What Makes Good Leadership During Times of Major Change?

Mike Shore-Nye, Registrar and Secretary at the University of Exeter, presents three key principles institutions should adhere to in times of economic, political and societal turbulence.

So, what do leaders of university professional services and their teams do at a time of economic, political and societal turbulence?

Well of course, there is no room for complacency about business as usual. We must continue to support excellence in the delivery of a world class student experience and ground breaking research and innovation. The delivery of high standards of campus operations, health and safety, and compliance within the umbrella of effective governance must always be a given.

It would of course be extremely foolhardy to stop planning ahead for the next academic year and ensuring prudent financial management at all times.

Career limiting decisions about stopping new investments and capital developments in the estate are also best avoided for the sake of the delivery of future strategies and the maintenance of institutional competitiveness.

And which university can stop tending its reputation through brand support, proactive marketing and innovative public and press relations?

Perhaps the answer is to keep our collective heads down, keep our organisations ticking over, and simply let sector agencies, our vice chancellors, governing bodies, and the political parties battle it out for the soul of higher education?

Well firstly that sounds unlike a response that would sit well with my colleagues or the teams I have worked with who are wholly committed to the success of their institutions. And of course passivity of response does not then ease the impact or give us an institutional doctors note to be excused from sudden seismic changes in funding or policy.

At the risk of sounding like a ‘Management Today’ style fridge magnet – if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

I think our response must be measured, proactive, proportional and above all prioritised amongst our efforts despite our many competing demands to ensure that we are best placed to respond to whatever the months ahead throw at us.

Fortunately for me, the keys to know where to start with this planning from a professional services point of view were given to me last week by my broader professional services leadership team. Together, at a recent staff conference, we workshopped a series of principles that we should adopt in creating our short, medium and longer term professional services strategy in a time of change.

The first principle suggested to me was to ensure we develop our contingency plans in partnership with our students, staff and partners in our regions and sector.

A failure now to utilise all of our existing networks to gather information and ideas would be a criminal waste of the insights and intellect of our colleagues. This can of course be a frightening experience for all concerned but the sooner we move our working relationships into the adult/adult mode and that we are honest about what a halving of our unit of resource could mean for our financial sustainability or service mix or what the loss of student numbers from particular regions means for our approach to recruitment and the % of resource we may have to deploy in support of marketing that has to come from elsewhere in our budget, then the sooner we can face the future with everyone’s ideas and thinking to support us.

The second principle was alignment, or in simple terms ensuring that we don’t deploy resources, leadership time or risk appetite on activities, services or projects that do not exactly align with our sovereign institutional strategies.

This is of course something that is much easier to say than to do, recognising that we work in communities whose expertise in arguing their case is truly world leading. Key for me in agreeing that alignment is therefore the achievement of a consensus of what truly is a strategic priority amongst the senior team, ideally supported by student leaders and ultimately led by the Vice Chancellor with the support of the governing body.

That shared consensus and guiding coalition is crucial to delivery of the currently unthinkable change that may be needed to secure the long term future of our institutions.

The final principle colleagues recommended, is the adoption of a performance culture in all that we do. Now I am not talking just about ensuring we, and every member of our teams, perform as well as we can which should very much be business as usual. Instead I am talking about a totally honest, data driven, politically insensitive assessment of our quality in everything that we do.

We can probably all recognise the fact that organisations tell themselves narratives about how good they are which are often based on historic perceptions or flattering partial comparisons. And usually these narratives are positive allowing us to build morale or prioritise efforts to enhance underperforming areas.

At times of extreme change however these narratives become hugely damaging, tempting us to throw good money after bad, or leaving us open to aggressive moves from under estimated competitors. Unrealistic narratives must be challenged at every level of the organisation, no matter how painful, to ensure we reinforce and build on success and cut out failure whenever we can.

So in summary, we as leaders of professional services and our teams must not ignore the challenges ahead or fail to deliver business as usual, but above all we need to face the future honestly, plan together for the worst, and then deliver the best that we can for our institutions our students and our staff.