Careers intelligence: how to deal with a new boss

Robert MacIntosh considers how university staff should approach the management merry-go-round of vice-chancellors, pro vice-chancellors and department heads

April 11, 2019
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Academic leadership roles are typically tied to a three- or five-year tenure, meaning that new bosses come around on a fairly regular basis.

Add the fact that individual academic staff are often accountable to different individuals for their teaching, their research and their administrative duties and it might feel that you’re under new management more frequently than a Premier League footballer. How should you handle a new boss?

New boss, new rules

Incumbent leaders are usually keen to make their mark. After all, few careers are enhanced by a CV narrative that reads “2017-present: minded the shop and kept things ticking along”.

Rather, your new boss is likely to want to demonstrate that they improved, streamlined or transformed the activities for which they are responsible. Such career narratives are the reason your new boss is unlikely to be the same as your old boss.

Recognising this will help you cope with the inevitable trauma that comes when tried and trusted systems and processes are changed under the new regime.

Do your homework

Academia is a relatively closed community. Somewhere in your network will be colleagues who knew your new boss when they were a PhD student or who worked under them at a previous university. Ask around and find out what makes them tick. At the more experienced end of the leadership spectrum, your new boss may have fulfilled the same role in more than one institution.

If so, it might be possible to spot a pattern in their tendency to centralise or decentralise or to adopt particular structures. In the corporate world such characters develop brand names such as Fred the Shred and Deadly Doug. Of course, the more refined world of academia is above such nonsense. Isn’t it?

Control-Alt-Delete

A new boss can offer those of longer standing in your current university the opportunity to press reset and get things back to “normal”. Finally, they’ll cry, we can abandon the folly of X and get back to Y.

In a shifting political landscape, you might want to get in early and make sure that your new boss is fully briefed on what they should prioritise.

Stand a little further back from the detail, however, and you might see a pattern. Radical and ambitious entrepreneurs tend to be followed by consolidators; dictators tend to be succeeded by advocates of participative democracy and so forth.

A brief examination of the outgoing boss and the recruitment process might give valuable clues as to the priorities that your new boss was recruited to deliver. You can then judge how well these match your own and to assess the potential for career-limiting consequences when ridiculing the old regime. It would be a shame to discover after the fact that your new boss and your old boss were in fact former colleagues and remain close friends.

Actions speak louder than words

In the early days of their appointment, your new boss will be suffering from information overload. So many new faces, names to remember and issues to address.

You face a choice between shouting first and loudest or being patient. Your long-term credibility might best be served by simply getting on and delivering.

If the new regime wants more interdisciplinary research, focus your attention on how you can help. Academic freedom is so deeply embedded in our culture that doing what we are asked doesn’t always come naturally but maybe, just maybe, there might be merit in some of the new initiatives.

Giving it your best shot might be invigorating and it will certainly give you something to talk to your new boss about.

Just ask

All this is good advice if your new boss has been clear and directive in the early days of their appointment. If, however, they have been somewhat more enigmatic about their new priorities, what should you do?

Deceptively simple though it may seem, you could just ask. Bear in mind that the tone of your enquiry will matter. Consider the subtle shift in object and emphasis in the following: “Boss, do you have any idea what you’re doing?” or “Boss, what should I be prioritising?” The latter is the less entertaining but probably more sensible approach.

My favourite variant of such questioning however, arose in the context of a leadership programme and was “how do you get the best out me?”

Working through that simple question in both directions will provide a good foundation for your new working relationship. Incidentally, part of my answer to that question was never, under any circumstances, call me Bob.

Robert MacIntosh is head of Heriot-Watt University’s School of Social Sciences, where he is professor of strategic management. He blogs about higher education career and PhD issues at www.thePhDBlog.com.

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Print headline: How to handle your new boss

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