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Supporting Department Chairs

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: stti.confex.com/stti/bc43/webprogram/Paper76137.html. 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.

2019 February AAL Newsletter

There’s only one thing office employees really need for “wellness”

by Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work reporter Lila MacLellan flips the script on the current workplace wellness trend, posing this question: instead of easing pressures off the clock, why not take preventative measures to target causes of burnout and anxiety?

Read more 

To Be More Comfortable with Conflict, You Need “Bone-Deep Confidence.”​

by Adam Bryant

For Managing Director at Merryck & Co. Adam Bryant, the phrase “bone-deep confidence” especially resonated. He interviews Barbara Khouri, creator of the expression, on conflict, time, and management.

Read more 

6 reasons why you’re a bad listener (and how to change it)

by Stephanie Vozza

Fostering others’ success is a priority for good leaders, and “[t]o help others succeed you have to become good at listening.” Stephanie Vozza shares some tips on improving lacklustre listening skills.

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Habits come from what we do, not what we want to do

by Robby Berman

There is now more support for the idea that repetition solidifies habits. Writer Robby Berman reviews a new paper from Psychological Review (linked within) that studied digital mice to research habit formation.

Read more 

2019 January AAL Newsletter

Why Researchers Say the Best Leaders Give the Worst Feedback

by Brian de Haaff

Giving negative feedback is tough and it’s tempting to avoid it altogether. Aha! CEO Brian de Haaff reminds us that the best leaders are honest and provide feedback – whether it be positive or negative – with kindness.

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What Is the Whole-Person Approach to Training and Development?

by Jennifer Post

The whole-person approach looks at an individual and his or her entire life. By accounting for the entire individual, we can better help them achieve success. Business News Daily contributor Jennifer Post makes a case for this holistic approach.

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Take 5: How to Take Charge of Your Professional Development

by Anne Ford

From the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Anne Ford delivers a collection of advice from faculty on how to directly control your professional development.

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The power of humility

by Nick Martin

Humility is crucial to great leadership, says Dr. Nick Martin of Aon. After explaning why humility is so important, he provides tips on recognizing and cultivating it within your organization.

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2018 November AAL Newsletter

The key to avoiding burnout when you can’t take time off

by Rebecca Fishbein

We are all familiar with the dangers of burnout. The most obvious solution is to take some time off, but what about for those who cannot do so? Rebecca Fishbein offers methods to lessen burnout that do not require vacation days.

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Leadership is Required to Preserve the Potential of Bold Ideas

by Jennifer Miller

The boldest inventions are most often created by unconventional thinking. Jennifer Miller discusses the importance of adopting a curious mind when faced with new ideas from staff, and offers advice to help you avoid “overzealous tweaking” of unique concepts.

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Take 5: Fine-Tuning Your Powers of Persuasion

by Anne Ford

“To win others to your cause, it helps to understand the subtle factors that influence everyday decision-making.” Anne Ford shares five tips to help you share your ideas in effective, persuasive ways.

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Three Traits of Leadership Longevity

by John C. Maxwell

John C. Maxwell reveals the secrets to surpassing the average tenure in a high-profile role: character, competence, and consistency. He argues that these traits, while hard to master, are the backbone to any leader’s longevity.

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Julia Dhar: How to disagree productively and find common ground

by Julia Dhar

Disagreement is inevitable – sometimes it feels like no one can agree on anything. Julia Dhar explores three techniques for approaching disagreement in a more productive manner. These strategies can be applicable in all parts of one’s life.

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Leadership Tools

The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders: Unlocking Your Leadership Potential offers guidance from leadership expert Dr. Karl Haden and noted education writer Rob Jenkins. Everyone has the inborn capacity to lead-it is only a matter of unlocking that potential.

This book enables you to do just that, building on your natural ability and nurturing your leadership habits through specific behaviors.

Effective leaders are not simply people who know a lot about good leadership; they are people who practice it every day. Homework exercises at the end of each chapter, with practical suggestions for developing all 9 virtues, show you how to unlock your leadership potential. With this book, you can become the leader you were meant to be.

Please visit the 9 Virtues website for more detailsexcerptspodcastreviews, the 9 Virtues blogordering information, and more.


AAL offers a variety of online and paper assessment tools to ascertain the professional development needs of individuals and organizations. These assessments include teaching and learning skills, management abilities, personal styles, team dynamics, and organizational culture. Please CONTACT US about any of the following:

  • Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
  • Everything DiSC 363 for Leaders and Work of Leaders
  • Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI)
  • Change Style Indicator (CSI)
  • Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI)
  • Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i)
  • Decision Style Profile (DSP)
  • Customized Professional Needs Assessment (PNA)

2018 October AAL Newsletter

Why Should Leaders Increase Their EQ

by John R. Stoker

Is your emotional quotient being nurtured as much as your intelligence quotient? DialogueWORKS president John R. Stoker provides ten reasons why leaders should seek to increase EQ.

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Make Sure Everyone On Your Team Sees Learning As Part Of Their Job

by Kristi Hedges

Leadership coach Kristi Hedges discusses the importance of fostering an environment where employees can be constantly learning. She advises some ways leaders can encourage team members to integrate learning into their job.

Read more 

Effective Communication Begins With You

by Steve Keating

If you have a team member whom you feel doesn’t listen, there are ways to motivate him or her to listen to you. Leadership guru Steve Keating goes over some methods to accomplish this so that you can communicate more effectively and be listened to.

Read more 

Four Ounces Of Prevention

by Wally Bock

Reflecting on Hurricane Florence and wishing we could stop hurricanes, leadership consultant Wally Bock offers four suggestions on how we can prepare for the unpreventable crises that impact our professional lives.

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The Best Bosses are Humble Bosses

by Sue Shellenbarger

More and more, employers are screening potential leaders for humility. Wall Street Journal columnist Sue Shellenbarger reviews why this is the case and just what is so crucial about humility.

Read more