Moving into Higher Education from the Commercial World: A Personal Reflection

Will Spinks, Registrar, Secretary and Chief Operating Officer at the University of Manchester, is retiring after 11 years in higher education. He reflects on both his time in the sector and his previous career in the commercial world.

After 11 years in the higher education (HE) sector and as an AHUA member, I will be retiring from the position of Registrar, Secretary and Chief Operating Officer at the University of Manchester in late September. I have been “encouraged” by the Editor of this blog, to offer my first – and probably last – contribution. It offers a chance to reflect back on my time in HE, and particularly on the move from my previous career in the commercial world. So here goes…

I joined the sector back in 2007 as Loughborough’s first Chief Operating Officer (COO). Before that, I had spent 28 years working with Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), which then demerged and became Zeneca, which then merged and became AstraZeneca. I spent most of my career working in pharmaceuticals, in the UK, in the USA and in UK-based global roles. I started in Human Resources and subsequently moving into general management, running large sites and business services organisations.

I was quite surprised back in 2007, therefore, to get a call from a well-known search firm (the one that probably has the biggest share of the market for AHUA-level positions) asking me if I knew of any suitable candidates for the position of COO at Loughborough University. Despite 20 years in HR, I naively started offering potential names to them before receiving the punchline: “We wondered whether you might be interested?” I wasn’t looking for a career change but, cutting a long story short, I was gradually reeled in.

When I took the role there were a number of people who had joined HE from other sectors, but not that many who had come from purely commercial organisations. Consequently, I was often asked what the differences were. My stock response was that, whilst there were differences, I had come from a long-term, highly-regulated, research-and-development-intensive, people-orientated business (pharmaceuticals). And I had moved to a long-term, highly-regulated, research-and-development-intensive, people-orientated charity (a University). This at least raised the possibility with some people that I might have something to offer, but it was not successful with everyone.

Within the first few weeks of joining the sector I attended a HUMANE seminar at the University of Salford. It was specifically focused on the role of the Registrar or COO. I remember a very eminent presenter informing the room that there were some people joining the sector from the commercial world as “so-called Chief Operating Officers” who he declared would not be able to survive the cultural complexities of HE. Helpfully, a fellow attendee that I knew pointed out that there was someone in the audience that had recently joined from the commercial world, and I nervously raised my hand to identify myself. The presenter looked me squarely in the eye and said he absolutely stood behind what he had just said. He was sure that it was not possible for people like me to be successful in the HE sector.

Thankfully, this “warm” welcome was very much the exception to the rule. Colleagues at the seminar immediately supported me and I have always subsequently found the sector to be incredibly warm. I have seen genuine collegiality between colleagues, who are willing to share ideas with and mentor others, despite the pressures of the marketization of HE and the increased competition that this inevitably brings. There are a number of current and former AHUA members who have been very generous with their help and advice to me and this is, I hope, a tradition that I have added to in some little way during my time in the sector.

In contrast to my early encounter at Salford fire station, I was delighted to receive two particular congratulation cards on my appointment to the role at Manchester: one from a former Manchester Registrar warmly wishing me every success in the role, and the other from an eminent AHUA colleague saying how pleased he was that the role had gone to “someone within the sector…”

Is there any advice I would offer to others moving into the sector from elsewhere? Absolutely. I would offer three suggestions:

1. Make sure you do your due diligence

In initially moving into the sector I very much focussed on the people I would be immediately working with: the Vice Chancellor, Chair of Council, etc. I met with them at some length and found out as much as I could about them, in order to build my confidence that I was a good fit for the position that I was moving into. I didn’t, however, really think to do any due diligence about the type of university I was moving into. A university was a university, was a university after all wasn’t it? In hindsight, this was incredibly naïve given that if you had asked me if the culture of Glaxo was the same as the culture of Pfizer was the same as the culture of AstraZeneca I would have said, “Of course not”.

I was very fortunate, therefore, that those recruiting me understood the issue of organisational fit much better than I did, and correctly judged that the move to Loughborough could work. I now know that if I had attempted to move to some other universities directly from the commercial world I would have struggled much more – and that the presenter at Salford might have been right.

2. Network voraciously
The sector is very collegiate, meaning that senior colleagues are willing to help, and to offer advice and mentoring. You would be a fool not to accept these gifts that are willingly offered. I had four or five senior colleagues in other institutions that I could reach out to, and who were very generous with their advice, counsel and patience. The AHUA network was also incredibly helpful in providing opportunities to meet and informally discuss key issues.

3. Trust in your abilities and transferable skills
You’ve been appointed for a reason – they think you’re the best candidate!