Reflections on Being Interim Dean

September 2017
Sandra Weiss

Over the last few weeks, I have been reflecting on my experience as UC San Francisco School of Nursing’s interim dean for the past 13 months. I made it clear from the start that I was only willing to steward the School until we found a new dean, but it has been an undeniable pleasure to represent our School during this time of transition.

While transitions can bring out the best and the worst in people, among our faculty and staff, I saw only the best. Everyone stepped up to the plate, was fully engaged and approached their responsibilities with an eye to innovation and growth. As a result, we never languished or stagnated, but instead strengthened our already existing foundation of excellence and grew in exciting ways. We designed interprofessional and international programs, while also producing cutting-edge coursework. We made recommendations for strategic priorities and a more sustainable business plan. We attained funding for impressive new research and training proposals. A very generous donor gave the School $25 million for a sensational new research center. And we strengthened our partnership with our outstanding nursing colleagues in UCSF’s clinical enterprise.

Our faculty and staff not only excelled in a variety of ways, but also demonstrated a strong commitment to the good of the whole, not just to their own individual goals and achievements. I believe this higher-level commitment is foundational to the advancement and success of any organization or institution. I recently saw an uplifting video of about 20 people creating a human chain that allowed them to reach a sinking car stranded in floods from Hurricane Harvey. Through their collaborative effort, they saved a young child and her father, who otherwise would have drowned. No one individual, not even a few of them, could have achieved this impressive outcome; and watching the video brought to mind our staff and faculty – an impressive group of daily heroes who help our School excel in ways we never could without their collective commitment to a common goal.

Another characteristic of our School’s team that contributes to our success is the tremendous diversity in the background, perspectives and talents of our faculty and staff. That chain of people who saved the child and parent included men and women of varied ages and races, different sizes and shapes, who all cared enough to unite so they could “make the impossible possible.” They all called out their thoughts about the best way to reach the car and how to keep their footing in the moving water. In a similar way, our staff and faculty bring distinct talents and traits that all contribute to the exquisite tapestry that makes our School so vibrant and strong. To me, this is another important factor in a successful organization: We should revel in our different strengths and contributions, rather than expecting a particular template of experience and skills to which everyone should conform. One facet of being dean that has brought me the greatest joy is learning about the nuanced roles and expertise of individuals throughout the School – the ways in which each person is uniquely essential to our ongoing success.

Finally, when I became interim dean, I wanted to increase opportunities for “deep work” among our faculty and staff. The last 13 months have literally flown by, and I’m sorry to say this never came to be. In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport defines deep work as professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes our cognitive capacities to their limit. He proposes that this type of depth is necessary to produce the “best stuff” we are capable of producing and that it is a false belief that we can multitask and think creatively during brief periods of time between other work activities. A residue of the previous task always remains, and recovering from that residue diminishes our ability to work intently on the task at hand. Executives, managers and leaders of all types – including faculty and staff in our School – hold positions in which distraction and the potential for ongoing “residue” are unavoidable. Constantly interacting with others and troubleshooting emerging problems are, by definition, part of the job. But even within such jobs, depth is needed to improve the quality of our work and enhance our satisfaction.

Cori Bargmann, an internationally recognized neurobiologist and geneticist who is president of Chan Zuckerberg Science for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, also spoke of deep work at a talk she gave last year. She noted that the initiative wanted to support people in thinking more deeply about what they did, including the results of their research and the intriguing implications of those findings. But it’s not only relevant to science. Deep work is what produces innovation and originality in every walk of life. Newport argues that no job is too mundane to allow for depth and creativity. He notes, “You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.” He suggests that to embrace deep work can transform a job from “a distracted, draining obligation” into a satisfying and meaningful career.

Ideally, we need to redesign work to achieve less disruption and make more space for creativity. This can also reduce stress by extracting us for a period of time from the myriad of issues and concerns that continually vie for our attention. It’s a struggle for all of us to set aside this kind of time as we juggle and manage multiple responsibilities. I had hoped to increase this potential for all of our faculty and staff while serving as interim dean. While I regret that this has not occurred, I’ll continue to advocate for it as I return to my faculty role. Meanwhile, I encourage each one of us to regularly schedule uninterrupted time to “think big thoughts” without distraction. That said, I’m truly amazed at the profound contributions being made by our faculty and staff, even with little time for deep work. Just think what could be accomplished if we added this to our lives.