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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Can coaching bring back the joy to academic work?

By George Callaghan

Pause for a moment and jot down how many tasks and projects are currently at the front of your mind? You might already be thinking, “hold on, am I asked to pause, to stop thinking, stop doing, even for a moment? Does he not know how much I’ve got to do!” I would encourage you to give it a go.

Here are mine: write this blog, check work emails, check personal emails, re-read my Career Development Staff Appraisal Form for meeting later today, check train is going to be on time for said meeting, check if Waverley station has moved bike storage area since lock-down, check today’s to-do list I made yesterday, send the two qualitative interviews which have been transcribed to the printers…” OK, I will stop there – quite a long list which only took about 30 seconds to come up with. It also does not include other University work or general life stuff such as parenting, being in a relationship, owning pets, shopping and so on. The distinction between the private and professional life of academics is becoming increasingly blurred – and the pressure of work is becoming increasingly intense.

Then think back to when you embarked on your academic career, most likely full of excitement and joy at being able to pursue your intellectual passion for a subject, enthuse students, write papers, and successfully present at conferences.

What happened between the early excitement and present overload? How did our academic lives become so busy we barely have time for a coffee break, never mind time to think clearly and analytically? And crucially, what might we do about it?

While the answers to the changing nature of demands will be multi-factorial and include the marketisation of higher education and the pressure of research and teaching metrics, I argue in this blog that coaching offers a route-map to creating a more balanced and enjoyable professional life. It is an invitation to self-reflect, to recognise strengths, to develop insights, and to allow obstacles to be identified and overcome. This makes it a tremendously powerful staff development intervention.

Coaching can take several forms. For example, academic leaders and managers might use training to develop a coaching mindset. Here they would be using skills such as active listening and reflective inquiry to deepen the quality of their communication with colleagues. Alternatively, academic and professional staff might take dedicated one to one sessions with a trained and qualified coach.

Here, I begin to tell the story of how we are using coach training and coaching sessions to develop a coaching culture amongst academic staff within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the Open University. The project is still in its early stages but is showing great promise.

The initial idea was sparked by some coach training I engaged with as part of my professional development. I had a lightbulb moment when I realised that the constant curiosity, invitation to self-reflect and absence of judgement which underpin coaching conversations fit wonderfully well with the academic labour process. Many of us are drawn to work as university academics because we value agency, autonomy, and self-direction. As we know only too well, the current intensification of academic work militates against these, produces feelings of frustration and can be overwhelming. Coaching, with its focus on open questions and reflective inquiry, signposts new ways forward. Open questions and reflective inquiry may even lead to insights where we remember the joy and love of our work.

The project involves an external coach organisation providing introductory coaching skills training to academic leaders and managers. The positive early feedback led to expanding this offer of training coaching skills and to set up an internal coaching service where one to one coaching supports colleagues through career transitions.

We are presently working on an evaluation project using grounded theory methodology to analyse the impact of the coach skills training. The data is presently being collected and analysed and our aim is to offer a paper on this evaluation to Studies in Higher Education later in the year. Here, I offer my own reflections on what appears to be working – as well as some thoughts on what I might have done better.

In terms of what’s worked I am both refreshed and relieved to find that informal feedback and my own observations indicate that coaching adds value to the academic working life. One of these is the invitation to leaders and managers to self-reflect. To “listen more and talk less”.

As part of my own self-reflection, I began to pay attention to how I behave in meetings. Not how I thought I behaved, but what I do. I thought I consistently listened intently to others before making my own contribution. In fact, I was half listening to comments while internally formulating my own ‘excellent, articulate and very powerful’ contribution! I barely waited for others to stop speaking before I started. Acceptance of this embarrassing revelation led to a change in my listening. I began to concentrate on what others were saying. Not just to the words, but also the emotion behind the words. I began to pause before replying or I invited someone else to come in first. These are particularly challenging changes to make when one is chairing meetings or in a leadership and management position. Interestingly, once I let go of feeling responsibility for being the one with ‘the answer’ I felt more calm – and better ideas emerged.

In group or one to one meetings, taking the time to really listen generates new insights and opens the door to new possibilities. For leaders this can also be rather humbling as one realises others have equally (or more) valid ideas and solutions. This type of facilitative as opposed to directive leadership is particularly suited to academia, where the apprenticeship for the job involves independent thinking and the development of critical questioning.

This shift to leadership habits which draw on coaching, for example moving from ‘telling’ to ‘listening’, has the potential to motivate and energise colleagues. This takes time but offers substantial returns. Telling and directing is quicker in the short term – perhaps you are familiar with colleagues hesitating before making decisions, looking to first run it past a head of department, research lead or some other authority figure? While this style of management and leadership works to some extent (courses still get taught and research still gets done), it can create a dependent relationship. Leading through coaching invites colleagues to take more responsibility for their own – and consequently the university’s – development and growth.

What might I have done better? What immediately comes to mind is that I could have been much more patient. As I became convinced of coaching’s effectiveness, I set high expectations of uptake and the pace of change. The take up of coach training by leaders and managers did pick up, but over months and years as opposed to weeks. The habit of self-reflection I am (still) learning to practise has been of great assistance. The realisation that I must meet colleagues where they are now, not where I am.

Please consider how adopting a coaching mindset may be of service in improving the leadership and management in your own institution. You might reflect and think it is all working fine, but if you realise there is room for improvement then coaching may very well be of service. In the meantime, stay curious!

SRHE member George Callaghan is Professor of Personal Finance and Economics in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at the Open University. He is also a qualified coach with the International Coaching Federation and the Institute of Leadership and Management. If you would like to discuss any points in this blog, please email George.callaghan@open.ac.uk


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“What I wish I’d known” – academic leadership in the UK, lessons for the next generation

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.

Building Networks

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.

Conclusions

“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. 

References

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.


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Metrics in higher education: technologies and subjectivities

by Roland Bloch and Catherine O’Connell

The changing shape of higher education and consequent changes in the nature of academic labour, employment conditions and career trajectories were significant Continue reading

Paul Temple


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End-of-the-peer review?

By Paul Temple

Peer review has been in the news recently (well, what counts as news in our business): which perhaps isn’t surprising considering the effect it can have on academic careers – and much more besides.

Richard Smith, when editor of the BMJ, conducted an experiment by deliberately inserting errors into a paper (presumably one written specially for the occasion – this isn’t made clear!) and sending it to reviewers who were in the dark about what was going on. (A university ethics committee would have had fun with this.) None of the chosen reviewers apparently spotted all the errors: from which (along with other findings) Smith concluded that “peer review simply doesn’t work” (THE, 28 May 2015). But one of the reviewers, Trisha Greenhalgh of Oxford University, presents the same facts in an interestingly different light (THE, 4 June 2015). She spotted a couple of serious errors early in the paper, concluded it was rubbish, told the BMJ so, and read no further. So, for her, peer review was working just fine.

This is an interesting methodological point – Continue reading