Skip navigation
Career Advice

Five easy pieces of advice for new department chairs

This position gives you a great opportunity to expand your leadership skills.


A new departmental chair recently asked me for some advice based on my experience. I thought about recounting the “Three Envelopes” story that a senior administrator told me, where the previous chair leaves three envelopes for the new chair with instructions to open each envelope in turn when a crisis occurs. The first envelope contains the message “Blame the previous administration”, the second “Reorganize” and the third “Prepare three envelopes!” Instead, I offer five pieces of advice with a focus on leadership:

  1. Set realistic expectations

When I became chair, I dutifully met with every member of the department and asked a simple question: “What do you expect of me as chair?” I wrote down the plethora of answers in a notebook but realized a year in that there was no way to meet all of these expectations. I decided to set my own expectations as a leader with a commitment to move the department to higher levels of excellence. To do so, I created special committees with strong leadership, defined goals and timelines, and a mandate to consult broadly and report back to the department. In this way we created new programs and courses, recruited in new areas of research, increased graduate enrolment and embedded professional development into our curricula.

  1. Communicate clearly

You may have a vision for where you want to take the department, but is it clear to everyone else? When I was chair, we had one annual departmental meeting where detailed reports were submitted from various divisions to inform everyone of progress we had made. Special departmental meetings using formal Robert’s Rules of Order were also held to make decisions on key issues facing the department with an agenda and reports submitted in advance. I relayed essential information by emails but avoided email debates, simply replying “Thank you for your comments” or “Happy to meet over coffee to discuss.” We updated our website with news items to keep people informed and to promote our department. Lastly, we published a monthly newsletter to keep the department informed of publications, awards, seminars, events, upcoming deadlines, changes and new initiatives.

  1. Build consensus

Running a department is not a one-person show. Chairs have additional responsibilities, yet remain peers among other faculty members and benefit from their joint wisdom. Some of these responsibilities may include good management practices of the departmental budget, office staff, faculty promotions, tenure reviews, recruitment and assigning space, etc. A key to building consensus is to identify allies who will help make the case to move the department forward. Managing change requires commitment, collaboration and clear communication.

  1. Be consistently respectful

As chair, you will deal with different personalities. Not everyone has the same values, interests and skills. Being consistently respectful even with those you disagree with will build respect for you. Be an active listener. Most of the time others only want to voice opinions, so listen openly without judgement. It is also important to develop a positive sense of empathy to understand how your actions and reactions affect others. Indeed, a highly evolved level of emotional intelligence is essential to working with others and building effective teams.

  1. Mentor others

Good leaders identify and mentor talent. You need to put the right people in the right positions and let them do their job without micro-managing. Your trust in them will convey trust in your leadership. You can lead by example. When I became chair, I decided to teach introductory biochemistry to a large class to improve my communication skills and to highlight the importance of our commitment to teaching in a research-intensive university. It is important to recognize individual contributions and successes to the collective goals.

Being a chair is about developing your leadership skills and realizing that the position requires your full attention and energy. It’s often hard to put the interests of the department ahead of your own, but you must. The position is challenging, but its the best job I ever had.

Reinhart Reithmeier is professor emeritus in the department of biochemistry at the University of Toronto and served as chair of the department from 2002 to 2013.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Mark Lautens / February 28, 2024 at 13:54

    Well worth a read.

    When I took over as Chair of Chemistry, I had the benefit of an entertaining lunch with Professor Reithmeier. He conveyed many of the same points outlined in this piece, though perhaps with a bit of added colour.

    I appreciated his suggestions and his wisdom, and have tried my best to incorporate those that fit within our culture. Just as important was to absorb the underlying ethos. There is a lot to learn as Chair, and while you can’t teach an old dog like me new tricks, you can get an old dog to adapt with the right rewards.

  2. JC Zuniga-Pflucker / February 28, 2024 at 14:50

    Totally spot on advice for anyone starting as a new Department Chair, as a former dept. chair myself, I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Jennifer Gommerman / February 29, 2024 at 07:57

    This is great advice for a new Chair like me. Thanks Reinhart!

  4. Nana Lee / February 29, 2024 at 22:30

    Reinhart, your article is so helpful for anyone in leadership, such as committee leads, student group advisors, principal investigators, teaching professors, directors, project coordinators. Thank-you for sharing your wisdom, experience and for definitely practicing these qualities yourself with professionalism and character. Reinhart hired me for the embedded graduate professional development program in 2012 and we have been empowering our future leaders ever since!

  5. Peter Lewis / March 1, 2024 at 08:43

    Great Advice – A few others might be

    Develop a 5 year plan

    Consult Widely

    Chose an Executive Committee

    Establish Partnerships with Other Departments

    Recognize Excellence