What no one told you about running your own “academic department”

lifting weight © Pixabay 2020 image: Ichigo121212

How good a manager would Einstein have been?

The rise of area experts into leadership positions is a nettle that every institution with an organogram of more than the fingers on one hand has had to grapple with. There is no rule that says that the best salesperson makes the best sales manager. Nor that the best researcher makes an excellent Head of Department (HoD.)

Unfortunately, excellence in research, publishing and teaching rarely leads to an academic career that rewards this achievement with more time to pursue personal research objectives. Instead, the conventional pathway results in an increased demand to participate in institutional structures where the core skills are far removed from those you have honed in your academic career. One day you wake up to realise you are now in charge of people, policy and processes – none for which you were prepared.

The result is a tug on the academic leader’s research agenda and time. Days are quickly filled with seemingly endless meetings, organisational matters, and counseling of all sorts. Invariably, a contrarian colleague may turn what seemed like a quick get-together into a prolonged battle of sectarian wills that leaves a cloud of tension simmering in the hallways for days.

Beyond traditional time management skills, are there tried and tested ways for how HoDs can get the best out of their own day and from the whole team?


Coach, don’t control

Organisational theory makes much of the difference in leadership styles. Theorists start from a false premise, namely that everyone is a type of leader, or aspires to be one.

This is not true. 

Some people should not lead, and some would prefer not to do so, either. It is rather important then to understand what enthusiasm to lead your team has, and what kind of leaders they may be in turn on assigned projects. Fortunately, the one advantage of managing any part of the academic enterprise is that we are surrounded by smart people who are geared towards learning. It allows for what management guru Peter Senge called “the learning organisation”, where the opportunity exists to coach younger staff members quickly and with great success to take on new roles in the managerial hierarchy of the department. This also helps to lay the foundation for solid future leadership.

The worst thing an HoD could do would be to stifle this impulse by trying to exert constant and total control over the minutiae. There isn’t enough time in the day for that. Show them what you know, what has worked in the past and what a good outcome would look like, and then give them wings to exceed in expectation.


Delegate, don’t abdicate

A good manager of people knows how to pass the baton to those better equipped to achieve the desired outcomes. A great manager knows how, once that baton has been passed, to make sure that it does not get dropped.

Identify the best people for this role, make sure they understand where it fits into the bigger picture, and clarify what the timeline, resources and desired outcome entail. It is important to be available for support where it’s needed.

Some managers have developed the habit of tapping into the family spirit that works so well with micro-credit schemes, called “tontines”. Rather than having individual team members report directly to the HoD, faculty meetings become the only forums where people present their deliverables. It removes potential conflict between the HoD and the faculty member, and it raises the bar in terms of collaboration. Nobody wants to be exposed publicly for not playing their part in full.

If management is a recurring cycle of planning, organising, activation and control, keep the reins tight on timing and quality of outcomes, while trusting your colleagues to come up with the mechanics themselves.


Incentivise, don’t patronise

One of the real joys of working in academia is the abundance of intelligent, eclectic people one encounters daily. Add to this, the energy, enthusiasm and hope of young students. Finally, the dense intellectual atmosphere of visiting scholars, poetry evenings, experimental theatre, campus protests and so much more.

As an HoD, feel fortunate that your team members are not there for the regular mundane rewards that corporate theory would postulate – more money and power. The rich texture of the personalities may reveal an interesting variety of passions, and it could be very helpful as the HoD to understand your individual team members’ true ambitions well before you try and draft them into faculty administrative duties.

Do not count on it that the young assistant professor who has spent the past seven years delving into Foucault necessarily has a budding accountant- inside dying to join the Faculty Finance team.

Get to know your team’s strengths and offer the opportunity to volunteer for portfolios where their interests may lie. Reward them with that which is meaningful to the individual, not just with the highly generalisable carrots and sticks that mainstream theory suggests.


Empower your PA

A good personal assistant is worth his or her weight in gold. Too often, the front office of the HoD is a veritable Chinese Wall where assistants believe it is their duty to shield the HoD from anything and everyone. Who knows what valuable information gets blocked in this scenario.

On the other hand, no HoD needs a front office that acts as a human in-tray, letting endless streams of unfiltered information and decisions eat away at the HoD’s time and patience.

Systems thinking offers an invaluable approach. In this case, it would recommend that the HoD’s personal assistant is completely au fait with the long-term vision, short-term goals and the HoD’s priorities for the department. Within these parameters, the PA should be empowered to make tough decisions on behalf of the HoD. Create a mechanism whereby your assistant knows what to filter, what to file and what to follow-up with you. Having a capable person at the helm of your administrative process will save so much time.

We thought perhaps a great way to to understand the complexities of running your own academic department, was to speak to someone whose living it.

So we spoke to a friend of ours over in South Africa, Ursula van Beek from Stellenbosch University about how to make and keep a top-notch international research team going for 20 years?


Here’s what she had to say:

Here’s the never-fail secret recipe revealed …

The ingredients are as follows

  • One sensible idea
  • One big pinch of perseverance
  • Three measures of power of persuasion
  • Two sets of strong knuckles to knock on doors
  • One big hat to collect funds
  • A generous sprinkling of brain power

The method?

Once you have all the ingredients add five measures of a good sense of humour, bring on board people who share it, make them all your friends, and drink a lot of wine together late into the night.


Key Takeaways

As a last word of advice – be prepared for your team members and your assistant getting it wrong sometimes. Accept that as part of the empowerment process and guide them on how to avoid such mistakes in future. An insecure assistant will end up passing everything right back to your inbox!

Life has many surprises. When you decided to sign up for a particular class your first year at university, you may not have realised at the time it could become your passion and your career. And when you landed the first teaching position, you surely did not think about finance committees, disciplinary hearings or the formalities that keep HoDs busy. But here you are. At the top of your game academically, so take the time to grow the skills you will require for yet another exciting new phase.


© Pixabay 2020 / image: Ichigo121212