Dean Chronicles: 14 Leadership Discoveries I Learned from Being a Chair

I was a chair for almost 7 years. I like to think I was a good Chair, that my being in the position made a difference. As you could see from the previous post, I had not done a lot of prep work for the job. Some, but not a lot. I think being a Program Coordinator and Assistant Chair probably provide an aspiring (or not) Chair with some important basics, like scheduling processes, general administrative duties, getting comfortable being near upper administrative circles, and working longer hours at the office.

I would like for anyone who is seeking a Chair job or is a new chair to know that it took me one whole year to just learn what I did not know and ask the right questions. I still went through the motions, but I did not feel comfortable until around year 3. Department faculty were talented leaders who were committed to a strong department of excellence. Even though I was their administrative leader, I was grateful for their mentorship–I had on-the-job leadership education, the truest kind of applied degree. For that I am forever grateful. Early on, we found ourselves hiring new colleagues. A couple of senior faculty retired or moved; one died in my second year. We held a wake. So over the course of 3 years we had added 8 colleagues plus a new Administrative Assistant. It was like having a whole new department.

During my 7 years as Chair, the Department and I accomplished a lot as we experienced the University’s enormous growth from 15,000 to 43,000 students. For example, we did more than just hire 9 new colleagues; we hired with an eye toward cultivating a culture of collegiality and collaboration. They liked each other, trusted each other–and they believed in each other. We became known as one of the most faulty-forward departments on campus. We redesigned every program we offered, first to change with the state standards and also to take our programs online. We developed a new degree in Higher Education–new territory for us, but we had strategically hired experts. They developed a mission, vision, and core values statement. Their teaching was culturally responsive and challenging. The quality of our students’ dissertations improved, and our doctoral programs burst at the seams. We began seeking strategic partnerships and networking in the regional community. We were accepted into UCEA, one of only 2 institutions in Georgia–and the other two were Research 1 universities. My proudest accomplishment, though, is mentoring all 8 faculty who came up for tenure to success. My team taught me that the mark of a good leader is helping others live into their potential.

So, do I know every aspect of the dean job? No, yet neither did I know all the ins and outs being a chair would entail. But I stayed true to myself, was open to learning, and focused on my strengths. It worked out fine, more than fine. This is my strategy in my new job, with a whole new faculty and staff–also wonderful.

As I transition from Chair to Dean, I realize I brought some important leadership lessons with me. I remind myself of them almost daily. It helps.

  1. The hands down greatest asset in your group is the people. Treat them well.
  2. Listen more than you speak. This literally means keep your mouth closed until you have thought through what you will say. I actually had a dear colleague say to me, “You know, Ugena, this may be one of those times when you should not talk about something you know nothing about.” I appreciate that. It was hard to hear then, but she was right.
  3. You will make mistakes and fail. Keep going.
  4. Everyone will not like you, but being liked is not your goal. Helping people grow so that the department will grow is your goal.
  5. You are the chair; you may not be asked to every Friday afternoon gathering. When you are asked, go.
  6. If you lose your cool, try to make amends and move on.
  7. Give credit; take blame.
  8. Try to make good decisions, but when you do not, change course.
  9. The institution cannot and will not love you back. People can, but the institution can’t.
  10. Be a really good steward of resources. Which sometimes means spending money. Do it.
  11. Show appreciation to your faculty and staff and be kind. It doesn’t cost a thing.
  12. Accept help.
  13. Be a good delegator. Don’t delegate what you should do yourself. Others notice this.
  14. Keep confidences and maintain trust. If you mess these up, the road back is long.

I am sure there are more, and I’ll come back as I reflect back. But today, it was nice to think of my Department again, and how fulfilling it was to work with them. Thank you!


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