Nurturing higher education leaders

Nadine Burquel, Director of Business School Services, EFMD & Ian Creagh, Strategy Consultant, HUMANE.

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HUMANE, the Heads of University Management and Administration Network in Europe, is an international association whose aims are to build international networks, to foster innovation in higher education services and to advance professional excellence in higher education management.

Since 1997 HUMANE has been supporting the professional development of current executive leaders as well as organisational development through the provision of programmes for senior managers.

Every year EFMD and HUMANE organise three one-week leadership development programmes for senior managers in higher education:

  • A Winter School on internationalisation in Barcelona
  • A Summer School on transformation and change management in higher education in Berlin
  • An Asia Pacific School on strategic partnerships in higher education in Hong-Kong

What can business schools and universities learn from each other in organising internal professional development?

Business schools deliver a wealth of executive education to corporate clients and individual business leaders. But how are they nurturing their own leaders and managers?

Business education has become a globally competitive industry, meaning that “the business of business schools” has changed profoundly. Business schools are under pressure to design new business models, to diversify their education portfolio and enter into new forms of partnerships to enhance their global strategic position. Alternative education providers are growing fast. Not many schools have quite grasped how they can adopt digital learning at scale.

It is one thing to design new business models; it is another one to drive schools through major transformation processes. Leaders and managers need support to implement strategic change, adopt new organisational models and enhance professional services in business schools. “The business of universities” is also changing in a competitive world of mass education and globalisation. Higher education institutions must compete for scarcer public and private resources and meet the expectations of multiple stakeholders.

They need to demonstrate social and economic impact from their research outputs, be it to help address “grand challenges” associated with, for example, climate change, mass immigration or dealing with ageing populations in developed countries. It is, therefore, no surprise that university leadership and management capability, as well as the institutional capacity, have become so critical for institutional success.

There are often tensions between business schools, institutional leadership and “the central administration” in universities. Business schools are often closer to the student and other markets and as such are often eager to move fast with a business-like approach.

They can view the administration as “the elderly parent” imposing policies and procedures ill-suited for what they perceive to be their more dynamic approach. Yet central services in many universities are also modernising quickly, with a strong emphasis on achieving measurable gains in efficiency in parallel with achieving gains in quality and satisfaction levels. The passive, rule-bound administrations of old, are being rapidly replaced by professionally led and professionally delivered corporate and academic services, combining and integrating central, local and outsourced service providers.

What action points in professional development can improve co-operation between business schools and their parent universities?

In designing any professional development programme for university leaders and managers, whether they are academics or providers of support services, it is important to bear in mind the global forces that are driving the need for institutional change in the way higher education institutions are led and managed. The following are commonly accepted as the most important:

  • The globalisation of higher education, particularly in terms of the extensive search for talent in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM disciplines), as well as the extraordinary growth of international student mobility
  • Policy shocks, usually resulting from public pressure on higher education funding and often accompanied by significant shifts in the regulation of higher education
  • The relentless march of digitalisation and new technology, impacting teaching, research and the management of universities
  • The increased expectation of governments, business and industry for higher education to play a greater role in driving social transformation as well as economic growth in return for taxpayers’ investment in higher education
  • Shifts in the labour market for professionals, which is challenging the nature and content of university degrees
  • Shifts in students’ expectations of what their student experience should be

In some cases, the need to re-align an institution along some or most of these drivers are caused by a rapid change in the funding policies or regulatory environment, calling into question an institution’s entire operating model.

In other circumstances, the incentives to re-align are more oblique, where perceptions of institutional competitiveness are unclear and there is no one single factor forcing the need to change. Irrespective of which end of this spectrum an institution is located, the process of leading and managing re-alignment requires highly skilled professional management working in tandem with academic leadership.

In such exciting but turbulent times, senior managers in higher education need to understand global industry trends as well as the geopolitical changes that impact on higher education.

Narrow programmes focused on one-dimensional views of leadership and management will only achieve so much in helping to foster the creative, open-minded, digitally savvy and culturally aware higher education managers needed for higher education institutions to navigate the complex, competitive environments most institutions are now operating in.

Conversely, multifaceted multi-dimensional, matrixed professional development programmes will equip individuals with the knowledge and skills to grow in future leadership roles, in broader rather than narrow functional positions. Professional development programmes must help participants understand the scale and impact of trends in their industry. At the same time, they must help participants grasp the concrete implications of these trends for their institutions and for their own personal career development. In a nutshell, it is about developing reflective practitioners.

There is a wealth of knowledge and experience in higher education institutions, from which leaders and managers can draw to take their institution further in terms of its strategic developments. But there are great benefits in collaborating with external partners and in learning from other sectors about the way they have delivered major transformations.

The delivery models of professional development programmes need to balance the provision of new knowledge about organisational management with skills components. Experiential, active learning approaches are therefore more commonplace in contemporary developmental programmes as these enable participants to experiment in settings that are non-judgmental, and solely focused on personal and professional improvement.

Similarly, there are great benefits to be realised from more consciously building peer-based learning experiences into professional development programmes in recognition of the fact that participants learn as much from each other as they do from instructors.

Developing cross-organisational and cross-functional conversations

Beyond the in-house leadership programmes delivered in business schools and universities, there is great value in exposing senior managers to many alternative views. Learning is enhanced when it takes place across internal organisational divisions, across institutions, sectors and with peers who hold different positions.

Multiple viewpoints can be considered for cross-functional teams to work collaboratively on new approaches, which build creatively on the best elements of each participant’s contribution. These “learn by doing” approaches, which seek to simulate real-world situations in higher education institutions, are an effective way of up-skilling participants rapidly in collaborative problem solving, as well as giving them access to an international peer network which they can use once a programme has been completed.

These approaches to programme delivery also help to underline the balancing act of leadership in modern higher education: balancing top-down drive and a sense of urgency with the need to win the support of a bottom-up, empowered community; and balancing a commitment to academic freedom and significant individual academic autonomy, with the need to prioritise the allocation of scarce resources to progress a school’s or institution’s strategy.

Developing open mindsets to understand multiple viewpoints

There is no single business model to steer a university or business school forward. Institutional and school-specific strategies and their leadership, governance and management models, all exist in a rich context of their regional, national and international ecosystems, alongside their strategic aspirations.

There are great benefits to be realised from peer learning and benchmarking between institutions to understand the drivers behind different institutional missions and strategic approaches, including, for example, the effective management of stakeholders’ involvement in and commitment to a school’s or institution’s strategic agenda.

Developing (inter) cultural awareness and cross-cultural leadership

The learning also comes from the leadership skills acquisition and above all the understanding of what it means to be culturally aware and agile. In the global world of higher education, it may seem that mimicry of the practices adopted by some leading institutions can be applied everywhere in the world. Yet all successful leaders know the substantial amount of time needed to deal with people within their institutions and with partner institutions to gain support for a fit-for-purpose strategy.

Things can go very wrong if cultural differences and approaches are ignored or not sufficiently addressed. Being a leader and manager in a higher-education institution is about building trust, working effectively with staff, students and stakeholders increasingly coming from many different backgrounds. Multiple conversations can maximize the potential for growth by working across borders, languages and cultures in the case of international strategic partnerships.

Conclusion

The challenges faced by all universities are both complex and deep-seated. They evade simple, template-style solutions, and more often than not, require systemic change in institutions’ operating models. Some of the most exciting academic developments are trans-disciplinary in character, cutting across traditional “school” boundaries, but requiring much more flexible and agile approaches to academic leadership and resource prioritisation. Many, perhaps even most, rectors or deans of business schools will tell you that one of the biggest challenges they face is assembling and then aligning the leadership and management talent to be able to deal with these challenges in an effective way, without damaging the “academic soul” of the institution.

Both universities and business schools experience the same challenges in how to manage change effectively, deal with conflict, understand resistance, work in teams, cope with ambiguity, understand different communication styles, and maintain an external awareness of the forces that impact on higher education institutions generally and business schools in particular.

These forces are beyond the control of institutions and even governments. Nonetheless, it is clear that significant skill deficits in these areas continue to exist in many business schools and universities more generally. Addressing these skills development challenges is beyond the resources and therefore the capacity of individual institutions. It is against this background that HUMANE and EFMD have sought to provide professional development solutions attuned to the needs of their respective memberships.

Nadine Burquel

Nadine Burquel is the Director of Business School Services at EFMD.

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Ian Creagh

Strategy Consultant, HUMANE

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