Being a department head is one of the hardest jobs on campus. Representing both the unit and the administration can be a real balancing act, and your most vital partner in this complex role is likely to be your dean.
New department heads may never have worked closely with the dean before. Continuing department heads may be seeking ideas for optimizing their relationship. This article assumes the department head always consults the interest of the academic unit first while carrying out the mission of the college and institution. The ideas presented here come from over a decade of service as department head under two different deans. They may also be helpful to program coordinators, deans, and provosts.
Listen for the dean’s messaging about goals, the mission of the college, and any looming budget or enrollment issues. Think about how you and your unit can help address these. Ask about the dean’s goals for your unit. Share your own vision and goals as well. Keep the dean informed about how your department is advancing college and institutional goals and engage your faculty in generating good news you can route to the dean.
Is your dean a visionary who has a plan already or more of a collaborator? Observe how the dean generates ideas and solutions. Adapt your style, frequency, and type of communication in ways that will be heard.
The dean may be asked at any moment by the provost, advisory board members, donors, and/or parents about what is happening in your unit. Make regular, short reports of positive developments and convey outstanding news as it happens. This way, the dean always has something good to say about your work and the work of your faculty.
Decide how you want to present yourself and be consistent in your messaging. Arrive at meetings of department heads early and ready to engage. Examine your body language and facial expression. Do these show that you enjoy your work and are committed to collegiality and creative solutions? In one-on-one meetings, establish rapport with the dean on lighter, everyday topics. Then get to the point so everyone’s time is well spent. Share challenges and accomplishments to provide insights into your leadership and foster an authentic relationship.
The answer to this question will depend on both of your communication styles as well as the culture of communication in your college. Ask more experienced department heads what has worked well for them. You may find it helpful to customize communication, discussing sensitive items in a face-to-face setting and emailing for nonurgent and texting for urgent communication. Consider requesting regular meetings. Add an agenda to the electronic appointment and bring a print copy so you both can note outcomes and to-dos. Plan ahead so that you are not making big requests at the last minute.
Before meeting with the dean about a problem, brainstorm possible courses of action and prioritize them for yourself. Share them in the meeting and ask for advice. This lets you create a dialogue in which you show your leadership thinking while refining your administrative skills as you learn from the dean. Working together, you will more quickly arrive at the best solution.
Your request will have the most success with the dean if you show benefits in qualitative and quantitative terms. Demonstrate why your request is timely and serves college, institutional, or national priorities. Indicate how it creates something of immense value that helps the college shine. Make your case in concise, written form that your dean can carry directly to the next level.
When you find your own best answers to the key questions posed here, you will have constructive strategies for creating lasting win-wins. And you are likely to find your work more enjoyable.
Laura G. McGee, PhD, is professor of German at Western Kentucky University and principal investigator for the Chinese Flagship Program at WKU. She served as head of the Department of Modern Languages from 2009 to 2020.
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