What it takes to be a successful dean

4 things deans should do to be more entrepreneurial

eCampus News | March 20, 2018

The eCampus News article, “What it takes to be a successful dean,” was authored by Russell Reynolds Associates Consultant Mirah Horowitz. She covered the four things deans should do to be more entrepreneurial in keeping up with an evolving higher education landscape. The article is excerpted below.

It's no secret that the field of higher education is experiencing significant and sustained disruption. Cuts to government funding, proliferation of lower cost models, and increasing costs of wooing high demand students are applying pressure to universities' top and bottom line growth. Accordingly, the expectations of the dean role have also evolved, with successful colleges no longer looking for the "super faculty member" who can oversee curriculum development and tenure decisions, but rather the "academic entrepreneur" capable of directing fundraising, managing the P&L and driving the diversification of revenue streams. Today's deans are therefore more akin to "mini-CEOs," who must possess business acumen, strong interpersonal skills and an entrepreneurial outlook. This is a tall order in the unique cultural context of academia, where highly matrixed shared governance structures and tenure systems deprive deans of much of the decision-making autonomy enjoyed by their corporate counterparts.

To understand whether today's cadre of deans have the attributes necessary to succeed in this new leadership paradigm, Russell Reynolds Associates asked 15 deans from leading R1 institutions to complete well-validated psychometric assessments that focus on behavioral characteristics relevant to leadership roles. We aggregated their psychometric profiles and compared them to our database of over 3,500 corporate and nonprofit executives, enabling us to identify the ways in which today's deans resemble and diverge from their counterparts in other sectors.

Our analysis revealed that successful deans possess a mix of qualities that enabled them to excel as "academic entrepreneur." Deans are differentiated from their corporate counterparts in several statistically significant areas – they are more likely to be:

  • Conceptual and creative: 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 were 28% more likely than corporate executives to demonstrate these qualities, which include measures such as an interest in abstract concepts, the ability to generate new ideas and a lower likelihood of being preoccupied by detail.

  • Cooperative yet non-conforming: An intriguing tension at the core of our best-in-class profile, deans are both more cooperative and less conforming than their corporate counterparts. On the one hand, 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 likely to follow their own agenda, see deadlines as flexible and be less restricted by rules and procedures. This combination is particularly potent for the academic entrepreneur, who must drive consensus and generate buy-in while, at the same time, be willing to buck convention and innovate within existing models.

  • Relaxed and calm: The tension between deans' non-conforming and consensus-building tendencies may be mitigated by the fact that they also tend to be more 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 mitigating faculty politics and promoting harmony within the wider matrixed organization, two of the more traditional dean responsibilities which remain imperative to the role, despite its evolution.

  • Socially reserved and sensitive: In what may be one of the few areas in which they are less naturally equipped for the shift in their mandate, deans tend to be more socially reserved, and are likely to enjoy alone time or appear reserved. Given that many are increasingly positioned as the "face" of the college, having to lead fundraising and public engagement efforts, the most successful deans "learn" extroversion and leverage their natural sensitivity and compassion to build relationships with students, faculty and donors alike.

To read the full article, click here.

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What it takes to be a successful dean