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Ten Habits of Successful Academic Administrators: Part Two

Leadership and Management

Ten Habits of Successful Academic Administrators: Part Two

This is part two of a three-part series. Part one appeared in the October issue; part three will appear next month.

Last month, we discussed some of the key habits of successful academic administrators. This second installment shares some additional habits.

5. Successful administrators are attentive to their administrative development. Rising administrators are confident individuals. They exude the sense that they can accomplish their goals and can do so for each position they hold. While some of this is natural talent, a larger part results from preparation. One never knows everything that must be faced before actually taking a new administrative position; there are always surprises. Some of these hidden responsibilities or challenges are extremely confidential or deeply personal, thus requiring an expertise that few inexperienced individuals would possess.

So, how might new chairs, deans, or provosts prepare for or grow and develop in their administrative posts and continue to hone their skills? There is a variety of resources available to these individuals. There is an abundant literature, written by knowledgeable and credible individuals, on every academic post from chair to president. In addition to these volumes, there are periodicals with articles authored by practicing administrators that can be timely and helpful.

In recent years there has been an explosion of webinars and web sites with valuable information. Finally, there are conferences geared to various levels of academic administration. It is here that the best information is exchanged because both parties are live, allowing for real exchange and explanation. Meaningful mentoring, peer relationships, and new collaborations often result from conference contacts. Engaged administrators take advantage of these opportunities to establish networks and to develop and enhance skills expected for their positions. Successful administrators are in continuous learning mode. 

6A. Successful administrators take pride in the success of others. Successful leaders exhibit this behavior by publicly acknowledging and celebrating faculty, staff, and student successes. This acknowledgment starts with the chair who is the administrator closest to these individuals and the person who monitors their accomplishments more closely than others. Placing awards on the agenda and making public announcements at a faculty meeting are ways to start acknowledging achievement.

Simultaneously, the chair should alert the dean as part of the good news communication between the two. Perhaps in collaboration with the dean, this exciting information can be sent to marketing and communication for inclusion in institutional reports, posting on websites, and submission in press releases. The dean, of course, can use these high-profile accomplishments as examples of excellence in addresses at convocations and other events both on and off campus.

Why is this so important that it makes the top 10 list of behaviors of successful academic administrators? For students, such recognition represents a moment of glory they will never forget. For many faculty and staff members, recognition of this type is considered a reward and a morale boost. This can be critical during the present times of limited resources for typical rewards such as salary increases. The recipients also may benefit from the exposure of their accomplishments in terms of invitations and opportunities to collaborate on other projects, with the latter recognized as a stimulus for assuring continuing productivity of senior faculty members. There is also significant institutional benefit that comes with publicizing these achievements. It highlights institutional quality and relevance while also creating an image of a place where people want to be, a key element in recruiting.

A final reason that top academic leaders should celebrate the success of others is that this recognition has been earned, and thus singling out the individuals responsible is the right thing to do. In examining what our institutions list as their proud products—degrees conferred, graduate and professional school placements, external funding, research/creative activity products, examples of community engagement, gains in diversity, contributions to the economy, and so on—one finds that virtually all of them are the result of the expertise, commitment, innovation, and hard work of faculty, staff, and students. The role  of the top administrator is to lead by generating a structure for the work to be done, articulating a vision for what can be accomplished, providing the inspiration for the effort, and creating an environment in which this inclusive community can work together to achieve common goals.

6B. Successful administrators take pride in and publicly acknowledge and celebrate unit success. This is a corollary to item 6A for deans and provosts, both of whom can cite individuals for their accomplishments but can also do so for departments and schools. There are many high-level achievements that rightfully belong to the collective rather than the individual. A new degree program approval, a record number of graduates, a highly successful interdisciplinary research center, and an innovative program developed in conjunction with community partners are all worthy items that deans, provosts, and presidents can mention in reports and addresses. This form of recognition reinforces the importance of the collaborative effort necessary for the success of projects such as these.

Under no circumstances would good administrators take credit, either directly or by the failure to provide proper attribution, for the accomplishments of those who work under them. Deans and provosts often get credit for what takes place on their watch. When administrators apply for a new position, an insightful interviewer will ask what they did to facilitate the great successes they enjoyed. This is when and where the subtle influences, the community connections, the seed funding, the atmosphere of collaborative expectation, and the wisdom/intuition to know when the time is right should be shared.

7. Successful administrators are attuned to imminent change. Administrators with this type of mind-set are always anticipating what elements of their responsibility might be changing. The sources of the change are many and include the school, the campus, the discipline, accreditation organizations, state legislatures, governing bodies, and national higher education reform groups.

The sooner one knows what is going to change, the sooner one can begin to prepare. If it is a major curriculum change, having the time to redirect faculty hires or retool a faculty member’s teaching of a large general education course can be very helpful. Being knowledgeable about imminent change can also allow the administrator the opportunity to participate in how the discipline or campus responds to or implements the change. Would an engaged administrator want to be on the campus committee that is charged with developing a response to a legislative proposal to eliminate tenure or a trustee proposal that triples faculty teaching loads? One would expect so, but such appointments often go to those who make the effort to be in the know and express their interest early.

How does a successful administrator know what changes may be coming so she can prepare her school or department and can perhaps influence how the institution responds? This is accomplished by establishing meaningful external visibility relative to both the home unit and the institution. I have explored this issue for chairs (Lees 2014), but it is equally relevant for deans and others. To be part of campus shaping, one must be regularly seen and heard at that level. Assuming that an administrator’s voice is thoughtful, creative, and respectful, making oneself heard can lead over time to invitations to sit on councils, serve on searches for high-level administrators, and perhaps become part of the inner circle where sensitive topics are discussed.

Keeping up with national trends in higher education takes effort. Some of the conferences discussed before can be sources of information. Beyond position-focused conferences are those sponsored by major higher education organizations such as the Association of American Colleges & Universities, where higher education reform proposals are plentiful. Again, such venues spark collaboration and the exchange of ideas and promote networking.



Lees, N. Douglas. 2014. “The Case for Chairs Working Beyond Their Departments.” Academic Leader 30 no. 10: 4–5.


N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance and professor and former chair of biology, in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.


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