Why Your New Department Chair Needs a Coach

Becoming a department chair does not always follow a smooth or particularly well-thought-out process. Most faculty, who have no academic leadership training, need real support to make this career transition a successful one.

Traditionally, new department heads and administrators were hired and then left to sink or swim. Drawn from the ranks of faculty, many new department chairs have virtually no training or resources to draw on in their new expanded role, and often feel isolated.

In addition, with the added demands placed on deans, associate deans, and other administrators, there’s very little room on their schedules for face-time with new department chairs, let alone the opportunity to provide any type of academic leadership training.

These institutional factors lead some to suggest that new chairs require intensive, one-on-one coaching from someone outside the university in order to survive and thrive. This kind of coaching, which goes beyond mentoring and doesn’t carry the baggage that mentoring can, should be part of the new chair and administrator “startup package.” Universities that have used these programs report high satisfaction, especially as a means of helping administrators work better to create a more equitable work environment.

Helping New Department Chairs Succeed
Academics have begun to use coaches to help new department chairs increase job performance, focus on personal goals, or achieve efficiency and job satisfaction. Most coaches specialize in nondirective discussions with clients. This means that clients lay out their goals and values early in the relationship and refer back to them throughout the process. Over time, coaches can zero in on patterns and themes in discussions and can point out when their clients are getting lost in a maze of their own thoughts.

Coaches do not give people answers but focus on getting clients to think through their options and ideas. Coaching focuses on getting clients to the next steps that can initiate action. Having several options in a situation can help academic leaders avoid feeling trapped and can keep department chairs from “bunkering” in their office, locking the door and avoiding faculty, staff, and students.

In too many places, academic administration has become miserable. Budget cuts, layoffs, morale problems, unhappy students, faculty tantrums—all take their toll over time. Many chairs and other administrators are simply looking to survive, not to thrive.

When new department chairs are not happy, their faculty, staff, and students are virtually guaranteed to suffer as a result. If chairs can confront the challenges they face with a sense of capability and can develop plans to tackle their obstacles, the job can move from overwhelming to simply challenging.

Coaching has been a promising strategy in helping new department chairs and administrators find their feet, get in the game, and try to make significant changes in their workplaces.

Excerpted from “Why New Department Chairs Need Coaching,” Russ Olwell, Academic Leader, June 2007.