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The Essential Academic Dean - Leadership When Meeting One on One

Tomorrow's Academy

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There is a tendency to treat one-on-one appointments as somehow less critical than the formal presentations we make before committees, boards, and similar groups. After all, individual meetings occur all the time-how much preparation do we require to talk to someone? The fact of the matter is, however, that some of your most important-and anxiety-producing-meetings will take place in one-on-one conversations. Without others present, people tend to say things they would never admit in a public setting. They also feel free to bring up matters that they would be reluctant to broach before groups of people. For this reason, dismissing a one-on-one appointment as a mere conversation is rarely a good idea.


The posting below gives some suggestions on how a dean should prepare for one on one meetings with other individuals. It is from Chapter 36, Leadership When Meeting One on One, in the book, The Essential Academic Dean: A Practical Guide to College Leadership, by Jeffrey L. Buller. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint. Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2007 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 .

Rick Reis

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Leadership When Meeting One on One


Some of a dean's most challenging meetings are appointments with individuals. One-on-one meetings might include regular appointments with supervisors; unexpected encounters with a faculty member or student who comes in to lodge a complaint; formal meetings with a parent who wishes to talk to the dean about a serious issue; interviews with a candidate who is being considered for a position; tense sessions with an employee who is being reprimanded or dismissed; and a wide variety of other such meetings. Most one-on-one conversations are relatively routine, a part of a normal day's work. Nevertheless, some of them are extremely stressful, emotion filled, or simply uncomfortable. In certain instances the other person in these meetings may be angry, and the dean may feel threatened by his or her hostility. At other times emotions may be vented more easily because the two of you are alone; the other person may not hold back tears or frustration. In light of all these variations, what is the best way to prepare for and conduct one-on-one appointments? Moreover, how can you demonstrate leadership in such situations, focusing on the issues that are most important to you and your college as you address the other person's concern? Is it even possible to demonstrate leadership in the presence of only one other person?

The answer to the last question, at least, is easy. Yes, it is possible to demonstrate leadership when meeting one on one. The following guidelines will help you do so.

Whenever possible, plan as carefully for one-on-one meetings as you do for formal presentations before large groups.

There is a tendency to treat one-on-one appointments as somehow less critical than the formal presentations we make before committees, boards, and similar groups. After all, individual meetings occur all the time-how much preparation do we require to talk to someone? The fact of the matter is, however, that some of your most important-and anxiety-producing-meetings will take place in one-on-one conversations. Without others present, people tend to say things they would never admit in a public setting. They also feel free to bring up matters that they would be reluctant to broach before groups of people. For this reason, dismissing a one-on-one appointment as a mere conversation is rarely a good idea. At best, you may miss an opportunity to discuss ideas that could truly advance your college. At worst, you may be unprepared for a situation that could become disastrous or at least unpleasant because you didn't take the time to do your homework.

It is probably a bad idea to walk into any meeting unaware of the topic of discussion. Issues that reach the dean's level tend to be so important and varied that you'll want some time to refocus from the last topic of concern to the issue at hand. Even more critical, there may be documents or types of information that could clarify matters quickly if you have them with you. Always ask your staff to request a meeting's purpose when scheduling. Even a brief notation such as "10:00 a.m.: Prof. Smith (re: salary concerns)" can help you prepare for the conversation and make the meeting time more productive.

Whenever possible, consider in advance what your basic message will be in the one-on-one meeting. Reflecting on your central theme in advance doesn't mean that you are going to be inflexible, ignoring any valid points and observations your interlocutor might raise. It is merely a way of reinforcing your initial starting point so that the other person's passion or rhetoric doesn't catch you off guard. If we fail to reflect on our central idea, we often fail to have any idea at all, and we end up allowing others to set the agenda. A conversation is, of course, always a matter of give and take, and some well-considered reflection on the thoughts you will contribute can make the entire conversation more productive.

When blindsided in a one-on-one meeting, listen carefully, offer little reaction, and then reflect on what has occurred.

Not every conversation, of course, allows you time for preparation. Some conversations occur on the spur of the moment. Others surprise you because their focus is not what you anticipated. For instance, your calendar reads "10:00 a.m.: Prof. Smith (re: salary concerns)" but the concerns that are raised are not about Professor Smith's own salary; rather, Professor Smith feels that clerical salaries have been rising too rapidly. At times, too, someone will make an appointment to discuss one issue only to raise a second, and far more important, issue later in the meeting. Every dean is familiar with the phrase, "While I've got you here, I also wanted to ask you aboutŠ" In situations like these, unless you are already well prepared to discuss the new issue, your best approach is probably to listen to the ideas being presented, ask questions to make sure you understand them, and respond that you'll get back to the person very soon. As you have probably already discovered, nearly every situation has more than one side to it, and because you were unaware that this particular topic would come up, you had no opportunity to explore those other perspectives. Before making a final commitment, you'll want to gather some facts, think through the matter carefully, and examine the issue from a broader perspective.

When pressed for an immediate reaction in these situations, it is best to respond in a general, philosophical, or procedural manner. You can say something like, "I haven't looked into your specific salary situation relative to other assistant professors in our college. But let me explain what approach I take when I consider matters of salary inequityŠ" Then take down the particulars of the individual's situation, examine the larger picture, develop a clear plan of action, and get back to him or her. Although being caught off guard in a conversation can be extremely stressful, you can still exert leadership if you remember the following essential principle:

You may find that the other person in a conversation has already set the agenda. Nevertheless, if you operate on your principles and core beliefs as an administrator, you can still set the direction for that agenda.

In other words, don't be forced against your will into making a commitment to any particular course of action without considering the larger picture. By focusing on how you will make a decision in all such cases, you both refine your basic principles and make it clear that, although you consider suggestions or requests when they are made, you do not make private deals.

Remember that demonstrating concern is not the same as committing to a particular course of action.

Frequently, when you are caught off guard in a one-on-one meeting, you and your interlocutor will want entirely different outcomes. The other person will want you to commit to solving a problem or granting a favor. You will want to avoid making any commitment until you learn more about the issue, exploring all the options and carefully considering the implications of each. Yielding to one request for a salary adjustment, for instance, may create an even greater problem of inequity than the other person realizes. Moreover, there may be policy restrictions that prevent you from solving the other person's problem in the manner that he or she wishes. In other words, there may be several very compelling reasons why you do not want to make an immediate commitment. Nevertheless, your promises to "look into it" or to "see what we can do" will frequently come across as cold and indifferent. The person raising the issue may feel that you're simply stalling when all you really want to do is gather information and reflect on the decision's broader implications.

The appropriate middle ground in a situation like this is to demonstrate your full concern for the person who is raising the issue while explaining why you are unable to make a commitment now. You will quickly lose credibility if you adopt this approach as a stalling technique. Be sincere about your desire to get back to the person. Make a note on your calendar, reminding yourself to do so in the next day or two. Gather the information that you need, but understand that the other person is waiting for your reply. What may seem like only a few days to you will be seen as several whole days without any answer to the other person. You will begin developing a reputation as a dean who doesn't get back to people and who pretends to be concerned about people's issues unless you follow through quickly after the initial conversation.

When making a decision or commitment, always do so within the context of your core beliefs as an administrator.

Next to failing to get back to someone after promising to do so, nothing damages an administrator's credibility more than appearing to cut private deals with a small group of favorites. Indeed, one of the most essential reasons for not making an immediate decision when blindsided is to avoid creating greater inequity by granting a request without understanding the larger context. For this reason, you should be very clear that any decision you make as the result of an individual request both adheres to your overall policies and values and is understood as adhering to those policies and values. Be sure to explain your decision-whether positive or negative-in light of your core principles. Don't assume that the other person will automatically make this connection. You may need to explicitly explain how the current situation relates to your overall administrative philosophy. Some examples include:

* Equity: "As you know, I try to treat all my department chairs as fairly as possible, understanding that each of their situations is quite different. So, after carefully examining their salaries, their years of experience, the number of people they supervise, how they contribute to the college and the larger institutional mission, and the number of students they serve, I've decided toŠ"

* Collegiality: "I've never believed that members of a college all have to agree with one another or even have to like one another in the same way that we like our personal friends. But I do believe that we have to work together efficiently and productively, meeting each other's professional needs to the best of our abilities. That's why, in the interests of collegiality, I've decided toŠ"

* Professionalism: "In my administrative career, I've come to place a priority on true academic professionalism, by which I mean respecting the importance of confidential information, getting training to keep current in our jobs and to perform our functions effectively, and not letting our personal differences get in the way of doing what needs to be done to achieve our core mission. So, when I considered this matter in that light, I realized that what I needed to isŠ"

When the other person does not accept your decision, make it clear that the decision is final.

At times, when you follow up with an individual and render your decision, the person will not accept the result as final and will want to keep arguing a point or reviewing matters that you have already considered. This problem is particularly acute at small institutions where the dean is the sole academic officer and the avenues of appeal beyond him or her are limited (see Chapter 54, "The Dean as Chief Academic Officer"). Even in other academic environments, however, a person may be unwilling to accept a negative decision because there are no others present who can reiterate and amplify your arguments, demonstrate to the individual that he or she does not have universal support on the matter in question, or clarify that it is not simply you who is unwilling to grant this request. In private conversations people sometimes feel that, if they keep arguing long enough and passionately enough, you will eventually give in-if only to get such an unrelenting person out of your office. When faced with obstinate interlocutors, resort to the following strategy:

* Make it clear that your decision is final if your mind is indeed made up. Say something like, "I'm sorry, but as I've told you, that's my final decision, and I won't reconsider the matter."

* Adopt the "stuck record" strategy. You may need to repeat yourself over and over until the other person finally understands that the discussion is at an end. "I understand your arguments, "you might say, "but as I've said beforeŠ"

* If no other approach is effective, bring the conversation to a close and mention any recourse that the individual may have. You really do not want to give the impression that you are throwing someone out of your office, but in the most extreme situations, you may need to end the conversation when it is clearly no longer productive. You can do so in a polite and effective manner by saying something like, "I'm sorry, but I can see that my reasons don't satisfy you, even though I've tried to explain them as clearly as I can. I think it's best, therefore, that we simply conclude this meeting. If you feel that you must pursue this matter further, your next step would be toŠ"

We sometimes imagine leadership as taking place only in crises or when we are debating major issues before large groups of people. It is possible, however, to demonstrate leadership in the individual conversations that deans have with constituencies every day. Basing each decision on a compelling set of core principles, and making it clear that our decisions are always firmly grounded in those principles, is one of the most important aspects of decanal leadership.