by Fiona Denney
This blogpost presents findings from a research project funded by the UK’s Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s (LFHE) Innovation and Transformation Fund in 2015. 18 academics in leadership positions across 5 universities were interviewed about their leadership experiences and what they wished they had known before taking up their leadership posts. Eight key themes about the context within which they lead were identified. The themes are presented here along with a discussion of how this contributes to our understanding of the development of those who aspire to leadership positions in higher education.
Although much exists in the education literature and wider management and leadership literature about the qualities of “good” or “effective” leaders (Steffens et al, 2014) there is relatively little that considers the experience of leaders in the academic field (Peters and Ryan, 2015). Those in academic leadership positions are interesting to study because they have usually reached their leadership position as a result of being highly successful in their discipline area – particularly with regards to research – but not necessarily because they exhibit the characteristics or skills necessary for their leadership role. Research on the role that prestige plays in academic progression indicates clearly that esteem factors such as obtaining grants and publishing are important for progression to a leadership position, but that the role itself may require the individual then to prioritise other aspects which can cause identity conflict and dissatisfaction (Blackmore and Kandiko, 2011; Coate and Howson, 2016).
The themes from the study presented here have been developed into training materials which are freely available across the UK HEI sector here. The research provides an evidence base for focusing training and developing the next generation for the challenges of leadership ahead of them actually attaining a leadership position, and takes the literature beyond prestige factors to encompass the other aspects that aspiring leaders need to consider in their career.
The eight themes that emerged are divided into: Aspects that help career progression; Aspects of leadership that were found to be challenging; and, The “serendipity principle”
Aspects that Help Career Progression
Career Advancement and Planning
Developing and planning a career whilst still being open to unexpected opportunities were highlighted as important aspects of becoming a research leader. In particular, interviewees gave the following advice: learn about roles you are interested in and know the criteria for progression; take time to plan ahead; and, use appraisals to discuss and plan career development. Many of the interviewees did not have linear career paths and some had spent time in other sectors. They also suggested that personal values are factored into career planning. They talked about having a sense of a good ‘fit’ between themselves and the institutions they chose in their careers, concluding that the ‘best’ institution might not always be best for them.
Mentoring and Role Models
Interviewees mentioned the importance of mentoring and role models from two perspectives: reflections on the pivotal roles that effective mentors and role models had played in helping them to develop; and also the role for them, as leaders, to provide mentoring and to act as role models for the people that they lead. They also mentioned the role that informal mentoring can play and that mentors can be identified in a range of different settings.
The interviews revealed the importance of building and maintaining networks as a means of career progression as well as supporting networking activities for their own ECRs. They also acknowledged that social media are increasingly important for the new generation of researchers – although they didn’t always feel that they were the best equipped to advise on how to use it!
Building a Research Profile
All interviewees emphasised the importance of doing the “business” of research in order to progress with their career as research and academic leaders. There was no getting away from this core message – the markers of esteem, such as publishing papers, were key to progressing in their academic careers and, if anything, they felt that the pressure to publish is more intense now than when they started out.
Aspects of Leadership Found to be Challenging
Balancing Work and Life
Many of the leaders interviewed for this study commented on how important it was to put appropriate boundaries in place in their lives to stop work from consuming everything. They reflected on the steep learning curve that they encountered when they stepped into a leadership position and found that the workload increased exponentially. In particular, they emphasised that you can’t do everything and that prioritizing and not saying “yes” to everything were important skills to learn.
Impact of Culture and Environment
It was clear that interviewees perceived that academia has undergone considerable cultural and business change in recent decades and that this has consequences in terms of work-life balance, management, leadership and the balance of teaching and research. Interviewees suggested that the most significant shift has been towards a performance management style in combination with an increased emphasis on the importance of research and grant income.
Working with Others
All interviewees referred to the importance of working with other people to being able to achieve goals and lead well in an academic environment. There were a variety of contexts for this – networking, management, dealing with difficult people, meetings, giving feedback and the development of additional skills such as listening. What was clear in all of this is that academia is not a career option for people who want to work by themselves – working with others in a way that achieves things positively is a key aspect of working in today’s academy.
Challenges of Management and Leadership
It was clear from the interviews that being a leader in a UK university is likely to involve an element of management, and interviewees were responsible for managing people and finances, leading and developing strategy and policies and leading and managing their own research and teaching. Common themes in the interviews included the challenges of managing and leading within a modern higher education environment, the complexity of meeting organisational goals, working with staff with differing contributions and motivations, and balancing administrative and mechanistic processes with the need to be innovative and creative in research.
“I think I ended up getting where I am through a lot of just hoping I’m doing it right.”
Through asking our interviewees what they wished they’d known before they started in a position of academic leadership, the study found a high level of uncertainty and a lack of knowledge about how to do key aspects of the leadership role. The common thread throughout the interviews was the concept that the leaders were relying on luck, trial and error or ‘serendipity’ to get things right as a leader. In future research, the role of serendipity is important to understand as it identifies key gaps in training and preparation for succession planning and it also raises the question of how much of leadership is due to good instincts and whether it can actually be taught – in line with trait and contingency theories of leadership.
Fiona Denney is a Professor in Business Education in the Brunel Business School at Brunel University. Between 2003 and 2019 she worked in academic staff and researcher development, including as Assistant Director of the Graduate School at King’s College London and heading the Brunel Educational Excellence Centre at Brunel University. Fiona is a member of the Executive Committee of the UK Council for Graduate Education, a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Fellow of the RSA. Her research interests are focused on academic leadership in modern universities.
Blackmore, P, and Kandiko, CB (2011) ‘Motivation in academic life: a prestige economy’, Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 16(4), 399–411. https://doi.org/10.1080/13596748.2011.626971
Coate, K, and Howson, CK (2016) ‘Indicators of esteem: gender and prestige in academic work’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 37(4), 567–585. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2014.955082
Peters, K, and Ryan, M (2015) ‘Leading higher education: Higher Education Leadership and Management Survey (HELMs)‘
Steffens, NK, Haslam, SA, Reicher, SD, Platow, MJ, Fransen, K, Yang, J, Ryan, MK, Jetten, J, Peters, K, & Boen, F (2014) ‘Leadership as social identity management: Introducing the Identity Leadership Inventory (ILI) to assess and validate a four-dimensional model’, Leadership Quarterly, 25(5), 1001–1024 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2014.05.002
This is the fifth in a ‘virtual symposium’ series which began with Jane Creaton’s blog on 28 February 2020: Leadership in a Changing Landscape.