On influence inside universities

A dozen thoughts about internal influence in universities

Several caveats at the outset. First, this is a bit of a random collection of thoughts on a subject about which I can claim no special expertise. Secondly, the list is entirely personal, pragmatic, based on my own observations and not in any way rooted in theory. Thirdly, it was directed at a group of Directors of Marketing and Communications so there is a bit of tailoring there.

The perfect role model?
The perfect role model?

Anyway, no claims made for this list but may be of passing interest.

  1. Play it straight in all directions. This means showing moral character, solving problems straightforwardly and being highly disciplined. Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli is the role model to follow I would suggest.
  2. Remember that the attitude of some senior colleagues will sometimes be that committing to an institutional strategy is optional. Universities are places where there remains scepticism about such things as strategy and many feel that retaining a critical distance from corporate positions is legitimate. Don’t flog yourself to death to secure compliance where this is the case.
  3. Money matters and numbers too: people will expect more of you than your budgets can deliver, and you should expect your academic colleagues and members of your governing body to challenge you on your data.
  4. Never overlook the potential of pictures and imagery in presentations to distract from the difficult issues, matters of substance and important ideas.
  5. Don’t hesitate to roll out the new and shiny stuff (e.g. social media) to exploit your superior insight and knowledge of where the kids are at.
  6. Do not be a glass half empty kind of person – retain optimism. World-weary cynicism will quickly disengage others.
  7. Remember that jargon will turn people off, but that a little bit of jargon can sometimes be strangely reassuring.
  8. Don’t overestimate the long-term memory of managers, who often spend their whole time racing from meeting to meeting and struggle to retain large amounts of data in their heads over time. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself.
  9. Play a long game. Universities generally change slowly but the right ideas will come to the surface in the end.
  10. Try not to get sucked into the internal politics – they are too difficult, complicated, difficult to manage and you will probably lose.
  11. Show academic colleagues in particular why your work can help them in their roles – build alliances and friends.
  12. And finally… whatever you do make sure you deliver. And stay cool. Always remember the Fonz.

I am indebted to Susannah Randall of SUMS for inviting me to talk about this, summarising my ramblings and then suggesting I turn it into a blog post.

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