things I have learned as a manager

For the past 2 years and a bit, I have been in a position of university middle management. My role, as Associate Dean (Education and Student Experience), runs the gamut from the low level operational to the high level strategic.  The breadth of that gamut, I have to say, is one of the reasons I love my role.  The variety of it appeals to me.

But I’ve never received any formal training for my role.  That is not uncommon for such roles in academia, and indeed isn’t uncommon for any of the roles we take on in academia.  I have learned things through my own experience, talking to colleagues, observing and reflecting on my conduct and theirs, my decisions and theirs, my mistakes and theirs.  There is a never stated expectation, not entirely unreasonable, that we academics are reasonably smart people and we can pick things up as we go along.  And we do.

I like to believe that I’m good at what I do.  And when new members of academic staff or postgraduate students ask me, as they sometimes do, how I learned to operate in the ways I operate, whether it’s as a teacher (relatively common), a researcher (much more rare) or as a manager and administrator (again, relatively common), I always start with the same first piece of advice.

Take every opportunity to watch people.  Watch the people you believe are effective, and emulate the things they do well.  But also watch the people you believe are less effective, and actively work not to emulate the things they do that you believe are not effective.  I don’t think we spend enough time learning from things that don’t work.

There are some things I’ve learned to watch out for.  I am confident that nothing on the list below is new.  As noted above, one of the things that we tend to undertake as academics is the reinvention of wheels.  We do this by following the same path as underlies our research.  We start from what we feel are basic principles and we work logically from this starting point.  We do our literature reviews, to find out what is known about our topic of current interest, but we question, and we challenge, and we wonder, can I do better by working from basic principles.

Nonetheless, I’ll list a few of them here.  I would be interested to know what you, dear Reader, think of the items on this list and to suggest relevant additions.

THE LEFT HAND RIGHT HAND PROBLEM:  One issue that bedevils all large organizations is internal communication.  Universities are no exception.  A not-uncommon problem is that 2 (or more) parts of the organization are working to solve a problem, each without the other(s) knowing.  This is rarely deliberate, and often can arise from people being proactive and wanting to do better for the organization.

THE TOO MANY COOKS PROBLEM:  Being an communication issue, this one is related to the previous mentioned issue, and indeed sometimes follows from it.  When several groups are working to address an issue of interest, even when there is communication between them, it’s possible that confusion erupts because too many possible solutions are being proposed and discussed in too many different fora.  The path towards the solution to the issue of interest can become confused, with too many possible overlapping solutions.

THE MOMMY DADDY PROBLEM: Perhaps in the modern age, I should retitle this as the parent 1 parent 2 problem, but to my ear it doesn’t scan as nicely.  A child wants to do or wants to have something and goes to ask one parent, can I do this or can I have this.   The parent, being sensible, says no.

The child, unhappy with that answer and unwilling to accept it, then does what seems to them to be reasonable.  They go ask the other parent, without providing the full disclosure that they had already asked the first parent.

This is my least favorite problem on my list.  The first two are communication problems where the solution, the fix, is reasonably clear.  This one, though, this issue stems as much from attitude as from communication.

THE TAIL AND DOG PROBLEM:  The task before us here is to make sure that we understand what drives the actions we take, and how we remain sure that what is actually driving our actions is what we believe should be driving our actions.

Perspicaciousness is one of my favorite words.  And the only way around the tail and dog problem that I know is to keep the end goal in mind.  We can sometimes lose sight of the shining city on the hill when we are trudging through the slough of despond, but when the darkness falls, we need to search for the glow of the city.



~ by Jim Anderson on 7 May 2016.

2 Responses to “things I have learned as a manager”

  1. […] post follows on from things I have learned as a manager but I wanted to do something slightly different.  The list of problems one encounters has […]

  2. […] current role in the university. If you’re interested, some of these past posts can be found here and here, here and here, here and here, here and here. Another thing I’ve discussed along […]

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