Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Academic Leadership Part 2--Finding the Right Position for Your Skills

Recently I led a workshop with my terrific colleague, Terri Shapiro, on academic leadership. We split the workshop into two parts. I covered introductory topics around academic leadership and how to find a position to fits one's skills and Terri reviewed information on how to avoid pitfalls once in a leadership position.

In this multipart series, I will review some of the highlights from my part of the presentation. Part 1 introduced the series and defined academic leadership. Today's post will detail how to find the position that is right for one's skills. Part 3 focuses on how to create opportunities for advancement. Part 4 reviews issues around whether to find opportunities at one's current institution or whether to consider a move.  Part 5 will consider what step-up skills to build as one prepares to advance. Finally, Part 6 summarizes the steps one should take to start to advance within an organization. The complete series is linked here.

In this post, I will highlight four critical issues to consider when considering which position is right for your skills.

1. Evaluate your rank.

Once I had an undergraduate student tell me that he wanted to be an academic dean of a college after he graduated. He wanted to have an impact on how universities are managed. I encouraged him, but detailed the steps he would need to take to become a dean. First, he would need to finish his masters and Ph.D. That would be at least 5-6 years. Then he would need to get a job as an assistant professor and earn tenure. That would take about 7 years. Then he would need to get promoted to full professor, which is another 6-7 years. After getting an undergraduate degree it takes about 20 years to become eligible to become an academic dean--and that is if you are on the fast track. That is why so many deans are so, well, venerable. The student was surprised it would take so long to become dean and his expectations did not meet reality.
The example above demonstrates that one must evaluate one's rank prior to developing a strategy for entering an academic leadership position. The most senior level leadership positions go to full professors who have gained tremendous experience on their path to earn their lofty academic rank.

But regardless of rank, there are ways to gain academic leadership experience. In fact it is difficult to rise in academic rank without gaining early experience as a committee member, committee chair or other leadership positions in one's career. In fact, it is wise to take on progressively more responsible leadership positions as one rises in rank. As a student, one can serve on an officer in clubs or serve on university committees. As an untenured assistant professor, one can serve on department, college, or university committees and even chair them. As tenured faculty members, the options expand. Certainly for more advanced positions such as the dean position I outlined above, one should wait until one earns full professor status. However, there are many leadership positions that are possible at the associate professor rank. Each institution has a different culture on what is appropriate. For example, at some institutions it is common for associate professors to have department chair opportunities whereas in others that position is reserved for full professors. Regardless, take a look at your own institutional culture to find out what opportunities are available for your current rank.

2. Evaluate your family situation.

The job of a university professor is one of the best jobs in the world. While there are great responsibilities and there are tremendous demands for earning tenure and full professorship status, the lifestyle of a university professor is rewarding and enjoyable. Moving into leadership positions changes that lifestyle tremendously. Many administrative positions require one to work a normal 12-month schedule just like all the non-professors on the planet. Some require you to be available into the evening for scheduled events and academic programs. 

As you consider moving into administrative roles, it is important to consider your family ecology. Will your family be okay with your absences or your lack of long summer vacations? Will they be fine with your frequent 12 to 14 hour days due to evening responsibilities? Are they willing to be part of your campus life by attending social events and programs? Some administrative positions are less jobs but are instead lifestyles. Your family needs to understand what their lives will change as you take on more responsibility. 

Over the years, I have seen many administrators go through personal challenges due to family conflicts that emerge as a result of their administrative responsibilities. The more your family understands and supports what you are doing, the happier everyone will be.

3. Evaluate your skills.

One of the first jobs I ever had in college was as a security guard in an emergency room at a hospital in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Most hospitals have security in emergency rooms, but in Oshkosh, particularly on weekend evenings, it was a requirement due to the late night bar fights that broke out in the blue collar college town. I was tall, but weighed about 150 pounds. I was probably the thinnest security guard on the planet. But I was a good security guard. I did everything I needed to do and was able to keep the fights down and the hospital secure. However, one of the other security guards, who happened to be fit and muscular, was terrible. He was a well-built buff guy who was naturally aggressive and confrontational. However, everyone knew he stole from the hospital and he found himself absent whenever some type of drama in the emergency room required the presence of security. He was eventually fired, but I was able to stay with the security company throughout my undergraduate degree. While my body size didn't seem like I would be good security, it turned out I was able to manage the job quite nicely due to my overall ability to diffuse tense situations.

While a career in security was not what I desired, the job did pay the bills for many years because my skills matched the job. Take some time to evaluate your own skills. Do you have the needed skills to become a chair, dean, or provost? If not, build upon your own administrative skills by taking on lower level responsibilities and by taking advantage of training opportunities at your university or at conferences.

4. Evaluate your personal mission.

No one chooses an academic career for the money. While the compensation is usually good for full time faculty members, the pay is lower compared to similar jobs in the private sector. We go into academic careers because we love teaching and research and because we want to make a mark on our profession. Those of us who go into administration often do so because we want to provide our services where we work. We want to make them better or we want to offer our unique skills to provide service to our colleagues.

There are very few who go into academic administration for the money. Ask any chair why they decided to become chair and most of them will provide altruistic reasons. Most want to make improvements in their department or are doing a rotation service that is expected of them. 

While enhanced salaries or stipends are certainly a carrot for moving skilled faculty into administrative roles, most take on administrative tasks because they have a desire to make improvements to their institution. I have found that the most successful administrators are the ones that have a clear personal mission that is motivated not by money but by a sense of care and responsibility to their university. Take a look at your personal mission (if you don't have one, take some time to write one out). Consider your motivations for moving into an administrative role. If you do not find yourself motivated largely by altruistic themes, you may not be in a good place to move into an administrative role.

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Coming up next time, I will focus on how to create opportunities for advancement.

Previous posts on this series:

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