Follow the leader: universities need to ensure they have inspiring people in senior roles. Higher education is facing more challenges than ever before, so it needs leaders who can motivate staff and ensure the sector remains relevant in a competitive global context. And for that to happen…
Higher education is facing more challenges than ever before, so it needs leaders who can motivate staff and ensure the sector remains relevant in a competitive global context. And for that to happen, we need clarity about what good leadership looks like.
Our latest study found that more than four in five staff in the sector believe that developments are needed in this area. So how can we make improvements?
1. Create development opportunities
A strong and sustainable sector relies on opportunities for those with the ambition and potential to progress. Yet many currently working in the sector feel that the pathways to formal leadership positions are unclear: more than half of employees that we surveyed said they would need to leave their university in order to progress in their careers.
Leadership opportunities must be accessible and communicated proactively to prevent high staff turnover and a deficit of potential leaders. Formal mentoring schemes can be particularly effective – our study found that almost nine out of ten staff who had a mentor felt they benefitted from the relationship.
2. Be proactive in improving diversity
Women and those from black and minority ethnic groups (BME) are under-represented in leadership and management positions, and many staff reported an awareness of the difficulties faced by these groups in progressing to senior levels.
But universities need a much greater understanding of the experiences of women and BME staff: fewer than one in ten governors in our study identified increasing diversity as a means through which leadership in the sector could be improved.
Raising this as a priority issue for governors could lead to more targeted support and improvement, helping to ensure that higher education adequately reflects the society it serves.
3. Address work-life balance, particularly for women
Heavy workloads can put enormous pressure on the personal lives of many who occupying leadership positions, but there is a clear gender difference in work-life balance. Our survey found that about two-thirds of female academic leaders feel unhappy with their work-life balance, compared with about a third of male academics. This can be a serious deterrent for those looking to step up and risks limiting the number of women in leadership positions.
Universities are generally good at flexible working policies. However, active implementation of them and systematic monitoring of individual workloads would do much to improve this. Leadership teams have an important role in influencing organisational culture, to ensure that it values and rewards outputs, and serves academic enterprise above presenteeism.
4. Attract leaders with outside experience
Leaders with a wider range of professional backgrounds provide higher education institutions with new insights and experience, which helps them to tackle ever-evolving challenges, particularly around areas such as managing reputational risk. Our study found that a third of governors believe leadership within the sector could be improved by increasing the number of leaders with diverse experience and expertise.
We already see increasing numbers of appointments in professional services from business. Mirroring this on the academic side and creating opportunities for leaders with management experience would help to address this, and could be achieved through secondments, work shadowing and mentoring opportunities.
5. Analyse the motivations of potential leaders
An in-depth understanding of the motivations for aspiring to leadership is essential to ensure the right development opportunities are available. Our research shows that engaging in challenging work, having opportunities for growth and exercising autonomy are important motivating factors for potential leaders, alongside the desire to contribute to the sector more generally.
Universities can act on this by ensuring the development of roles and projects that allow staff to challenge themselves, and by providing training programmes that offer on-the-job opportunities for growth. Engaging staff at all levels with strategic direction and decision-making will also help to encourage more people to pursue leadership roles. For women and younger staff, there is a particularly strong desire for clarity around career progression.
Universities will put themselves in a better position to attract and retain talented employees if they can provide clarity, job security and proactively communicate the opportunities for development.
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