Guest leader: Teamwork for tough times

The economic slowdown calls for strong leadership and new ways of working across boundaries, says Ewart Wooldridge

July 31, 2008

It's party time for the prophets of doom. A leading economic think-tank has warned that we are facing an "economic horror movie", the Chancellor has acknowledged that the economic slowdown could be "profound" and an article on the recent Universities UK report on the future size and shape of the sector carried the arresting headline "Buckle up for a rough ride, UUK tells sector".

So what are the leadership strategies for handling this heady cocktail of recession and impending structural change? The emerging consensus is that the future for universities clearly lies in differentiation and distinctiveness. This cocktail should encourage acceleration in assessing the options and grasping the opportunities for change. Competitive advantage may well accrue to those who are ahead of the game.

This needs some smart leadership behaviour - in the way the debate about the future is handled; in the style of decision-making and teams; in developing leadership talent internally; and in nurturing the skills of staff to cross boundaries and create new, quite different relationships and rules of engagement.

The immediate priority is to engage in the debate about future positioning of the institution, thinking the unthinkable, testing the possibilities of different success models and partnerships. Alongside should be a dialogue on the institutional values that are not to be abandoned, such as the highest-quality learning experience.

Building the capacity of teams is critical. Our research on top team structures offers insights, ideas and examples of good practice. It also offers some chastening stories: "I thought of myself as quite a good teamworker. To use a football analogy, I saw myself as a strong midfield player. Pick up the ball, move it on to someone in a better position, help move things forward. But it didn't seem to work like that. Increasingly, I kept being asked 'why are you giving me the ball?' 'Can't you give it to someone else?' Or 'Why not do it yourself?' Increasingly, I recognised that my metaphor for teamworking was wrong. Then it struck me. It wasn't a football team I was in - I suddenly noticed that one of the 'team players' was running faster and faster around the track, another was trying to jump higher, and another was throwing a long pointed instrument as far as he could (trying not to hit the others - but I wasn't always so sure)."

It is not just good teamworking that will matter. We have got to reach a consensus that we are playing the same kind of sports - and on the same pitch.

Leadership capacity may need to be strengthened in two areas. First, in the skills of building partnerships across complex organisational boundaries. Our project on "crossing new boundaries" is aimed at strengthening capacity for new rules of engagement and is complemented by research on professional leadership that focuses on internal boundaries and uncovers new, encouraging examples of cross-boundary working - a new third space of "hybrid" working between professional and academic staff that may be crucially important in facilitating change.

The other area will be an increased willingness by senior leaders to engage with technology as a strategic issue because so much in future will involve dramatic leaps in the application of technology to underpin learning.

The recession, along with high costs of energy, pay and pensions, is going to be tough and will require the best of our leaders. But if it also helps us to engage sooner with responses to future scenarios, it may have done us a service.

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