5 Mistakes of Rookie Deans

Eli Jones shares advice on how to avoid common pitfalls.

July 24, 2015

Welcome to the world of being a dean -- one of the most daunting and rewarding jobs in academe. I still recall the mixture of anxiety and excitement I felt in the weeks leading up to my first deanship, at the E. J. Ourso College of Business at Louisiana State University. But the reality is that nothing taught me as much about leading a school as actually leading a school.

If you’re feeling a little apprehensive, you’re not alone. Most current deans are new to their roles. In fact, the latest survey of business school deans indicates 69 percent of those currently in the position are doing it for the first time.

In addition to the challenge of working hard to build good relationships with various constituents across your campus, you will face a whole host of challenges in your first year.

How will you innovate your curriculum? What approach will you take to create and deploy a long-range strategic plan? Some of you may even find yourself jumping into accreditation review midstream.

While these forces certainly pose unique challenges, they also call on us, as deans, to do the very thing that we business deans teach our students: namely, to chart a course for our organizations in the midst of continuous change, to train and motivate our employees, and to develop innovative solutions for a constantly evolving marketplace.

Rookie deans have many similarities. In those first few years of transition and discovery, new deans will be called upon to solve complex problems and take advantage of strategic opportunities in unexpected ways.

As a rookie dean starting my third deanship at a flagship university -- Mays Business School at Texas A&M University -- I can confidently say that we will all make similar mistakes.

In my journey, I have talked with many deans and identified the top five mistakes rookie deans make, along with some helpful advice on how to avoid them.

1. Underestimating the knowledge, skills and abilities it takes to do the job well.

To avoid this mistake, take charge of your own education. That’s the only way you will stay ahead of the curve. Do this by:

  • Developing CEO-style leadership skills (e.g., the mental capacity to know a little about a lot versus being narrow and deep).
  • Envisioning the future, such as identifying what you want success to look like so that you lead your team in a positive direction.
  • Learning to lead a large-scale enterprise.
  • Understanding how to delegate.

2. Overestimating the power and influence one has in the role.

Never before have you been in a position with as much potential to impact the lives of so many people. Take that responsibility seriously, but don’t let it go to your head. Always share the credit and celebrate the successes.

Focus on honing your leadership skills. Know how to engage people enough that they want to follow your lead.

3. Lacking sufficient knowledge about managing oneself.

Take charge of your schedule and priorities. Learn the tricks of:

  • Managing one’s time.
  • Controlling one's ego and developing a thick skin.
  • Managing stress. To manage stress -- which is essential in such a role -- learn to sort and prioritize, and delegate when possible. Remaining positive and organizing your environment are key. Talk out tough issues, be honest, reflect and work for clarity, take breaks and stay active. When possible, control your contact time.

4. Lacking sufficient knowledge of how to generate and allocate resources across the enterprise.

The challenges academic deans must balance are numerous -- fiscal, administrative, program development, faculty, technology, personal balance and diversity. They must assume the driver’s seat in this journey, following the plan while moving forward, accepting changes that occur and keeping passengers informed and participating. They must know when to get help in driving forward, give lots of credit to others, realize the destination is a moving target and keep a sense of humor.

5. Underappreciating the art and science of relationship building.

Relationship-building skills are an important part of our roles. We as leaders should pursue each relationship within our college and our university and relationships with alumni, donors and friends of the institution as an opportunity to build a lifelong, mutually beneficial relationship. These can be pursued through listening tours, outreach to other deans, strategic planning committees, faculty/staff town hall meetings and road trips to visit with alumni and other supporters.

In short, the road that lies before you will not always be straight, well paved and sunny. But your impact will outlive you. What more could a person ask for?

I wish each of you the very best as you put your unique stamp on the school you have earned the right to lead.


Eli Jones is dean of the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University.


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