Innovation from the Middle

As the middle managers of the business school, associate deans will become increasingly powerful catalysts for innovation--but only if they understand their roles and are given the right support.
Innovation from the Middle

ALTHOUGH ASSOCIATE DEANS might not view themselves in this way, they are the middle managers of business education. After all, they share the two main functions of middle managers. They work closely with senior leadershipdeans, provosts, and chancellorsand they use their knowledge of the organization, from operations to faculty development to student services, to advance its strategy. Like the middle managers in any business, associate deans alternate between managing day-to-day activities and keeping their institutions focused on long-term strategies. In short, the middle manager's traditional duties consist primarily of eliminating chaos within the organization and carrying out the strategies of top management.

Some researchers sympathize with middle managers, who they say are in a thankless position—caught in between superiors who want them to be more proactive and employees who view them as obstacles to progress. Without the right support, they can become the "frozen middle" in an organization, blocking necessary strategic change.

Since the 1950s, many observers have even predicted that technology will replace middle managers, who will become dinosaurs in the quick and volatile business world of today. But many others—myself included—believe that associate deans can become much-needed catalysts for innovation in our mature industry, which is being disrupted by new competitors and artificial intelligence technology. In fact, as new technological platforms take over middle managers' traditional coordinating duties, associate deans will have more time to help their organizations make sense of their markets and even formulate strategies of their own. In this way, associate deans will become more valuable to business schools than ever before.

One thing is clear: As their role transforms, associate deans who merely translate strategy into actionable objectives will add less value to their schools and become more frustrated in their positions. But those who expand their rolewho help their schools make sense of, and respond to, trends in the industrywill be highly valued dynamos.

To better understand the evolution of the associate dean's position, we can look at the framework created by management professors Steven Floyd of the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland and Bill Wooldridge of the University of Massachusetts, who co-authored the 1996 book The Strategic Middle Manager. Their framework outlines the four roles of the modern middle manager: synthesizer, facilitator, champion, and implementer. It also highlights how associate deans can bring the most value to their institutions, and how top management can facilitate their success.


To day's associate dean will be asked to move beyond carrying out his dean's strategy—instead, he must become the sense-maker of his institution. He will synthesize information from many sources as he talks to stakeholders, observes industry trends, and participates in competitions and professional organizations. Moreover, he will be expected to draw his own conclusions about where business education is heading and establish the direction his school needs to take.

His vision also should address any "elephants in the room," whether that means rethinking traditionally popular programs that no longer suit the mission or adopting disruptive, as-of-yet unfamiliar technologies. Next, the associate dean must play the role of"sense-giver," by sharing his vision with stakeholders and those who have more power than he does on the topic at hand.

Associate deans who help their schools make sense of trends will be highly valued dynamos.

Unfortunately, many associate deans are ill-suited to take on these new responsibilities, largely because they have what I consider "socialized minds." That is, they are team players who try to live up to the expectations and definitions of their environments, when they need to be what Harvard Business School professor Robert Kegan calls "self-authoring" individuals who follow their own internal compasses and make choices based on their personal values and beliefs. To succeed in the new climate for middle management, associate deans must embrace a self-authoring mindset, in which they take full ownership of their decisions.

Let's consider the hypothetical example of an associate dean of master's programs. After carefully analyzing information culled from professional workshops and the experiences of the school's competitors, students, and adjunct faculty, she concludes that her school should partner with a third-party vendor to increase its foreign student enrollment. In her view, this strategy would not only increase the business school's top-line growth, but also improve its position in the rankings.

There's just one problem: Before she became the associate dean, the school had a bad experience with a vendor. Consequently, her dean prefers to rely on in-house recruiters.

The dean is the more powerful stakeholder in this scenario. But does this mean that the associate dean should defer to the dean's preference, dismissing her conviction that using a vendor would be best? Not in today's competitive market—and not if her dean wants her to provide the most value to her school.

Instead, this associate dean should feel encouraged to give her honest feedback on existing strategy, without fear of being rebuked or disregarded. In return, her dean should communicate clearly about the success or failure of past strategies, while remaining open to necessary innovation. In the process, the associate dean will find her role more meaningful, and the business school will derive far more value from her work.


Once they've shared their visions, associate deans will need to formulate strategies to make those visions reality. That might mean pursuing radical experiments that lie outside the expectations of top management.

To achieve real innovation, they won't be able to go it alone. They'll need to assemble strong teams and provide those teams with the time, resources, and sense of psychological safety they need to feel comfortable taking risks. At the same time, associate deans will need to be good listeners, know how to keep egos in check (their own and those of others), and be task-proficient and respectful. Their role will be to create a climate of open communication in which they facilitate debates and encourage others to take initiatives. And when people around them have more knowledge than they do, they'll need to empower these colleagues to take the lead. The associate deans who embrace these skills will significantly expand their institutions' strategic repertoires.

Take the example of the associate dean mentioned above. Perhaps she decides to run a small pilot test with a vendor in a program that's struggling with international enrollments. She'll need persuasive skills to convince her recruitment staffand, of course, the finance departmentto give it a go.

She'll also need to know that her dean rewards self-discipline and autonomy, encourages experimentation, and provides her with the psychological safety to run small experiments and communicate fearlessly about their success or failure. Stated differently, she'll need to know that top management has created the context in which entrepreneurial activity can happen both in the middle and at the bottom of the institution.

Even if she is empowered to experiment, she also must be politically savvy, possessing an implicit understanding that her experiments align with priorities at the top. She must use her power to pursue promising innovations without going too far in overriding her supervisors' strategies. Otherwise, her relationship with her supervisor will become tense. Even worse, she could risk being viewed as subversive, undermining all that she has been trying to achieve.


If small-scale experiments are successful, associate deans must prepare themselves for their next task: to become champions who build persuasive business cases for alternative strategies. They must be able to persuade appropriate stakeholders to spend the time and resources to roll out experiments on a large scale.

Associate deans must show great emotional intelligence and foresight. They must already have cultivated reputations for showing good judgment and deliberation and be viewed as forward thinkers. If they have a history of reacting to every suggestion that comes their way, or if their proposals seem designed to build their own empires at the expense of others, it not only undermines their effectiveness, but also feeds into stereotypes about middle managers acting as an organization's permafrost layer.

Associate deans must know that their deans encourage experimentation.

So, once our associate dean's small-scale experiment has proven that a vendor can boost international enrollment, she must use her emotional intelligence to navigate institutional politics. She must be well-connected enough to know what each stakeholder has to win or lose if her pilot is formally adopted.

For her to have such insights, she'll need to have a seat at the table during the school's strategic planning sessions, where her dean should not just welcome her attendance, but expect it. In these meetings, she should feel free to react to new ideas and even referee the discussion as ideas are promoted. Without such access, her motivation to pursue and promote new ideas would be undermined.


Once associate deans receive the green light to roll out their strategies, they will have to set their changes in motion. This means making project plans and creating kickoff communications that outline why change is needed: What external factors are driving it? What is the evidence of the problem? Why is change needed now? What impact will it have on people?

If our associate dean has been a part of the school's strategic process, she already will have a sense of the incremental progress her experiment has achieved. That will make it easier for her to explain the problem and form a coherent narrative about how she has come to her solution. She also will help convey to the entire school community that this kind of everyday work and innovation is meaningful, valued, and rewarded.

After our associate dean sends out her initial communication, she will have to manage the inevitable resistance to change, helping skeptics make sense of the new approach and offering emotional support as needed. A key task of an associate dean is taking care of employees' emotional well-being, something top managers often cannot do because they are too far removed from most workers.

Even after she counters resistance within the institution, she still might have to devise systemic interventions to overcome additional hurdles. But once she successfully institutes such interventions, this step will close the cycle. If she has done everything right, she will be free to move forward with her chosen vendor and her idea will become part of the school's formal strategy.

As implementation is taking place, she will begin to gather new information about what is and is not going well. At this point, she'll repeat the cycle, synthesizing information, conducting experiments, and championing alternatives.


In an era when business schools face huge changes and disruption, it is important that deans reward and encourage the evolving work of their middle managers. For their schools to effectively navigate the complexity of 21st-century higher education, senior academic leaders must empower associate deans with the skills, access, and support required to do their complicated jobs well.

Only then will associate deans adopt the leadership mindsets necessary for them to become catalysts of innovation and renewal for their schools.

Jesse Segers is the rector of Sioo in Utrecht, the Netherlands, an independent interuniversity institute that teaches people and organizations how to be agile in change management and organizational processes. He also is a professor of leadership at Belgium's Antwerp Management School, where he formerly served as associate dean of education and as academic director of the Master Class Leadership for Middle Management.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].