Aug. 4, 2019

By David Altounian, assistant dean of The Bill Munday School of Business

When I took on the role of interim dean in The Bill Munday School of Business at St. Edward’s University, I thought the experience would echo my time as a CEO and technology executive. But over the past year, I learned a number of things that were both similar and different from my previous experience in the business world.

As we enthusiastically welcome our new dean, Dr. Marianne Ward-Peradoza, I return to my previous position as associate dean with a newfound respect for the complexity and difficulty of the dean’s job, and armed with the lessons that I picked up from academic leadership and an amazing team. 

While these lessons may seem obvious to some, I can’t help but think of how these insights would have been helpful back in my CEO days.  

 There really is a difference between management-leadership and servant-leadership. When you are limited in the ability to promote, fire or directly impact someone’s daily work, you learn to lead by setting a vision, removing roadblocks and investing to support team members’ success. Putting effort into thinking about the various stakeholders and how best to serve them with the tools and resources available was powerful. There is a difference between giving guidance and support versus giving tactical direction.

• Build on what was built before — don’t destroy. Many times, new leaders, be it deans or managers, feel the need to make their mark or reset direction to establish their position. I didn’t do that. By reinforcing that the model, the initiatives and the timelines remained the same as before, it allowed the team to move forward with certainty, and the results reflected that.

• Focus on employee success. I’m a big fan of understanding the Theory of Constraints. Examining things that are impeding progress for the faculty and staff, and working hard to remove the impediments, produced positive results. I found that sometimes the challenges were greater than expected, but I also found that even the effort can earn goodwill and trust from faculty. Being focused on their success, one faculty member at a time, created a trust and bond between us that helped as we worked through the year.

• Amplify good news; minimize bad news. Celebrate publicly and loudly good news that arrives. Control the emotional reaction when bad news arrives. Deans, like all organization leaders, are amplifiers. An email of congratulations will go a lot of places, and so will a public chewing-out. The reaction will be very different, depending on which one is delivered.

• Be honest about challenges and concerns. A lot of intellectual horsepower exists in a business school and, likely, a lot of years of experience in different university settings. I had to have enough confidence in myself to expose my concerns and uncertainties, and our faculty never failed to come to my rescue with some solution or plan. This probably holds true in most businesses. The collective intellectual horsepower of an organization can be very powerful if tapped into.

• Be transparent. I found that people were more open to urgent requests with short deadlines the more that I shared the reasons for them. The more information that I provided about why a decision was taken, the easier the decision was to implement, regardless if it was a popular or unpopular decision. Many leaders think that it makes them look unsure or weak if they are transparent.  It doesn’t. It makes them look inclusive.

• Define what your vision of success is early on. Paint a picture for the organization of what a successful year will look and feel like. Set regular points when you communicate with key stakeholders, reinforcing messages and highlighting progress. This is a common thing in business, but you would be surprised how many managers don’t do this — and manage the tactics, not the outcomes.

• Over-communicate. You cannot communicate enough. We established a routine of a weekly ‘Things to Know’ email on Monday mornings, which highlighted all of the important items for faculty to be aware of — meetings, deadlines, events, etc. The habit of sending and receiving these every week dramatically reduced the number of missed meetings and deliverables. They still happened occasionally, but the excuses stopped.

• Rejoice in the accomplishments of the team — don’t misappropriate them for yourself. The job as a leader is to set the stage for the team to succeed. If you are getting the credit for doing the work, then who is actually leading? For me, this tied back to No. 4. I found tremendous joy in sharing the successes of individuals in the business school and in seeing them recognized for their successes. It means that you are doing No. 3 correctly.

• Realize that the job is part of the journey — it’s not the destination. Every day brings new challenges and opportunities. Your goal is to do your job, not keep your job. I was able to take on significant issues and challenges because I wasn’t worried about the ramifications on my position. Enjoy the journey, and take risks.

This article first appeared in the Austin Business Journal.