Complaining that the leadership talent pool is running dry? Here’s how to fill it

Abandoning traditional hierarchies and allowing mid- and early-career staff to experience leadership creates a thriving, diverse talent pool, say Jo Cresswell and Peter Hogg


Dr Joanne Cresswell Coaching,University of Salford
27 Dec 2021
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Too many university academics complain that the leadership talent pool is running dry without making any attempt to reach out to fresh talent

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Effective academic leadership is fundamental to institutional success. Yet in many HE organisations, there remains an imbalance in equality, inclusion and diversity in leadership. In this article we highlight why this lack of diversity is so significant and draw on our experience to outline an integrated, accessible and inclusive leadership pathway for creating a diverse talent pool of candidates for roles at all levels of the leadership structure.

The problem 

Many studies focus on challenges at senior executive level (vice-chancellor, pro vice-chancellor, etc) yet changes can only be achieved with diverse and inclusive leadership pipelines. Among the key challenges are that academic leadership often lacks transparent training pathways or has a culture of patronage or sponsorship.

This masks issues with diversity and inclusion and presents no clear intervention points. Research-active academics face additional obstacles to progression as there is an expectation for them to maintain a high level of research quality in addition to their leadership responsibilities. This is a particular issue for female researchers.

Often, traditional institutional hierarchies and decision-making bodies require academic leadership positions to be filled by professors or existing leaders. Combined, these factors can “bake in” inequalities due to poor diversity at this level.

The impact 

Organising decision-making and strategic committees and groups in this way can lead to blind spots, unconscious bias and poor understanding of inclusion and diversity issues. Less diverse groups are less likely to foster creativity and innovation in idea generation and problem solving at a time when these are sorely needed.

Academic leadership positions can also appear overwhelming due to the weight of responsibility, uncertain expectations and patchy training. The lack of role models, advocates or dedicated mentoring for academics from marginalised communities can deter them from even considering applying for leadership positions. This, combined with poor succession planning, means there is no clear or inclusive pipeline of academics with the skills, experience or confidence to secure leadership roles.

A solution? 

We propose an integrated model at institutional and school, college or faculty levels, with a commitment to equality, inclusion and diversity. To be truly effective this should be developed in partnership with academics and representative groups from marginalised communities to identify specific aims, issues and obstacles and create tailored development initiatives. These may include training, coaching, mentoring or changes in practice to remove barriers and support confidence. To this end, these are practical steps we would recommend:

  • Create a pathway of intermediate and secondment leadership roles throughout school, college or faculty structures. Peter Hogg implemented a series of research leadership positions within his school, allowing mid- and early-career staff the chance to experience leadership, supported by senior mentors.  
  • Open recruitment for leadership roles to readers, senior lecturers, lecturers and research fellows. Secondments, or fixed-term rotational positions, are effective in providing insight and experience and reducing risk. Open communication and engagement are critical to support applications from all diversity groups, while mentoring and coaching allows new leaders to become confident in the scope and responsibility of their role. We have seen the power of this approach, with earlier career academics appointed as research centre directors and associate deans, driving innovation and engagement.
  • Embed diversity into committee or decision-making body membership reviews. Question whether role-based membership is appropriate and sufficiently inclusive. Including earlier career staff allows for greater diversity and broadens the conversation to include opinions and voices from the wider academic community.
  • Allocate newer members of committees a sponsor or mentor from the existing membership who can guide and support them to establish their voice, presence and confidence in the group, while allowing them full responsibility in their role.
  • Create academic working groups to address institutional development needs, with a commitment to inclusion and diversity. Applications are invited from those with special interests or expertise, regardless of career stage, giving earlier career academics experience of contributing to institution-wide initiatives.

Strong leadership and commitment at institutional and school/college/faculty level is critical. Existing academic leaders and the professoriate must be engaged to support acceptance of leaders at lecturer/research fellow level, and the changes in culture and practice that may result. Reverting to the original approach carries the danger of dissatisfaction and disengagement in earlier career researchers and marginalised communities.  

The outcome 

Simply having these conversations increases awareness on how best to harness the potential of all academic staff. Creating a staged academic leadership pathway improves resilience and effectiveness. Leaders are protected from overwhelm and a wider range of expertise is available, as more people are involved. Leadership experience strengthens applications for promotion to reader and professorial level, supporting a much-needed increase in equality and diversity in later career stages.

Dedicated and tailored support, coaching and mentoring creates confidence and raises aspirations for those academics who may not have considered applying for leadership positions before. Greater diversity allows for more role models and eases the path for future academics.

Above all, this model creates a dynamic, thriving, resilient and well-trained academic leadership talent pool, supporting succession planning, increasing choice and promoting an equal, inclusive and diverse selection process.

We are now one fifth of the way through the 21st century. It’s time to put dedicated time and effort into developing and harnessing the leadership talents of all academics. Universities are facing unprecedented challenges, which can only be solved through creativity, innovation and diversity.

Our experience has been in developing research leadership pathways, yet the model we propose here is applicable to all academic disciplines, as well as professional services pathways. Our aim has always been to identify and develop talent wherever it is found in the organisation.

Jo Cresswell is coach and mentor at Dr Joanne Cresswell Coaching. She was formerly director of research and knowledge exchange at the University of Salford.

Peter Hogg is emeritus professor at the School of Health and Society, University of Salford.


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