The work of a dean is challenging, and many deans are appointed to their positions without any formal training. Deans often learn how to hire faculty, conduct performance reviews, develop budgets, secure grant funding, design learning spaces, and resolve conflicts on their own. This is neither efficient nor practical. Deans who are lucky enough to have an associate dean to help them may be able to manage their workload more effectively.
The associate dean I manage has become a priceless addition to my team. As they grow in their leadership abilities, my time has been freed up to tackle the visionary work required of a dean. The more time I spend coaching the associate dean, the more comfortable I have become in allowing them the authority and autonomy to make decisions. I’d like to share my secret to success and encourage other deans to consider mentoring an associate dean at their institution using the following four strategies.
It is important that you and the associate dean are on the same page. Share your ideas, opinions, and concerns about what is happening in your division. By doing so, you will help the associate dean begin to see the big picture at the institution. I have found that it helps to verbalize what I am thinking or planning to do, and if I am able to gather feedback about these plans from the associate dean, all the better. The more the associate dean understands your work, the better prepared they will be to answer questions or make decisions in your absence.
Daily check-ins where we discuss events or issues that are happening within our division are essential. These check-ins range from quick emails or texts to longer hallway conversations. We also have scheduled meetings where we discuss larger or long-range projects. In addition to aligning our thoughts, these conversations also serve to keep us organized. Deans and associate deans are pulled in many directions, and when working on multiple projects at a time, we can easily lose track of small details. The associate dean often asks questions about our projects, which serve as reminders to me that something needs my attention or a deadline is approaching. Though the associate dean may not be privy to all that is happening at the dean’s level in the institution, through our frequent conversations they can sense when projects are high priority.
In addition to sharing your thoughts, be sure to also share written communications. I copy the associate dean on all important messages to faculty and colleagues both inside and outside the institution, especially if I anticipate that the associate dean may need to become involved in a particular situation. Copying the associate dean on communications also provides them with a glimpse of how I would respond to questions or requests. I have been pleased to read communication from the associate dean that mirrors my messaging and tone. Our goal is to present a united front to others in our division.
Here I am referring to shared decision making. Once I felt confident that the associate dean was carefully assessing situations, asking questions when they were unsure, and showing empathy toward students and faculty who were struggling, I knew it was time to start including them in the decisions I was making on behalf of the division. I appreciated being able to bounce ideas off the associate dean as they often saw things differently than I did or had additional information that could expedite our decisions.
To set the stage for this shared decision making, I began by explaining the steps that I typically go through when faced with a problem, including the type of information I need to collect and how much time I give myself to make the decision. I used straightforward examples at first and eventually worked up to issues that could be resolved in a number of ways. Next, we worked through some situations together. We talked about possible solutions, the pros and cons of each, and selected strategies where we both agreed. We monitored our progress carefully and made adjustments where necessary, and because these were shared decisions, every win was a team victory.
Now I am comfortable knowing that when a decision needs to be made quickly, the associate dean can easily start the process. While certain decisions are mine alone (e.g., full-time hiring decisions, tenure recommendations, and budgeting), almost every other decision could be handled by either of us.
Once faculty and staff could sense that I had placed my trust in the associate dean, they too began to look to them for leadership. Now, some faculty and staff go to the associate dean first when they have an issue as the associate dean is often more accessible than I am.
There is no better way to build the associate dean’s leadership skills than to empower them in their role. Assign projects for them to complete however they choose. If you have established open lines of communication, you should not worry that they may stray off course. As soon as they encounter an obstacle, they will seek your counsel. When asked, I will provide advice (but not too much) about how I would complete the project. The point here is to encourage the associate dean to “stretch.” You want them to practice their leadership skills by studying which tactics work for them and which do not.
Empowering the associate dean will also allow you to see how they might perform in a dean’s position someday. I am a big fan of empowering all of my direct reports, not just my associate dean. The more often my staff get to experience what it is like to be in a leadership role, the better my division functions.
It is crucial to support the associate dean even when they falter. “Be their rock” means that you will make yourself available to listen and respond when they need advice, encouragement, or consolation.
A self-assured dean generally knows their limits and will surround themselves with staff who excel in areas where the dean may be lacking. Ideally, the associate dean’s best attributes will compliment your strengths, and as a team you will be able to tackle any challenges that come your way.
My secret to success as a dean is having a capable, confident, and compassionate associate dean whom I trust to manage daily operations. This allows me time to focus on creating our vision, developing our faculty, and building momentum in the division. I encourage you to foster strong dean-associate dean partnerships at your institution. Not only will you personally experience an increased sense of purpose, but your division will benefit from consistent leadership.
Wendy Miller, EdD, has been a dean at Elgin Community College in Elgin, Illinois, for 11 years. Her division includes 16 health professions programs plus eight math, science, and engineering departments. Dr. Miller is the author of Strategies for Clinical Teaching in the Health Professions: A Guide for Instructors (Routledge, 2021).