Sept. 28, 2020 marked Erika James’ 90th day as dean of the Wharton School. Here, she reflects on starting the position remotely amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the lessons she learned about becoming a new leader.
There is really no roadmap for becoming a dean. Sure, most of us came up through academia, but I dare say none of us dreamed about taking on such a role as a 10-year-old child (or even a 30-year-old professor). At 10 years old I didn’t know what a dean was, and at 30 I was pretty certain I didn’t want to be one. We each have our own story about how we got to this place in our career, but we are united in the challenges we face in being the academic version of a chief executive.
I was appointed dean of the Wharton School on Feb. 26, 2020. The day is etched vividly in my memory. At the appointed hour, the news hit the airwaves and my life changed in an instant. As the first African American and first woman to be appointed dean at Wharton, there was considerable interest and publicity that marked the beginning of my deanship. Along with that attention came an inordinate amount of pressure to live up to the expectations of becoming the newest leader of an esteemed institution like the Wharton School, and the expectations of the many people and groups who had been waiting for this moment to manifest. It felt as if the world would literally be watching, and it was! My first day on the job included an interview on the most watched morning news program in the U.S., Good Morning America. Never before had a dean appointment at a business school felt so prominently on display, nor so important to a national dialogue.
Though there was a four-month window between the announcement of my appointment at Wharton and my actual start day of July 1, my work actually began immediately. I was assuming leadership of the school amidst a pandemic — a crisis of global proportions. I relocated to Philadelphia after choosing a place to live online, and I was meeting my colleagues virtually over Zoom. I was two months into the job before I was able to take an in-person tour of the campus — and as I now end the first 90 days in my role, I can essentially count on one hand the number of colleagues, not to mention students, with whom I have been able to meet in person. To say this has been a truly unique onboarding experience would be an understatement.
The proverbial listening tour that typically characterizes a new leader’s first 90 days was supplanted by the daunting reality of needing to make transformative decisions on the coming semester remotely. Specifically, whether we would attempt to teach in-person classes or deliver instruction completely online for the fall. This and other weighty decisions related to the pandemic were being made with people whom I had just met, in a context I had not yet been able to fully digest and over a medium less than optimal for trust building and the development of authentic relationships — all of which I consider elements necessary for true leadership. So, you could say my first 90 days were certainly a journey on a road less traveled.
Despite my deanship’s nontraditional start, there have been many opportunities and lessons learned that I suspect will be familiar to all new leaders, regardless of the circumstances in which they enter their role. And like most academics, I find it helpful to ground my reflections in the tenets of my research, which happens to be crisis leadership (quite a helpful background at a time such as this!).
1. Embrace “swift trust.”
As a new entrant into an organization, the need to ascertain who is trustworthy is as important as demonstrating trustworthiness yourself. This is especially true in circumstances like mine, where there was no luxury of time to build or earn such trust. That’s because the decision to trust is generally based on a history of repeated interactions and informed by a track record of decisions or behaviors. So what do you do when the time needed to earn trust is not available? You accept the need to establish what I call “swift trust” — a willingness to suspend doubt about the dependability or capability of people you do not know.
Consider that we don’t generally take the time to interview the fire captain before she sends a crew to put out a house fire, nor do we ask to see the aviation records of a pilot before we buckle up for takeoff. Likewise, as a new leader, we are often called upon to make game-time decisions based on information provided by people whose trustworthiness we are still assessing — and who are also actively evaluating their willingness to trust us. Getting comfortable with developing swift trust can be crucial in times of crisis. Then, over time our initial beliefs and assumptions can be verified (or modified) by additional data, without sacrificing urgent trust-building when it’s needed.
2. Ask more questions.
It is common for leaders to tout the importance of communication and listening. Both matter when establishing credibility. However, I would propose that good communication often comes in the form of active questioning. Problem-solving in a crisis means acquiring a vast amount of information, and the fastest way to do that is by asking questions. New leaders are often inundated by questions about their strategic priorities, which is natural. Yet I have found that when those priorities are informed by listening to the responses I receive to my key questions, the result is a more reflective and shared vision of the future for the organization.
3. Find the energizers.
Even under the best of circumstances, assuming a new leadership role can be draining in the first few months. The need to be introduced throughout the organization, sift through myriad issues while simultaneously trying to prioritize people and projects, and respond to an endless amount of stimuli from electronic media (not to mention the actual work of thinking, planning and strategizing) can be relentless. I would say that identifying the people who energize you rather than drain your energy (inside and outside your new organization) is not just important; it’s necessary.
A well-timed conversation with the right “energizer” can both invigorate me and contribute to my overall sense of purpose — two things leaders need as they establish themselves in a new role. Seek out time with these people. Intentionally find time to interact with them rather than leave it up to serendipity. These exchanges may be the exact fuel you need to overcome the hurdles you will most certainly face. Conversely, I’ve learned that limiting my time with people unable or unwilling to provide me that mental “boost” is equally important for keeping me motivated to achieve my biggest goals.
4. Wag the tail (i.e. lead the leaders).
When you step into a new leadership role, everyone wants your time. They want you to understand their work, their needs, or the importance of their department. And they are not wrong to do so. A leader’s job is to understand the organization by learning the people and passions that comprise it. It is also a leader’s job to avoid being unduly influenced by those who are most vocal or longest serving in the organization. In this way, those around you can appropriately inform your direction rather than impress upon you their previous agendas. Filtering so many strong viewpoints in order to advance the best options for the organization can be a daunting task. But in the end, it can also be the mark of a discerning and decisive leader.
These first 90 days have felt like a lifetime, but they have also gone by in a blink of an eye. I’ve grown as a leader and gained an even greater sense of compassion for Wharton students and my colleagues as they confront the challenges brought on by the pandemic. Becoming dean in the midst of this crisis has refocused my attention on what truly matters — the people who make an institution great. As I write this reflection, I have taken a self-imposed “Zoom-cation” from all virtual work platforms to simply think and strategize. This time alone with my thoughts about these first 90 days has resulted in my feeling a growing certitude about the direction I desire for Wharton — a road informed by the input of others, yet also authentically representative of my viewpoint.-30-