most generously. So here’s the strategy. You book yourself on these flights, volunteer generously to forfeit your seat when the inevitable flurry ensues at the check-in counter, and score a night in a hotel and some pocket money out of the deal.

Sometimes you even get a free flight or an upgrade to business class, to compensate you for the inconvenience. The authors of the book assure travellers that you can navigate the entire globe this way with minimal outlay.

It is beginning to seem that there is a niche in the market for a similar manual for senior academic and executive leaders in the tertiary sector in South Africa. There appears to be a growing trend for there to be certain posts where the turnover is so rapid that the incumbents (and their unfortunate subordinates) get whiplash.

Almost overnight, it seems, senior people disappear. A newsclip gets issued, full of vague euphemisms about “leaving to pursue other interests” or “portfolio re-structuring”. That’s the official line, anyway. Unofficially, the passages hum with stories about personality clashes, rank incompetence and — inevitably — secret meetings, long negotiations and large settlements.

Tight confidentiality agreements tend to ensure that the actual details remain opaque, but the empty office is starkly visible, and the wisdom of the academic village knows that the person has departed, not only with their potplants and family pictures, but with a fairly substantial cheque.

For those who remain behind, the impact can be traumatic. A culture can quickly begin to feel Stalin-esque. People vanish, and nobody talks about it. There may be blood on the floor, but it is not wise to notice it.
But let us not dwell on that — too depressing, and too foolish. It is how things work.

Let’s rather be entrepreneurial about this. It would seem, if you plan your career well, that there may be certain jobs which you can take that will guarantee you (after a year or two) a context in which the powers-that-be will start yearning to get rid of you.

Granted, a fairly awkward period will ensue, but it never lasts too long, and if you play your cards right you will emerge with a comfortable settlement and a confidentiality agreement that will allow you to tackle the next job untainted.

Interested in the possibilities? Well, you’ll have to wait for the book to come out. But here are some clues to get you started. Select a job where no matter what you do, you’re probably not going to be able to make everyone happy. HR director is a good one. deputy vice-chancellor is not a bad option either. Or pick a portfolio which universities don’t really “get”, anyway, because it’s “too corporate” (HR, again; marketing; finance). Choose a university where there is a culture of inner circles and cabals, so you’ll rapidly acquire enemies regardless of how neutral you try to stay (any university, in other words). ­Volunteer for a project that is bound to be controversial. Transformation is a great choice here.

And there you go. Sit back and wait. You’ll get that call from the university’s legal adviser soon, and you can start planning your settlement deal, the price of your silence — and your next job.

The name of the writer has been withheld