Dean Lessons for the First Year: Listen to Learn

Dean Lessons for the First Year: Listen to Learn

In my first year as dean, I learned many important lessons, chief among them to listen. Here's what you should listen for in your first year.

When I was selected as dean at Old Dominion’s Strome College of Business, I immediately reached out to friends who have been deans, some at multiple schools, for advice. The most consistent advice was to listen.

But that was it. That’s all they said. “Listen.” I was too naïve to ask, Listen to what, exactly, and why? Was I not to act? That goes against my nature!

I must have done alright at it for, not long into my tenure, someone complimented me, saying, “People here are glad that you are willing to listen.” So in an effort to impart more explicit advice than what I received, here are some of the things you’ll need to listen to in the first year—and how you can act, in turn.

  • Grievances. When a new dean trots in, the old problems and slights are brought to the fore because, finally, someone may do something about them. Here’s the thing: many of the issues may really be legitimate. The previous dean may not have had the social capital, will, or objectivity to get things righted. But promise nothing other than to investigate. Then follow through. I couldn’t fix everything or appease everyone who had been wronged, but I did fix what I could and mollified many, and I think I gained the respect and support of those I couldn’t because I listened and tried.
  • Introductions. Everyone and everybody with anything tangentially related to business will want to share their program with you. Designate someone to help you ferret through what and who you really need to know. And when in doubt, meet with them.
  • History. Any time I wanted to know what the options were for a problem or opportunity our school was facing, I’d get a long history lesson. And to tell the truth, there were times when I just wanted to say, “I don’t care what happened a decade ago—what are the options NOW?” In fact, I may have actually said something like that (nicer, I hope), once or twice. But history is the context in which your college is operating, and you have to endure the history lesson to appreciate the current environment. While the meeting can seem to drag on as a result, listen for themes. What problems seem to recur? And who was involved?
  • Gossip. OK, it sounds like history. OK, it is history. And maybe it’s not accurate, but then again, no history lesson you get is ever entirely accurate. Listen, but verify everything you can. Never forget that there are always at least two sides to every story, and you need to get both.
  • Laughter. Everyone is your friend at the beginning, and they all laugh harder than is necessary at anything you say remotely resembling a joke. Don’t be cynical about it; just remember that everyone is as nervous about establishing a good rapport with you as you are with them. At the same time, you do need to know whom you can trust and whom you should not. Remember, too, that faculty and staff may be apprehensive around a dean (you) because of unpleasant or unproductive experiences with earlier deans, and that may vary greatly by individual. If someone says something odd or comes across overly strong, find out why; you may be back in that history lesson again, but the discovery will be worth it.

Proceed With Caution

While it’s important to keep your ears open to all of this buzz, be careful not to overvalue what you do hear. I was given some very bad intel from someone high up in administration, causing me some heartburn. But to be fair, that person was too far away from the scene to really know the particulars. As a result, I suspected the wrong person of behaving poorly. The good news is that I navigated the situation well enough, but my point here is that you should not put too much stock into what central administrators (and anyone else, for that matter) tell you about people in your college without getting confirmation from others. Trust and verify.

Initiate Meetings

Seek out opportunities to listen. I met individually with all of my junior faculty and my most senior faculty in the first semester. I’ve not met with all of the faculty, but it’s not because I haven’t tried. And don’t forget the staff—meet with them, too.

In my case, being able to start June 1 gave me 60 days to meet a lot of people other than faculty. That helped a lot. That extra time meant I got to meet a lot of members from the business community as well as the university community so that, when the fall started, I was able to focus my attention on faculty and students.

Don’t Forget Student Voices

The only unique advice I received when starting my new role was from a long-time friend and former dean who said, “Stay close to your students.” With so many demands on our time, it is easy to lose sight of our students. My students at Old Dominion are so different from those I taught at Baylor. I’m teaching a senior marketing class right now, one I love to teach that doesn’t take a lot of prep. Still, it isn’t easy time-wise. Next time I teach, I’ll teach a one-hour course at the MBA level. One of my dean friends would do a study abroad every summer to engage with a particular cohort. Find a way to know students.

Keep a Balanced Perspective

In my first six months (or maybe longer), there were times when I swung on a pendulum from “Wow, this is the best place ever” to “Why did I ever come here?”—and back again. I suspect most deans won’t admit this because they don’t want to put their school in any negative light, but I also suspect it’s normal for the majority. The problems you inherited didn’t occur overnight and subsequently you won’t fix many of them overnight; the institution had good reasons for bringing you there in the first place, but being Super Dean to save the day isn’t likely to be one of them.

Candidly, though, I am having a blast. This job is proving to be everything I hoped for; we’re having fun making a difference with our students and our community. And I’m still learning how to listen.

Jeff Tanner, Dean, Strome College of Business, Old Dominion UniversityJeff Tanner is dean of the Strome College of Business at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.