Building a Collegial, Cooperative Department

For the past 25 years Bernard Sorofman has worked to build and maintain a collegial team within the department of pharmacy practice and science at the University of Iowa. In an interview with Academic Leader, he shared his techniques.

Hire right
“It begins with recruiting great people who are able to work with others,” Sorofman says. “If you get the right people who are happy working together and are collegial, everything else will fall into place.”

Although it may be difficult to explain to your supervisor, sometimes it makes sense to select a solid academic who will fit with the culture and contribute to the team over the superstar who is more focused on individual advancement.

“When we recruit we definitely have a couple of meals with the candidates. There’s a lot of informal conversation, and we watch to see how this person is interacting with the people he or she is most likely to interact with,” Sorofman says.

Establish common goals/vision
Housing four disciplines with a mix of tenure-track and clinical-track faculty, it might appear to some that the department of pharmacy practice and science would lack a common vision or set of goals.

Sorofman makes it a point to talk about vision and goals and revisit/revise them when appropriate. “Our faculty have gotten together and said, ‘This is what we expect of us as appropriate.’ That builds a team. For instance, what kind of team are we? We’re a team that does exceptional education at the professional level. We teach in the doctorate of pharmacy program, and that gives us a common interest. We all have postgraduate teaching. So that brings us together as a team. A lot of faculty who teach in the PhD program also provide expertise in the residency program, which is a clinical postgraduate program. That brings us together as a team to say we are exceptional educators. The other thing that brings us together as a team is asking, ‘Are we as a department changing science and practice?’ Although we work in smaller units, we tend to see that everybody is trying to do something to make an impact. We don’t expect giant impacts. We expect small impacts. But we’re all working together to improve health care. I think that’s one common thought we all have,” Sorofman says.

Encourage cooperative work
Although not a formal departmental policy, Sorofman tells faculty that he expects them to spend at least 25 percent of their time in their scholarly activity working with someone else in the department. This goes for senior colleagues as well. “They’re not just giving [junior colleagues] work to do—that never works. I expect them to be colleagues and help them by being an investigator on a new faculty member’s project or to bring the new faculty member in and let him or her see how they would run a project,” Sorofman says.

Having diverse disciplines within a single department helps foster interdisciplinary work. “I believe that the excitement happens at the margins. When two systems come together, the excitement—the dynamics—are at the margins where they connect,” Sorofman says.

This excitement carries into the classroom as well. “My background is social behavior. I’m going to be teaching a course with an economist on theory. What’s great is when I teach theory and he’ll say, ‘Well, this is how this theory works from a economics perspective,’ and I’ll say, ‘It doesn’t work that way. It works this way,’ and we’ll go back and forth in class. The students see that,” Sorofman says.

Measure success.
Sorofman makes it a point to measure the success of the departmental team. One way to measure success is by asking faculty about their job satisfaction. “I ask, ‘How is your career going?’ If they’re having a great career, then we’re doing something right. And I think most of my faculty would say that they’re having a great career.”

Other standard measures complete the picture: number of publications; grant funding; number of graduate students and residents; and graduate student, resident, and faculty awards.

Align individual and department goals
Managing autonomous individuals often requires “administrative judo,” which Sorofman defines as subtly redirecting colleagues (when necessary) to help align their goals with those of the department. For example, a faculty member was excited about working on a certain grant that had little to do with health care. Rather than discourage this faculty member by saying, “You can’t do that grant; It’s got nothing to do with pharmacy,” Sorofman gently pointed the faculty member in a more relevant direction by simply asking, “How can you make this about health care?”

Another faculty member wanted to do a certain kind of teaching that was interesting but not in alignment with the goals of the department. Rather than rejecting it out of hand, Sorofman asked, “How does it fit with the department’s vision?” The faculty member considered the question and redesigned the course to fit the department’s vision. The result was a relevant course and a faculty member who still got to apply new and exciting teaching techniques with the support and encouragement of the department chair.

“How do you bring individuals into the team and get them engaged? The answer is what my mentors have told me all along: You find what motivates people—what they love—and you make them responsible for that.”

Excerpted from “Encouraging Departmental Teams” Academic Leader, 27.10 (2011): 3,5.