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 leadership—deans,
provosts, and chancellors—and 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
role—who help their schools make sense
of, and respond to, trends in the industry—will be highly valued dynamos.
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
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
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 staff—and, of course, the
finance department—to 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.
CHAMPIONS OF ALTERNATIVES
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 know that their deans encourage experimentation.
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.
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.
IMPLEMENTERS OF INNOVATION
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.
THE MIDDLE MANAGER MINDSET
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@example.com.