How to attract out-of-sector leaders into HE

As higher education adapts to funding and commercial pressures, more and more institutions are puzzling over how to bring in new skills that offer fresh perspectives.

For many professional leadership roles, this can involve looking to other sectors.

Leaders brought in from non-education backgrounds can bring with them best practice from elsewhere, positive challenge and change, and an unbiased perspective on policy. Plus cultural diversity can lead to organisational innovation.

As examined in a previous Wonkhe article, there are obviously distinct advantages in recruiting from within higher education. However, while there is a lot of talent within the sector, there is also a case to be made that the talent pool for senior leaders isn’t as deep as it will be in perhaps ten years or so.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) published their seventh Higher Education Workforce Survey in July last year. The findings showed that while the academic staff recruited in 2015/16 typically came from another HEI, a larger proportion of professional services staff were recruited from other sectors of the economy than from within HE.

There are undoubtedly circumstances when candidates from non-HE sectors can be attractive. As an executive-recruitment firm, we are seeing a trend at Chief Operating Officer level and across professional services – HR, IT, finance, estates, marketing and recruitment etc. – for “future-ready skills”, as well as greater efficiencies.

Similarly, there is an increasing culture of customer service in higher education, both internally towards staff and colleagues, and externally such as any are that engages students. For these reasons, more appointing panels are exploring the potential benefits of bringing in a more commercial approach to HE and seeking individuals from the private sector to help achieve these goals.

When external recruitment works well

Given the uncertainty of Brexit and the inevitable impact on international staff recruitment, the future of UK universities really will depend on an ability to attract and develop the best workforce, from top academics to senior leaders. A reluctance to hire senior managers with a corporate background leads to a shallower pool of applicants. So, what should an organisation look for in an external candidate?

Transferable skill come first and foremost. Interview panels should seek someone who has worked across more than one sector if possible. Employees are often stronger and more adaptable if they have worked in different settings, so it is vital that a candidate can provide evidence of learning the language of different sectors.

It has to be said that some sectors work better than others in this regard. For some roles, candidates from large professional firms can have advantages as they usually have experience of dealing with big personalities or working at a very senior level, which can translate well to dealing with highly successful academics.

The broader public sector – such as in a heavily-regulated area like health – can also be a good parallel, particularly if a candidate has experienced changes in processes or compliance. The most relevant industries include those with large staff bodies, complex stakeholder relationships, and large estates – or those that are knowledge or content-led.

Appointments from the cultural sector or large media organisations like the BBC can be effective. The military is another interesting sector. Neil Latham CBE, Chief Operating Officer at Bath Spa University, is one example of an individual who made a cross-sector shift. Neil had a 30-year career with the Royal Navy before transferring into education management. Experience of transformational leadership, adaptability, and working with a variety of people aided his transition.

As Neil put it:

Having and retaining a different perspective while also understanding the nature of university business is perhaps the greatest benefit that someone like me can bring to higher education. It enables a fresh view, an ability to constructively challenge orthodoxy, with direct experience of alternative approaches.

For some people coming from outside HE, there can be frustration at the pace and policy surrounding the sector. There needs to be mutual understanding and a willingness to see what each other brings – a coming together on common ground, with cultural empathy around what HE embodies, and recognition that it represents something significant in society.

How to attract and keep the best senior talent

When liaising with potential candidates from outside the sector, it can often be the case that few have previously thought about moving into higher education. They often have perceptions around what it would it be like to work in HE which may not correlate with reality, and more could be done to present higher education as an attractive career proposition.

Vision and purpose is important. Very often, a move into HE from the private sector is about candidates wanting to achieve more social purpose. We look for genuine commitment to what the sector stands for, such as experience of charitable governance or university governing bodies. Cultural fit is key.

For universities who seek to recruit from outside it is important to think about the signals sent to potential candidates during the process. You can be more flexible in how you handle candidates without compromising propriety. Allowing candidates to have proper informal engagement with you at the right stage, and prior to final interview, makes a massive difference. Candidates want to come to an interview having assured themselves that it would be enjoyable to work with you. Likewise, a diverse recruitment panel can assist in avoiding unconscious bias.

Staff benefits, development opportunities, and improved career paths may become increasingly important to attracting good candidates in coming years.

Following appointment, on-boarding and induction must be thoroughly executed. Employers should play an important role in smoothing the transition, for instance mentoring from senior staff or a university governing body/council member can be highly valuable. Gaining access to a peer who has had similar out-of-sector experience, or even someone similar at a different university, can also make an enormous difference to retention.

Lastly, patience and time are essential in allowing a new appointment to adjust to a fresh environment. More than anything, universities need to remember that the reason a candidate was appointed was for their alternative skillset and viewpoint. While everyone may be most comfortable with the appointee who “goes native” fastest, it is important to remember that an out-of-sector appointment is often made because of the creative challenge it will provide.

post list Latest articles

3 responses to “How to attract out-of-sector leaders into HE

  1. Both this article, and the Mary Stuart article to which it refers, say important things about leadership. ‘Out-of-sector’ leaders would be welcomed by me if they led to an elimination of the ‘leadership as law enforcement’ atmosphere that is too prevalent in the sector at the moment.

    However, what do you mean by leadership ? If this was a first year Organisational Behaviour essay, my comments would be:

    1) Your model of leadership is dated and limited, a latter day version of the ‘great-man’ (sic) version of leadership, wherein leadership results from the qualities and traits of ‘a leader’;.

    2) Many theories of leadership are contextual, or contingent. HE, it could be argued, is a high performance, high commitment sector. This imposes particular requirements on the nature of leadership.

    3) One aspect of this is the extent to which ‘task-competence’ (the ability to undertake the primary task of the organization – research and teaching) is a requirement. The evidence is mixed, but worth considering.

    4) Another is relation between ‘out-of-sector’ hires, and ‘great man/woman’ approaches to leadership, to followership.

    5) Particularly relevant in HE – and, anecdotally, what I witness in front-line delivery of teaching and research – are the concepts of Distributed Leadership and Raelin’s idea of ‘leaderful practice’; the leadership problem of the sector seems to be enabling this, rather than the threatening of it by self-identified ‘great-man’ archetypes.

    6) What is the research led-evidence base that informs any recommendations about leadership in the sector.

    I know it is a lot to ask, but given this is an HE blog, what appears here should at least acknowledge what we research and teach about the given subject ?

  2. Taking up this theme and connecting to Paul Greatrix’s recent post on senior professionals in HE, discussing research where credibility is identified as a key success factor – how might credibility be achieved by out-of-sector senior recruits in HE?

    I would suggest relating this to the similar concept of trust, as discussed in Shockley-Zalabak et al. (2010), “Building the high-trust organisation”. They identify five sources of trust in leaders:

    1. Competence
    2. Openness and honesty
    3. Concern for employees
    4. Reliability in keeping commitments
    5. Employees seeing their own values reflected in leaders

    The first of these is, as Bill notes, likely to be difficult for some out-of-sector recruits: however, there is nothing to stop them working on the other four. It is tempting to say that the last is particularly important to gain credibility; but actually I would argue that out-of-sector recruiting is useful precisely to challenge groupthink around values in some cases, and so the middle three become the most important priorities for out-of-sector senior recruits to establish trust or credibility.

  3. “Leaders brought in from non-education backgrounds can bring with them best practice from elsewhere, positive challenge and change, and an unbiased perspective on policy.”

    Can, but often don’t. Several instances from my own experience showed that they’re equally capable of bringing non-applicable practice, a desire to impose needless change in order to make their mark and a perspective on policy biased from an uninformed angle.

    If done, it can work well – but that’s true of internal hires too. Externality isn’t the key to success, picking the right person for the job is.

Leave a Reply