Learning to thrive during transitions at the top

Robin Middlehurst and Tom Kennie press the case for a rethink about how to manage changes in leadership.

Robin Middlehurst is a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe and a former Professor of Higher Education at Kingston University.


Dr Tom Kennie is a Director of Ranmore, a ‘niche’ provider of strategy, leadership and organisational development to the HE sector.

Transitions at the top in universities are a predictable part of institutional life and, usually, a sign of a healthy system. Senior managers get promoted, and heads of universities retire, take up new leadership positions in different institutions or countries, or move on to other types of work inside and outside higher education.

Less frequently, though often more publicly, university leaders have to step down either temporarily or permanently for personal reasons or professional failings.

The spotlight on these transitions at the top is typically focused on individuals. However, there are a range of other transitions that can happen simultaneously or sequentially – a change in leadership of the governing body, changes in membership of the university’s senior leadership team, or wider political changes at local or national level. Any of these can have implications for the institution, its staff, students and business.

Managing the shift

A transition at the top is often part of a wider “web of transitions” that people are faced with and need to get through. Both the more prominent – and more hidden – transitions create turbulence for institutions and their communities. If the transitions and their potential consequences are noted and attended to, associated risks can be more readily identified, assessed, and managed.

Are transitions likely to be more significant in future? We would argue that transitions in the life cycle of individual leaders, their immediate colleagues, and wider communities have always been significant, both at a personal and organisational level.

However, the significance of transitions is not always fully recognised or acted upon. As the operating context for higher education has become ever-more challenging, there needs to be more focus on transitions, including a different way of thinking about them.

A changing operating context for organisations and sectors with implications for types of leader and leadership has been trumpeted for decades. For example, in 2000, a national report on excellence in management and leadership in the UK forecast that leadership of organisations:

will become more difficult and burdensome with excessive data, high public expectations, heightened criticism, compliance demands and constant media glare.

PA Consulting’s annual surveys of vice-chancellors’ perceptions of their current and future environments also feature contexts of uncertainty and change with great regularity. The authors commented after their 2018 report Forecasts of Storms:

…instability is nothing new. Most of our surveys have been undertaken against backgrounds of uncertainty and disruption, whether through changes of government, policy reviews, new legislation, or demographic and societal shifts.

Impact of global uncertainty

However, the period 2019-2021 has challenged leaders and institutions in unprecedented ways. In the UK, while leaders were already dealing with shifting regulatory, financial, technological, and market changes, they also faced the impact of Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Then, along with the rest of the world, they were affected by the global Covid-19 pandemic. Institutions, their leadership, and communities have risen to the challenges, achieving remarkable changes in record time, but not without cost.

In Australia, for example, there are indications of a much higher turnover of top leadership, with half of the country’s 40 universities either appointing or seeking new heads of universities since the start of the pandemic.

The usual reasons for top leadership transitions are still evident but more personal reasons are coming to the fore. Leaders report they are burnt out from the crisis, want to return home overseas, and wish to be closer to family.

More interim leaders are in place, holding the fort for finite or undefined periods, with difficult decisions ahead. And the forecast for recruiting new leaders is not promising: a generally smaller pool because of the challenging context and a diminished diversity of candidates, particularly international ones.

If this is the Australian picture, it would be interesting to know how other countries are faring in relation to forthcoming top leadership transitions.

Thinking and acting differently

There are many key leadership lessons that have been learned through responses to the pandemic, including:

  • care and compassion for people matters;
  • universities are fundamentally important to their communities (local, national and global);
  • co-ordinated teamwork and collective responsibility are essential, alongside engagement and two-way communication;
  • collaboration and partnership are keys to success and to survival.

These characteristics are at the heart of building individual and organisational resilience to meet current and future challenges. They may have come to the fore through crisis but are not new. Nonetheless, they have a number of implications such as:

  • the kinds of individuals who are selected to lead universities;
  • how they are recruited, particularly diagnosis of the type of leader required and the assessment techniques used in the selection process;
  • how individual leadership transitions, and the wider web of transitions, are managed; and
  • how leadership is developed and supported throughout institutions.

In a time of crisis, it may be even more tempting than usual for governing bodies to seek to recruit heroes and heroines who can ride to the rescue of institutions and their communities, carrying forward programmes of transformational change. Yet this is not the right response.

It is time to recognise that the remarkable and rapid changes delivered during the Covid-19 crisis were achieved through collective action with many individuals, groups, departments, and units working together and providing necessary support to each other. The leadership task involved mobilising the power of the whole community, requiring considerable interdependency as well as informed, responsible, and committed independent action.

Integrated leadership transitions

In a new book, Leadership Transitions in Universities: Arriving, Surviving and Thriving at the Top, we explore the many types of transition encountered by leaders, their colleagues, and wider stakeholders. It is structured around the life cycle of university leadership:

  • becoming a leader – arriving well;
  • taking the role forward – evolving and progressively moving towards thriving in the role;
  • recognising how to cope with times of challenge – and surviving, while also keeping a watchful eye out for any signs that could lead to derailment;
  • exiting from the role – on your own terms – to focus on new beginnings.

It includes the voices and stories of those who have been, and are currently, leading universities. The experiences of the leaders we interviewed have been gained during periods of relative stability, high volatility, and uncertainty, and more recently, a period of existential crisis.

Their stories are combined with data, research, and analysis by ourselves and others in order to provide practical advice about leadership at the top in universities. Our three decades of work with higher education leaders in the UK and internationally, and our research for this book, have taught us that transitions into and through top leadership positions can be addressed and supported much better than at present.

We advocate an approach to “integrated leadership transitions” that we believe can nudge the odds in favour of more successful outcomes for all: the leaders themselves, senior teams, governing bodies, students, and the wider community.

The time is indeed ripe for a rethink.

Join us to discuss leadership transitions at a book launch event held in partnership with Wonkhe on Thursday, 24 June – find out more and register here.

3 responses to “Learning to thrive during transitions at the top

  1. It is great to see care and compassion at the top of your list Tom and Robyn. And your challenge about who we recruit as leaders. Too many brilliant people are entirely put off leading because ‘leadership’ is still so associated with dominance and detachment. The next generation of compassionate leaders are already here. But most don’t see themselves as leaders at all. We need a culture change to shift that. And talented, naturally compassionate people need a very kind of leadership development. They already have emotional and social intelligence in spades. Thank you for raising this important conversation.

  2. It is great to see such focus on such an important area of organisational life. Right now what matters …..matters more than ever- especially care and compassion for people. Thank you for raising awareness of such important subjects.

  3. Such a timely book, Robin and Tom. I am sure that every university is taking stock after the Covid crisis to understand how it transformed the way we think about leadership and transition, and how we think about teaching and learning and how we care for our students. There are also major issues for governance of our universities here too I bought a copy today.
    Ewart Wooldridge

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