IN TODAY’S HIGHLY dynamic educational environment, schools of business are in a continuous state of change. Students graduate, and new talent is admitted. New programs and courses are introduced, others become outdated relics. Academic leaders leave with legacies, while new ones take the helm with visions of disruption.
In fact, the only somewhat constant element for a school of business is its faculty. This phenomenon is even more visible when a tenure system is in place. On average, changes in faculty—whether due to hiring, denial of tenure, nonrenewal of contracts, retirement, voluntary mobility, or any other reason—are relatively limited compared to changes in other areas. With that stability, faculty become a business school’s main depository of technical and pedagogical know-how. They play a pivotal role in its operations and reputation—one that extends far beyond the classroom.
How well administrators retain, replenish, develop, and deploy this most valuable resource will determine whether their schools succeed or struggle. For deans to launch ambitious strategic plans or initiatives, they must have the engagement and buy-in of competent faculty. Otherwise, their initiatives will, at best, be short-lived after implementation; or, at worst, go no further than presentations applauded behind closed meeting room doors.
Faculty members typically divide their time between teaching, research, and service. Every school has different expectations for how faculty should perform these functions, but truly ambitious schools expect faculty to hit high targets of excellence. Academic leaders should constantly ask themselves: How do we define excellence? How do we determine faculty excellence? And how do we make sure our school has the best group of faculty for its goals and aspirations?
AACSB International accreditation standards call for business schools to be more mission-driven, paying particular attention to the three themes of engagement, innovation, and impact. I believe that this framework provides schools with a good context for assessing the performance of their faculty.
KNOW YOUR FACULTY
The performance of faculty is a function of two factors: technical skills/competencies and motivation/morale. It’s true that performance can be amplified or dampened by the leadership style of deans and department chairs, as well as the availability of resources. But if we hold these institutional factors constant, I argue that faculty themselves can be classified into four categories: Question Marks, Hidden Gems, Sparks, and Super Faculty:
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Question Marks. With limited skills and weak motivation, this group is the Achilles’ heel of any business school. If too many faculty fall into this group, a school will be largely unable to maintain quality programs or pursue an ambitious strategic plan. How do schools end up with these Question Marks? It’s usually the result of faulty recruitment processes or weak faculty evaluation mechanisms. To minimize the size of this group, a school’s leadership should adamantly strive to prevent faculty from falling into it in the first place. For this, they must create academic environments that are conducive to moving faculty into one of the other three groups.
Hidden Gems. This group is made up of faculty who are highly competent but lack motivation. In most cases, Hidden Gems were once Super Faculty. Unfortunately, their drive to sustain high engagement levels diminished over time, whether due to burnout, post-tenure fatigue, or the perception that their efforts as Super Faculty were not sufficiently appreciated. However, these professors need not be a partially wasted resource. Rather, they can serve as a strategic reserve of talent that a school’s leadership can deploy when circumstances dictate.
Sparks. These faculty are highly motivated, eager to prove themselves, and most likely to be team players. The main impediment to their achieving excellence is simply the lack of the appropriate skill sets. The upside of Sparks is that they are willing to learn and develop quickly if they are granted the opportunity and guidance. The downside is that if this group is neglected, their enthusiasm can transform into frustration and lack of interest. This neglect can quickly turn Sparks into the dreaded Question Marks.
LEADERS SHOULD EXERT EVERY EFFORT NOT ONLY TO PRESERVE THEIR SUPER FACULTY, BUT ALSO TO REPLENISH THEIR NUMBERS.
Super Faculty. These faculty are the “dream” group for any school. Super Faculty possess exceptional technical skills and are highly motivated to make a difference. They are passionate and meticulous when it comes to quality; most important, they will go the extra mile to deliver results. But while some Super Faculty have more stamina than others, sustaining such stellar performance can take its toll. Burnout is the main reason faculty move out of this category. Leaders should exert every effort not only to preserve their Super Faculty, but also to replenish their numbers through hiring and moving faculty from the other three groups.
How faculty are allocated among the four quadrants will differ among schools—and this allocation even will differ at the same school over time. But the leaders of any business school should devise strategies to reduce Question Marks, polish Hidden Gems, harness the power of Sparks, and maximize Super Faculty.
ENCOURAGE POSITIVE CHANGE
Constituents of any organization generally find change difficult. But that difficulty can be more pronounced in an academic environment, which often lacks the traditional chains of command or reporting structures found in businesses. To make changes in such a setting, b-school leaders must adopt smart strategies that cultivate a culture of collegial rapport and mutual respect. In this way, they are more likely to achieve faculty buy-in on new initiatives and increase the likelihood that those initiatives will succeed.
As the 2 x 2 grid above indicates, academic leaders should focus on strategies that move faculty up or over into more desirable categories. There are no one-size-fits-all approaches, but all leaders can employ any of the following seven strategic building blocks, which themselves fall into two categories: honing faculty skills and competencies and nourishing faculty motivation and morale.
Academic leaders can help faculty hone their skills and competencies in the following ways:
Constructive assessment. Assessing the skill sets of the faculty is crucial to reveal the makeup of the faculty, identify gaps, and set the tone for all actions to follow. At this stage, any feedback to faculty should be informative, not critical or evaluative, to encourage their acceptance of changes to come.
Amicable guidance. Once a school’s leaders identify potential areas for improvement, their next step is to set targets and devise a realistic, focused, time-based plan to achieve those targets. Faculty should be offered guidance on how they can help make the plan a success. Such guidance can include a mix of formal mentorship and informal conversations, depending on the personality and seniority of the faculty.
Diverse tools. To set any change in motion, faculty will require the right tools and resources, from in-house workshops to international programs to online courses. Another effective channel is faculty-to-faculty “shadowing,” in which junior faculty attend classes of a seasoned instructor as part of pedagogical training. Junior faculty are also a great source of fresh ideas and new approaches. This fusion of experience and novelty creates a positive setting of mutual learning. Finally, experiential training is an especially effective way to help faculty develop administrative skills, which will yield a steady supply of leaders and support succession within the school.
Responsible commitment. Regardless of what tools faculty need to succeed, a development plan can be implemented only if participants are convinced of its value. For this reason, leaders must clearly and continually demonstrate how the plan will benefit the faculty and the institution.
The second important step is to nourish faculty’s motivation and morale on a continuing basis. This requires schools to have several factors in place:
A collaborative and competitive environment. In any given business school, except for limited faculty leadership positions and internal funding opportunities, faculty typically do not have to compete against each other to achieve excellence. They all can have outstanding teaching or publish articles in top-ranked journals. But while they naturally will benchmark their performance against their peers, they also are likely to look for opportunities to collaborate on teaching, research, and schoolwide initiatives. By maintaining a culture that encourages such benchmarking and collaboration, school leaders can promote greater faculty engagement and ensure that faculty will not feel left out from their peer group.
THE MOST INSPIRATIONAL ACADEMIC LEADERS ARE THOSE WHO CAN EFFECTIVELY DESCRIBE HOW EACH FACULTY MEMBER’S WORK IS CRITICAL TO THE INSTITUTION.
A strong culture of purpose. Academic leaders are like coaches of a team sport. They must constantly remind their players of their respective roles and their importance to the collective success. The most inspirational academic leaders are those who can effectively describe, with evidence, how each individual faculty member’s work is critical to the advancement of the institution. For this, they can offer many forms of praise, from “The course you recently developed addresses a concern raised by an accreditor” to “Your publications are having a great impact on the school’s research numbers.”
Continuous and visible acknowledgment and recognition. Recognizing high-performing faculty has a dual effect on engagement. First, it assures them that their efforts are noticed and appreciated. Second, it encourages less active faculty to join in. To offer such recognition, school leaders can go further than offering praise in private or handing out monetary prizes. They can present faculty with certificates of recognition at major events, announce their achievements to the school community, share those achievements on social media, or cite faculty work during meetings and events.
At the American University in Cairo (AUC) School of Business in Egypt, we have adopted these seven strategies to attract, retain, and develop high-quality, active faculty. For instance, we provide faculty with “diverse tools” to help them embrace change via opportunities to attend school-funded learning opportunities, both locally and internationally. We invite facilitators from business schools, accrediting bodies, and other entities to run faculty development programs. We also provide faculty with access to universitywide pedagogical training, research funding, and leadership development opportunities.
Our business school and the larger university also “provide visible acknowledgement and recognition” via numerous awards, some with monetary value. The recipients of these awards are widely promoted through the various platforms.
For example, the AUC School of Business recently introduced the Stellar Teaching and Activities Recognition (STAR) awards. These annual awards recognize faculty who have aligned their activities with the school’s mission and whose work reflects AACSB’s themes of innovation, engagement, and impact. Three winners are selected, one each at platinum, gold, and silver levels. They receive monetary prizes of US$2,000, $1,000, and $500, respectively, and are recognized at a schoolwide event. Award recipients can spend their prize money on one or more faculty development activities.
The STAR award achieves multiple objectives. It provides a motivational drive for faculty to sustain their high performance. It encourages other faculty to follow suit. It promotes the mission and vision of the school. Finally, it supports the school’s accreditation reporting efforts because it allows us to gather data from the detailed information that faculty provide on their award application forms.
Developing excellent faculty is one of a business school’s biggest challenges. However, if done effectively, cultivating a vibrant community of faculty can help a school advance its mission exponentially. Deans, associate deans, department chairs, and program directors all can help make the most of their school’s Sparks and Hidden Gems, while converting more Question Marks and cultivating more Super Faculty. In doing so, school leaders will create a community of passionate, technically qualified, and highly motivated faculty who support the objectives of their respective units—and more important, help advance the mission of the whole school.
Ahmed Abdel-Meguid is an associate professor of accounting and the associate dean for undergraduate studies and administration at the American University in Cairo School of Business in Egypt.