Bain's basics for smooth university operators

August 8, 2003

As George Bain prepares to bid a fond farewell to academe, he offers university vice-chancellors some hints to help them survive the pressures of the role - but do as he says, not as he does

We have recently been treated to "Rumsfeld's Rules" and "Powell's Principles", tips for success from two senior US political figures. My experience is much less extensive and exalted than theirs. But on the eve of my retirement after 40 years' employment in universities and almost as many years chairing arbitration panels, committees of inquiry, commissions, charities and professional bodies, I thought I would offer "George's Guidelines" that might be useful to vice-chancellors.

1. Lead more, manage less

The vice-chancellor's job involves management - the ability to cope with complexity, to devise structures and systems that produce order and harmony - and leadership - the ability to cope with change, to get individuals and institutions to move in new directions. But the latter is more important than the former. The key function of a vice-chancellor is to lead the university: to harness the social forces in it, to shape and guide its values, to build a management team, and to inspire it and others to take initiatives around a shared vision and a strategy to implement it. You should be an enabler rather than a controller, forcing innovation by creating a gap between the university's ambitions and its resources - and setting appropriate targets and motivating people to hit them.

2. Appoint the best people

If you are going to spend most of your time leading, you need to recruit others to manage. In particular, ensure you have an outstanding registrar or similar person to head the administrative structure, to ensure that operational matters are dealt with efficiently. Make sure the staff in your private office who act as personal advisers, gatekeepers for people and filters for paper are sensible and sensitive because they will often be your public face. Others will confide in them, so encourage them to tell you the truth. Appoint first-class people, not least because they try to appoint first-class people, whereas second-class people often appoint third-class people. Remember a good vacancy is worth more than a bad appointment. In making appointments do not confuse "intelligence" - analytical ability - with "judgement" - good sense.

3. Delegate extensively

If you don't delegate problem-solving, committee chairing and other work as much as possible, you will become swamped with detail, and the routine will drive out the non-routine, the creative and the strategic.

In delegating, specify "what" and "why" but not "how"; the people to whom you assign tasks will often think of better ways of doing them than you.

Remember you can delegate authority but not responsibility. If a person errs in performing a task you have delegated, you are responsible. Hence, always take more than your share of blame, and less than your share of credit.

4. Focus your efforts

No matter how much you delegate, if you are to be effective, you need to stress key themes and focus on a limited number of activities.

Your greatest strategic tool is your diary: how you allocate your time. You have to learn to say "no" to many of the social invitations, chairmanships, committees, judging panels and speaking engagements you will be offered.

5. Be visible

Focus your efforts and you will have time to perform the leadership functions that are core to your role. Remember John le Carre's observation that "a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world". Get out and about inside and outside the university.

Vice-chancellors need an abundance of interactive energy. Regularly visit schools and departments, and hold lunches and informal meetings with small groups of senior staff, new recruits and other natural groupings. An advantage of meeting people in their offices rather than yours is that if they are garrulous, you can excuse yourself more easily and leave for your next "pressing engagement". Use your official residence by entertaining not just the great and the good, but as many people as possible in the university and a wide social and political spectrum outside it.

6. Don't procrastinate

Have a sense of urgency about getting things done. Follow the Duke of Wellington's rule: "To do the business of the day on the day." Be willing to make decisions knowing some of them will be wrong. Profit from your mistakes by admitting them, correcting them and learning from them. In a crisis, remember that the perfect is often the enemy of the good and speed is more important than precision. Do not expect problems to be solved permanently - as someone once said, the chief cause of problems is solutions.

7. Don't expect gratitude

You should expect more criticism than praise. But much of the former should not be taken personally: when people attack someone in a position of authority, they are often attacking the role, not the person.

You require emotional strength: sufficient self-doubt to question whether your course of action is correct but, having concluded that it is, sufficient determination to proceed in the face of opposition. Follow Churchill's example: at the end of the day "get into bed, turn out the light, say 'bugger the lot of them' and go to sleep".

8. Don't hold grudges

Some of your critics may develop into enemies, but try to keep them to a minimum because they can become time-consuming. One way of doing so is to follow Napoleon's advice to "never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence". However many enemies you may have, bear in mind an anonymous wit's advice for managerial success: keep those who hate you away from those who are undecided. Jesus' instruction to love your enemies is perhaps too much, but at least endure their attacks without outward resentment and do not discriminate against them. Generosity tends to annoy them more than animosity; in addition, it protects you from accusations of being unfair.

9. Don't believe your rhetoric

One of the basic functions of a vice-chancellor is to be the university's chief ambassador. If you are performing your role properly, you will stress the university's strengths more than its weaknesses, its successes more than its failures. This is what modern public relations demands, but it is a poor basis on which to develop policies and strategies. You should base these, as you would your academic research, on empirical evidence and rigorous analysis.

10. Don't stay too long

More harm is done by vice-chancellors who stay too long than by those who go too soon. If you are unsuccessful, the longer you stay the more damage you will do. But even if you are successful, you should limit your stay because nothing fails like success. Your strengths often become weaknesses: either you push them to excess, or the context that made them appropriate changes and you fail to change with it because your successes have made you conservative. Hence follow Derek Pugh's advice: "Aim to stay for ten years. Go after nine: result, sighs of nostalgia. Go after 11: result, sighs of relief."

And, finally, the danger in publishing a list of this kind is that readers might assume the compiler is a paragon. Alas, I can make no such claim.

Those who have worked with me over the years will know that, at one time or another, I have disregarded most of my guidelines. Hence, I conclude with one further guideline: do as I say, not necessarily as I do.

George Bain is vice-chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast. He retires next year.

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