Finding a first-class university leader

Juliet Taylor explains the four factors that recruitment panels within HE should consider in the process of finding a first-class uni leader

With the arrival of a new academic year, change is in the air for UK universities. Higher education institutes are inundated with new demands from all directions, including managing tight budgets and the political uncertainty surrounding Brexit, alongside developing a reputation that attracts students from across the globe.

At the same time, universities are faced with the same old challenges – especially in finding the best leaders. The task of securing the right senior leader has become even more important given the expanded remits these leaders now take on. Compounding the challenge is the increasingly competitive and international employment market. While traditional university leaders may have built their careers on their academic and research merits, other qualities such as people management skills, financial acumen and media savvy are fast becoming a pre-requisite for universities to thrive.

Traditional academic experience is still be important in a market that has a very unique operating environment, but unearthing a broader skillset will be key to take an institution forward. Here are four factors that recruitment panels within higher education should consider in the process of finding a first-class university leader: 

1.     Due diligence

Before beginning the search for a new leader, expectations of the role in question must be clearly understood. The recruitment panel must ensure they are informed by an appreciation of the vast challenges and opportunities in today’s higher education. The skills and qualities required for the candidate to perform effectively in the changing role must be evaluated. Careful review of the job and person specifications is vital, as is tailoring them to the latest demands of the role and ensuring it is not too limiting. This due diligence is essential in attracting the right sort of candidate and strengthening leadership – not just replacing an outgoing leader like-for-like.

2.     In-house talent

In the first instance, universities should look internally for potential candidates. But not all great academics make great leaders – the skillsets and behavioural requirements are often fundamentally different. Universities must ensure they get the right balance between academic credentials and management skills. This should be an extension of an established succession planning strategy, involving proactive career management and promotion within teams for those which show leadership potential.

If leadership training has been instilled within the ranks, this can provide an effective solution. People who have experience working in an organisation will be familiar with the institution’s culture, and may have valuable insights on how to improve the organisation from within. However, the benefit of having someone who understands the system can be lost if the candidate in question has not developed wider leadership skills, or has become too engrained to have perspective on how to take the institution forward.

3.     Casting the net

Exploring broad sources for a role can make the recruitment process more effective. Sometimes finding the best person for the job will require casting the net beyond the standard pool of candidates and seeking talent from other sectors that promote the sort of skills that will be useful in leading universities. The skillsets of academics are often very different to those who have experience in management across other sectors, but of course, academic credibility remains an important factor. Implementing new thinking to access the broader employment market and looking further afield than the usual suspects can bring a greater diversity of talent into the fold – an increasingly important factor for universities. We’ve seen the professional services sector be especially popular as a field for broader recruitment, including established leaders with Finance, IT and HR backgrounds.

4.     Cultural fit

It is important to carefully think through the full recruitment process and consider how the steps involved are tailored towards hiring the right person for the job. For starters, it is essential not to underestimate the significance of a candidate’s interpersonal skills and cultural fit. These attributes can never truly be conveyed through a CV or application form. A rigorous interview process is essential in rooting out the candidates that will best complement the existing workforce, share the vision of the institution and build productive relationships. Making an appointment purely on the basis of academic reputation and credibility would be a mistake, but going too far the other way and recruiting an efficient manager lacking in ‘soft skills’ and ability to gain the respect of peers would be equally ill advised. Leaders must be able to encourage staff to buy in to their vision and communicate it in a way that is accessible. Psychometric testing can often be an effective and resource-efficient tool to narrow down the pool of candidates by lending insights into skills and personality.

More so than ever, Higher Education Institutions require effective leadership in order to navigate the changing landscape. Universities that are more agile and dynamic in adapting to this shifting environment will succeed. But every institution has the chance to turn the present turbulence into an opportunity for progress. New leaders should therefore be able to permeate a culture of effective management through to all staff and bring established leadership and management skills to the role.

Whilst the current situation universities are in may seem challenging, effective leadership will help to facilitate a less turbulent passage through the period of flux ahead. Often there will be a clash between the desire to maintain traditions and the need not to impede progress, but getting this crucial decision right will stand institutions in good stead not just now but for the coming years as well.

Juliet Taylor is a Partner and Head of the Education Practice at GatenbySanderson – the leading provider of executive recruitment.

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