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What it takes to be a successful dean

By Mirah Horowitz
consultant, Russell Reynolds Associates
March 20th, 2018

4 things deans should do to be more entrepreneurial

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 more than 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 enable 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 percent 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 that 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 likely to enjoy alone time. 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.

Aspiring deans in possession of these traits will find the transition to “academic entrepreneur” easier, as their natural inclinations support the increasingly varied demands of the job. However, these innate attributes must be complemented by experience in the areas of the dean role that are fundamentally different from the typical professorship.

Prospective deans should seek the following development opportunities to build their entrepreneurial “muscles”:

▪ Whether through a chair role, an associate dean role or a university-level opportunity, look for leadership experiences that will help develop the more commercial competencies increasingly being asked of deans.

▪ Similarly, look for opportunities to be involved in nontraditional ventures, including the development of external partnerships or the commercialization of academic research, to help demonstrate entrepreneurial thinking.

Contributing to college- or campus-level change initiatives, such as the development of new program offerings or overhaul of diversity and inclusion policies, provides opportunity to demonstrate the ability to articulate a vision, generate buy-in, and deliver results.

▪ Although sometimes anathema to the typical academic, getting more involved in fundraising efforts will expose prospective deans to the challenges and nuances of one of the most important dean duties.

About the Author:

Mirah Horowitz is a consultant in executive search and leadership consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates’ nonprofit practice, with a focus on higher education. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she focuses on identifying senior academic and functional leaders within colleges and universities.

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