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Q:  What “outside-the-box” skills distinguish one academic administrator from another?

A: (from Alan D. Johns, Vice President and Chair of the Academic Medicine and Health Science Leadership Practice) Academic administration within the health sciences has certainly changed over the years. No longer is it good enough to solely master finance, budget and HR administration. Today’s schools falling under the academic health sciences umbrella require administrators to engage in a broader scope of services than ever before and to quickly master changing technologies and modes of communication.

Remember the “good old days” when all that was required of you was to produce a quarterly report for your dean or chair?  It probably focused on the bottom line and had a few charts showing how your results compared to last year’s. Now we live in a world of scorecards, benchmarks and powerful databases that can track and report results at a moment’s notice. Not only do we know how we are measuring up internally, but we can compare our results to those of our peers, by institution, academic discipline, specialty, subspecialty, rank, tenure status and numerous national rankings.

Here are three “outside-the-box” skills highly valued by today’s leaders:

  • Building adaptability, integration and a culture of engagement
  • Promoting/selling the message
  • Managing upward

Building adaptability, integration and a culture of engagement: As we adapt to The Affordable Care Act, the adage, “The only constant you can count on is change” rings even more true today with consolidating healthcare markets, population health management, increased quality and performance transparency. Administrators must build teams, processes and systems that are adaptable to these major external influences. Teams must stay engaged and informed at many levels. An administrator who works at building this new culture of engagement, integration and adaptability will be in high demand by senior leadership.

Promoting/selling the message: You have the analytical and reporting skills, but data are just data unless interpreted and used to convey a directional message. A strong administrator has to analyze and package information from multiple sources to help build the message that needs to be communicated. Like it or not, we all “sell” something.  Whether it is a service, a new idea, or a need for change – an influential administrator will also be a good salesperson.

Managing upward: In today’s workforce, keeping your boss happy is only part of the recipe for success. Healthcare and the academic health sciences are complex industries characterized by a matrix of formal and informal reporting structures.

We hear often that organizations are looking for leaders who can manage upward. Numerous books and articles have been written on the subject, but what does it really mean in the academic health sciences? 

I think it means you have to know and embrace your manager’s strengths and weaknesses and know, when you, as his/her administrator, need to lead, follow or get out of the way. Relationships change over time, and everyone reports to someone. Understanding the players, their personalities and priorities gives an effective administrator the ability to know when to be a coach, a substitute player or a spectator.

Today’s administrator is a source of leadership, change and success for his/her immediate organization and those affiliated with it. The days of silos are long gone. Strong leaders will “think outside the box” while keeping their box well organized, informed and adaptable.

Alan D. Johns, VP, chairs the Academic Medicine and Health Sciences Leadership Practice, which specializes in executive recruitment for academic health science centers, teaching hospitals and research centers/institutes. This includes professions within medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacy, public health and allied health.

Reach Johns at (770) 396 3939 or