Good leadership at universities isn’t just a luxury, says leading academic

12 May 2017 By Jane Simms

Speakers at the Universities Human Resources Conference also urge pragmatism over perfectionism

Universities need to treat leadership skills as an essential, not a “luxury”, if they want any hope of overcoming the slew of challenges facing them, a leading academic has said.

Opening the Universities Human Resources Conference in Newcastle, Gareth Jones, co-author of Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? and Clever: Leading Your Smartest, Most Creative People, told the audience: "Well-led universities do better on all measures than those that aren't.”

Jones, who confessed he was "obsessed by the transformative power of higher education", warned that the sector now faced unprecedented challenges, and that good leadership – not least HR leadership – was increasingly critical. "It is a survival technique, not a luxury," he said.

He also stressed that great leadership was non-hierarchical and that there was no such thing as a “natural leader”, adding: “It is hard, and you have to work at it.”

The key to being a good leader, he said, was providing people with what they want, such as inspiration, recognition, consistency, purpose and authenticity. "In essence, it's about being yourself more, with skill."

A former director of HR and internal communications at the BBC, Jones is now, among other things, visiting professor at the IE Business School in Madrid and a fellow of the Centre for Management Development at London Business School.

One major challenge facing HR in the higher education sector, which employs around 400,000 people in the UK, is bridging the cultural divide between academics and other staff. Also speaking at the conference, Alex Killick, director of people at Glasgow Caledonian University, advised introducing values and behaviours that everyone can buy into, and finding ways to get the academics on board with what HR was doing.

"We seconded a professor of computer science into HR for a period to lead our values work," said Killick. "That taught us a lot about what makes the academic community tick, and she represented HR to the academic community."

Killick also said higher education HR should not waste time "fixating on whether or not you have 'a seat at the table'". Instead, he said: "Focus on what you can do from where you are."

This pragmatism was echoed by Matthew Elliott, people director at Virgin Money, who shared how he and his fellow executives integrated Northern Rock, which the bank acquired in 2012 following the financial crisis, and built the business into a successful FTSE 250 company.

"The approach, certainly in HR, was to get it 70 to 80 per cent right, and then get it out there and start to make a difference," he said. "If we'd had it all planned out, we'd have missed lots of tricks.

“These things should be iterative – you learn and you refine as you go along. But you have to crack on with things, because then they take on their own momentum."

The bank’s executive team was helped through a very challenging period by a common purpose and values, 'Everyone's Better Off' (EBO), which recognises the equal importance of customers, colleagues, communities, corporate partners and the company.

EBO was reinforced to colleagues early on with tangible changes to the culture such swapping executive offices for an open-plan workspace, and replacing executive parking bays with 'stork' bays for pregnant women.

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