Creating Thankfulness in a Sometimes Thankless World:  Help for Business School Deans and Associate Deans

Creating Thankfulness in a Sometimes Thankless World: Help for Business School Deans and Associate Deans

Being an associate dean or dean can be a highly rewarding and positive experience, but it can also be frustrating if priorities and expectations are not aligned among supporting colleagues.

During AACSB’s 2018 International Conference and Meeting (ICAM) in Honolulu, I was privileged to address the Associate Deans Affinity Group on the topic of “creating thankfulness in a sometimes thankless world.” I found the topic to be an interesting assignment, and I thought deeply about it, particularly since I myself have held a number of middle-management positions, including associate dean for a short time and then dean, and occasionally those felt like “thankless” positions.

An associate dean or dean can be a highly rewarding position with the opportunity to effect positive change and provide exciting vision for the business school. On many days while serving in these positions I felt gratitude for the opportunities I had to be a positive influence. But there were also days of great frustration. Some frustration came from a failure on my part to establish clarity of priorities within my own circle of influence. This frustration can lead to a feeling of being unappreciated and sometimes overwhelmed. It’s hard to be thankful when you are experiencing those negative feelings.

Much of the success of the associate dean or dean lies in the ability to ensure that priorities are aligned both upward and downward; that is—with those to whom you support directly and those who support you directly. Nothing is worse as a dean than finding out post hoc that your priorities were misaligned with the provost’s priorities, and consequently your time was not well spent. Likewise, the same is true for an associate dean, who finds he or she misread the dean’s priorities, and thus wasted valuable time or effort. Ensuring that expectations are crystal clear requires a commitment to communicate with clarity, and to follow up with a written document agreed to by both parties. Writing out the mutual expectations for both parties to then sign creates a powerful bond of understanding and agreement.

A variety of tools can be used to document mutual agreement on priorities and expectations. A tool that I have found particularly helpful is called the “mutual expectations” matrix. This tool, created by Gary Cook and outlined in his book Consilience Leadership, is a two-by-two matrix that provides four steps to establishing clarity around what each party expects of the other as well as what the reciprocal party needs to help the other be successful.

To illustrate, let’s use the example of an associate dean, John, reporting to the dean, Susan. The four steps for this context are shown below. These steps are completed one at a time, with the top-level person (here, the dean) going first.

Mutual expectations matrix, concept created by Gary Cook

The key to this process is specificity in each of the four steps. Vague or overly broad statements on either part do not contribute to the overall goal of complete clarity. For example, let’s say Susan writes that she expects clear communication from John. At first glance, this goal may sound laudable, but it says nothing about how frequent the communication should be, in what form Susan prefers communication, and on what issues she expects John to communicate. A clearer goal would be, “I expect you to meet with me weekly to update me on important events happening in your college. Please provide a written agenda of topics to be discussed at least one day ahead of the meeting.”

It may take more than one iteration to align expectations, but the goal is to continue to iterate until Susan and John are completely clear on what each expects of the other, and, what each needs to provide in order for the other to be successful. Each party can then work toward their goals feeling valued and capable of having a meaningful influence. And while this example is situated in the context of an associate dean and dean, the tool is equally effective for use between a dean and provost, or provost and president.

Whatever your position happens to be at the moment, you have the ability to cultivate an attitude of thankfulness for the opportunities you have to effect positive change. Ensuring that your expectations are aligned both with individuals you directly support and those who support you can be a powerful tool to eliminating frustration from misaligned expectations. I encourage you to experiment with this tool. Used properly, it can be transformational in your confidence and can help you more richly experience a thankful attitude.

Stephanie BryantFollow Stephanie Bryant on Twitter @StephMBryant.