Three priorities that helped new dean take the lead in lockdown

Amid the pandemic shutdown, Bashir M. Al-Hashimi took the reins of a faculty at King’s College London. He shares his key lessons in how to quickly settle in with a remote team

November 13, 2020
King's College London
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Here in England, we find ourselves navigating a national lockdown once more, but back in March when the first iteration came into force, I was also undertaking a very personal “new normal”. It was at that time that I took up the role of executive dean of the Faculty of Natural & Mathematical Sciences at King’s College London.

I had been an executive dean for nearly six years previously at the University of Southampton, so I had considerable experience to draw on. Nevertheless, I found that these new circumstances required plenty of agile thinking. This led me to identify three priorities that anyone in a similar position should focus on:

Priority 1: Relationships and trust
My faculty has five departments: chemistry, engineering, informatics, mathematics and physics. I knew I needed to develop a working dynamic with all of them quickly, in unusual circumstances, to establish direction and personal credibility.

This needed to happen via phone calls and online meetings and when everyone was much busier than usual. The pandemic was in its early days, and this was confusing for everybody. My new colleagues were working tirelessly. They had to ensure that students were supported following the closure of the campus, and they were also grappling with how to deal with assessments, research and the day-to-day challenges of working from home during a pandemic.

I wanted to help and to support but not intrude or interfere, but somehow needed to balance those with acting fast. I met online with each of the heads of department regularly to learn about key issues first-hand, and I made sure that I was ready to support immediate needs, without delays. This was not the time to come in with a grand plan to review strategy or processes. In the immediate term, attention has focused on (for example) resolving the allocation of resources to overcome time and process delays caused by the pandemic.

I was careful not to neglect the wider university while building relationships quickly in my own areas. Connecting with the executive deans of the other faculties helped me to gauge appropriate expectations, staff morale and perceptions. I haven’t been afraid to ask questions. My colleagues know King’s and have helped me to understand the institutional culture and ways of working right from the start; now I know where to go to solve a problem, seek advice or how I can help.

Priority 2: Focusing on the here and now
I wanted to bring certainty to an uncertain environment. Concentrating on the current and immediate needs of departments, staff and students took priority over longer-term strategy. I needed to have a good understanding of finance and HR matters more quickly than usual to address issues such as managing expenditure and the difficult decisions around whether to furlough and how to support staff − not easy decisions at any time and even more so at the start of a new job. This was something I hadn’t encountered and couldn’t have predicted, even with my previous experience.

Working with the faculty executive, we identified and agreed the most pressing priorities together. We focused on a clear common purpose underpinned by shared responsibility, allocating time, resources and attention to manage critical issues. The delivery of online education and assessment, providing clarity for offer-holders and returning students, as well as support for students and researchers, to name just a few priorities. It was great to see everyone working together and supporting one other in this way, and it gave me certainty, too, which I valued greatly.

Priority 3: Visibility
It is even more important to invest in relationships when there is a crisis. With everyone so busy and with so many urgent issues to resolve, it would have been easy to deal with just a few key people. Making oneself visible and available to everyone is more complex in the virtual world, but it is not impossible and we had to make it work. 

Since my start, I have attended virtual departmental staff meetings, met regularly with representatives of the students’ union, facilitated faculty staff Q&A sessions, chaired regular meetings and workshops online to focus on urgent preparations for the research excellence framework and provided frequent written updates to staff and students.

I have learned to take the positives. Despite not meeting face to face, we as colleagues have got to know each other well. We’ve virtually entered each other’s homes, with an array of bookshelves, pictures and pot plants on display. We even held a summer picnic remotely with staff joining from indoors, in their gardens or local open spaces to celebrate all we had achieved together.

Some key aspects of my role as dean are unchanged. A major part of the job is building and celebrating a community. We also celebrated the graduation of the Class of 2020 via social media this summer, and the physical ceremony will take place when it is safe for this to happen.

The past eight months have been a continuous learning opportunity, with each new day bringing a lesson about the faculty, university and the contribution of our people, and my gratitude for learning will always remain a constant.

Bashir M. Al-Hashimi is executive dean of the Faculty of Natural & Mathematical Sciences at King’s College London.

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