How to be an effective acting director, chair or dean — Part II (essay)

Written by: Elizabeth Simmons

Primary Source:  Mend the Gap

Last week, Inside Higher Ed published an essay of mine describing my experience as an interim dean. It covered several practical, task-oriented topics: identifying one’s core mission for the interim period, allaying colleagues’ fears, acquiring reliable information and triaging the issues that land in your inbox. But leading a college that includes a department of theater helped me recognize that interim administrative positions also have important performative aspects.

Therefore, this piece focuses on two questions related to symbolism and presentation.

  • How can you perform your role so that the unit does not feel rudderless?
  • How will you manage your successive transitions into and out of the unit?

I will outline how I faced these questions during my period as acting dean and how other interim leaders might usefully approach them. If you are an interim dean, while the details of your experience will vary according to whether this is your first time acting as an academic leader, the size and complexity of the unit you will lead, and whether you have any prior familiarity with the unit in question, much of your work will probably follow the patterns I observed.

Walking On

At the start of your period as an interim leader, you should try to immediately meet as many people (starting with your direct reports) and visit as many physical locations within the unit as possible so people can viscerally sense that you are taking an interest in their work. I was able to do the first without difficulty but was constrained from doing much of the second by unusual temporal constraints: I was still serving as dean of my home college, teaching a class and doing research, so I spent less than half my week as interim dean. (Notably, once the new permanent dean arrived, he not only began visiting key college locales immediately but also used social media posts to show how much he valued the time spent with colleagues in their campus domains.)

From the moment my appointment was announced, I started setting up in-person and Skype meetings with my direct reports (staff, assistant/associate deans, chairs and directors) to have time with each of them individually. I asked each of them to give me a primer on what I would need to know about their unit or their portfolio in order to do my job, including which urgent matters were now on the docket. This turned out to net me an amazing amount of detail and allowed me to take a few key actions (like filling an empty associate dean’s chair) right away. Over the following weeks, I had follow-up meetings with senior members of the dean’s office to help me knit everything together and sort out the meaning of some of the jargon I hadn’t fully understood the first time around.

As part of the initial meetings, I communicated a set of expectations: what I needed from them and what they could expect from me, what my working style is, and how I rely on my direct reports to both maintain their own portfolios and keep me informed. Stating up front that I prefer electronic communication and records, send email at odd hours but expect answers only during business hours, and rely on colleagues to provide varied perspectives and honest feedback (especially when I’m wrong!) avoided needless guesswork from individuals who would be working intensively with me for the next anxious year.

Even after the first few hectic weeks are over, you should be prepared to face a sequence of new beginnings throughout your period as an interim leader. The orbits of a variety of faculty members, staff members, students, alumni and other people will probably intersect yours as key annual events approach or new projects get underway. Remember that you are still an unknown quantity for them and will need to earn their trust by demonstrating interest in their work, being transparent in your actions and following through on your commitments to them.

Center Stage

While it may be tempting to keep a low profile while in a temporary leadership role lest you appear to exceed your authority, simply managing the existing bureaucracy behind the scenes will not suffice. As dean, you will have to appear in a suit or regalia to give a speech, lead a meeting, award degrees or simply demonstrate you are paying close attention on numerous ceremonial occasions. Less obvious, perhaps, is that you must actively cultivate a sense of everyday presence and create the environment that your direct reports need to do their jobs.

Since I was dean of two different colleges located about a mile apart on our extensive campus, I split my time between the two dean’s offices according to a regular weekly schedule. Being in my regular office half-time was not a big issue; people had known me there for a decade, understood how to reach me by email or cellphone, and were used to my spending time away in the physics department or at conferences. But I anticipated that being in my interim office half-time could be problematic for the majority of college members who were not acquainted with me and who were anxious about whether the university was continuing to invest in their future.

To cultivate a sense of presence, I took care to decorate my interim office with books, art and personal objects to show that it was a space that was meaningful to me, one that I was truly inhabiting. I arranged to spend regular hours working there every week: leading meetings, collaborating with staff, holding office hours when chairs could drop by with a question and taking care of the various reports a dean is perpetually working on. As was my custom in my regular deanship, I also tended to visit my interim direct reports in their offices within the building to ask questions or hold quick conversations about matters that were puzzling me. When not in the building, I tried to answer emails quickly to convey an extended sense of presence, so that people knew I was paying attention to the college.

As soon as you have the authority to execute the central roles of your office, you will be called upon to act. You may have to write award nominations, approve expenses, make strategic plans, undertake performance reviews, evaluate curricula or renovate facilities long before you feel ready. So take steps to gain detailed knowledge about the unit’s operations as quickly as you can. You will need to be appropriately deliberative, decisive and communicative so that people have the sense that a fair leader is indeed in charge, that the unit is not drifting.

There is a fine balance here: you will need to access your team members’ knowledge and draw on their advice yet be willing to make the final decisions and take the consequences yourself. For them to do their jobs with assurance, they will need you to consistently project confidence.

Walking Off

Being an interim leader is like walking along a scroll laid out on the floor. As you leap enthusiastically into new projects, you are focused on the bright paper unfurling before you. But the paper is also quietly recurling behind you, and when you step off the end, your interim period will form a closed episode in your wake.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how to take my leave. I strongly believe that when your term as leader is over, you must stand clear to let your successor do whatever needs to come next. Since my express mission was to help the college through the transition between two long-term deans, I started working on the ending while not far from the beginning.

If your first task as an interim leader is to establish a trust-based working relationship with the people in your unit, your second is to start preparing them to trust that the transition to your successor will be smooth and successful. Speak consistently and freely about the impending end of your tenure so that they know you are anticipating it with equanimity. Openly establish boundaries between what you will wrap up and what the new leader will need to handle. Mention that you are writing a transition letter to help orient your successor to the unit, and let others know that you will cover key issues from their portfolios in this document. If your successor already works at your institution or makes some orientation visits before assuming the role, arrange to meet with them openly in your (soon to be their) office so people can see you are welcoming their arrival.

Aim for a smooth ramp down for you and a smooth ramp up for the new person. For instance, while your successor is learning the ropes, you may need to submit some final budget reports or merit reviews related to the preceding year after your term has technically expired. That can give a useful sense of closure: colleagues can see that their work with you is being appropriately evaluated, memorialized and rewarded, rather than forgotten in the excitement of a new beginning.

While you will likely want to wrap up as many in-progress items as possible to give the new leader a clear slate, be prepared that some items will simply not be finished in time and will have to be handed over midstream. That means that some items you thought would be handled in a particular way by you will instead be done — perhaps in a very different way — by your successor. Get used to it. Avoid the temptation to be territorial or possessive. Make yourself available to your successor to answer their questions or be a sounding board. But let that be at their discretion. Answer their questions but do not call to ask what is happening. Give honest feedback on their ideas, answer what they’ve asked and mentally hand over the matter to them to handle. It is no longer yours to control.

Set a date. Move out on time. And then walk away. Stay away from your old office, avoid the building if possible and let the new equilibrium establish itself.

While I strongly believe such principles are essential, I must confess that walking away was difficult. Having grown to love the college and to enjoy spending time with my colleagues there, it was a shock to suddenly cease working with them. Fortunately, I’ve been able to maintain connections with several individuals in new contexts as our campus roles have evolved, and that has been a real pleasure.

In the end, despite the grueling workload and an endless sense of trying to translate between two half-known languages in real time, serving an interim role has many rewards. Whether you are experiencing a familiar unit from a new perspective or joining an entirely new one, you will learn more about how the institution works and have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of colleagues and students. It is also a chance to meet a fascinating new set of people and make friends whose company you will enjoy for years to come. If the opportunity to serve as an interim leader comes your way, I recommend you give it a try.

The following two tabs change content below.
Elizabeth Simmons
Dr. Elizabeth H. Simmons is Dean of Lyman Briggs College and University Distinguished Professor of Physics in the Michigan State University Department of Physics and Astronomy.