by Jack E. Johnson

Jack  E. Johnson is the dean of the Richards College of Business, State University of West Georgia. In this article he recounts some of the important, hard won lessons he learned after he left the classroom for the dean's office.

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Thirty months ago I comfortably sat in my desk in Room 127 in the University of West Georgia's Richards College of Business building, advising students, preparing lectures, teaching classes, and mixing in some research to keep my work up-to-date. Then my life was turned upside down!

It was late one Friday afternoon about four weeks into our fall semester of 1999 when we received word that our dean had decided to step down from his position. Because we had already started our semester, the Vice President decided to fill the position with an interim candidate. I was fortunate enough to be one of those candidates, and within a week's time was selected as Interim Dean for the Richards College of Business. What a flurry of activity surrounded those beginning days as an Interim Dean!  I found myself leaving work on a Friday afternoon as a faculty member and then walking in on a Monday morning as Interim Dean.  I don't think there's a manual out there that would have eased my transition into the dean's office on such short notice—if there is, I didn't find it!

So what have these first few months been like? I hope this article will enlighten you as to what it has been like—being a Dean, I mean—the high points, the low points, the joys, the frustrations, the experiences. I recall that afternoon when I told the Vice President that I would accept the interim position and asked him, “Just what do you want of me as an Interim Dean, ‘cause I’ve never been one before?”  He responded, “Just act like a dean, and everything will be fine.” So that’s what I did for the first 16 months until my appointment as permanent Dean of the Richards College of Business on February 1, 2001.

So, to those of you aspiring to be a dean, maybe my comments will encourage you to also follow this path. And as to those of you who have already been down this road, you can simply reflect on your own experiences as dean, because everyone likely has a different story to tell.

Where do we start? How about admitting right up front that success in your discipline has little to do with being an effective dean! As a dean, you rely on the expertise of your faculty and chairs, because they are on the front lines doing the research and teaching the subject matter that keeps them up to date and current with cutting edge technologies. So . . . as a dean you become less of a researcher and more of a reader of research—less of a teacher and more of a facilitator to make things happen. That’s a difficult role to accept, especially if you, in your teacher's role, were an avid researcher who published frequently.

To make this article a little easier to follow, I've decided to present it as a series of lessons—that's appropriate, don't you think?  Here are the ten lessons I've learned as a dean.  Actually, there were only nine in my initial list, but I thought ten sounded like a better number to share . . . and, who knows, maybe that extra lesson will convince you that I really did put a great deal of thought into this article. In any event, here we go. . . .


Lesson #1 – Practice Good Communication Skills.  If there’s one lesson I learned as a dean, it is that most of the success you have in "deaning" is dependent on communications skills. Let’s face it—as a dean you are more exposed to the outside world than you ever thought possible as a faculty member!  In any given week, you could be asked to present to a local civic group; meet with a potential donor for a major gift; greet visitors from Russia; respond to a local news editor on the economic impact of September 11; or extend greetings to interested students, parents, and friends of the University. So, take time to think through what it is you want to say when communicating with these individuals and groups. Communicate with positive strokes, an enthusiastic delivery, and compassionate appeal when necessary.  Whatever you say, keep in mind that your words may prompt a question from someone in your audience . . . so be prepared to explain and defend your position on any given issue. Now I truly appreciate what my speech teacher advised me to do when giving a speech:  "Spend three times as much in preparation time as in delivery time." 

Lesson #2 – Practice Good Human Relationship Skills.  I could have said that it is important for a dean to "develop" good human relationship skills, but I think the real test is whether or not you "practice" those skills. Be sensitive to people's wants and needs—and treat your colleagues with the respect they so rightly deserve.  Take time to walk down the hall or to another one of your buildings and visit with your colleagues—both faculty and staff. Go to "their turf" now and then to discuss certain matters with them rather than always expecting them to come to the dean's office.  Dr. Frank Hunsicker, the late Chair of our Management and Business Systems Department at the State University of West Georgia, was the premier practitioner of "managing by walking around." There was hardly a day that went by that Frank could not be found talking to people in the halls, in their offices, and in their own space. He was a master in using this management style—and it was very successful for him. I learned a lot by emulating this style—the only part of it that I have not yet mastered is the ability to announce my arrival with a voice akin to a military dictator. . .yet possess the compassion of Mahatma Gandhi! Such were the skills of retired Colonel Hunsicker—and certainly those worth emulating!

Lesson #3 – Be an Effective Listener.  I hope also that, as a dean, I learned to be a better listener.  Frequently, students and colleagues approach you. . .hoping that you will listen to the story they have to tell. On many occasions a dean is the final stop in giving or withholding permission to add courses, withdraw from school, return to school, or approve changes to a program of study—all of which are sensitive issues for students. The same could be said of faculty and staff, who expect their dean to listen to concerns they may have.  It's OK to disagree with what they say, but give them every opportunity to voice their concerns. [I think Voltaire uttered similar words back in the early 1700's.]

Lesson #4 – Be Flexible.  As a dean, most days are unpredictable! My secretary keeps a pretty good calendar to let me know what’s coming up that day, that week, that month. But my neatly arranged calendar (created with my Palm IIIc with all the bells and whistles) often succumbs to emergency deadlines, reports to the administration, walk-in appointments, and other meetings that were never designed to work with an electronic calendar!  However, as inflexible as your schedule may be, keep your organizer with you at all times to enter changes in times, dates, and places for upcoming meetings.

Lesson #5 -- Keep Your Sense of Humor.  It would be difficult to count the number of personalities a dean works with in any given month—some of those are a perfect match with your sense of how the world should operate, yet others frustrate you to a level that you never thought possible. At the end of the day, about the only recourse you have is to learn to laugh at those difficult situations, and remember how you handled them for that next occurrence.  Keep your sense of humor, and let others know that you have one that you are willing to share. Someone once told me that it takes fewer muscles to laugh than it does to frown—so practice the easier of the two on a day-to-day basis.

Lesson #6 -- Be Enthusiastic.  Always as a teacher, I believed that the degree to which my students were willing to learn was directly related to the extent to which I was willing to approach my subject matter with enthusiasm.  The same could be said of a dean’s job—be enthusiastic about what you do in the dean’s office, and that attitude will attach itself to all that you do for the college that you represent. One of your responsibilities as a dean is to be an effective leader, and faculty will more likely follow your lead if enthusiasm and a positive outlook are your hallmarks.  

Lesson #7 -- Be Organized . . . or have a secretary who can make it so for you! When I first became Interim Dean, the secretary in the Dean’s Office had been there for a number of years. She was my savior those first few weeks, because I had no clue as to where anything was filed. My security blanket disappeared six months into the job when my secretary announced that she was going to retire that next summer. That was the closest I have ever been to true panic as a dean! It was then I decided that at the top of the list for characteristics I desired in my next secretary was that that person had to be well organized. Requests come to the dean’s office on a daily basis, asking for information that is often based on previous correspondence that has come into the office. Therefore, the need for organizational skills is paramount in the dean’s office. If you file it, know where to find it. And even more importantly, if you can’t find it, know what procedure to follow to get the job done without that information.

Lesson #8 -- See the Bigger Picture.  As a professor, most of my focus was within my own department, and I reacted one way or the other based on the impact the situation had on my teaching discipline. As a dean, you must focus on the impact an issue has on the entire college—on all the faculty, the curriculum, the unit as a whole. It’s difficult to minimize the emotions you have for your own discipline, because that has been your focus your entire professional life.  As a dean, you have to focus your attention on what is good for the entire unit—including all disciplines, all faculty, and all programs. There are times when you must make decisions that are positive for some units, but unwelcome to others. Keep those in mind, because later on in the year you may have to make a similar decision that has just the opposite effect in which other parties are involved. It really comes down to a matter of being fair, explaining to your faculty and your chairs why certain decisions are made, and that any decision you make is based on the best evidence you had available on behalf of the entire college.

Lesson #9 – Know Where Your Money Is. . . And Where It Is Not!  Knowing what financial resources you have at your disposal is critical to your success in the dean's office. As an Interim Dean, this was a difficult task for me.  Heretofore, my concerns for financial support were limited to simply asking my chair for his or her support!  A dean must know where the money is. . .and where it is not; what it can be spent for and for what purpose it cannot; and  what forms are necessary for accessing it, transferring it, spending it, investing it!  Seeing how incredibly efficient today's technology is in managing a dean's financial assets [i.e., through spreadsheets, computerized reports, Web-related data, etc.], I am amazed as to how former deans ever survived without these marvels of technology! If you understand how to use these financial planning programs, your responsibilities as a financial manager are indeed much easier to fulfill.

Lesson #10 – Act Like a Dean.  I admit it—this final recommendation is one given to me by my vice president when he hired me.  But that was powerful advice when he said, "just act like a dean."  I've done my best to act like a dean, and experience has been my best teacher these past 30 months.  I've made some mistakes, but I learned enough from them to realize that I didn't want to walk that path again. I've had some successes, and they felt really good. But most of all, I've enjoyed being here "acting like a dean." I've enjoyed the camaraderie of my College and campus colleagues; I've enjoyed helping students [whenever it was possible] overcome a particular problem they faced; I've enjoyed seeing "the bigger picture," a scene that has allowed me to view the role that our College plays at this University; and I've enjoyed coming to work every day. When these pluses cease to exist, it will be time for me to step down from "acting like a dean."

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