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Can you lead an academic department successfully?  

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Department heads are often thrown into their position with no formal leadership training, claim three CBS researchers. They have therefore compiled an anthology of tips, tricks and experiences from the field covering subjects including diversity, team spirit and general management to inspire current and future department heads to become successful leaders.

News |   22. Sep 2021

Anne Thora Lykkegaard


Adam Lindgreen is the Head of Department of Marketing at CBS, but when he first took up a similar position at the University of Cardiff’s Business School, he was thrown right in at the deep end with no previous training.

“I was sent on a course where two people talked about their own experiences. That was it. I couldn’t find a book to give me advice and inspiration on how to do this job. Now, I know a lot of other colleagues who have not had an introduction to the job and were just thrown right into it,” says Adam Lindgreen and continues:

“Therefore, how good would it be to have a book that draws on other colleagues’ experiences?”

Together with Professor Alan Irwin, Professor Emeritus Flemming Poulfelt, and Professor MSO Thyra Uth Thomsen, he has edited the anthology ‘How to lead academic departments successfully’, which is based on contributions from more than 30 researchers, heads of department, and former deans from various fields and universities.

“If you look for literature on leadership in a university setting, you’ll see that the range is very limited. And, I believe our anthology illustrates the distinctiveness and complexity of the leadership role,” says Flemming Poulfelt.

The anthology consists of seven parts that focus on various themes, such as the challenges of being an academic leader, inclusivity, conflict resolution, team spirit, career development, and personal leadership reflections. The authors have been asked to focus on a specific theme but else given free rein when it comes to how they wanted to write their pieces. Some of chapters in the anthology are very personal.

“I have been a head of department myself, and I think people do not reflect enough on the importance of that role. I would say that it’s possibly the most important role in a university setting. Others would say it’s the president or the deans – and their jobs are obviously very significant. But, a bad head of department can have a serious effect quite quickly,” says Alan Irwin and continues:

“It’s so important to have department heads who can perform successfully. If they do, their departments thrive. Otherwise, people will start looking elsewhere.”

A box of wisdom

The anthology is entitled ‘How to lead academic departments successfully’, which prompts the questions whether academic departments are harder to lead and whether department heads are failing in leading their departments?

“You can look at it this way. A university is a collection of individuals. The promotion system is based firmly on individual achievements, and an academic career is very often about making your own way. However, if you work in consulting, for example, you write a report, but it doesn’t have your name on it. It has the company’s name on it. That’s different,” says Adam Lindgreen.

The bottom line is that if department heads don’t succeed, they and, eventually, the university, have a problem

Flemming Poulfelt

Alan Irwin explains that when you have the responsibility for senior faculty and those starting PhDs, you must be able to inspire both parties.

“It’s not just people early in their careers who need inspiration. Everyone can need assistance. We all have bad days and weeks. That comes to everyone. Some people spend months working on a grant application that, in the end, is unsuccessful. Colleagues will react differently to the disappointment. And that can be challenging to deal with,” he says.

And then to the success part of things. Will department heads experience a successful department if they just read this anthology and act accordingly?

“Some readers might be provoked by the title and believe that this is a one-minute manager guide. It’s not. It’s a box of shared experiences and inspirations, and you can pick and make them fit into your own context,” says Flemming Poulfelt.

Alan Irwin adds:

“Adam will give them their money back if they don’t see immediate success.” He laughs before continuing:

“Jokes aside. This book is about wisdom. We have tried to collect experienced university leaders as authors and make them share their wisdom. How do different people deal with conflict? We each have our own approach, and in this anthology, you can look over the shoulders of people who have been there. We hope that colleagues will be wiser as a consequence.”

Adam Lindgreen sees two ways of measuring success: hard and soft measures.

“Is the department a nice place to work, and do people stay? Or are colleagues out of the door as soon as they see other possibilities? That’s a soft measure. Then you can also look at whether the department conducts quality research and teaching, and whether the department is successful in getting funding and in its outreach activities. Those are hard measures,” he says.

I would say that department head is possibly the most important role in a university setting

Alan Irwin

Alan Irwin explains that when taking over a department, you look for the weaknesses and strenghts. And those can be different from department to department.

“When you take over leadership of a department, you assess it. What are the strengths and weaknesses? Is getting research grants an issue, or are the teaching evaluations falling behind? You look at that and prioritize. You look at what success means in that given context,” he says.

The violinist and the orchestra

The job of department head has developed over time, explain the three researchers. Previously, it was more like a part-time job where you would have time to conduct research and keep your CV competitive. Now, the position is a full-time job that leaves little time for conducting research. And that can be a challenge for people who consider applying for department head positions.

“When becoming a department head, you have already invested so much time in getting where you are. As a department head, you simply don’t have the same amount of time for research, and we need to talk about how we can help department heads when they finish, so they don’t sacrifice their careers,” says Alan Irwin and continues:

“I think you can see it like this. You play the first violin in the orchestra, but then you are put in charge of the orchestra for a time. And then you go back to playing the first violin, but you have not played it for eight years, and everyone is looking at you and judging you harshly for not being as good as you once were. I’m quite happy that I’ve made the transition back to being a professor, but it took a lot of time and preparation.”

Fuel for discussions

Flemming Poulfelt hopes that the anthology will fuel discussions about department head and dean positions, and he hopes the anthology can help shed light on the need for leadership training for university people.

“The bottom line is that if department heads don’t succeed, they and, eventually, the university, have a problem,” he says.

The three researchers all agree that universities, including CBS, should offer some kind of formal training to people who are taking up a leadership position – especially department heads.

“If colleagues are not equipped in the best possible way, things can quickly snowball and have huge consequences. And why wouldn’t you want to take the training? Even just a one-week course would prepare you more for what you will face,” says Adam Lindgreen.


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