October 13th, 2009

Proof a Shared Leadership Model Can Work

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For six years, Cecilia McInnis-Bowers and E. Byron Chew served as dean-partners for the division of business and graduate programs at Birmingham-Southern College, taking shared leadership beyond a simple division of labor by working together on every decision, jointly advising students, and conducting each meeting and telephone call together.

This dean partnership began in 1996 after the college president approached McInnis-Bowers and Chew separately to see if either would be interested in being dean to help with a languishing graduate program and undergraduate curricula in need of revision.

“We didn’t have an interest in operating as sole practitioners,” Chew says. “Our real careers were academic, and the thrill of going into academic administration was not there for either one of us. But we thought that together we would be able to bring some creative approaches to this position.”

McInnis-Bowers and Chew team taught together for five years prior, and like the dean-partnership they would later form, their approach to team teaching was not a matter of taking turns teaching but rather a collaborative endeavor that brought them together with each other and with students for a month-long series of integrative experiences in which they were often together for 16 hours a day.

From the beginning, they decided that their approach to the dean partnership would be different from other higher education shared leadership models they had read or heard about.

They clearly delineated a plan that would have each partner involved in all decisions, and they developed ways of communicating this new model to the institution, such as sharing a workspace, telephone, and even a single business card. To ensure that the partners would be treated equally, they agreed to the same compensation for their administrative roles (both continued teaching full-time) and to serve and step down together. “There was never any doubt about that. They would never be able to separate us,” Chew says.

They also decided that the partnership would have a limited duration of five years—the amount of time they thought they could be effective in making major changes. (They later decided to complete a sixth year to work on getting accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which they were successful in doing.)

In addition to helping to keep the college competitive, McInnis-Bowers and Chew wanted to model collaborative leadership so that students could learn from their example.

At first, students and colleagues were unsure which partner to talk to about a given issue, but after seeing how the dean partners worked together and after they explained that they would work together on everything, the expectations soon changed. Where once students and colleagues would ask to see just one of the partners, later they would ask to reschedule if for some reason one of the partners could not be there.

Although making decisions might take more time with two leaders than with one leader, the decision that comes about after debate and discussion is more likely to be the right decision, Chew says.

Four Tips for Implementing Shared Leadership

  • Build on an existing relationship. A partnership of this nature works best if both partners know each other and have collaborated in the past. Both McInnis-Bowers and Chew said that their partnership would not have been possible had they not team taught together before becoming dean partners. In addition to helping each learn about how the other works, their success in team teaching demonstrated to the administration that they worked well together.
  • Clearly define the nature of the partnership, goals, and end date. The model of shared leadership that McInnis-Bowers and Chew had is one in which each partner was involved in all aspects of the job. They recommend this model for colleges facing major changes, not for routine “administrative paper pushing.” They recommend setting specific goals and a definite end date, because it’s difficult to maintain the energy for change for an indefinite amount of time.
  • Commit to the partnership. McInnis-Bowers and Chew recommend an equal partnership—the same roles, time requirements, and compensation. They also agreed to serve together and to not continue serving if one partner wanted to step down.
  • Communicate the model to others. It’s important to let others know the nature of the partnership. In addition to telling them directly, an excellent way to communicate this is through the way partners arrange their workspace and conduct meetings. From the beginning of their partnership, McInnis-Bowers and Chew conducted all meetings together. They shared the same office, telephone, and business card. It was not long before people came to expect to work with them together rather than individually.

Excerpted from Dean Partnership: An Innovative Approach to Leadership, Academic Leader, May 2007.