Inside the Mind of the University Dean: Bringing Entrepreneurship to the Academy

Leadership StrategiesSuccessionEducationBoard and CEO AdvisoryExecutive Search
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Bennett Hanig, PhD
January 19, 2018
17 min read
Leadership StrategiesSuccessionEducationBoard and CEO AdvisoryExecutive Search
We asked university deans to complete well-validated psychometric assessments that focus on behavioral characteristics relevant to leadership roles.



​Introduction and Methodology

In recent years, university leaders from deans up to presidents have had to adapt to disruptions in the fundamental tenets upon which our higher education system was built. Decreases in financial support from federal and state governments can no longer be made up for by simply raising tuition, which has already reached quasi-unaffordable levels. Increased competition for the very best student candidates has resulted in colleges and universities “paying” more to maintain a high-quality student population. The resulting imbalance between the cost of providing education and the revenue traditionally brought in by universities has prompted deans and other higher education leaders to become more entrepreneurial and creative when it comes to moving their colleges and universities forward. As a way to encourage such entrepreneurship and innovation, many universities have moved toward a “responsibility-centered management” system, which gives deans incentives to find new revenue, but also places the challenge of balancing the budget and raising philanthropic funds squarely on their shoulders. As a result, deans’ responsibilities now range from the more traditional tasks of overseeing curricular development as well as faculty promotion and tenure to more recently added responsibilities like fundraising, P&L management and general innovation. Like “mini-CEOs,” they need business acumen, strong interpersonal skills and an entrepreneurial outlook. However, they must also be able to deploy those skills within the unique culture of an institution of higher education.

Given the central role of deans in confronting their sector’s growing challenges, we wanted to understand the qualities that enable their success and thereby provide academic search committees with data to help them recruit and retain the forward-thinking talent they need. To do so, we asked 15 leading university deans from R1 institutions to complete well-validated psychometric assessments that focus on behavioral characteristics relevant to leadership roles. The results were aggregated and compared to the results of 3,500+ corporate and nonprofit executives, enabling us to identify the psychometric scales on which the deans resemble and diverge from their corporate and nonprofit counterparts.

Executive Summary

  • The psychometric profile of our best-in-class dean group showed more similarities with corporate executives than with those from the nonprofit sector, confirming that the most successful deans can marry deep intellectual and academic rigor with business savvy and an orientation toward results.
  • Their proclivity for conceptual and creative thinking is both a prerequisite for success within academia and increasingly vital to succeeding within responsibility-centered management systems, which incentivize the discovery of new revenue streams and require the ability to raise funds while balancing a budget.
  • Deans are both more cooperative and less conforming than their corporate counterparts, qualities that are valuable in driving consensus and generating buy-in within a culture that rewards independent thought.
  • Often tasked with mitigating faculty politics and resolving departmental conflict, successful deans leverage their relaxed and calm nature to promote harmony within the wider matrixed organization.
  • Though many are predisposed to be socially reserved and enjoy their alone time, deans are increasingly positioned as the “face” of the college. The most successful “learn” extroversion and leverage their natural sensitivity and compassion to build relationships with students, faculty and donors alike.


01. The prerequisites: Thinking conceptually and creatively


Perhaps unsurprising given academia’s mandate for ingenuity, our analysis found deans to be more creative and conceptual than their corporate counterparts. These innovative thinkers are more likely to generate new ideas, be interested in abstract concepts and not get preoccupied with details—all attributes fitting with the weighty mission they must deliver upon and the context in which they must do so. Tasked with educating the world’s future leaders in an ecosystem increasingly threatened by funding cuts and other destabilizing external factors, college deans need to be one step ahead of the creative curve. Utilizing their aptitude for abstract conceptual thinking—a prerequisite for “getting through the gates” but also thriving within them—they ensure their colleges remain sustainable epicenters of invention. Ironically, while the slow pace of change and multi-stakeholder context of higher education presents fundamental challenges to the development of a culture of innovation, the most successful deans are nevertheless expected to be agents of change in many of the same ways expected of their corporate counterparts: able to generate new revenue streams, attract new “customers” and secure new channels of funding in the form of interdisciplinary grants. In leveraging their creativity to reframe challenges, implement disruptive strategies and navigate ambiguity, a dean ensures that their college and students do not get left behind.

“People say I am the ‘executive vice president of weird ideas’.”
— Dean of International Relations at a large West Coast university


2. The core curriculum: Balancing nonconformity and a need for consensus

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A tension at the core of our best-in-class deans’ profile is their propensity to be more consensus-driven than their corporate peers but also less conforming. On the one hand, they are accommodating and inclusive: Compared to their for-profit counterparts, they are more likely to involve others in decision-making, avoid conflict, accept different views and see participation as more important than winning. On the other hand, they are also more independent and unconventional: Preferring to follow their own agenda, they tend to see deadlines as flexible and to be less restricted by rules and procedures.

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While this collaborative orientation toward the wider faculty group can seem hard to reconcile with such an individualistic streak, it makes inherent sense within the academic context. The dean of a leading Northeast university’s statement—“I work for the faculty, the faculty members don’t work for me”—reveals the nuts and bolts of the decision-making process on campus. While the path toward a decision is charted by consensus, the decision itself is rarely limited by convention; the dean can ultimately course-correct to a different end, but his/her voice remains that of the group, spoken in their shared interests. As another dean we profiled explained: “I try to redefine problems and think of alternative approaches because if an important issue hasn’t been solved by the time it reaches me, it’s because the conservative route hasn’t worked, so you have to go at it a different way.”

In understanding the roots of these characteristics, it’s useful to reflect upon the nature of the faculty ranks with which deans interact and from which they are often recruited. Being a professor is more of an individual pursuit than equivalent corporate roles: It requires setting and following your own research agenda, with deadlines that are often more flexible by virtue of prioritizing research quality over market demands. At the same time, the highly matrixed structure and culture of shared governance between a university’s central administration and its separate colleges means that all members of the higher education ecosystem are subject to consensus-driven decision-making. Leadership dynamics within higher education are therefore fundamentally different from those seen in the corporate world. Tenured professors, who are guaranteed job security regardless of performance, highlight the type of leadership style required within an academic context—one that is transparent and focused on generating buy-in rather than on issuing orders.

Looked to as the “ties that bind,” deans maintain the sense of collegiality that is integral to a well-functioning institution. This trait is particularly useful as colleges increasingly pursue the disruptive initiatives that are required for growth but that can also be disconcerting to more traditional stakeholders. This imperative for significant and sustained innovation makes it all the more important for deans to balance concurrent needs for an entrepreneurial vision and a collaborative ethos.

“The dean is actually middle management. You have to manage both the department that reports to you and the central administration to which you report. It becomes very important to read the trade space between what the different constituencies want and to balance those different wants and needs.”
—Engineering dean at a major public research university

The tension between deans’ non-conforming and consensus-building tendencies may be mitigated by the fact that they are also more relaxed and calm than their corporate counterparts; they are level-headed, like to take things at a steady pace and are content to meet challenges as they come. This proclivity for tranquility is no doubt an asset when pursuing key responsibilities such as building consensus, mitigating faculty politics and promoting harmony within the wider matrixed organization


“In today’s world, things are tweeted and responded to instantaneously so that we are constantly being pulled in multiple directions. Being relaxed and calm in academia will only get more important as the world gets more complex, fast-paced and connected. You’re not living in the bubble that existed 30 years ago, but you still need time to process and integrate the flow of information.”
—Arts and Sciences dean of a leading Northeast university


03. The extracurriculars: Overcoming introversion with sensitivity

Fitting with the traditional stereotype of the introverted, cerebral academic, our analysis showed that deans are more socially reserved than their corporate peers. While they may come across as aloof, unconcerned and distant, this differentiating attribute is more about being self-reliant and enjoying time alone. As one dean framed it: “I am quite a functional extrovert, in that I can switch on in a group as needed. My favorite weekend, though, is going home and sitting by the fire with my book. I am never left alone in the office all day, so that is probably why.” Given their day to day, if deans can appear reserved and cool, it is likely because the social demands of their role require that they push themselves beyond the level of stimulation they may naturally be inclined to prefer. This ability to orbit at both ends of the social spectrum seems advantageous to deans, though; they must be other-oriented and build relationships with students, faculty members and donors alike while also being self-sufficient in the strategy and innovation process.

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Alongside this introversion, we uncovered another important attribute for the academic dean: high interpersonal sensitivity. Academic deans are more empathetic and sentimental than their corporate peers, as well as more likely to be sympathetic and considerate toward others. Deans are oftentimes career academics, used to funneling their aforementioned creative aptitude toward solitary research endeavors. In order to progress up academic ranks, though, deans must bring colleagues together and build consensus amidst significant internal politics, a feat which calls upon their more sensitive and compassionate nature, as well as their ability to stretch themselves within social settings. Moreover, as fundraising becomes more integral to their role, deans are increasingly positioned as the “face” of the college, which requires a conflation of sensitivity, compassion and the ability to “learn” extroversion.


“People want to be recognized and valued for what they do, especially when they bring such great experiences to the table. This empathy is needed.”
—Arts and Sciences dean of a leading Northeast university


“If we’re not rethinking the boundaries, we’re not doing our job. We’re constantly fighting the idea that universities have done the same thing for 300 years. That’s not true. We’re constantly reinventing ourselves; institutions that don’t do that will go the same way as corporates that don’t.”
—Arts and Sciences dean of a leading Northeast university


Appendix: Attribute definitions


Conceptual & Creative


Interested in abstract concepts: Extent to which a person is interested in theoretical issues or models. High scorers enjoy pondering abstract ideas and may appear lost in thought, whereas low scorers tend to be more practical in their thinking and efficient with their time.

Innovative and creative: Extent to which a person enjoys brainstorming and generating novel ideas. High scorers may be more strategic in their thinking, whereas low scorers tend to be more tactical.

Generates new ideas: Extent to which a person is idea-oriented versus solution-oriented. High scorers are active thinkers who can be somewhat “in their own heads,” while people who score low may be more practical in their thinking.

Unlikely to become preoccupied with details: Indicator of a person’s inclination toward details versus the bigger picture. High scorers tend to focus on the core issues at hand, whereas low scorers tend to focus within the details.

Cooperative & Inclusive

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Cooperative, accommodating and may avoid conflict: Indicator of a willingness to compromise with others’ views. High scorers tend to listen to and incorporate ideas from others, whereas low scorers may focus primarily on their own concerns and objectives.

Sees participation more important than winning: Indicator of one’s competitive drive. High scorers dislike competition with others and may feel that experience is more important than the outcome, whereas low scorers likely feel a need to win and dislike losing.

Rarely pressures others to change their views: Extent to which a person prefers subtle convincing or repositioning tactics over overt, “sales” tactics. High scorers may be less forthright in promoting their vision to others, whereas low scorers may enjoy selling their ideas and persuading others to their way of thinking.

Involves others in decision-making: Indicator of how much a person includes others in decision-making. High scorers consult widely with a broad audience, while low scorers tend to reach conclusions on their own.


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Not restricted by rules and procedures: Indicator of a person’s focus on accomplishing objectives rather than following rules or standard procedures. High scorers are less concerned with politics and will do what it takes to reach their goals, whereas low scorers prefer clear guidelines and are comfortable with bureaucracy.

Independent and unconventional: Extent to which a person is willing to challenge others’ thinking and decisions. High scorers are more independent and tough-minded. Low scorers may be too focused on what others think and too eager to please others.

Sees deadlines as flexible: Extent to which a person considers priorities within a broader framework and potentially changing landscape. High scorers may consider deadlines as flexible and dependent on other events, while low scorers tend to be vigilant and persistent in following through on all responsibilities.

Prefers to follow one’s own agenda: Extent to which a person is focused on taking action toward new opportunities. High scorers may seem impulsive or quick to act, whereas low scorers may be more deliberate and prefer to work according to their own pace and standards.

Relaxed & calm


Tranquil and relaxed: Extent to which a person is relaxed versus tense. High scorers may often feel that they have matters under control, whereas low scorers may be more impatient and feel a stronger sense of urgency around their objectives.

Likes to take things at a steady pace: Extent to which a person thrives on being busy. High scorers are more oriented toward minimizing mistakes and doing something “right,” whereas low scorers are more focused on completing a task in the shortest amount of time.

Content to meet challenges as they come: Indicator of a person’s ambition and drive. High scorers likely value individual experiences and address challenges as they come, whereas low scorers tend to set demanding goals for themselves and tend to focus on the next step.

Level-headed: Indicator of a person’s emotional response when under stress or pressure. High scorers tend to remain level-headed, whereas low scorers tend to take things personally and may be more emotionally transparent.

Socially reserved

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May appear distant, cool and reserved: Broad indicator of attentiveness to others. High scorers may be more focused on the task at hand than others, whereas low scorers tend to be more engaged with people.

Self-reliant and enjoys time alone: Indicator of a person’s inclination to solve problems independently. High scorers tend to follow their own approach and may not consistently include others, whereas low scorers may be more reliant on others.

Sensitive & compassionate


Sensitive, empathetic or sentimental: Extent to which a person emphasizes feeling versus thinking. High scorers give more priority to feelings and can be active in anticipating others’ concerns, while low scorers may be more objective and logical.

Sympathetic and considerate toward others: Indicator of how sympathetic and considerate a person is toward others. High scorers display empathy broadly toward colleagues, whereas low scorers are more utilitarian and detached from others’ personal problems.


Additional Authors:

Clara Dessaint  is a Knowledge Associate for the Nonprofit Practice. She is based in London.

Jacob Martin is an organizational psychologist and core member of the Leadership and Succession Practice. He is based in Atlanta.

Emily Meneer is the Global Knowledge Leader for the Nonprofit Practice. She is based in Boston.

Katie Whittum is a Knowledge Analyst for the Nonprofit Practice. She is based in Washington, D.C.