Features: November 10th, 2006

Leadership Development in Higher Education

By Ewart Wooldridge CBE – Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, London

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

It is just two years ago that the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) was formally launched by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. It was one of the last parts of the public sector to have a dedicated centre for leadership and management development. Its provenance was not wholly unpolitical as the preceding years had been characterized by occasional negative comments by senior politicians on the quality of leadership in our universities.

In this article I will endeavour to address some key questions such as:

•Are politicians still criticising the quality of higher education (HE) leadership?

•What are the main leadership challenges facing HE?

•What techniques have we adopted to support leadership development?

• How easy is it to lay the foundations for long-term, sustainable development processes?

A Sector Leadership Still Under Fire?

It is a remarkable fact (coincidence?) that there has not been a major public criticism by politicians of the quality of HE leadership since LFHE was launched! We would of course like to claim credit for this at the LFHE! Perhaps the key was for the sector to demonstrate that it was prepared to invest in addressing the issues. More importantly, the evidence we have collected so far is that we are not coping with a ‘deficit model’. On the contrary, the evidence of performance in HE institutions is one of a remarkable capacity to deal with a succession of changes from government related to growth, regulation and funding. So we are building on success.

The other factor is that the sector went about the issue of defining our remit in a characteristically thorough and evidence-based way. This encouraged a better level of buy-in than if the LFHE had been hastily flung together. The main research and scoping work was undertaken by Professor Robin Middlehurst who is on secondment from the University of Surrey. With strong senior team members from a variety of sectors, and still keeping the core staff team at 16, we were probably seen by the sector and politicians alike to have struck the right balance of sector understanding, fresh blood and a lean organization.

Leadership Challenges Facing HE

By not dwelling on a deficit or failure model, we focused almost exclusively on future challenges—the capacity of universities and HE colleges to cope with a relentless set of drivers for change. The LFHE undertook a major survey in the autumn of its first year, analysing the challenges and asking leaders at all levels what leadership and development issues were thrown up by these drivers. The survey results were debated at a UK HE Leadership Summit in December 2004 which synthesised the results into a list of the 15 major challenges in HE to 2010. The three most significant of these are discussed in this article:

• Succession planning and talent management.

• Handling change.

•Competition and market positioning (in the UK and internationally).

Nurturing Tomorrow’s Leadership Talent

Across the 170 institutions served by the LFHE, a remarkable diversity of processes exists to select and support future leaders. While this diversity may never go away, there is a real recognition that more systematic processes have to be put in place to nurture tomorrow’s leadership talent, particularly as leadership is not necessarily the overriding career motivation where excellence in research, teaching and learning may be more powerful personal drivers.

Handling Change

Few sectors have such an intense combination of change drivers. While there was already a reasonable amount of management development of individual leaders, there was less evidence of systematic leadership development for senior and project teams. This has prompted a significant set of processes by the LFHE in institutional capacity building.

Marketing and Fund-Raising

The introduction of variable fees and a market in bursaries has increased the potential for competition across much of the UK, and the rhetoric of ‘brand’, and even ‘customers’, has steadily crept in, with an associated demand for development of marketing and fund-raising skills. At the same time, HE combines an increasingly competitive environment with the requirement to collaborate in research and regional agendas.

Techniques to Support Leadership Development

The LFHE offers a top management programme for HE. This involves action learning, mentoring and networking between participants over a six-month period. Ten out of the 14 recent appointments of vice chancellors are alumni of this programme. This success has been underpinned by creating similar programmes for less senior individuals and creating powerful alumni and professional learning networks.

Such development programmes for individual leaders at all levels has been balanced by interventions to support leadership teams. There is a growing demand for organization development consultancy to support senior teams and change programmes. LFHE fellowships and a change academy have also been introduced to support strategic change processes inside institutions.

The evolving governance relationship is a key issue in HE, and the LFHE has taken over and grown the Governor Development Programme for members of governing bodies and their chairs previously run by the Committee of University Chairs. A pioneering joint event for pairs of vice chancellors and their chairs has also been successfully held.

Laying the Foundation for Sustainable Development

These are early days, and the present portfolio of charged programmes is matched by significant development funding and investment from the LFHE. The key to long-term sustainability probably lies in the growth of customized interventions, whether as organizational development consultancy or in-house leadership development programmes built around LFHE templates. The other crucial factor is to retain an overall approach which does not preach managerialism, combines challenge with a respect for the underlying cultures of HE and uses the real issues of HE management as the focus of development and not imported case studies from others sectors.