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"All those of us who are, or may become leaders, should pause to reflect on our own leadership practices..."

31 Oct 2023 | Naina Patel Naina Patel, Chief People Officer of the University of the Arts, London (UAL) and Chair of Universities HR (UHR), shares her thoughts on the findings from Advance HE's Leadership Survey for Higher Education report. (Photo: Christopher Ould)

Good leadership is integral to the success and sustainability of any organisation, particularly those that are people-centred, such as universities. Each has unique characteristics, but there are patterns across the sector, and globally, which enable us to learn from one another and improve together. The pandemic created opportunities for rapid, lasting changes in how universities can be led, flattening organisational structures, making workplaces more inclusive, and putting emphasis on people’s wellbeing. We’ve had to be more adaptable and ready to change, and be more flexible to attract and enable staff to come back to workplaces and roles that may be very different from before.

I’m writing this from the perspective of both my corporate role as Chief People Officer of the University of the Arts, London (UAL), and as Chair of Universities HR (UHR), the professional association for HR and related staff in HE providers, based in the UK. As the lead for people and culture in a large UK university, recruiting, developing and nurturing excellent academic leaders is an important part of my brief. But so much of what we deliver as universities is only possible by academics and professional services staff working collaboratively, and so, as UHR Chair, I have a keen interest in developing the talent pipeline for HR and other professional services roles.

The ‘Leadership Survey for Higher Education’ report gives me both encouragement and pause for thought. Both leaders and those being led prioritised developing a positive and enabling culture, and teaching and learning above everything else, with equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), a vital aspect of culture, also highly ranked. I’m encouraged by that, as we are all working towards a common purpose of everyone being able to make their best contribution and putting students at the heart of what we do; and we can’t achieve this without equity for every member of the HE community.

But the full leadership potential and talent available within HE is being underutilised, which is disappointing, given how much there is. I wasn’t entirely surprised to see a disconnect between the skills that leaders recognised they need in order to lead well, and the perception of those led, that there was a deficit. Many leaders, particularly in academic roles, have traditionally, and even recently, taken on leadership roles for which they were unprepared: sometimes there’s an ad hoc approach to promotion to leadership roles, sometimes advancement is based on research or teaching excellence rather than the full skillset required of an effective leader. Those of us who are leaders need to take a good hard look at ourselves, and be humble in identifying where there’s a development need, and look for continuous improvement. Appraisal and review processes should prioritise identifying leadership skills that need to be addressed, and for leaders to see this as a positive opportunity that will enable them to be even more effective in their roles.

We need to keep working on identifying potential leaders much earlier in their careers and offering a variety of development opportunities, formal and informal, so that people consider and work towards the next step up. A key part of this is ensuring staff from all backgrounds are equally aware of and supported to take advantage of such opportunities, including being proactive in seeking out those currently underrepresented on development programmes and in leadership roles, mentoring and reverse mentoring.

One of the findings is around staff well-being and culture as a priority for leaders to consider.  This is something that many HE providers have focused on recently, prompted in part by the pandemic, movements such as BlackLivesMatter, #metoo and debates around identity and freedom of speech. We need to have, and to be, authentic leaders who speak up when things aren’t right, and defend others when they do so, creating an environment where everyone feels safe to believe and to be themselves, but with respect and dignity when challenging those with different views. When workloads are increasing, and financial and other pressures adversely affect many staff and students, we need to equip staff better to face challenges and support them through difficulties. It’s interesting that the report notes “gendered differences about how leadership attributes are valued, with a stronger emphasis by females on collaboration and wellbeing”. These are attributes that are increasingly valued by organisations as essential if they are going to thrive in uncertain times, where people need to be heard, and performance is optimised when everyone involved is thriving.

There’s still so much work to be done to improve leadership of EDI, at both the individual and organisational level. Two examples of progress may be replicated more widely. WHENEquality’s Senior Women of Colour network, of which I’m a member, is a superb example of a key group of leaders collaborating and facilitating leadership development that organisations could learn from. And UHR is collecting data from its members that will enable us to identify where certain groups might be under-represented or under-served by our activities, and to put steps in place to address this.

The report identifies that we need to work harder at developing professional services staff, and of course we know that roles are increasingly fluid and that the distinction between academic and professional services is sometimes blurred. Smaller HE providers often have a particular difficulty with leadership development, where staff, especially in professional service functions, may have a variety of roles, or more informal leadership responsibilities that don’t automatically give access to appropriate training or development. Partly to address this, in UHR, we’re developing a ‘ladder’ of development activities for staff in HR at all stages of their career, so that our members can access learning opportunities even if their organisational budget is tight. With colleagues in Professional HE Services (PHES) we also offer a variety of development activities including our free Introduction to HE for Professional Services staff, which helps people at any stage of their career but new to HE, to gain an insight into how UK HE operates, and how to thrive in its unique context.

An observation from the report, with which I’ll conclude. “Reflection is appreciated for its value and importance but not valued and prioritised sufficiently to deploy reflective practice, and this presents an accessible and immediate way to enhance the practice of leadership across all leaders.” In this new academic year in the UK, all those of us who are, or may become leaders, should pause to reflect on our own leadership practices, and how we are developing and refreshing ourselves and those around us as leaders. Am I being fully inclusive, and how can I demonstrate that? What can I do better? Am I listening properly, and who influences me most? When did I last learn something new, reflect on it, and put it into practice?

I look forward to UHR and other partners working with Advance HE to take forward the recommendations and enhance excellent, diverse and inclusive leadership across the sector. 

Naina is the Chief People Officer at the University of the Arts London. She previously served as Director of Human Resources. Naina has over 20 years of experience working in the higher education sector, prior to which she worked in the NHS. She joined the University in January 2015 and is a member of the Executive Board.

Naina has a social sciences degree, is a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and is a trained coach. She has held governor roles at primary and secondary schools, and at a further education college. She plays an active role in the sector and is currently a member of the Universities Human Resources executive committee and on the joint (employers and trades unions) gender pay working group.

Advance HE is hosting an event to explore ‘Developing Leadership that Sustains, Aligns and Engages’ following the findings of the Global Leadership Survey on 16 November 2023 in Birmingham. Find out more and book your place.


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