Guide to How to Be an Effective Chair

Version 1. January 25, 2021

This section provides comprehensive guidance on roles and actions for department chairs, heads, and other leaders in their work of guiding or facilitating departmental activities and plans. The section includes recommendations for how to provide leadership in building and maintaining relationships, overseeing large departmental projects, managing tasks and personnel, taking care of resources and people, building an equitable and inclusive culture and climate, and supporting student, faculty, and staff success. This section focuses on the chair’s role in supporting the undergraduate program. While the EP3 Guide does not explicitly address a department’s graduate or research programs, much of the advice given here can be generalized to those areas. This section covers a lot of ground, and no chair will deal with all of these issues at the same time. Focus on the parts that are most relevant to your local circumstances, and seek support from colleagues, mentors, and members of your administration.

The department may be all about physics, but leading it is all about people.” -- Kay Kinoshita, former physics department chair, University of Cincinnati

To help you navigate this section if you are new to the job, here is some advice from experienced chairs on the first things to attend to. Each recommendation is linked to the appropriate effective practice below.

Principles for a new chair to immediately embody:

  • Respect and kindness matter. Treat colleagues with respect and kindness, and say please and thank you (4.B).
  • You don’t know what you don’t know. Ask a lot of questions, consult broadly, and listen actively to what others have to say (3.D).
  • Know the team: Find out what each department member can contribute (3.E).
  • Learn how things work. Know the departmental budget and procedures, and the offices that can help with scheduling and room assignments, hiring, personnel, etc. (1.D, 3.H).

What to do in your first year as chair:

  • Lead by example. Set a positive and inclusive tone and culture for your department (4.A).
  • Ask questions, because what you don’t know can hurt. Talk directly with students and to learn about their experiences and inform decisions (4.C).
  • Dive deep into your budget. Learn in detail what you have, how it is spent, and why, so you can ask for resources to meet key needs and know what can be cut (8.A).
  • Understand history, because it repeats itself. Read strategic documents and recent reviews before you plan for the future (6.A)
  • Know the data. Collect and understand data on student and faculty success to improve your department or address concerns raised by the administration (3.A, 4.B, 8.C).
  • Engage with the dean. Develop a good working relationship with the dean and an understanding of institutional priorities and mission; their knowledge, standing, and access to resources can help you (3.C).
  • Build consensus. Bring people to a common understanding, recognizing that you get only one vote (2.E, 3.E).
  • Expect disagreement: Recognize that as a leader, you may receive the brunt of disagreements; find ways to hear negative reactions and move forward (1.D).
  • Focus on the important stuff. Prioritize demands and set aside time to advance your personal and professional activities (1.E, 2.B).
  • Build a team. Delegate whenever possible, ask for help with complex tasks, and empower others to act (1.B, 1.C).


Building a thriving physics program requires broadly respected leadership. An effective chair guides and focuses departmental activities and leads a department in advocating for and achieving commonly held goals. Such leadership is critical for building programs that are resilient and forward thinking, and for ensuring satisfaction among students, faculty, staff, institutional leaders, and other stakeholders. Effective leaders can help position a department to achieve gains in and become recognized for student learning, post-graduate success, research impact, and community engagement. This section will help chairs:

  1. Manage the job of being chair. An effective leader builds a shared sense of ownership in outcomes, plans thoughtfully, collaborates broadly, distributes responsibilities, and shares the workload in a way that makes use of each department member’s strengths.
  2. Communicate effectively. A skilled communicator builds trust and support, creates opportunities for constructive dialogue, transparently navigates difficult conversations and issues, and enables a department to achieve its full potential.
  3. Develop relationships within and beyond your department. Positive relationships help build teams with diverse talents and experiences that enable your department to leverage strengths and meet challenges.
  4. Foster an equitable and inclusive culture and climate. Equitable and inclusive working and learning environments enable a department and all of its members to achieve their full potential.
  5. Address challenging situations. Resolving challenges among department members requires specific strategies to engage everyone, understand experiences and feelings of disenfranchisement, acknowledge disparate viewpoints, and offer opportunities to participate in and contribute to departmental activities.
  6. Establish and sustain a culture of cyclic internal review. Reflective departments engage in thoughtful and regular incremental improvements to address challenges and build on strengths.
  7. Hire strong and diverse faculty and staff. A strategy to hire strategically and inclusively underlies the success and long-term health of any department.
  8. Support faculty and staff in achieving excellence. An effective leader helps faculty and staff achieve excellence by providing clear expectations; support; regular feedback and recognition; periodic performance evaluations; and opportunities for learning, growth, and professional advancement.
  9. Manage and advocate for resources. Thoughtful and savvy negotiation for and stewardship of resources help build and sustain a thriving program.

Effective Practices

  1. Manage the job of being chair

  2. Communicate effectively

  3. Develop relationships within and beyond your department

  4. Foster an equitable and inclusive culture and climate

  5. Address challenging situations

  6. Establish and sustain a culture of cyclic internal review

  7. Hire strong and diverse faculty and staff

  8. Support faculty and staff in achieving excellence

  9. Manage and advocate for resources

The Cycle of Reflection and Action

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1738311, 1747563, and 1821372. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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