When the provost or dean asks you to consider serving in an interim academic leadership role, it is hard to decline the flattering and important invitation. After all, you have been selected to take the reins of a meaningful and potentially influential job; likely, the invitation was presented in a very persuasive way, as well. There is no training manual for how to be an interim academic leader. There is no quick-flip book for how to lead, manage, and supervise the very faculty who may have appointed you as a first-time assistant professor or, better yet, the faculty you are still meeting upon your arrival just one year ago.
The 2019-2020 academic school year did not start out as we had planned. In January 2019, the College of Education (COE) leadership was at full strength. The COE dean’s office included a full-time dean, a full-time associate dean of undergraduate studies, and a half-time associate dean of graduate studies. We were clicking along. But, as we know, change is inevitable. By August 2019, there was a new interim dean, a new half-time associate dean, and no backfill to the full-time associate dean of undergraduate studies. Yikes!
We write from these roles; both of us have held leadership positions before. One as a former interim dean elsewhere and associate dean at our current institution; and the other, as an assistant department head. We have six, relatively new department heads with an average tenure of 2-3 years in the role. We have learned a lot in our short time in interim leadership roles together. We’ve relied on each other and scoured the literature for models, or empathy, for the work we do. However, while interim leadership appears to be common across different types of organizations and institutions, especially at the higher levels, there is a general lack of literature examining it (Browning & Boys, 2015). In our experience with interim academic leadership at an institution of higher education, we have found the title of “interim” is serious business and has started to define itself in three ways: a) keep the ship steady in operations; b) navigate a sharp learning curve in knowledge and skills; and c) remember the human element in decision making.
Interim Leaders: Keep the Ship Steady
We all know these sayings: Just keep the boat afloat. Don’t rock the boat. Keep the ship steady. Easy to do if we were naval captains, but in reality, interim academic leaders need to steer in a specific direction that provides a continuity of operations and communications. In Leadership: Theory and Practice, Northouse (2013) defines leadership in four components, one of which is: leadership is a process. As I (Colleen) assumed the interim dean position, I inherited people, calendars, celebrations, conflict, assumptions, and most of all, expectations. I was fortunate to have a smooth transition with my predecessor, who bequeathed me the big rocks to move and the nitty gritty details to attend to. There was a transition plan document that outlined “in progress” initiatives and what promises had or had not been made. This transition in itself was a process, a deliberate passing of the work baton. Another process that is still ongoing is meeting and engaging with the various constituency groups of a dean, including my immediate office and support team, my department heads and college level leadership, faculty, students, staff, advisors, directors of our six centers of excellence…and that’s just my college! And, let’s not forget peer deans and other colleagues in academic affairs, student affairs, advancement, marketing and communications, donors, alumni, emeritus faculty, P12 partners, job-alike peers at sister institutions. There were a lot of people! The process I undertook involved assuming a calendar that previously existed for regular one on one meetings for direct reports. Step number one: identify who reports to me! From there, I was able to get a handle not only on who did what, but also on the impact and influence each had in their respective roles. I needed to build trust with my immediate team, work through their assumptions of my expectations, and find a level of “business as usual,” in a very unusual situation. Most importantly, however, keeping the ship steady involves an intentional process of shifting from the operational to strategic and advancing daily work from the transactional to transformative. I’m not there yet, but I have a great appreciation for leadership as a process; this work takes time, depth of thought, and engagement with many people who really keep the boat afloat.
Interim Leaders: Navigate the Sharp Learning Curve
Although both of us brought leadership experience to our current interim roles, those previous experiences in our previous positions only scratched the surface of preparing us for the expectations and demands of our current roles. Due to the breadth of responsibilities and depth of understanding necessary to meet the demands of the COE dean’s office, we experienced a sharp (and quick) learning curve as far as critical knowledge and needed skills to successfully carry out our roles.
In the role of dean, background knowledge of college programs, departments, personnel, and leadership is a critical piece in not only successfully running the college, but also plays an important role in developing positive relationships with all stakeholders. Some literature has indicated that the transient nature of the interim role emphasizes the importance of developing relationships rather than relying on one’s rank or title (Browning & Boys, 2015). In developing those relationships, the steep learning involves getting a sense of context: what happened before me? How were you involved last time? What do you know that I need to know? There is a grace to asking these questions while garnering the information needed for the role. While the position of an interim leader may or may not be permanent and the interim may return to his or her previous role as faculty or in another administrative position, positive relationships assist with promoting collaboration across stakeholders when making decisions for the college.
When assuming the role of associate dean, I found myself needing to shift quickly from a departmental perspective as the assistant department head to a college-level perspective as the associate dean. For example, as I had attended to tasks and needs specific to my department, I was now being asked to consider college-wide needs, which were sometimes in conflict to my home department. This transition required me to take a step back and recognize that the needs of the collective whole are what is important for the success of our students and college. Further, to carry out tasks assigned to the associate dean, I needed to learn not only about all college programs and departments, but also about program, department, college, and university policies, processes, and procedures. The world looks a whole lot bigger when you view it from a lens outside of one department! While my knowledge and understanding of the college has continued to grow and deepen over the past nine months, there is always something happening that reminds me how much I have left to learn.
Interim Leaders: Don’t Forget the Human Element When Making Decisions
Remember this phrase: “As interim leaders, you don’t need to worry about making big decisions.” There is some truth to that; however, decisions need to be made every hour (maybe minute!) in our roles. Along the way, we have learned that the sharp learning curve also resulted in our making a few mistakes. As a consequence, another big learning is that interim leaders must be willing and able to ask for forgiveness. As we reflect on this, we recall a saying specific to clinical interviewing: “Interviewees usually are forgiving of interviewers’ mistakes, but not of interviewers’ lack of interest or lack of kindness” (Sattler, 2014, p. 170). The premise behind this quote is that it is critical to show interest in and kindness to others in order to develop positive relationships. We make mistakes, we might not read something thoroughly or remember a conversation from earlier that morning, but we do remember the person with whom we interact. As we make mistakes in our roles, our history of showing interest in and kindness to our stakeholders throughout completion of all tasks has made a difference in whether they are willing to forgive the mistakes we make along the way. As we continue to navigate the ship, we have tried to show our humanity in our respective roles. There are tough conversations to have, but in the end, we are colleagues aimed toward the same goal. We hope! While one of our tasks as academic interim leaders is to keep the ship steady, the provost’s charge for our work also includes multiple tasks that require us to keep moving the college forward.
We know we are in our positions for the next two years. What we don’t know is what our next career move may be, or what the path will look like after our work in “long-term” interim status. In the meantime, we both feel humbled to do the work of leading a college. We were met with an opportunity and we seized it in our own way. We have seen tremendous growth in ourselves in twelve short (sometimes very long) months; and, we have grown individually as well as together. Most importantly, we do not take lightly our title of “interim dean” and “interim associate dean.” We are proudly holding on to the reins and starting to write the beginnings of that quick flip-book we have been seeking, hoping to share our learnings with others who may find themselves in and navigating an interim academic leadership role.
Browning, B., & Boys, S. (2015). An organization on hold and interim leadership in demand: A case study of individual and organizational identity. Communication Studies, 66, 165-185.
Northouse, P.G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice. SAGE publications.
Sattler, J.M. (2014). Foundations of behavioral, social, and clinical assessment of children. San Diego, CA: Jerome M. Sattler, Publisher, Inc.