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Creating a Community of Leadership

Lessons learned from managing an academic leadership development program
University Business, Sept 2011

As universities push to support interdisciplinary education and research initiatives, a crucial ingredient is faculty collaboration across disciplinary and departmental lines. True collaboration—where faculty grasp the institutional “greater whole” that clearly values individual faculty contributions yet still transcends the sum of the faculty “parts”—is difficult to achieve.

An academic leadership development (ALD) program, fine-tuned by Tufts University (Mass.) over the last three years, is working toward that goal. ALD helps faculty from every corner of the university become more effective leaders and team members within the new “matrix” organizational structures required for successful interdisciplinary initiatives. In training more than 100 department chairs, center and research directors, and associate deans from all of Tufts’ schools and three campuses, as well as participants from another university, we’ve learned some valuable and sometimes surprising lessons.

Effective Partners
Leveraging existing human resources in partnership with academic leadership to serve faculty needs is not just fiscally smart, it’s effective. Although faculty and staff must work together on a daily basis, HR and academic leaders typically work in parallel. HR handles staff, and the provost’s office handles faculty issues.

Certain leadership aspects are unique to each group. Yet the two realms have much more in common than one might think. Shared leadership challenges include managing conflicts and underperformers, communicating effectively, managing change, and mentoring and coaching effectively. Since most of these areas were being well addressed in Tufts’ longstanding HR training program for staff managers and administrative leaders, it made sense to adopt much of the staff program framework, augmenting it with faculty-specific scenarios and content.

As a result, faculty and administrative leadership now share a common language, and the HR and provost partnership can more effectively support the shared needs of a diverse university community.

Faculty want to move quickly beyond leadership theory to solve immediate problems. Common initial reservations of faculty are that leadership training will be “too theoretical,” “too touchy-feely”—a waste of time. Properly structured training can dissolve those concerns. We developed scenarios using issues raised repeatedly by faculty leaders, including highly competent, veteran chairs.

Exercises use the scenarios to focus on common challenges experienced by both new and veteran academic leaders, regardless of discipline or type of faculty (e.g., tenured, clinical, research, etc.). In a variety of formats—peer coaching, small and large group discussions—faculty share current real-life problems and solutions relevant to their roles as academic leaders. At the end of each session, each faculty participant must review his or her personal action plan, select a lesson learned, and commit to practicing a skill before the next session. Participants consistently note that sessions are highly relevant. They “feel like real life”—because they are!

Faculty need time and opportunities to practice leadership skills and get feedback. It may be tempting to cram training into an intensive one- or two-day workshop, but such an approach runs counter to what we know about how the human brain learns. Shorter, more frequent sessions provide a respite from hectic schedules, enabling faculty to reflect on issues with colleagues with similar experiences.
At Tufts, stretching five half-day sessions over several weeks allows participants to practice new skills between sessions, applying those skills to issues they’re grappling with and then bringing the results back to the next session—what worked, what didn’t, and why. Using the iterative process of “learn, practice, reflect, get feedback, refine, repeat,” participants become much more self-aware, and can analyze and manage difficult faculty and staff situations more productively.

“Managing up” is just as critical as managing in every other direction. “Matrix” organizational structures are becoming increasingly common in academia. But, many faculty have not been exposed to the idea of “managing up”—being able to work effectively with the president, provost, operational vice presidents, and academic and administrative deans.

We’ve found faculty are grateful to receive direct exposure to institutional leadership during training. Incorporating such discussions is essential to furthering critical understanding about how faculty and their units fit into the institutional framework, and to appreciate how they can partner more effectively with leadership to support their work and that of the institution.

Common Interests
Academic leadership training is often the first time participants will work closely with faculty from another campus or school. (At Tufts, some of our schools are separated by an hour’s drive.) While faculty may be initially skeptical of the utility of sessions shared with participants from schools “not like my own,” they quickly realize the toughest issues are held in common.

Faculty want to continue to share experiences and build skills after training ends. A common concern is “forgetting what we’ve learned once we leave here” and losing contact with new colleagues. Post-training follow-up serves the dual purpose of evaluating the durability of skills while reinforcing lessons learned. Our formal follow up includes online surveys, half-day booster sessions each semester, and annual alumni receptions with institutional leadership. Booster topics reflect participant requests, and provide a venue to build skills, reconnect with colleagues, and meet other alumni who now “speak the same language.” Informal check-ins via phone, email, and in-person contact through typical committee work, working groups, etc., reinforce lessons learned and remind alumni of the institutional resources available to them.

The tangible benefits of building a university-wide network of “primed” academic leaders accrue at every level of the organization. Faculty exploring new interdisciplinary projects find a shared vocabulary and experience among other participants. Cross-campus introductions and productive conversations evolve much more quickly. The depth of relationships and the extent of new collaborations sparked by shared training, including interdisciplinary symposia, courses, programs, and research projects, can truly be remarkable. 

Mary Y. Lee is associate provost and Regina Corrao is director of organizational development and training-human resources at Tufts University (Mass.).