So, you’ve become the head of your department or director of your program… First of all, sincere congratulations! “Yeah, well, it was my turn.” “Hah! I forgot to duck.” In spite of our tendency to shift attention for these things, someone – perhaps your Dean or your colleagues or both – trusted you enough to be an administrative leader. The immediate question becomes, of course, “Now what?” I can tell you from my experience, and the experiences of many friends and colleagues at different kinds of universities, that being a good chair is one of the most important things you can do. There’s lots of advice out there, much of it really good. (Yes, really do document everything in a journal. Yes, really do spend some time setting up a set of email rules and folders. Yes, you really should go read the Faculty Handbook and collective bargaining agreements again.) My focus is on the less tangible but very practical steps you can take to be the best leader you can be, not just the best manager. Ideally, you will be both – many of us in academia know of chairs who were one or the other. In the new realities of “pandemica”, I would want my administrators to be leaders, not managers.
Here are the top five things you can do for yourself:
1. Establish your office routine quickly and clearly. Being a chair, obviously, is not like being a faculty member. There will be many mundane tasks that the manager aspect of the position will require, and you’ll need to work well with your administrative staff and any assistant chairs you might have, not to mention your Dean or Directors. But you’ll also have many irregular tasks and conversations, especially conversations, that just have to happen when they happen. If your routine is established, you and your colleagues will know when and how you are accessible. For instance, I found that there was usually someone who needed a quick “check-in” as soon as I got into the office. That meant that sometimes I didn’t even have time to take my coat off and sit down before I was in the swing of it. Time “before work” had its own problems, with kids, exercise, being human. So, I started stopping in at the café on campus to sit in the corner with my notebook or, if it was a nice day, I’d grab a coffee and take the long way to the office. All I needed was 10 minutes to set my focus for the day. Same goes for establishing a routine for when you’re in your office to talk or to work uninterrupted. There should be no problem in shutting your door so you can get things done without interruption; enlist your administrative staff to help. Put up office hours, including time for class prep or other things, so that staff can help keep those random events where they need to be. You will not be in charge of your time if you let others set your routine for you. Be consistent.
2. Shut down your email when you’re talking to a colleague or a student. For some this will either be an “of course!” suggestion or an “I can’t possibly do that!” suggestion. Whether it’s a critical discussion that has to happen right then, or an informational discussion that happens while your door is open and you’re working on something else, it needs your attention. Email is not just a distractor for you, it’s a distractor for whomever you’re in a conversation with. If you can’t shut the laptop lid, at least turn off the email notification sounds and turn the screen away from you. And, of course, email is a surrogate for every distractor. Whenever you talk to someone, they will need your attention, curiosity, and empathy. Be present.
3. Understand that your relationship with your colleagues has now changed. This is one of the hardest realities to face as a leader. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an effective department, a happy department, a dysfunctional department, a damaged department, or any combination of these. I’ve noticed the difference play out in two basic ways. First, even if what you have seems pitifully inadequate or intangible, you have become a gatekeeper of sorts – your colleagues will now ask you for things and see you as someone who can make their lives better or worse (and you can, specifically or collectively). This shift fundamentally changes the relationship (just ask a new Dean or a new Provost about this, if you don’t believe me). Second, your colleagues will now need to tell you (or want to tell you) things that you probably didn’t know before – a chronic health condition, a life circumstance that affects work, a longtime grudge, a persistent invisible inequity, and so on. You may find out why Prof. X always taught in the afternoon and never the morning. You may find out about resources other departments get for work your faculty have been doing just as a matter of course. Stuff that you had no business knowing as a colleague, you now need to know as Chair and most of it you can’t tell anyone else. There’s a real loneliness that comes with being a chair. All of these things will need your attention, empathy, and understanding. Be kind, to yourself too.
4. Get professional development. The first instinct of many chairs is to roll up their sleeves and argue for resources from Deans and Provosts (see my comment in #3) in order to promote and build their programs. You are part of your program, and worthy of investment. As a good leader, it is your responsibility to seek leadership development so that you can become even more effective. This might mean taking advantage of an assigned mentor for new chairs; it might mean some kind of retreat or formal training in your institution. It might (also) mean seeking out others you trust for regular meetings. The best thing I did was have a regular coffee with a former chair from a totally different kind of department – gave me some good perspective. But it might also mean arguing for development outside the institution. In the new reality, I doubt very much that there will be retreats for new chairs in sunny locations. The best bang for your buck is going to be coaching, and emotional intelligence coaching is easily going to give you the biggest return on investment, both for money and for time, because the lessons can be applied across your career and your life. Be your own advocate.
5. Understand this: you cannot fix all the problems of the past. The chairs who were chairs before you were you in this moment. It is likely that some of them were difficult to deal with, or played favorites, or didn’t get the job done, or whatever. Do not, however, make the mistake of hubris by imagining that you will make it all better. I’m being blunt about it, because the instinct is usually more subtle and seemingly benign. “Our system for allocating course assignments was unfair – I have a better way.” “That curriculum revision has been languishing in committee for too long – I can get them to push it through.” And so on. I know you have a list. But the truth is, the circumstances into which we come as new chairs are complex and often have hidden complexities too. If you can make yourself a better leader, you may very well be able to help fix the inequities, injustices, bad processes, and bad relationships in your department. But they weren’t there waiting for you to fix them. Any substantive change you want to bring about will need to happen by you working with your department, by you leading them to a better way of doing things. Be humble.