Becoming a professional (services) influencer

You don't need TikTok to be influential in university professional services. Claire Toogood reflects on learning from AGCAS research on how careers professionals are making their mark

Claire Toogood is Research and Insights Manager at AGCAS

Professional services staff play an essential role in supporting learner success, both during students’ time at university and following graduation. Yet if teams do not have sufficient institutional influence, there is a risk that their work will go unrecognised or fail to have meaningful impact.

In late 2023 AGCAS evaluated the institutional influence of our members’ work as careers and employability professionals as part of our 2023-24 Member Resources Survey. Completed by 115 UK and Ireland heads/directors of university careers services, the findings revealed four factors that can be described as “levers of influence” – which could apply to any professional services leader. Where present and effective these levers enhanced institutional influence, but if the levers were absent or ineffective, they reduced or damaged levels of influence.

Overall, our research found that over the past year, 19 per cent of careers service leaders reported becoming significantly more influential and 56 per cent of respondents reported becoming slightly more influential. 17 per cent of heads of service felt they were currently highly influential within their institution and 61 per cent felt they were quite influential. However, this still left a significant minority who felt their influence to be limited, which is concerning, when employability is increasingly recognised as being essential to student success.

Leveraging committees

Presence on institutional committees helps careers service leaders to be heard and to influence strategy and activity. One leader explained that their service was “represented on all key committees ranging from student experience, access and participation plan, civic and regional, key performance indicator steering, global engagement, league tables, strategic funding, placements etc.” This individual reported that broad engagement with committees created opportunities to input into institutional decision-making, increased contact with other leaders and teams, and ensured a joined-up approach to careers and employability.

Although the survey was completed by careers service leaders, many respondents noted that other members of their teams, at all levels, were also benefiting from positions on steering groups, advisory boards and committees. Many careers leaders and staff are proactive about building influence through university structures. One survey respondent said their careers team “took the initiative to set up a working group of academic and professional services staff, to support the delivery of the [new] employability strategy.” Another described positioning themselves to be “structurally unavoidable!” Some also looked for opportunities outside their institution, working with regional career bodies and boards to enhance their wider presence and influence.

Leveraging institutional performance metrics

An institutional focus on graduate outcomes and metrics gives careers service leaders an opportunity to highlight the work and purpose of their team, and the significant contribution that they make to student, graduate and institutional success. As one head of service succinctly put it: “TEF, APP, NSS, B3 and the Graduate Outcomes survey are making people pay attention.”

While pressure to deliver metrics-based outcomes can be challenging, and headline figures don’t always capture the complexity of meaningful graduate outcomes and activities, their sector-wide significance has increased the influence and reach for careers services.

Other professional service leaders can apply this by identifying the metrics that matter most in your setting and considering how you and your team can engage with these to support success and influence.

Leveraging senior champions

Engaged senior leaders can support careers heads to build influence through championing and supporting their work. One respondent described a new senior leader “who ‘gets’ the importance of employability support” leading to central positioning of careers and employability in the education strategy. In contrast, another respondent described a leader who considers careers and employability to be a “niche area” within their university, and the damage this caused to their wider reach and influence.

The value of engaging with existing and new leadership should not be underestimated; changes in senior leadership offer an opportunity for teams to develop and support new agendas, and to influence and collaborate across the institution. Whatever situation you are in, learning how to manage up to develop a strong and supportive relationship with your boss is a crucial skill that will help build your influence.

Leveraging strategy

University strategies which embed employability support greater careers service influence. Examples here ranged from the very specific, such as a new cross-institutional employability module which allowed careers staff to shape the curriculum and develop their institutional voice, to wider comments on graduate attributes and embedded employability activities that built influence. Where influence had increased over the past year, respondents also spoke about their departmental positioning. Moving from a student service or support area of the institution into an area or team focused on learning and teaching frequently developed service influence.

Whilst these levers of influence originate from careers leaders, those working in any area of professional service in higher education may find that similar factors apply in their own setting, work or portfolio. Naturally, specific focus, metrics or positioning may vary, so collecting qualitative and quantitative data on influence and impact within communities of professional services staff will help to identify the key factors relevant to each group.

As the higher education sector comes under financial pressure and resources become scarcer, effective leadership will require influencing skills to make the case for your work and building relationships across the institution to find ways of achieving the same ends through different means. Our research shows that professional service leaders should be looking to get a seat at the table on influential committees, demonstrating their contribution to the metrics, cultivating champions at a senior level and helping to shape institutional strategies. Though we can’t promise you a new career on TikTok, exploring how each of these levers of influence play out in your context will help you reflect on how you can develop your influence within your institution and beyond.

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