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Leading and Managing in Higher Education

28 Feb 2019 | Duncan Sharp Dr Duncan Sharp, Dean of the School of Clinical and Applied Sciences, Leeds Beckett University, offers five reflections and provocations for more effective leadership and management.

If you are in, or are considering, a leadership and/or management role in Higher Education the following five reflections and provocations may promote some thought about your approach, how you handle situations, how you build trust and integrity, and to avoid wasting people’s time! 

1.    Be a person – you are not a monotonic, walking, policy encyclopedia. 

There is a time and place for corporate, conservative non-emotionally engaged conversations. However, these are few and far between and should be reserved for the ‘more formal’ setting…whichever side of the table you happen to be sitting that day. 

It is perfectly acceptable to show controlled emotion, to explain that things are disappointing, are frustrating, or are difficult. This is a basis through which colleagues can engage, build trust, test and assess integrity (are those glasses inexplicably rose tinted? when does confidence become delusion? is it ‘just a flesh wound?’). Consider positive-realism - it is important that you can inspire, motivate, and help others see the good in what will often be a mixed picture. But to do so in a blinded or naïve way may lead to condemnation as being disingenuous or that there isn’t sufficient trust to be honest - and integrity and trust go a long way!  

A different way to consider this is to reflect on a seemingly stupid scenario; would you embark in a discussion about your diet with a vending machine?  Assuming you went with the majority, and thought ‘no’, why is that? Because it doesn’t listen, it isn’t interested in my issue, it appears only able to interact in a very defined transactional way, I don’t trust it to be open and honest (it does want to sell me chocolate), or it doesn’t seem to care about me?

So, why would colleagues engage with a manager or leader who follows a mechanistic, fully-rationalized flow-chart of yes/no decisions and doesn’t inspire trust or show empathy? If that was the case, then wouldn’t it just be cheaper to develop an App? The important thing in managing or leading is that whilst we have access to the same options and outcomes as the ‘Manager-App’, the human manager is able to work in an irrational world where things are not set in stone, they change (a lot), and people do weird and wonderful things.  So whilst parity, equity, and equality are all key considerations, the human manager still has an important role of being a person, using judgement and adapting to a dynamic situation. Therefore, this important attribute (being a person) needs to be visible. Don’t be a vending machine.

2.    (?Quasi-) Depersonalization of negativity - where's the border between you and your role?

The concept of being a depersonalized person may sound (and in fact be) counterintuitive. However, remembering this may help when things become challenging; the concise version being: you are not your role and sometimes you (or your manager) have to make decisions which people will not all agree with. This is life – but it isn’t necessarily personal.  

We aspire that the years we spend developing our undergraduates into independent, critical thinking, self-motivated and autonomous individuals - skilled in problem-solving and able to devise and test methodologies to achieve a desired outcome. This may be further instilled at postgraduate levels of study, stretched or developed through placements or work-based opportunities, and may have been consolidated through professional work, doctoral studies, or another route into academia. To then expect that we can corral a cadre of academics into a homogenous entity goes against everything we should (and mostly do?) stand for and therefore it is healthy that there will be a range of opinions of how to get to even the most common of shared goals. 

So, what does this mean to you? Well, sometimes decisions need to be made that people don’t like, and that may annoy them. Don’t take it personally (whether today you happen to be the pigeon or the statue), it is an artefact of the responsibility and autonomy carried as a leader or manager. Ensure that people are clear on why certain decisions have been made, ask for consultation where it may affect the outcome (and there only), and wear the resilience that you told (or will tell) the interview panel that you are armed with.  

3.    Honesty and Integrity – if the answer is going to be ‘no’, then say it.

Why waste peoples time on things that cannot / won’t be able to happen? 

When you go to a restaurant and see your favourite dish on the menu, order a glass (bottle) of the appropriate wine, and then someone comes to take your order and they tell you at that point that they don’t have any of your favourite dish left. You are already emotionally (I feel strongly about food) and resource committed (financially in wine) so that’s going to be fairly annoying. The fact there is none left would have been much more welcomed and less distressing should you have known when you entered the restaurant.  

Honest and open conversations need to work in both directions. You need to be confident enough that you can be honest about problems – to your teams, to peers, and to more senior colleagues. But, it is easy for problems to not escalate through teams, this is why both raising concerns and welcoming them from your teams is so valuable. People need to have awareness and confidence in bringing problems and issues to you…if they don’t how can you improve things? 

How receptive to concerns are you? and, can you act with integrity? For example, would you tell someone there’s none of their favourite dish early or hope that someone else goes to take their order?  

4.    Communication; The greatly maligned art of imparting or exchanging information 


Emails are both great and terrible; the faceless, often misunderstood, carrier pigeon of information is good for many things, of course (NB this could even be the same pigeon mentioned with reference to the statue). But for challenging issues would it not be better to get people in a room together? There will be times when firm emails have to be sent or emails following a difficult meeting to clarify what was said, you have a record of what was communicated which can be of use when you find yourself having to dig the tie out of the wardrobe for a meeting with HR. But they are not a useful mechanism of dialogue, and I refer you to the previous point.  

‘You may have said it – but did they hear it?’, an early indicator being an email wholeheartedly disagreeing with the actions agreed a short time before. Make sure the message has been heard and test whether it has been!   

Inclusive nomenclature and terminology - much as the term Human Resources can be misunderstood as seeing people as ‘a resource’, the way in which we describe things and the words we carefully choose (or casually throw in without thought) can make a difference. Which of the following sounds better even if you mean the same thing: ‘With the staff in my team, I have…’ or ‘With the colleagues in our team, we have…’? There may well be scenarios that the former is more appropriate, but this should be a conscious decision.   

5.    Chairing – This will be your superpower. 

What do you see as the important things when Chairing a meeting or committee?

The first things that come to mind may be quite mechanistic: making sure the agenda is followed, keeping to time, keeping the meeting on track (good luck), and agreeing actions (which people are consciously aware of at the time). The less thrilling backbone of responsibility. There is no getting away from the fact that these are valid and essential parts of chairing – but it should be so much more. 

You also need to walk the web of tightropes of making sure that everyone contributes but that no one dominates, to encourage critical debate but diffuse and appease where disagreements become counterproductive, have the detailed discussions in the open forum for transparency and to gain accountability, but know when things should be taken outside of the meeting, and to keep track of and summarize when encountering the verbose.  

In addition to the mundane and tightrope walking is the filling of the veritable sandwich. Does everyone know why they are actually there, and what the purpose of the melee is? and importantly, do we need the meeting, and does it really need to be that long?

Some of the above five reflections may be obvious to you, some you may disagree with, and some you may even feel are nonsense. Each is fine. These are to provoke thought and reflection about your personal approach and style, and what matters to you as a current or future leader. 

If you are in, or are considering, a leadership and/or management role in Higher Education, then you should consider joining our Introduction to Head of Department programme. Over two programme days and one action learning set day delegates will develop their knowledge and skills in the leadership of people and the management of change.

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