Why leadership ambition benefits the whole HE sector

There is a strange paradox in career development: the better you are at your job, the more likely you are to get typecast and potentially overlooked when it comes to promotion.

I’ve witnessed it across sectors – and have seen it within higher education too. Often when the appropriate time comes for career progression, a premium has developed on your abilities. The more proficient you are within your specialism, the less able your manager is at being able to envisage you within a new strategic role or, quite frankly, manage without you where you are now.

Too narrow

In essence, you become a victim of your own success as an expert in your profession, especially in a field where academic and/or technical knowledge is usually the pinnacle of success. It is a perverse fact that having worked hard for years you can then find it almost impossible for people at your organisation to view you in anything other than the niche role you perform now.

For this reason, it is challenging for individuals to advance into leadership roles without significant experience or being seen as capable of broader aptitudes.

Over the years, my colleagues and I have spent a lot of our time discussing this issue with higher education clients. As executive search and headhunting professionals, we naturally offer career advice when building relationships with organisations and assisting managers to become senior leaders.

Delivering leadership development, structural analysis, 360 reviews of senior teams, and culture-change strategy has repeatedly shown us something important: Higher education has much talent within its ranks, in spite of there being a reported skills shortage.

We’ve seen increasing diversity in how the professional services of universities are structured over the years – in general, a move away from the traditional unitary Registrar who oversaw everything apart from academic matters, towards more fragmented models.

In some places there has been a shift towards Chief Operating Officer (COO) titles. In a bid to keep up with business demands and rapid sector changes, senior teams are adapting their structure and skills.

So much is changing that we often see a gap between what universities are looking for in senior professional-services roles, and what candidates can offer. Being exceptional on paper doesn’t always translate into being a future-ready leader.

At this juncture, organisations can then look further afield and bring in leadership talent from other sectors. When this works well, the outcome is very fruitful. However, the cultural shift of business leaders moving into HE can be a hard transition, as is the capacity to cope with bureaucracy and the complex cogs of academia. Executive appointments can be made, only to be reopened a few years (in some cases months) later when the candidate moves back to familiar territory.

Another challenge we’ve seen is the gap between COO level and their direct and numerous reports. Often this chasm is as a result of financial savings, circumstance, or status. Whatever the reason, there is little succession planning, and it is hard for staff to progress.

These structures are not helping with the issue of organisational agility. So, it occurs to us that this leadership gap is one that can be tapped-into and filled with the talent we already have, to better prepare for future challenges.

More than ever, there is a need for ambitious employees in HE to seek opportunities to try new things and to push harder for broader experiences. We need to empower people to get into these roles, putting themselves forward more assertively.

A good example is Helen Watson, Registrar and Secretary at Goldsmiths, University of London. As the former Director of Planning at the University of Oxford, her appointment was within sector. She sums up the benefits of this move:

Successful organisations need to maintain a balanced range of experience within their leadership teams … an experienced internal candidate should bring in-depth sector knowledge and cultural understanding of an institution. This may be particularly useful in a leadership team which already includes previous appointees who are relatively new to the sector. In turbulent times, a ‘low risk’ candidate may seem to be a strong choice.

“The challenge for the internal candidate is to enable the panel to envisage them in a broader portfolio. It is easy to become identified with a particular area of expertise or, more unfortunately, a particular initiative or approach which may have been less than successful for reasons beyond their control.

Breadth matters

My nearly twenty years of experience advising on the appointment of vice chancellors, chief executives, and board members in education, charities and social enterprise, has shown me that sometimes this “broader portfolio” is more valuable than specialist knowledge.

With this in mind, here are five tips for professional-services employees to open-up new opportunities and to move up from managers to organisational leaders.

Expand experiences

It is essential you widen your scope and take on a broader role, such as an appointment to a strategic committee or working group. Long-term projects that require cross-institutional buy-in, such as rolling out digital change, are a tremendous strategic opportunity.

Take interim positions: be happy to act-up

There is a considerable amount of experience and value that can come from stepping-up during times of change. Volunteering yourself for project management or interim-management roles during recruitment proceedings, even on a temporary basis, can change perceptions.

Understand your sector

It is vital to be able to understand and interpret the data and financial imperatives of an organisation to drive change. Likewise, an up-to-date and firm understanding of your sector is essential, building your knowledge of changing trends, competition, government policy, performance, and impact on an international level. Make friends with data: the spreadsheet is king like never before.

Refine your social skills

Working at this level, you can’t rely on technical expertise alone. Don’t be typecast as a nerd. Where your professional-services expertise stood you apart before – be it marketing or accountancy – all leaders must exhibit well-rounded social skills. Look for opportunities to present to the senior management team or council, and network extensively and effectively internally and externally.

Get a mentor, or several

Regardless of your area of work, it’s invaluable to get insight from someone who has already trodden this path before you. They can help you to understand the internal politics at play, and coach you on how to navigate it to achieve your goal successfully.

One response to “Why leadership ambition benefits the whole HE sector

  1. Excellent article! Couldn’t agree more with volunteering for new opportunities and learning as much as you can. It takes extra effort but it’s definitely worth it. Choose those experiences carefully (e.g. working on a data protection project) by ensuring they link closely to your future role that you want (knowing data protection could help you step up in this area).

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