In 2016, my colleagues and I wrote an article about leading from the middle in which we argued that it was important to leverage the talent of midlevel leaders. Today, that need has only amplified. The complexity of demands for leading today’s colleges and universities now requires those in the middle to help put plans in place that advance the mission and strategic direction of their institution. What’s more, given the increasing turnover in top positions, trouble recruiting staff, lean organizational structures and competing demands for faculty engagement, developing and training midlevel leaders has become more crucial than ever.
The people in the middle are those who manage most of the implementation of strategic plans, oversee student programming and conduct the governance functions that keep colleges running smoothly. Yet midlevel leaders are often ignored or not empowered and have limited access to workshops and other training on leading. Expanding our notions of who can lead, and training them to do so, can open the door to a host of untapped talent in our colleges and universities.
Last year, our university moved from words of advice to action in thinking about how to develop midlevel leaders. Our provost sponsored an initiative at the College of William & Mary to offer professional development to faculty members interested in academic leadership roles. The impetus for the program was the desire to distribute decision-making and responsibility throughout various levels of our academic units—including faculty members, chairs, vice deans and deans.
The design of the program focused on increasing self-awareness among participating faculty members regarding their approach to conflict, communication and leadership preferences. As adult learners, faculty members need to connect what they are learning to their day-to-day practice. They need to use what they have been taught and reflect on what works and what needs further tweaking when they try something new.
Here are a few strategies we tested in our leadership series that resonated with the participants—and that we hope other people can use to create programs on their own campuses to develop midlevel leaders.
- Self-awareness. In general, faculty members are trained in depth in their disciplines, as are staff members in their functional areas. But few know the cutting-edge research on leadership theory or about organizational theories about how colleges work. Exposing midlevel leaders to time-tested self-assessments in communications, leadership and dealing with conflict helps increase their awareness of their strengths as well as their blind spots. This information is especially useful in learning the language of leadership and building effective teams. Our participants noted how understanding more about their own approaches to leadership helped them to know how to interact with others who relied on different ones.
- Leading with ideas. A cornerstone of the professional development series at William & Mary has been leading with ideas. Each of the participants has identified a project that they’ve been interested in launching—at the program, college or university level. They’ve developed a three-minute pitch to present to the provost’s executive leadership team, which requires them to communicate their ideas effectively and identify the resources needed to move the idea forward with action. This work has helped build the participants’ confidence in their own ability to lead, especially among midlevel leaders without formal titles. The feedback from the executive leaders on the campus also gives the participants an opportunity to improve their ideas and for those ideas to begin to gain traction on campus.
- Networked leadership. As at other higher education institutions, our faculty members have tended to focus on their disciplinary work, and staff members have concentrated on their functional units, often not meeting colleagues in other areas. Yet working with other people throughout the university is increasingly necessary to respond effectively to the challenges that higher education institutions face. The cohort model of the leadership training program at William & Mary helped build an aspiring leadership network on the campus. The series provided the participants an opportunity to build connections with faculty members from across the university and to lay the groundwork for future potential partnerships. Sharing information in breakout groups, during coffee breaks and in conversations about the topic of the day helped build and strengthen those relationships.
- Academic well-being. The stress of academic work is at a high point, with burnout on the rise and morale plummeting. One way to combat that is to align life values with work in ways that support work-life harmony—which looks different for everyone, depending on their gender, race and ethnicity, and career stage. Midlevel leaders must navigate their own well-being and recognize how people around them often look to them as role models. Ongoing self-reflection can help manage well-being. Faculty members can look beyond their disciplinary department to the larger institution to find examples and strategies to address localized challenges in their unit.
- Leadership narratives. Besides learning more effective ways to communicate with other people on the campus, to frame issues and to manage conflict, the series also taught participants how to craft of an individual leadership story. As they learned about the language of leadership, for example, they were able to understand better how others may interpret their ideas differently than intended. The focus on self-awareness gave the participants ways to describe their own leadership more expansively and helped them prepare their own leadership narrative and be able to convey it to others. For example, a faculty member with a direct style of communicating can learn to emphasize the strengths of this approach when asked to describe their leadership.
- Equity and inclusivity. A focus on equity and inclusion is required to advance the ideals of higher education so that colleges and universities move beyond providing access to diverse students to giving them a true sense of belonging. Midlevel leaders are vital to this work, as they help direct curriculum and programs, as well as interact with both students and upper-level administrators. As in the use of other assessment tools, faculty members in our program first learned the need to have self-awareness of their own implicit biases and how these biases can reinforce inequities. Using case studies, faculty members discover how their own identities and lived experiences influence how they see and understand issues on campus. Finally, participants find out about campus resources and policies supporting diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging on the campus.
When asked about what was valuable in the program, the faculty members have noted that they now have an expanded network of peers on the campus whom they can contact when issues arise, as well as a bigger tool kit to use in leading initiatives. They found a power in collaborating, with one team of faculty members who were making field-based trips more inclusive, another instituting a cross-campus mentoring program for student athletes who often miss out on opportunities for undergraduate research, and yet another working with alumni networks to promote career opportunities. Of note, two participants recently received a prestigious university award for faculty excellence, and another was recognized by the Explorers Club as one of “50 people changing the world the world needs to know about.”
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In short, investing in midlevel leaders is already reaping benefits at William & Mary. Building cohorts through professional development creates a cadre of peers that can support one another, pursue interdisciplinary partnerships and help implement vital change on the campus. We in higher education should invest in the development of the people in the middle, often the linchpins in changing their campuses for the better. Too much is at stake to ignore this group of key college and university leaders.