The Importance of Cultivating Allies
If you are a new department head, you are likely focused on doing an excellent job. And you may believe that the work you do speaks for itself. It is important, however, to also cultivate allies. Allies understand what you do, speak well of you, and think of you when opportunities arise. They know who you are when you call to ask for a favor or request help in dealing with a sticky issue. Your allies function as an extension of you and your mission, and they are thus a key resource.
The faculty in your own department should be your closest allies. You want them working with you, not against you. You need them to perceive you as committed, competent, constructive, trustworthy, fair, and approachable. But is that how they see you? There are a few ways you can learn about this. Take measure of the gap between how you present yourself and how you come across by consulting a few trusted individuals outside your department. Take their feedback to heart and adjust where needed. Additionally, ask that your dean conduct an annual review that provides you with constructive feedback. Not all institutions have review procedures for chairs that truly support chair effectiveness. If yours doesn’t, arrange for a 360-degree review or engage an outside consultant. At a minimum, look into best practices for annual review and feedback, and ask for what you believe will help you excel.
To build stronger relationships with your faculty, get to know them better. What do they want? What are they afraid of? How can you help them? Make use of informal conversations to check in regularly and to cultivate relationships. Also devote attention to the questions above as part of the conversations following their annual evaluations. Make notes that help you track the development of their answers over time and any corresponding action items. Follow up on these so your faculty know you are paying attention. Finally, use annual strategic planning and review sessions as additional opportunities to gather answers. Ask yourself periodically: Are you showing that you listen and that you care? Are you adjusting as conditions change around you?
You may believe it is obvious, but let’s be sure: your dean should be a committed and proactive ally. How do you make this happen? Ask yourself: What does the dean know about the value of your department—and how do they know? Do you have the dean’s ear at regular intervals, not just in times of crisis? You might request a standing meeting every two to four weeks, with email updates from you in the interim as good things occur. Demonstrate unit productivity with a focus on the accomplishments of your faculty and students. Consider as well those above and at levels parallel to the dean: Who is the dean listening to, and what are their agendas?
Who else across campus and beyond it needs to know about the value of your department? You may already have a sense of which individuals and units need to be on your side. Here are a few that occur to me, not necessarily in order of priority.
Admissions carries out the vital function of recruitment. You will want to find out what they are saying to prospective students about the programs you offer. And you will want to help adjust their messaging if necessary. Consider what the current generation of students and their parents are asking about college, and try to provide the answers your admissions office needs. Take the extra steps to ask admissions how they would like to receive this information. They may prefer a fact sheet, a short video, or an invitation to hear your alumni speak.
Academic advising has a great deal of influence on course selection for first-year students. At some institutions, they advise sophomores as well. You want academic advisors to have current information about the learning experience in your courses in general, the value of taking a course in your area during the first year, how to get placed properly, and how students can get credit for what they already know. Pick up the phone and connect. Ask what information they have and how they would like to receive updates. Ask how you can make their job easier.
You run an academic program—or several. You likely already have a sense of which other majors, minors, or certificates pair well with yours to prepare graduates for a smooth transition into the work world. Reach out to those units and schedule a meeting to discuss how you can collaborate more effectively. Can you create a degree path document that shows students the most efficient route to earning credentials in both areas? Can you work together to eliminate barriers to earning credentials in both areas concurrently? Are there alumni who earned credentials in both areas and whose stories demonstrate how this combination can lead to success? Sort this out in an in-person meeting that builds positive relationships. If you don’t have a sense of which majors, minors, and certificates are most often combined with yours, request this data from institutional research, either as a snapshot or as a trend over a specific period. This detail information can help you fine-tune your efforts.
Philanthropy needs you, and you need them. You have key information—if you have gathered it—about your most successful alumni. You may know who will want to give back to the institution. You can be a partner in building relationships that generate funding for scholarships, endowed professorships, and lecture series. If you have not done so already, schedule a conversation to ask how you can collaborate. Be prepared to share information about the needs of your students and your faculty so philanthropy can tie their requests to current, needs. Make these needs come alive by providing true stories—for instance, of how a study abroad scholarship changed a student’s life or how a funded opportunity to conduct summer research with a faculty member created a great career start for a student. Request from philanthropy a comprehensive list of existing scholarships for your discipline. You may discover some hidden gems—I did.
Busy with the everyday life of running a department, we can sometimes forget that the constituencies beyond the borders of our campus need to understand what we do, otherwise how can they support us? Learn about how the media relations office on your campus works. Find out what kinds of news items they want to run and how you can deliver them in the most timely, easy-to-publish version. This teamwork goes both ways. If you are already in communication with media relations, they know to call you when an issue arises related to your discipline or programs.
Further, think concretely about the community, the region, and the state. Consider which individuals and organizations have the influence that can strengthen or undermine your precious efforts. You have the opportunity to manage your image and build good will. Here are some questions to get you thinking: Have your state legislators ever had a student in your program intern with them or even received a letter from a student, parent, or graduate? Does the local chamber of commerce know how your graduates boost the local labor market? Do you have a working relationship with leaders of companies in the region who hire graduates of your program? Has a recent graduate ever offered to speak to the local Rotary Club or another group of influencers? Do you know the local newspaper reporter for the beat relevant to your discipline—and do they know who you are? When was the last time you greeted that reporter by name at an event or forwarded a story idea to them?
Some of the ideas here will be a good fit for you. Others you may want to adapt. Regardless of which approaches you take to cultivating allies, you will be on your way to building community. And that is a wonderful reminder that we are not alone in doing the right thing for students. It takes all of us working together.
Laura G. McGee, PhD, served most recently as head of the Department of Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University. Under her leadership, the department nearly doubled the number of its languages, programs, and majors. She now conducts program reviews and consults for LifeStories Matter LLC Intercultural Training and Coaching.