Supporting Department Chairs

Mar 9, 2019 | Featured, Leadership Development | 0 comments

Supporting Department Chairs

The following is an excerpt from Rodriguez TE, M Zhang, FL Tucker-Lively,  et al. Survey of the professional development needs of department chairs in academic dental institutions. J Dent Educ 2016;80(3):365-73. 

Department chairpersons serve as the link between administration and faculty members in their institutions.1 They are expected to be spokespersons for their department, to have expertise in multiple areas, and to elevate the reputation of the department and the school.1,2 AAL recently conducted a study for the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) and found many chairs, regardless of their field, struggle to meet the demands of the position due to the growing list of responsibilities and challenges placed upon them. One of the major issues identified in the study was that nearly 70% of department chairs have never received any formal training to prepare them to serve in their roles. Respondents noted that in lieu of formal training, they had to rely solely on “on the job training,” which is consistent throughout higher education.3–6 While many individuals have a great deal of success in their roles as department chairs, few are prepared for the nuances and intricacies associated with the position, which is now seen as more administrative and less academic.7

One solution to promote the success of individuals serving as department chairs is through clarification of roles and expectations. Institutions can provide more specific support to new department chairs by developing comprehensive onboarding protocols. Onboarding is defined as facilitating the transition of an individual into a new position or role.8 In most settings, this process is thought to promote clarity of roles and increase the job satisfaction and retention of the individual.9 Onboarding clarifies performance goals and metrics, and also provides opportunities for the development of skill sets and competencies over a sustained period. One study noted that a key to success in the position is “assimilating a new chair into their position,” which would include “a review of the organization’s culture, governance mechanisms, and key stakeholders.”8

This understanding of the culture, climate, and environment of an institution may help with attrition rates of new chairs. This understanding could be fostered through a formal orientation, which should occur prior to individuals assuming their role as department chair.4 Once individuals have matriculated into the position, descriptions of institutional processes, challenges, and resources (including mentorship) can be provided. Another example of supporting department chairs is selecting those who have sufficient experience for transitioning into the position. Heitz et al. noted that academic experience and managerial skills were necessary to becoming a department chair. Skills such as governance and cross-departmental collaborations could be obtained once established within the role. Thus, department chairs should be provided with professional development opportunities focused on the transference of academic and managerial skill sets.10 This type of exposure, especially early into the tenure of a new chair, provides an opportunity to correct behavior and provide advice.8 Additionally, executive coaching is another supportive action that may promote the success of department chairs. A well-trained executive coach can complement traditional methods of leadership development, and has demonstrated the ability to help “individuals slow down, gain awareness, and notice the effects of their words and actions.”11,12 When provided with executive coaching, department chairs perceived significant benefit in receiving external advice about specific issues, including how to manage organizational change, career guidance, and time.11

Overall, the professional needs of department chairs, regardless of their profession, include themes such as leadership and team development, talent management, vision and strategic planning, emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and cultural and structural awareness.4,13 These competencies are typically associated with academic experience, which many new department chairs do not have the luxury of obtaining prior to assuming their positions. To account for this deficiency, institutions need to provide their department chairs with the support and opportunities for development they need. The fundamental understanding of the position and expectations should be used to help calibrate department chairs, and empower them to lead and invigorate their departments and faculty.


1. Hecht IWD, Higgerson ML, Gmelch WH,  et al. The Department Chair As Academic Leader.  Washington DC: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998.

2. Gmelch WH, Miskin VD. Chairing an Academic Department. Madison: Atwood Publishing, 2004.

3. Wescott JW. Perspectives from a new department chair. J Technol Stud 2000;26.

4. Lieff S. et al. Understanding the needs of department chairs in academic medicine. Acad Med 2013;88:960–966

5. Ness RB, Samet JM. How to be a department chair of epidemiology: a survival guide. Am J Epidemiol 2010;172:747–751.

6. Sheldon GF. Embrace the challenge: advice for current and prospective department chairs. Acad Med 2013;88:914–915.

7. Kastor JA. Chair of a department of medicine: now a different job. Acad Med 2013;88:912–913.

8. Ross WE, Huang KH, C & Jones GH. Executive onboarding: ensuring the success of the newly hired department chair. Acad Med 2014;89:728–733.

9. Elting JK. Facilitating organizational socialization of adjunct clinical nursing faculty. 2015. At: Accessed 1 Nov. 2015.

10. Heitz C,  Hamilton GC. The academic chair in emergency medicine: current demographics and survey results identifying the skills and characteristics desired for the role. J Soc Acad Emerg Med 2011;18:981–987.

11. Geist LJ, Cohen MB. Commentary: mentoring the mentor: executive coaching for clinical departmental executive officers. Acad Med 2010;85:23–25.

12. Sherman S, Freas A. The wild west of executive coaching. Harv Bus Rev 2004;148:82:82–90, 148.

13. Palmer M, Hoffmann-Longtin K, Walvoord E, et al. A competency-based approach to recruiting, developing, and giving feedback to department chairs. Acad Med 2015;90:425–430.

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