By Published On: April 22nd, 2022
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Leading the day-to-day operations of a university is a tougher task than it’s ever been, not least because effective leadership of a modern university’s administrative services means taking a truly end-to-end view of each key function, and operating amidst ever more complex regulatory, commercial, academic and service user pressures (without any commensurate increase in time available!). In this context creating the space and building the capability for horizontal leadership is critical to success.

Cubane has been working with colleagues at Nous to conduct a global survey, the first of its kind, into the views and priorities of senior professional service leaders (those in chief operating officer roles and equivalents). The full report capturing the findings from the research will be launched at a special event in Central London in late April.

Finding time for what matters most as leaders

One of the key findings from the survey and interviews is how vividly COOs described the ways in which the job of professional service and wider university leadership has changed over the past five years or so. Whereas once leading professional services may’ve had an overwhelming focus on ‘keeping the lights on’ and ensuring regulatory and risk management PS leaders are now asked to be a true strategic partner to the rest of the executive team.

But the working week hasn’t gotten any longer, even as the demands of leading a university’s operations have ballooned! And the realities of servicing ‘day to day’ needs apply to senior leaders, too. Data from the UniForum programme reveal that across the UK and Australia / New Zealand (ANZ) fully a quarter of the time of the most senior manager grades is taken up with just three activities: staff performance management, compliance / risk management, and committee support (an average of 21% for ANZ universities and 27% for UK institutions). This will come as no surprise at all to senior managers themselves, but it does emphasise the challenges of carving out sufficient time to do more of what matters most, for example leading change or engaging around key strategic decisions.

Developing end-to-end leadership capability

A challenge indeed, but a challenge worth tackling. Having line responsibility for a loosely-assembled but fairly unrelated service departments has been overtaken by the need – certainly in the case of the most effective universities – to develop a ‘horizontal leadership skills set’ that allows the COO and his or her team to make decisions in the interests of the university as a whole: helping it to navigate the strikingly complex and rapidly changing mix of regulatory, commercial, service user, civic and other pressures.

UniForum benchmarking shows how vital this ‘leading horizontally is’. A substantial proportion of any professional service activity is conducted outside of the department with that name on the door. To take a recent real example: a university might have a fifth of its total capacity for IT operating under the budget control of its academic departments, or a similar proportion of its HR capacity. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a problem to be fixed it does emphasise and underline how administrative service leaders need to be leading across the whole institution to be effective.

Suffice to say this is not how universities have traditionally, or even recently been run. Pursuit of ever-increasing professionalisation of university administrative service disciplines may’ve resulted in higher standards in everything from finance to HR to student administration, but it also had the additional, unintended consequence of creating new silos: relatively isolated and hard-to-penetrate staff families bound together by a strong sense of shared identity but with little sense of common purpose.

A new operating principle and leadership ethos

As in any field, the most innovative institutions have been advancing in this direction for some time now, typifying what can be described as ‘function-led leadership’. At the heart of this is taking a complete, end-to-end view of the capacity available for delivering a certain set of services (student and teaching admin services, say), and working together as a leadership group, with the cooperation of academic and professional leaders equally, to set priorities overall and for individual functions. This kind of function-led leadership allows a good balance between reflecting overall strategic priorities whilst also allowing those leading each function to make appropriate decisions around which services to prioritise for efficiency savings and which to invest in around service improvement.

This approach becomes an ‘operating principle’ and a ‘leadership ethos’ as much as a way of setting capacity targets and priorities for change. It’s certainly not the total answer in terms of effective leadership of modern universities, and the COO survey reveals a host of other considerations and qualities that are also important, for example around people leadership, evidence-based decision making and resilience. But the experience of UniForum members emphasises what a game-changer a function-led approach can be in terms of a practical solution to the age-old problem of cross-institution collaboration.

To find out more about what taking a function-led approach to leadership looks like, contact the Cubane team here: [email protected].   

About the Author: Phil Copestake

Phil leads Cubane’s business in the UK and Europe. Before joining Cubane he was a senior member of the higher education practice at PA Consulting, with wide-ranging experience of supporting universities across the UK and internationally. He worked with a large number of institutions to develop and implement major transformation programmes to improve efficiency and service standards, and also aided several universities in developing and stress-testing global expansion and other investment plans. Phil specialises in strategy development and execution, preparing robust business cases to aid good decision making, and designing new customer-centred service delivery models. To contact Phil please email [email protected]
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