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  • Writer's pictureSarah Nielsen

Dear New Academic Leader,

Congratulations on your promotion! You must be excited for the opportunity to take on such an important role that will have great impact on your institution, your faculty, and your students.


Have the snarky yet mostly well-meaning “Congrats! Or should I say condolences” remarks ended yet? They’re probably getting a little stale at this point, and while the excitement is still fresh you might start feeling a bit behind or overwhelmed. And you have probably run up against some unique leadership challenges. After all, wasn’t this job mostly about staffing classes, managing departmental reviews and evaluations, and triaging parent and administrative concerns?


In addition to what you already expected, you realize a few things that have immediately increased the challenge:

  • your former colleagues are now your direct reports. Those friendships are now awkward and strained, made more awkward by the fact that they will become your peers once again in about 3-4 years when you rotate back to your role as faculty,

  • a large number of your direct reports typically cannot be fired and more or less have their job for life (i.e., tenure),

  • your entire career until now has been singularly focused on developing and honing your unique intellectual expertise, establishing your credibility in the field and standing out as an individual,

  • despite your new managerial role, you are still expected to teach a class (or classes), conduct your own research, and potentially even fundraise,

  • your main trainer has been the previous Chair, who may or may not be the best exemplar,

  • and with easy communication access you are essentially on-call 24-7 to not just students anymore, but also the faculty, your boss, and your peers, making your work-life challenging.

woman lecturing to crowd


While the role of academic leader shares the basic struggles of all leaders, your role expectations, working environment, and industry have unique demands. As a star faculty member, you have spent the bulk of your career focusing on your expertise, research, etc. Pursuits that are individually driven and achieved. Sure, you may work on a research team, and you have served on committees, but your path to success until now has been largely one fueled by your own steam. You never needed to worry about how to motivate your colleagues, how to balance divergent interests and needs in your department, or if your particular academic subspecialty fits the larger strategic agenda of your school.


Unfortunately, you are unlikely to receive much in the way of leadership development to facilitate your transition. A retrospective study found that 67% of new faculty leaders receive no training, while the few that do receive training experience less than 5 hours total for their new role. Any training you receive will probably be limited to “hard skills,” such as managing the budget or using the performance evaluation system. These are important responsibilities, but the how of these tasks is often left to you to figure out on your own.


The ”how” is the main struggle. And that’s where I come in.


There is a distinct gap between what you’re expected to deliver and what you are prepared to deliver. This gap is an ideal opportunity for leadership coaching. Ideally some of the gap will be addressed with mentoring and training but given how critical these interpersonal challenges are for your effectiveness, leadership coaching provides valuable support and will be vital to your success.


Through regular coaching, we will work on several interpersonal and leadership skills including:

  • improving communication so that you can better navigate strained or awkward relationships with peers and direct reports,

  • fostering a positive work culture and exploring motivation strategies to ensure your department is cohesive and productive,

  • sharpening skills like delegation and balancing your managerial and individual responsibilities, and

  • clarifying boundaries to alleviate the pressures of being constantly available and improving your work-life integration.


Dr. Nielsen sitting on bench

My proven 5-step model will outline the exact steps you need to follow so you can find clarity around your challenges, take intentional action, and achieve your goals. We’ll begin with a comprehensive personal and professional audit, examine your strengths and opportunities, construct an action plan, and clarify detailed goals that will lead you to success.


If you are still feeling overwhelmed by the fog of new responsibilities and frustrated that you can never quite get your head above water, let’s talk. Follow this link to schedule a free consultation so we can discuss your situation and how we can work together to find you some peace of mind.


Wishing you much success in your new role! You’ve got this!


In health,



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