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Mark Harrison's Survival Guide for Department Chairs

Disclaimer. These are some of the things I wish I had done, not the things I did.

  • Search out talent. Your first priority is to bring the best people in the world that you can to your department and try to hire them. If this takes up less than half your time, you may not be putting first things first. Your department is the people that you and your predecessors hired. The people that you hire will have a more lasting impact on your department than anything else you do.
  • Take responsibility for others' failures, not their successes. Some of those around you may lack confidence in their own leadership and administrative competence. Expecting to fail, they will give time to self-insurance and setting up reasons for failure. Confident that you will take responsibility if things go wrong, they will switch effort from insurance to their core tasks; their work will become more productive and more likely to succeed. This is one secret of building a team.
  • Appear to be in control at all times. Smile a lot, and remain calm no matter how extreme the circumstances. If you do this, people will believe that you are in charge, and they will behave accordingly. If you stop pretending, even for a moment, people will say that you are losing it. And you will have lost their confidence.
  • Respect process. Quick decisions are good, and process takes time. But process permits consultation, ownership, and legitimacy. If your department has clear processes, for example, for probation or promotion, uphold them. If your department lacks them, devise them, have them agreed, and be bound by them yourself.
  • Manage your manager. Sometimes, you will need to take a decision to the vice chancellor, president, or dean. Remember that these people are just as overworked as you are. If possible, never go to them without being able to state clearly what is the outcome that you prefer and why that outcome is best. Your bosses will not only give you what you want but will be grateful to you because you solved their problem before they knew it existed.
  • Maintain good relations with everyone. You never know when you will need an ally or someone to cover your back. Do not pick fights unnecessarily. If you find you have done so, apologise at once, then try to make amends.
  • Don't try to answer every email. Other things are more important. No one will remember that you were a great chair because you answered every email.
  • Don’t hide behind email. Walk down the corridor and knock on a door rather than send an email twenty metres. If you have a hard message to deliver, give it bluntly, face to face. Don't let email rush you or panic you. If an email gets under your skin, wait 24 hours; preferably, don't reply; if you must, reply in person. If you gave offence by email, apologise in person.
  • Tell the students what you are going to do, before you do it; then, do it. This is the first of two minimum requirements of civilised behaviour that you must enforce on your colleagues -- and maintain yourself -- at all costs.
  • The other is: Do not make the support staff cry. For that, no one is too important to be made to apologise. Remember that chairs come and go. Your support staff will still be running your department long after you are gone.
  • Spend as much as you can. A financial surplus never made a great department. However, financial losses can ruin a department, so you must have enough income to spend it.
  • Spend as much as you can on food. The larger your department, the more it needs to be fed. Food brings people together and keeps them cheerful. They will enjoy each other’s company, and rediscover what they share.
  • Give something back to the underprivileged. Occasionally, spend time with your family and former friends.
  • Finally, it is your department. Own it with pride.

Mark Harrison

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