Over the past 18 months, we’ve all heard about the unique challenges of joining a new organisation during a global pandemic. For me, joining Leeds Trinity University as vice-chancellor in November 2020, I was faced with establishing my own leadership style at a time when staff and students were working remotely, a number of our traditional touchpoints had disappeared and the goalposts seemed to be changing by the day. Here are five of the key lessons I learnt, in the hope that other university colleagues can take something from my experiences.
1. Recognise the needs of your community
Treating people as individuals and taking a personal and authentic approach helps them feel seen, safe and supported. Understanding and respecting the university’s ethos that students are a name, not a number has been central to my overall approach as a leader. Although the personal touch was important to our community before Covid-19, it’s proved to be essential during the pandemic and will continue to be a priority for me going forward. For example, while there are many advantages to using technology to stay connected, we have also sent postcards and small gifts to our staff and students throughout the year in recognition of their hard work, resilience and prevailing community spirit. This, alongside regular and personalised updates to provide direction and clarity, has made a real difference.
2. Establish an agenda of inclusion
With or without a pandemic, our priority is always to support, nurture and be inclusive of everyone at the university. With this in mind, I have been steered by the notion of psychological safety so that everyone at Leeds Trinity feels comfortable enough to voice their opinion. This thinking has guided several race equality-related events within the university over the past year, including staff training and a virtual live event with staff, students and alumni on Black Lives Matter, with a focus on accountability, transparency and action.
During the pandemic, I have also overseen the introduction of an Office for Institutional Equity (OIE), one of the first of its kind in the UK. The OIE will establish a fairer, inclusive environment that sits outside HR. I will work closely with the director to examine all our policies and practices through the lens of equality, diversity and inclusion, support staff and students in these matters, and develop appropriate training.
3. Listen to lead
Building trust and developing relationships as a leader without being physically present on campus has certainly been a new challenge. However, I believe that anyone who leads authentically can ensure that communication feels genuine, open and honest, even if your colleagues aren’t seeing you in person. Active listening is integral to leadership roles, especially given the very real fears and anxieties experienced due to the pandemic. In addition to engaging directly with all colleagues (as I explain in point four), my goal was to empower everyone in the executive team and at leadership level and provide them with the confidence and space to lead their teams in the way they felt would be most beneficial – building trust among us all.
4. Be genuinely visible, available and approachable
From the very beginning of a tenure, university leaders must focus on being as visible as possible. Without making time to engage with your colleagues, you are denied the insight that allows you to learn from them. For me, being visible meant establishing Microsoft Teams meetings with all university departments to provide colleagues with the opportunity to share their feelings and ask questions directly. This approach allowed me to quickly get to the heart of the issues faced, understand them and devise strategies to mitigate impact and support collaboration across the institution. As such, this also enabled effective communication of the policy changes affecting us and other UK universities during the pandemic.
I have also sought to lead compassionately. I make a point of expressing my gratitude to everyone for their hard work and resilience. The past year and more has been extremely difficult for numerous reasons, so making sure that everyone at the university knows they are supported and appreciated is important.
5. Plan, but stay flexible
I am committed to using what we have learned from the year gone by to give our students the best university experience possible. But we will not stop listening now. As we go forward, we must keep asking our students and staff to share their experiences with us, through both online Q&As and in-person meetings, giving them the opportunity to ask questions directly and share their views. We can use this valuable insight to plan and make improvements both academically and culturally. During the pandemic, universities have had to innovate beyond what seemed imaginable a few years ago. In the future, we will have to take what we’ve learned and continue to adapt. Let’s keep that going now.
Ultimately, by recognising the needs of staff and students, ensuring you are visible and approachable, and most importantly creating an environment that prioritises psychological safety above all else, I believe university leaders will be in a position to weather any storm that comes their way.
Charles Egbu is vice-chancellor of Leeds Trinity University.