Advice for how middle managers in academe can be best trained (opinion)

In the complex higher education landscape, somewhere between the department head and the dean is the crucial midlevel leader: the associate dean. Such midlevel leaders manage a myriad of responsibilities that align with the college’s mission, goals and strategic plan. For example, they may oversee and coordinate all programs and activities supporting student enrollment, education and retention. Associate deans are also involved in hiring, teaching, research policies, performance evaluations, new programs and policies and procedures.

In fact, due to the job’s versatility and various institutional needs, the associate dean’s role is usually not clearly defined. While little is known about the position, even less is known about how those leaders are and should be hired, trained and advanced—which is surprising, given the vital nature of the role.

In a 2014 study, Coral Pepper and Wendy Giles interviewed middle managers like associate deans to discover how they perceived their leadership role. They identified five common themes among all participants that I find still hold true today.

  • The overwhelming nature of the position. Associate deans find it challenging to manage a large workload while simultaneously juggling competing priorities. That challenge intensifies whenever restructurings occur, along with changes in senior leadership and staff, as associate deans serve as the liaison between the senior administration and the faculty. They must be well versed on complex topics before communicating the information to subordinates, which requires a hefty intake of information, typically in a short amount of time.
  • A sense of immense responsibility with inadequate authority. Associate deans typically implement new changes while simultaneously fielding complaints about those changes. Meanwhile, they often have very little policy-making power. They are typically more embroiled in operational issues than in influencing strategy and policy, so they must perpetually be reactive.
  • Incessant demands requiring immediate reactions. Associate deans spoke of the expectation that they be constantly and instantly responsive to the requirements and requests of faculty, staff, students and many others in the institutional community. As Giles and Pepper observed, “Participants describe their sense of an inundation of problems daily requiring time, energy and tact to resolve. Several commented that there was little time for reflection or proactivity during their working day.”
  • Feelings of isolation. The associate deans studied found it difficult and inappropriate to share their concerns. They also noted that they often did not feel their faculty colleagues took them seriously enough.
  • A desire to lead others. Despite that, the associate deans said they felt like leaders at their institution. They found the role to be an opportunity to build valuable relationships and networks across their campuses.

And indeed, the associate dean position provides an excellent opportunity to meet and collaborate with a wide array of talented and dedicated faculty members, administrators and students to make a positive impact on institutional initiatives. In short, taking on a role of this magnitude allows associate deans to develop a distinct skill set that will benefit them in any position. Having the opportunity to network is a supportive way to understand and learn the many facets of the job. A better perspective of organizational structure and how the institution works is a great benefit, as well.

Wanted: Leadership Training and Development

Associate deans also say they want to receive more training and development. In another study, Alan Floyd and Diane Preston found that 51 percent of the associate deans they surveyed would appreciate strategic leadership training that enhanced their ability to express a strategic vision for the organization or a part of it, as well as to motivate and persuade others to support that vision. Tying for second place, 32 percent said they would like coaching and mentoring to be a part of their job training; the same percentage also thought the opportunity to work across different disciplines as well as networking with other associate deans would help them perform their job duties more effectively. Indeed, those surveyed cited support networks, including regular meetings with peers in which they could exchange ideas, as crucial to their success.

But, unfortunately, the same research revealed that as many as 60 percent of associate deans said they had little or no training to prepare them for their new role. And even those who did receive training often found it to be inadequate, low quality and limited. For instance, the topics included human resources policies and procedures, budgets, and how to chair a meeting, but only 20 percent of the associate deans found that helpful.

Corporate organizations have shown that effective leadership development and training can effectively foster employee performance while increasing work performance and job satisfaction. Unfortunately, however, systematic leadership development is still lacking in higher education. Associate deans are usually former faculty members and department heads who excelled in their previous positions but have moved into middle management, hoping to make a difference. They rarely receive adequate tools and guidance once in the new job. But they can be successful if supported, developed and trained.

More colleges and universities should be offering leadership development programs and individualized training sessions to associate deans. Effective leadership development programs often include networking among participants, thus fostering collaborative problem solving and alleviating the sense of isolation felt by many leaders. They can also focus on setting goals and priorities, communication, conflict management, change management, and work-life balance, as well as help the leader develop their own leadership style.

Institutions should offer this training before an associate dean starts their new position and tailor it to their individual needs, as people enter these roles with a range of knowledge and experiences. There are many benefits to such leadership development and training:

  • It aids in succession planning by identifying and creating qualified internal candidates for future positions.
  • It gives the new associate dean growth opportunities and empowers them to further develop in their roles.
  • It closes diversity, equity and inclusion gaps by providing minorities and underrepresented populations opportunities to be identified as leaders on the campus.

Colleges and universities should also support ongoing formalized networks for associate deans on their campuses. For example, associate deans might have standing meetings where they discuss ideas. Those meetings could be weekly, monthly or whatever works for the institution as long as the time and space are permitted, and they could even include associate deans from other institutions. Such networks can provide continuing insights and moral support for coping with the challenges of the job.

Coaching and mentoring can also add a layer of support. Corporate organizations use mentoring and coaching to improve the potential of employees. They can help middle managers establish goals and enhance leadership skills throughout their tenure. In addition, mentoring and coaching can assist mentees effectively in dealing with role ambiguity, role conflict and an uncertain environment. Institutions should select coaches and mentors wisely and ensure that they understand the specific associate dean’s current role and future career plans.

Finally, colleges need to conduct new research to gather relevant data about what associate deans truly require to be successful in their roles. Institutions should survey their associate deans to gather their honest feedback to some key questions:

  • Do your associate deans feel the same as those surveyed in the studies I’ve described?
  • Do you support your associate deans by offering training and leadership development, as well as networking, coaching or mentoring opportunities?
  • How can the associate dean position best serve your institution?

It is also useful to research what other colleges and universities are doing to support associate deans and, when possible, confer with them for advice on best practices. For example, Wright State University provides a leadership academy for faculty and staff members in management or supervisory jobs who are ready to move into higher-level positions. Ivy Tech Community College offers a tiered talent leadership development pipeline for high-performing leaders seeking new challenges and growth. The programs aim to develop leaders able to meet the college’s current and future needs through training, challenging assignments and opportunities to develop new relationships and networks.

Higher education is an increasingly competitive marketplace, and colleges and universities must adopt effective strategies to retain the best staff and achieve competitive advantages. Institutions will benefit significantly from evaluating how they can best support their associate deans, so they can, in turn, successfully serve faculty, staff and students.

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