In anticipation of our Autumn Conference, taking place on 24 November, our speakers share their reflections of learning from the past six months, and predictions of challenges and opportunities ahead for HE Professionals. In this blog, we hear from Kenton, Tessa and David, whose sessions will be exploring leadership requirements now and in the future.

Kenton Lewis
Director and Principle Consultant | Kenton Lewis Associates

What learning are you taking from the last six months?

It’s clear that our working practices, approaches, and environments have all been put under great stress in the last 6 months, and we have had to make significant and disruptive changes. Where perhaps people had initially thought the disruption would be short lived, and that we would soon return to normal, the reality is that the only thing we can be sure of is uncertainty. As we come to terms with home working, hybrid working, and limited on site working, the key learning I’ve observed falls into three categories: changes to how we communicate; reassessment of priorities; and recognising just how much the sector has achieved under huge duress.

Regarding communication, we are all having our technical capability tested, and we are realising just how significant face to face in-person engagement was. The communicative detail we have lost in a shift to video based interaction has been a shock to many, who are only now coming to terms with why interacting with our colleagues is so much more tiring that it used to be.

Regarding priorities, we are realising just what is important to us. Firstly and foremostly, with our family and friends as we reflect on the risks and heartache that so many people have experienced. And secondly with our working lives, where downward pressure on resources, and the forced isolation of home working, has made us reassess what work really matters, and what work was being done out of inertia. No longer is “we’ve always done it that way” a legitimate response – in truth it never was, but now we are able to focus in on the most important student, research and business critical elements of our work.

Regarding achievements, I very much hope that individuals, managers, teams and institutional leaders are genuinely acknowledging, championing and celebrating successes in the face of challenge. Its all too easy to keep our heads down and keep plugging away – there’s a time when it’s essential to lift our heads and recognise just what people have been able to achieve.

What are the biggest challenges coming up and what does this tell us about where our focus should be right now?

By far the biggest challenge we have going forwards is how we choose to navigate the uncertainty. There will not be a clear and easy path for any of us, and we will make decisions that with hindsight may look like mistakes. So this challenge is two-fold. Firstly, being kind to ourselves and our decisions. We know at the time we’re making them based on the best information available at the time, and therefore we need to be kind when looking back and learning from the outcomes. And secondly, we need to become better attuned to navigating the uncertainty. We can do this by building our skills, and developing our behaviours, in openness, flexibility, agility and adaptability.

What do you consider to be the opportunities for HE Professionals? 

We know this is a hugely challenging time for the sector. And we know that the ‘end point’ (if such a thing even exists) is not yet in sight. But we also know that we are a profession that prides itself on learning, development and growth. Adversity brings out the best in us when we focus on our creativity, our flexibility and our responsiveness. When we look back in many years’ time, I’m confident that we’ll view this time as a time of change, growth and development.

Kenton will be delivering working session 103 Supporting, developing and leading your staff: the management challenges of hybrid and distance working at our Autumn Conference.

Tessa Harrison
Partner – Education, GatenbySanderson

David Becker
Principle Consultant | SUMS Consulting

What learning are you taking from the last six months? 

Both SUMS and GS have observed a greater appetite in universities than ever before to drive up performance and to become more agile, fleet-of-foot institutions. We saw the Covid-19 pandemic prove beyond doubt that the sector can move at pace, but maintaining that pace requires both sophisticated organisation design and outstanding leadership. The historic preference that many institutions have had for restructures and business process improvement in pursuit of change doesn’t cut the mustard by itself. Our session will draw on SUMS Consulting’s experience in 2020/21 of delivering organisation design at modern, plate glass and Russell Group universities; the leadership challenges, pitfalls and key success factors. Diversity has of course been uppermost in everyone’s minds during the last six months with organisations recognising much more needs to be done to address longstanding challenges in how we recruit, develop and progress all staff. The changing demands of leaders to build organisations in which creativity, emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence and diversity are accepted as fundamental to driving high performance now needs to flow through into the people and culture KPIs at governing body level. Our session will explore ways of reframing roles and person specifications within this context and drawing on the outcomes of the AUA’s HE Professionals project.  

What are the biggest challenges coming up and what does this tell us about where our focus should be right now? 

With almost 3 billion hits on Google for ‘coronavirus’ and 149 million hits for ‘Brexit’, there is no shortage of content when it comes to the challenges our sector faces both now and in the near future. Large numbers of universities posted financial deficits in 2018/19, uncertainty continued following the Augar Review and a new regulator was starting to flex its muscles in a way that felt both uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Those big picture issues combine with the implications ‘on the ground’ of local lockdowns, mixed success in student recruitment and, crucially, the changing face of the technology landscape where digital transformation is no longer the buzz phrase of the day but an area where we’re seeing some universities start to seal competitive advantage. The universities responding most successfully to each of these challenges have, without exception, one common component – leadership. The leadership qualities, capabilities and mindset that are right for the coming decade differ to those that brought success in the last one. At times of crisis we look to our organisational leaders to provide clarity and reassurance. At the same time, crisis provides the opportunity for all of us to demonstrate leadership qualities at whatever level we are at. The last few months have challenged our self-motivation, time management, stress management and our ability to embrace ambiguity and change. The focus for leaders will be on drawing together the diverse range of talents and skills within their organisations to embed the innovation and collaborative approaches we fall into naturally when we have to solve problems quickly.

What do you consider to be the opportunities for HE Professionals? 

We observe an opportunity for HE Professionals to align themselves less rigidly to defined roles or professions and to think instead about their own unique set of skills and capabilities, many of which can support a university outside of the departmental boundaries and siloes that have historically limited the breadth of responsibilities any one person has. We expect to see increased focus on service design and service management, supported by digital solutions and AI that fundamentally changes operations. With the right development, HE professionals can position themselves on the right side of this tsunami of change, with universities themselves gaining loyalty and commitment from their staffing base in response to the investment they make in development.  

Tessa and David will be presenting working session 203 Shaping the Future: Leadership Capabilities in HE at our Autumn Conference.

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