So You Want to Be a Dean? Ask Yourself These 5 Questions
Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It’s about impact, influence, and inspiration.
—Robin S. Sharma
Let’s face it—being a business school dean is highly demanding work. Between the two of us, we have had the privilege of leading business schools of all types for over 25 years, from public to private, large to small, very high research-oriented to primarily teaching-oriented schools. In a recent conversation, the topic came up of whether we would do it all over again if we had the perspective and hindsight we now have. After all, as professors we had much more autonomy over our lives and schedules and could focus more on our own career success. As deans, our jobs changed dramatically, and the control over our schedules we had once enjoyed became almost non-existent.
The job of a dean is to lead the business school—its strategy, vision, and financial steering depends on you. Your career is no longer your focus. Instead, ensuring that your students, faculty, and staff are all successful in their endeavors becomes your focus. Having said that, the answer from both of us is an unequivocal yes, we would do it all over again. Why? The answer lies in the quote at the start of this piece. As dean, you are in the rare and privileged position of being able to make real impact, influence the ecosystem of higher education, and inspire others to reach their potential. There is no greater privilege than helping others succeed.
The problem is, being a professor—even a great professor—doesn’t mean you will be a great dean. The skills needed for each of those roles are very different, and while being a professor can certainly teach you about the environment of a business school, other factors are important to consider if you are thinking about pursuing a dean’s job in the future. Here are five questions you should ask yourself as you explore opportunities in the dean’s world.
Are you open to accepting an active role in fundraising for the school? Depending on the individual school, a business school dean often spends a significant amount of time on relationship building within the business community and, relatedly, raising funds for the school. You don’t necessarily need to have this experience as you apply for your first dean’s job, but if the job requires it, you must be willing to work with your university’s resources to develop the necessary skills.
Are you adaptable to the administrative structure of the school? Every school will be different. As you explore dean positions, ask questions about how much responsibility you have and how much authority will you have to execute. If everything is really decided by the provost and you are just a conduit, is this the job you want? On the other hand, do you want total authority and responsibility, as in responsibility-based budgeting systems? Along these same lines, how easy is it to move and change staff? It’s critical that you have the ability to create a support staff that sets you and your team up for success. All of these questions help you determine whether a particular job is right for you.
Are you willing to put in regular night and weekend work? The dean often has duties that require regular evening and weekend work, whether it’s attending university events where you represent the business school, community events where you have a leadership role, fundraising activities, student and athletic events, or a host of other affairs where you represent the university and business school.
Are you willing to work toward meeting enrollment goals? Many schools, and private schools in particular, are under great pressure to meet enrollment goals as budgets shrink. If you are expected to meet enrollment goals, you will want to ask prospective schools what support you will have in marketing and how much autonomy you have in setting enrollment goals. What do you need to be successful in the job, and does the school offer that support?
Are you willing to make difficult decisions and live with a certain amount of discord? As dean your job is to make decisions that are in the best interest of the university and the college. There will be hard decisions on promotion and tenure, allocation of scarce resources, and academic programs. Your decisions may be unpopular with faculty, but still the right thing to do. This can be one of the hardest adjustments in moving from a faculty position to an administrative role.
There’s much to think about as you decide whether to pursue this path. One of the best pieces of advice we can give to those who are considering making this leap is to talk with as many deans as you can. Ask them about their journeys, what mistakes they have made, what questions they wish they had asked, and what they wish they had known. We have provided a starting point, but since everyone’s journey is different, it’s critical to seek multiple perspectives.
In the end, the rewards of building programs that help students truly succeed, inspiring both students and faculty, establishing relationships with the external community that help you build the profile of your school, and engaging in ways that create positive societal impact are why we do it. If your answers to the above questions are yes, consider exploring this path for your future. We need great deans.
Caryn Beck-Dudley is the former dean of the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. Stephanie Bryant is the former dean of the College of Business at Missouri State University.