A culture of excellence

It is not only academics who are snapped up by rival employers, but Jon Baldwin says strong organisations survive

January 1, 2009

The recent departure of a senior colleague got me thinking. The news that they were leaving was disappointing; it felt like a problem, a nuisance - something to bother me.

But conversely, it was an opportunity, a chance to refresh an already strong team. Then a scary moment: I realised that after four and a half years at the University of Warwick, only one other senior officer remains in the role they occupied in the summer of 2004. Nine colleagues have moved on in one way or another, and although I am a relatively new boy I am rapidly becoming a point of stability.

Universities have long been aware of an increasingly active and rapid transfer market in academic research staff, driven, in part, by the desire to shine in research assessment exercises. What is less talked about is the almost equally intense transfer market in universities' senior administrative staff.

Warwick seems to have become a key hub in that market. The strength of its administration and organisational culture is often seen by the sector as something to emulate.

Universities need great academic staff to deliver the research and teaching that are core to their mission. But if that talent is to thrive, it needs to be underpinned and supported by an effective organisational culture.

What I call the "Warwick Way" is one such culture. It is most visible in the short lines of communication between administrative and academic staff, the high degree of mutual respect, and the can-do spirit that is shared by administrators, academics and students.

The Warwick Way is by no means the only effective way to support academic talent, but it is a culture that is valued at Warwick and attracts significant interest from colleagues elsewhere.

The most obvious manifestation of external interest is the frequency with which our people are snatched up to fill senior roles elsewhere. Former Warwick staff are now lead administrators at the universities of Cambridge, Birmingham, Leicester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Kingston and Aberdeen, and at the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

But can Warwick maintain a successful organisational culture if it regularly loses many of the key people who have sustained it?

Universities are people-centred, but do individuals really matter in the pursuit of organisational goals? The answer is, of course, a clear "yes".

Let me use a football analogy that has helped shape my thinking: Manchester United is a global football club, a world brand - one increasingly subject to the vagaries of the market.

Players, and even owners, come and go, but the club remains consistently successful. How? That "how" is directly related not only to talent but also to the club's culture.

Over decades, a sustained northern - if not Mancunian - core "culture" has managed to incorporate the talents of very different leadership styles, from Sir Matt Busby in the 1950s and 1960s to the modern era's Sir Alex Ferguson.

The club has also consistently attracted new talent that has often been passionately associated with another club (think of Wayne Rooney's move from Everton). And players such as Eric Cantona have come from other countries to play for the club. These players personify totally different footballing cultures but now are seen as quintessentially Man United.

The parallel with a modern university is striking. Warwick's ambition was laid down in the 1960s. High expectations were established, leadership was strong and learning was rapid. That baton has been handed to the generations that followed. But there has been constant and continual refreshment of the university's culture and its way of working and behaving that appears normal to all concerned.

No matter how long or short your time in the organisation, the culture infects: it is stronger than any individual or group, no matter how senior a role they may hold.

While cultures infect, they also evolve and are strengthened through infusion of new blood at all levels. In future, perhaps I should worry less if a senior colleague leaves - and maybe Alex Ferguson shouldn't have worried so much about Cristiano Ronaldo's future plans.

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