Premier pro: 10 tips for university leaders

From respect and metrics to mistakes and biscuits, management scholar John Hendry offers advice

January 5, 2017
Elly Walton illustration (5 January 2017)
Source: Elly Walton

University leaders come in for a lot of stick. Together with their top teams, they are often seen as “them” rather than “us”: as managerialist betrayers of academic values or, in a word, as “management”. But universities are large and complex organisations, and someone has to manage them. The question is, how? The rules for effective management apply at all levels of the hierarchy, from heads of department up. But vice-chancellors and presidents carry a particular responsibility, and some guidelines for them are especially apt.

1. Act with honesty, integrity and humanity
Assuming that you really are a decent human being (and, believe it or not, most university leaders are) this mainly means being your normal moral self and not letting the demands of office push you into acting out some alien persona. Above all, beware of the Tony Blair effect: you start out as yourself but, with the pride and isolation of high office, hubris creeps in and integrity gets compromised, making effective management impossible.

2. Trust other people, and earn their trust
Management is about working with others but you can do that effectively only if there’s mutual trust. Most people are trustworthy in most things, if not all. For the person at the top, though, trust has to be both earned and freely given. If people let you down badly, you may have to think again, but if you don’t start out by trusting them you’ll never know what they might achieve. And always be trustworthy yourself.

3. Respect everyone, however lowly
Like trust, respect is essential to effective managing and has to work both ways. It is all too easy for leaders to ignore or disparage those at the bottom of the hierarchy, or those who didn’t quite make it (or didn’t want to make it) to the top of the pile. But everybody is deserving of respect, most people respond positively to being shown respect; many have a lot more to give than you might think.

4. Remember the purpose of the organisation
I don’t mean its mission statement or strategic objectives, which are vastly overrated, but its fundamental purpose, which is all too easily forgotten in the face of financial pressures and government targets. Universities are there to foster learning, whether it’s the teaching of students or the accumulated learning of research. They are there to open minds and to make things possible that wouldn’t be possible without them. Those are what matter.

5. Use metrics with caution
Judge people by performance measures and they’ll generally perform accordingly. But the performance you really want is more subtle and complex and probably not measurable at all. So, before putting anything in place, think about what the unintended effects might be and find ways to encourage and reward, even if only informally, the things that aren’t being measured.

6. Always keep an open mind
Most leaders think that they’re open-minded but few of us really like changing our minds, and university leaders spend much of their time presenting their universities to others. That means repeatedly telling a clear and consistent story about an organisation that is anything but clear and consistent. So don’t get trapped by your own stories.

7. Bear in mind that nobody’s perfect: not even you
If people are pushing themselves, they will occasionally slip up. How you deal with that matters. Make sure people learn from their mistakes, but offer sympathetic support rather than blame. The most dangerous mistakes are those that are covered up for fear of criticism. When you make mistakes yourself – and you will – own up, work out what went wrong and learn from it.

8. Listen very carefully, even when you’re speaking
As all good teachers know, it’s not what you say that matters, but how people interpret it. That will depend on their perceptions of you, the organisation and the world in general. The best managers teach themselves to see the world as other people see it: through their biases and presumptions, their hopes and fears, their views of human nature. There are techniques to help, but we’re all capable of empathy if we try.

9. Communicate clearly and act as you expect others to act
Even when people get your meaning, they don’t always take it on board. It’s tempting, when addressing academics, to be subtle: you know that they’re bright enough to get the message. But that is not the same as being willing to listen to it, so when you have something important to say, you must say it simply, clearly and loudly. And always lead by example. Given how reluctant people are to listen to what you say, you would be surprised how quick they are to notice how you act, especially if they can impute a touch of hypocrisy.

10. Encourage happiness
It’s a simple truth – but often forgotten – that people work best when they’re happy. If their spirits lift when they walk into work, the chances are that they will deliver, whatever it takes. If their hearts sink, they will just go through the motions. So make your academics and administrators feel good, and take visible pleasure in their happiness. And don’t, whatever you do, cut the biscuits.

John Hendry is a fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, and emeritus professor of management at Henley Business School. His most recent books are The Art of Managing (Robert Hale) and Reason: Its Power and Limitations, Uses and Abuses (Melrose Books).

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