Monday, 3 August 2015

Off with my head

So, bloodied but still standing after three years as an academic head of department … what have I learned? Well, plenty about my colleagues’ many heroic virtues and a few jaw-dropping failings, but let’s not get into that. Some initial thoughts on what makes for success and / or survival as a head of department. I didn’t do all of these things, certainly not all the time, but to the extent that I didn’t, I should have done.

  1. Relationships. The whole thing is about getting to know the people you are working with, their strengths, their weaknesses, who is good at what, who needs protecting from themselves, who manifestly doesn’t. If you have a good set of working relationships with people who trust you, most other things will be OK.
  2. Relationships with junior academic colleagues, probationers, postdocs, and even senior staff who are new to the university or, even more so, to the UK. Give these people a lot of time and attention. I tried, but I often didn’t do enough. Especially if the wheels are not obviously coming off, and especially if they are the kind of colleagues who don’t want to make a fuss or assert their importance, they won’t necessarily thrust themselves onto your attention. Don’t let them slip too far down the priority list: to stop niggles and crises of confidence turning into real problems, to help them decide on priorities and directions, and – of course – to nurture the relationships on which, again, the whole thing depends.
  3. Relationships with your senior team. Most academics are, from the HoD’s point of view, problem-solvers or problem-creators. Actually, most of us are both, in different spheres or at different times. But if you can get people in the key management roles – the ones which require initiative and / or quick and creative responses to problems – who are solvers, then your life will be immeasurably easier. Not simply because, when a problem does blow up, such a person will come to you with the problem in one hand and a suggested solution in the other. But also because these are the kinds of people most likely to stop problems blowing up in the first place, and to be able to work well with you and the rest of the team when they do. (You know who you are: thank you.)
  4. Relationships with the whole academic staff. No-one likes long meetings, but sometimes you will need to allow a particularly contentious subject to have lengthy discussions. Your dual aims – which may be incompatible – are (a) to get the right result and (b) to keep the whole department together. If they are in tension, it may well be that you are wrong about what the right result it. If at all possible, avoid making important decisions by vote. A losing minority can become an aggrieved faction very quickly, and not many victories are worth that.
  5. Relationships with the administration. It is worth learning who in the support departments of the University is actually a helpful and constructive person who can answer questions and head off problems. Those are the people to talk to, and to stay on the good side of, regardless of formal job responsibilities.
  6. Relationships with students. You don’t get to see students very often any more, because you don’t teach much. But they will periodically come to you with problems and you can communicate with them, whether through mass mailings, through welcomes at induction or similar events, or through participation in open days. The substance of what you say in these settings does matter, but the mood and atmosphere matters more. You have the chance to help set the tone. And if you treat individual students who have problems patiently and well, word gets round. For the same reason, participating in the Staff-Student Committee is one of your most important regular fixtures.
  7. Relationships with departmental administrative staff. Perhaps the most important of all, and not simply because this is perhaps the single most vulnerable point of your entire structure. These people make your life liveable, and work phenomenally hard to do so. At least mine did. Do whatever you can to make them happy. In particular, defend them from other academic colleagues by any means necessary.
  8. Being mean to people. Just occasionally, this is your job. You need to say no to apparently sensible requests for reasons which you are not free to explain. You need to require people to do things, or stop them from doing things, for reasons which to them appear trivial, incoherent or vindictive. You need to turn down highly qualified individuals for jobs, a small but noticeable proportion of whom will proceed to vindicate your decision by reacting aggressively or awkwardly. By the end of your term of office, you will have made decisions which will have gravely offended, alienated or wounded one or more colleagues. Or, indeed, you will have made mistakes which do this inadvertently. It is no fun at all, but it goes with the territory. Indeed, part of your role is to be the scapegoat, and to soak up people’s resentment. Often better they end up angry with you than with their whole department or university. (Again, you know who you are. I am sorry.)
  9. Sin-eating – as a shrewd fellow-HoD puts it. People will want to come and talk to you. Often with problems that can be tackled, but sometimes they simply need to moan or lament. There is a limit to how much time you can give to this, but it is worth giving some. The slightly rarer, but delightful, flip side is colleagues and students who come to you to tell you how utterly wonderful someone else is.
  10. Email … A large part of your job consists of fielding emails of all kinds. This will chew up at least an hour or two of each day, sometimes a whole day. Just expect that. The only way I found to manage this is simply to stay on top of it, and use my inbox as a to-do list: to the point of sending myself reminder emails about things. About twice a year, I managed to empty my inbox entirely. The achievement is both like and unlike climbing a mountain: like because of the magnitude of the effort involved and the sudden openness of the on-screen vista, and unlike, because when the moment comes, you are still sitting at your desk and a certain purposeless emptiness creeps over you. You keep checking forlornly to see if you have any more emails.
  11. The ‘delay delivery’ function on your email programme is genuinely useful. It can be used to send yourself reminders about something that you know needs to be done, but not yet. It can be used when you get emailed a question to which you know the answer immediately, but when you want to give the impression that you have thought about it for more than 30 seconds. It can also be used to play games with working hours. The correct way to do this is to support colleagues in maintaining a good work-life balance and family-friendly working hours, by ensuring that, if you happen to be emailing them out of hours, you delay delivery until a more civilised time. The incorrect way (I have been tempted to do this, but I don’t recall ever actually giving in) is to delay delivery until the middle of the night one night, so as to intimidate your colleagues by making them think that you never sleep.
  12. Do not check your email on holiday. At all, ever. If you can, don’t check it at the weekend or after you have stopped for the evening. Nothing else can clog up your head or make your stress levels spike so effectively.
  13. Pointless meetings. Much of what you are asked to do is apparently pointless. It is worth digging into these events a little more. Sometimes you are asked to do things because people fear you will be offended if you are not. Sometimes you are asked to do things because they want a symbolic gesture of support from your department, which is conveyed by your physical presence. Sometimes you need to be at something because, even though most of what happens there is irrelevant, there is an outside chance that someone will do something unintentionally stupid and it is your job to stop them. Find out if you can beforehand, and take some work with you.
  14. Pointless activities. You will also be ‘asked’ to perform administrative tasks which appear pointless. So will other members of your department. It is often worth attempting to defy these. Support departments are often poor at considering the time burden they place on academic departments. And since support departments sometimes take hierarchy seriously (academics virtually never do), a stern email from a HoD refusing to do something can sometimes prompt a retreat. Or sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and do the pointless thing.
  15. You will often be treated as if you are the department. It is a little weird. You will be blamed for things that are in no way your fault, and you will be bathed in unearned glory. Let the former wash over you and take full credit for the latter.
  16. Stress and workload – your own, that is. If you are like me, you will discover that you are bad at noticing when you are stressed, until you find work problems invading your dreams or the like. This is a long race. Pace yourself.
  17. And … the last six months are the easiest. And the last two months easier still. You’re already half-way out the door, you’re a lame duck, and if you want you can amuse yourself by grasping a last few nettles so as to clear some ground for your successor. (Goodbye, photos in seminar room B!)

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