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Women Deans on Leading Through COVID-19

Seven women deans discuss the lessons they learned while starting new positions during the pandemic.

Running a business school is one of the most complex jobs on campus. Business school deans must build external relationships, uphold internal relationships, and implement strategic plans. Starting out in this role is daunting for any leader. But what if you were the first female dean leading a business school—in the middle of a pandemic?

That was the topic under discussion at a recent meeting of Women In Business Education, a new global community championing gender balance and diversity at all levels of leadership in business schools. Comprising almost 100 senior women leaders, the group convenes deans from around the world every month to debate current issues impacting their work and their lives.

In late January, we brought together seven deans who began their positions during 2020, and we asked them to share what it was like starting new leadership roles during COVID-19. The business schools they lead include private and public universities, large and small schools, and institutions located across the U.S. and Europe. Two participants were first-time deans, while five had had previous experience as deans elsewhere. Six were the first female deans to lead their business schools.

Despite their differences, they shared many common experiences and faced many common challenges. Among other topics, they discussed building and empowering virtual teams, reshaping the new narrative of leadership, identifying key data analytics as early as possible, dealing with skeptical male colleagues, and maintaining a cool temperature when things get heated. New deans often encounter these same situations, but the pandemic added another layer of complexity—and urgency—to each one.

A New Set of Demands

The seven participants identified four specific ways that COVID-19 had magnified the demands of their new jobs:

The pandemic created new problems while amplifying others. Concerns about institutional sustainability and previous models of leadership existed prior to the pandemic, but deans said they felt these issues more keenly because of the crisis.

For instance, one dean noted that COVID has accelerated the “steep cliff and the drop-off” in the typical attrition rates of undergraduates. That’s because some incoming freshmen are taking gap years until life returns to normal; some are choosing in-state options so they don’t have to pay out-of-state tuition for virtual classes; and some are switching to universities that are still holding in-person classes.

Another dean described the situation she faced as she took up the dean’s role following the contentious departure of the previous leader. “We had a massive blow-up with our last dean in a very difficult situation who was asked to leave early,” she said. For her, the arrival of COVID-19 created a “double emergency moving into this role.”

New deans often were simultaneously trying to balance the budget while moving classes online. They had to ask faculty to do more while being unable to offer appropriate financial incentives.

The pandemic made it harder to connect with both internal teams and external stakeholders. All seven deans noted the difficulty of building relationships and trust with individuals, an issue that was greatly exacerbated if they had moved to new schools and had only met their colleagues online.

One dean said that she had had in-person meetings with fewer than 10 people—none of them faculty. She added that, when working exclusively across virtual channels, “It does take a much longer time to connect the dots.” Another said that she had been asked by the university leadership to make budget cuts, which required her not only to diagnose problems, but simultaneously to explain those problems to others. She said, “I have to gain a very comprehensive understanding of the system. At the same time, I also need to educate the faculty and staff that this current model is not sustainable.”

The pandemic required new deans to manage and mitigate the stress their faculty were experiencing. “It has been horribly difficult on our faculty,” one dean said. “We’ve been teaching … in shared gym spaces to keep the students far enough apart, and then [we] can’t hear each other. We’ve been playing with hybrid on the graduate side. We’ve been doing a lot of Zoom and online. And so, the methodology of teaching has been incredibly straining on the [limited] faculty that I do have.”

Faculty stress was compounded because new deans often were simultaneously trying to balance the budget while moving classes online. Participants frequently had to ask faculty to do more while being unable to offer the appropriate financial incentives. Said one, “I think even though people understand the negative impact of a pandemic, it’s still psychologically difficult to tell people to do a little more with less pay.”

The pandemic made it imperative that new deans act as positive, appreciative leaders. While all participants noted the importance of remaining upbeat, they acknowledged that keeping up organizational morale occasionally took a toll.

One observed that “prioritizing and time management in a COVID world is one of my biggest challenges.” Another said, “My leaders, my subordinates … need somebody who is buoyant and resilient and smiling.” Presenting such an appearance, she added, doesn’t mean that she is unaware of problems. “I deal with the issues.”

Another summed up the effort with one wry comment: “I am exhausted!”

A New Role

The participants also discussed how it felt to be female deans during a particularly turbulent time. They debated questions such as, “What makes a female dean different? What makes the role tough?”

Some participants noted that their senior male colleagues assumed female deans had been hired as part of the university’s effort to improve institutional diversity. This led to microaggressions from men who doubted the women had the credibility to be leaders. Such attitudes “add to the complexity of leading in crisis,” said one participant. Another pointed out that these attitudes can be demoralizing and even paralyzing—at the very time the new dean “is trying to move quickly to respond to a very fluid situation.”

Male colleagues assumed female deans had been hired to improve institutional diversity, which led to microaggressions from men who doubted the women had the credibility to be leaders.

Even so, these participants felt that women brought strong competencies to the job, based on their typical roles in society. They noted that women are champion multitaskers in their home lives, often serving as primary caregivers, relationship builders, explainers, listeners, and decision makers for their own families. These are the very traits that serve leaders well when they must manage an evolving situation, they said.

“I believe that during any sort of crisis where higher-than-usual levels of care are required, feminized leadership is valuable—whether exercised by women or men,” one dean concluded. “I would add in empathy, calmness, and firmness.”

A Framework for Leadership

As these seven deans discussed their new roles, one dominant theme emerged: They all have a heightened awareness of how they harness their leadership skills. They offered three pieces of advice for other new deans struggling to lead in the time of COVID.

Communicate deliberately—and emphasize the “why.” While effective communication is a necessary skill for all leaders, it’s even more important during a crisis, or whenever people must interact remotely. These deans recommended that leaders be uncustomarily deliberative about the quality and frequency of their communications with stakeholders.

“Helping to shift the focus as a leader from the past to the future is a function of a number of variables,” noted one participant. It’s critical to build trust, which takes time under the best of circumstances, and is even more difficult during a pandemic. “You’re not in the office. They’re not in your office. You are separated physically and metaphorically in a number of ways.” As a result, she said, the new dean must communicate clearly in order to “push forward while managing the demons of the past.”

A first-time dean who moved to a new institution emphasized that content and messaging are important. “Build the expectation that change is coming,” she advised. “I don’t ever give my teams a task without giving them the why. I bring consistency in how I am sharing and asking for things.”

Build a supportive team that can challenge you. This complex task is even more complicated when team members are working remotely. New deans don’t begin with foundations of trust, so it’s essential that they take the first steps by verbalizing their expectations and demonstrating their leadership styles. According to the panelists, it’s also essential to give teams permission to fail—even though that seems paradoxical during an emergency, when all hands must be effectively and efficiently on deck. Yet that’s when permission to fail is most important, so that teams aren’t afraid to seek out new solutions.

It’s critical to build trust, which takes time under the best of circumstances, and is even more difficult during a pandemic.

While the team must be strong, the dean must still be the leader. Said one participant, “I’m the thermostat. I set the temperature, I decide, and I’m going to be resilient. I’m going to be buoyant. I’m going to be positive. I’m going to be realistic.”

Give yourself space and time. New deans face the pressure of demonstrating action and achieving results. During the pandemic, the learning curve is steeper, communication takes longer, and momentum becomes harder to sustain.

Deans should allow themselves the time they need to address problems, said one participant. What is important, she said, is “being calm and giving yourself permission to not solve everything, not have the answers.”

While all new deans experience challenges, those who took the helm at new institutions during COVID-19 dealt with additional complexities. What they learned is that it takes resilience to lead organizations during times of uncertainty and upheaval—and that resilience will carry them through during more ordinary times as well.

Monica Adya Monica Adya is dean of the Rutgers University School of Business–Camden in New Jersey.

Nicola Kleyn Nicola Kleyn is dean of executive education at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in The Netherlands.

Lisa Leander Lisa Leander is founder and CEO of Women In Business Education (WIBE), headquartered outside of Washington, D.C. WIBE is a global movement that champions women in business academia by providing networking opportunities, elevating expertise visibility, and building a leadership pipeline.