As a dean, I have to make hard decisions every day. Since I often articulate the reason for the decision (see rule no 4) I figured I could actually write them down. I have no idea if any of these make sense in the corporate world: I’ve never worked there. But this is what I think works in a university setting.
All of these are proceeded by “when in doubt” or “normally” or “in most circumstances.” I am not foolish enough to believe there is no gray—in fact, the hardest decisions are the really gray ones. But I still find that these bring clarity to my academic decision making process.
1. Be Humane
Yes, this is always first. One, you will sleep better at night and two, I believe that loyalty is repaid most of the time. (And if not you still sleep better.) When the organization is fundamentally just and fair, people will want to work there.
2. Be Strategic
Aligning even small decisions with strategic priorities helps me stay mission driven. Which choice will move the dial for the organization? Lots of things can make people happy in the short term, but they don’t add up to much, other than a temporary happiness blip. There can be a penalty for breaking rules, but the procedures are there to support the mission, not the other way around.
3. Extend Trust
When this fails, it can be spectacular, but lack of trust is an enormous drag on an institution in terms of time, morale and most importantly risk. Micro management is an equally huge drain on everyone’s time and loyalty. People take fewer risks when they do not feel trusted, and we can’t afford to make our institutions any more risk averse than they already are.
4. Be Transparent
There are obviously times when this won’t work, but notice that those are the times when people get suspicious. (Ironically, this is usually when you have the most clear evidence you can’t reveal!) The more you can share data, concerns, mission, proposals, and ideas, the less inclined faculty will be to imagine you have a hidden agenda. This is another version of extending trust and it is especially important in a university.
5. Be Accountable
Accountability is the flip side of trust. Watching what you promise is very hard: nobody likes a dean who always says no. Learning how to encourage without breaking the bank is a difficult balance to manage. But admitting your mistakes goes beyond trust. Values matter and the more obvious and consistent they are, the more likely they are to be imitated and become part of the culture of the institution.
There are certainly more things I could add: encourage risk, look for efficiencies, seek integration, focus on the students, and find more money are all useful things to do. Sadly, most of the decisions I make and many of my days are not filled with big ideas. A colleague once told me that a dean gets hired to make good decisions about the small things. These decisions, however, will only be good, if they are connected to the strategic priorities, big ideas, a motivated work force and a positive culture.