Rising to the Challenge

Rising to the Challenge

By Tony Gascoyne

Last week I spent an interesting and thought-provoking day attending London First’s flagship event – Building London, a one-day housing and property summit. As well as local and national government representatives, it gathered together influencers in the property and construction sector to tackle London’s big development questions. Of the many discussions throughout the day there were a couple that stood out that potentially are impacting the recruitment and talent market and the sector that we operate in.

As one might expect there was no shortage of debate around Brexit. Overall there seemed to be a consensus that whilst the property and construction sectors were operating in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, this would straighten out over time and that patient investment is not overly under pressure, as the United Kingdom will still need housing to accommodate population growth. Economically it was felt that Brexit hadn’t yet had considerable impact on rental or build, however, transactions have stagnated since 2014 and some office clients have arranged back-up infrastructure outside the UK and of course we haven’t even left yet.

If there is an interruption to the supply of materials, then this would have a knock-on effect for the nations’ ability to construct the required numbers of housing and office space. And whilst there are opportunities to use technology and processes (new brick panel delivery and factory pre-fabrication) to offset skills shortage and speed up construction, there remains the fact that around 28% of all the capital’s construction workforce is from the EU (according to the ONS). The industry has already flagged that there is an increase in skills shortages as EU citizens re-assess their options.

Whilst ‘Talent’ is a complex area, fundamentally in order to attract the right talent and enhance a company’s prospects, there must be the infrastructure in both living and office space to support this and this is true for companies in London or the rest of the UK.

As a nation we need to provide high-quality and affordable accommodation for our growing population, but also to do it in such a way that the new housing is integrated into the communities where it sits. In London the affordability of accommodation is a problem as both rental and buying prices are out of reach of many individuals. There is less desire by new graduates to work in London, evidenced by the fact that around 60% of their intake from 2018 opted for roles outside the capital, predominantly due to accommodation costs. (Recent research by PWC) These decisions ultimately have a knock-on effect to the talent pools and pipeline of major businesses operating from London bases.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, one of the most talked about topics was Build to Rent (BTR). During one of the panel discussions, Pete Gladwell from L&G thought that perhaps we need to have a change in the way we approach renting and treat housing as part of community infrastructure, as opposed to a commodity.

‘If it is affordable, of high quality, and available with flexible rental agreements, would people be happy to live there longer term?’

Providing high quality, purpose-built accommodation designed for student living is a model adopted by student accommodation providers and examples exist elsewhere e.g. in Germany, where often people will stay in the same premises for decades with a regulated rent.

Build to rent (BTR), therefore focuses on the longer term not short-term profit gains and partnerships between businesses engaged in house building and the finance industry are allowing county councils and housing associations to build rentable homes, using investment from outside the industry; such as Pension Funds and Private Equity.

The property and housing challenges in London, and across the UK, are complex and the summit played an important role in bringing these all together. The business challenges can be boiled down into having the right skills available and the right leadership. At Wickland Westcott we offer leadership solutions ranging from finding the right people (permanent and interim recruitment) through to developing new and existing talent (assessment and coaching) as well as enabling effective teamwork (team facilitation and Board reviews). We may not have a silver bullet, however, like the property and housing summit we bring people together and look for solutions, whatever the leadership challenge.

For more information on our services please contact Wickland Westcott on 01625 508 100 or email ww@wickland-westcott.com.

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Merger and Acquisition – the elephant in the room?

Merger and Acquisition – the elephant in the room?

By Allan Howells

Higher Education is experiencing a period of unprecedented and significant change, the likes of which has not been witnessed by many of the current leaders. Whilst some development appears cyclic (surely subject TEF resonates with aspects of the 1990’s subject teaching quality assessment), others are going to deliver something which is very different. We have now entered a new phase which is market-led and commercially focused. Are our universities leaders preparing for the commercial world of merger and acquisition?

Governors and senior leaders shouldn’t just wait until their diary flags that it is time for the next strategic planning cycle. The world is changing too quickly for static strategic planning – the continued existence of some of our higher education providers remains precarious because of the post-18 funding arrangements and the increased competition for students.

One of the consequences of Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) 2017, was the demise of HEFCE: replaced by the Office for Student (OfS) and Research England (part of UK Research and Innovation). Although there has been a great deal of focus on the OfS and its role as a regulator to “protect the interests of the student” and ensure that “choice and competition drive innovation, diversity and improvement support competition”, very little has been made of a key function that the former HEFCE provided. Over the years it was incredibly successful in maintaining stability and confidence in the HE sector by deploying policy levers that avoided catastrophic institutional “failure”. Whilst there are a few examples where universities merged, reconfigured or renamed, it was HEFCE’s ability to work in partnership with institutions that underpinned the stability of the sector.

The strategic management of the block grants it provided for teaching and research was a major tool – large funding shifts were smoothed out at the institutional level. Alas, the OfS does not carry this responsibility. Its remit is focused on the student, rather than institution. The new safety net isn’t transition funding or policy levers, it is a suite of institutional drafted documents containing powerful words that highlight strategic risks and high-level actions that will be taken to “protect” the student. Somehow this doesn’t inspire me with confidence.

Each university really should be looking at itself and considering what actions it is taking now and will have to take in the future, rather than just produce papers. The retail sector has shown that the high street can change very quickly – Woolworths and House of Fraser are hard examples and even the solid brand of John Lewis has seen its profit margins wiped out in a matter of months. A lack of cash, the inability to make their capital or loan repayments and the absence of a supportive sector agency all contribute conditions that are ripe for acquisition. This could quite easily be in the form of a foreign investor or organisation, rather than a current UK provider. Campuses may survive but new names may appear over the doors.

Governors and leaders need to take action now. Preparations which they put in place may be deployed by their successors, but their responsibility today is to determine future needs and start preparations. For example:

  • Refreshing the Governing body with individuals who have worked in, or have experience of, merger and acquisition;
  • Ensuring that external legal providers have both commercial and educational expertise, and that competitive rates are negotiated into the contract now – it is far easier to negotiate rates at this stage than when operating in a cash constrained environment;
  • Strengthening the commercial skills within the senior team, using external advisors and assessors to help secure new talent and mitigate the potential for unconscious bias to appoint in your own image;
  • Reviewing contracts, commercial arrangements and partnership agreements for legacy clauses and costs to identify key risks and then where possible renegotiating more favourable terms;
  • Ensuring that there is diversity within the leadership team and a confident leadership culture which encourages the leadership team to both think and discuss the unthinkable, and have the humility to look beyond individual egos and do the right thing.

The silent elephant in the room is merger and acquisition. Whilst no leader may want to be the one to take the difficult decision, leadership is ultimately about taking tough decisions. Great leaders do the ground work and preparation to enable them to execute the tough decision at the optimum time, rather than when they are forced to. Just like Brexit, when engaging in negotiations on topics as fundamental as these, it is important to know which cards you hold and then how best to deploy them. Even with a weak ‘hand’ you still have cards to play and gains to be won if you play your cards strategically and tactically.

REF2021 is just around the corner which means that the next significant shift in QR funding will be less than four years away. That is one undergraduate recruitment and fee cycle. With no HEFCE around to bale-out universities and an OfS prescribed with a student-focused remit, it would be pure madness to rely on Augar’s review of post-18 funding to deliver a solution. In this new world success will come down to leadership – having the courage and the bravery to think and prepare for the unthinkable.

Allan Howells heads up the Education Practice at Wickland Westcott. A former Deputy Vice Chancellor, and holding a personal chair in Higher Education Administration, Allan supports a range of higher education providers find and develop leadership talent.

For more information on our services please contact Wickland Westcott on 01625 508 100 or email ww@wickland-westcott.com.

This article was first published on 5th November 2018 in wonkhe.com, https://wonkhe.com/blogs/merger-and-acquisition-the-elephant-in-the-room/.

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Unconscious bias and the search for talent

Unconscious bias and the search for talent

By Allan Howells

In the race for talent, the education sector continues to recognise that unconscious bias can be a significant stumbling block.

How many times have you met someone for the first time and come away with an instantly positive impression and wondered why? There are various reasons for this: your frame of mind, a realisation that you both share a common interest or the fact that you studied at the same university. You may even come away from that first meeting speaking highly of the individual without really knowing them, which is fine in everyday life. However, when this is part of an interview process unconscious bias can distort your view of a candidate.

Fundamental to hiring the right talent is understanding the requirements of the role and then objectively assessing capability against that. Historically ‘the interview’ was designed to cover this. Yet the risk of conscious or unconscious bias is high and research suggests that the interview alone provides a positive correlation of only +0.2 when looking to recruit the right talent. To improve the correlation towards +0.7 (with +1.0 representing perfect correlation), competency-based questions, personality profiling and assessments are increasingly used alongside traditional recruitment processes.

We worked recently with an education client to help them secure a Director of Human Resources. The organisation was keen to widen its potential candidate pool and was therefore open to consider talent from both inside and outside the education sector. We used our considerable experience of psychometric testing to evaluate six shortlisted candidates. Suitability in terms of technical ability and cultural fit were assessed using a range of psychometric tools. Each candidate took our proprietary online personality test (Credo), along with a test of managerial judgment. They then received a one-hour telephone interview to discuss and verify the outputs from their psychometrics. We were then able to advise the final selection panel on themes and individual questions that the panel could explore with each candidate at interview. We delivered our advice to the selection panel in person so that members had an opportunity to explore our findings and seek additional insight. To deliver a positive candidate experience, we provided each candidate with copies of their psychometric reports and a personal debrief.

The client recognised the value that psychometric testing offered alongside the other elements of the selection process. In arriving at their decision, they were able to assure themselves that the risks of unconscious bias had been mitigated. Although they ultimately appointed a candidate with a background gained from the education sector, the overall approach taken demonstrated that the search and shortlisting delivered appointable candidates with diverse backgrounds and experience acquired from working inside and outside the education sector. Retaining an open mind, avoiding preconceived expectations, and adopting an evidenced-based approach to decision making enables the best talent to be sourced and secured.

If, like us, you believe that recruitment is a strategic investment for the organisation then why wouldn’t you support your decision making with an evidence-based approach that complements the hearts and minds outcomes secured from traditional face-to-face interviews?

For more information on our services please contact Wickland Westcott on 01625 508 100 or email ww@wickland-westcott.com.

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Ingredients to lead

Ingredients to lead

By Allan Howells

Start with an academic who is well connected in the sector, add a dash of leadership skills and an ounce of ambition and charisma and you used to be able to find your next leader: Head Teacher, Principal or Vice Chancellor.

Not so today, with the demands of universities, colleges and MATs being more akin to those of large businesses and the heads of these organisations becoming more like CEOs. The recipe has changed over the years and rather than reading from a cookbook the recipe is now akin to an ‘app’, which asks you to select from a list of preferred skills, including commercial, international, sector specific, sector agnostic, values, strategic thinking, builds high performing teams, customer focused…etc. However, all good cooks know that even with the right ingredients, it is how they are sourced, sequenced, blended, cooked, arranged and then served, which delivers the perfectly tasting dish.

Whereas in the past you could draw on your local network ‘the corner shop’ to find candidates with the right ‘ingredients’, today you need to look nationally and internationally and often outside of your traditional network – because finding the perfect fit is critical. Get it wrong and the price, in a very competitive market for students, funding, leadership and staff talent, can be very high.

We recognise this challenge and, unusually, in our team we combine the skills of those who have worked in leadership roles with those of experienced search consultants and business psychologists to help organisations within the education sector get it right.

Take for instance a recent example where a northern based, Russell Group University was looking for an experienced individual with the ability to bridge the gap between academia and industry. The specialist role needed would build upon a well-established function that delivered innovative knowledge exchange and technology transfer to go forward and develop strategic and operational partnerships with key organisations.

Finding a credible individual who can understand the world-class research taking place across the vast array of disciplines found in a large research-intensive university is a challenge in its own right! A key ‘ingredient’ for our client was the individual’s ability to operate at a senior level and to establish delivery of new sustainable income streams. They would also need to have a track record of commercialising and transferring leading-edge research. We looked beyond traditional search pools to secure a unique candidate who could engage academic researchers and industrial R&D managers alike.

Throughout the assignment we spent time working with the client to ensure that candidates could demonstrate both competency and cultural fit. The successful candidate had gained the majority of their skills and experience from outside the education sector whilst working in a multi-national corporate (pharma) industry in roles where they partnered with universities undertaking research and development activities. The ‘ingredients’ of cultural understanding and fit were visible and clearly demonstrated, so much so that there was little need to utilise our offer of integration coaching to support their smooth transition into the role and the sector.

The care and attention that we take is reflected in our key performance indicators. These show that 98% of candidates appointed a year ago are still in post, that our candidate net promoter score (NPS) currently stands at +75 and the respective client NPS scores at +83. We care enough to get it right on all fronts and ensure brand reputation is always protected and as a business, we offer more than securing permanent senior appointments. We have completed similar assignments helping organisations secure interim managers, along with Trustees, Governors and Non-Executive Directors.

Finally, it is worth remembering that leaders aren’t born, they are developed. They are individuals, just like you and I, who want to make a difference. Organisations succeed not because of the organisation but from dynamic and effective leaders. Leadership is key and talented leaders are, just like 5* restaurants, rarely just around the corner.

For more information on our services please contact Wickland Westcott on 01625 508 100 or email ww@wickland-westcott.com.

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CEOs in Private Equity

CEOs in Private Equity – Getting the Best Return on Investment

By Mark Benbow

The outlook for the UK private equity industry is an interesting topic for debate. With annual returns from existing investments continuing to outperform the FTSE All-Share Index, many would argue the industry is showing strength and resilience, despite the uncertainty surrounding the UK market. Others would suggest these returns are lag indicators and the decline in transactions is cause for concern. Though 2017 showed renewed levels of confidence, activity for the first half of 2018 has been lower again. A continued lack of clarity regarding Brexit makes it difficult for firms to identify sound investment opportunities and, when they do, the level of competition is significant – recently we worked with a tech business looking for PE backing who had 64 different equity houses vying for investment.

Whichever of these views is closer to the truth, the fact remains that PE firms need to maximise returns from their deals. Critical to this, is ensuring a leadership team in each portfolio business that can deliver on the value creation plan. Investment teams need to conduct a delicate dance with each potential opportunity. They must ensure a critical eye when analysing the leaders of a business, but they equally need to ‘woo’ these management teams who are often sceptical about a change of ownership. Moreover, the competition surrounding each business means the natural tendency is to value relationship building over objective review of leadership strength.

The risk, of course, is that a three to five-year cycle begins with a leadership team in place that lacks the experience, capability or mindset to ensure performance against the investment thesis. Research suggests this is already an issue, with a Bain & Co study reporting that CEOs were changed in nearly half the portfolio companies they looked at. Only 40% of those changes were planned at the start and the majority of CEOs were not replaced until after the first year of ownership. To avoid lost momentum such as this and to maximise value creation, it is critical to understand what differentiates high performing CEOs in PE backed businesses.

Private equity is a unique environment, and for management teams, it can be a very different experience to working in a PLC. What then makes the context so different, and how does this impact leadership success?

  1. The Board is typically much more hands on, especially earlier in the cycle or at times when business performance is below target. Compared to PLC Boards, engagement will be less formal, more frequent and more granular. The stance from investors on the Board will be aligned, which can also create a less independent dynamic.
  2. With the business strategy largely being defined at the outset of the investment, the impetus will be on strategic implementation rather than strategic thinking. This creates a sharp focus on delivery in relation to the targets that have been set out. With this comes a greater level of scrutiny, where the need for transparency, collaboration and operational grip are heightened.
  3. Aligned to this is an accelerated pace of play and a desire for action ‘now’ rather than ‘tomorrow’. This offers the reward of seeing real impact faster than one may see in a PLC, but also brings the relentless demands of urgency and prioritisation.

With this in mind, leaders who can demonstrate a track record of success in private equity are at an advantage and highly valued by PE firms. Nonetheless, investment strategies are diverse and so digging deeper to assess the relevance of an individual’s track record is key. An operational or sales leader who has delivered success in similar investment strategy may well offer more valuable experience than an existing CEO. Nevertheless, every leader needs to prove themselves for a first time in PE and it would be naive to discount a candidate on a lack of PE experience alone. Relevant track record can manifest in many ways and a leader may bring a wealth of situational experience (such as leading a turnaround) that can support a successful transition.

Whilst a proven track record is highly beneficial, it is not always a feasible option and, clearly, successful CEOs in private equity are not solely defined by the previous experience they bring. What other indicators then should we use to identify those who can deliver success within a specific timeframe, where the strategy is pre-defined and enhancing operational effectiveness is key? Through assessing leaders during the due diligence process for many PE firms, we have observed several traits that differentiate successful CEOs in this context:

  1. Significant intellectual horsepower – they conduct rapid analysis and they are all over the detail, often to the point of obsession
  2. Operationally savvy – they know how to get stuff done and they also know how to scale
  3. Heightened financial skill – they have a grip on cash and tight cost controls
  4. Urgency and adaptability – they like pace and are comfortable with change and ambiguity
  5. Entrepreneurial and willing to take calculated risk – they have courage and self-belief
  6. Flexible, robust and humble – they are willing to roll their sleeves up and get stuff done
  7. Problem solvers not dream weavers – more operational than strategic
  8. Galvanise and bring focus – they understand the value of teams and good people

Many of these traits align with the PE environment described earlier in this article, yet they are not context dependent and there are many ways in which leaders might evidence strength in relation to them. Building trust and exploring capability in these areas will help PE houses identify leaders with strong potential to succeed.

In summary, investment teams can benefit from asking three questions of potential leaders for each portfolio business:

  1. Where have they delivered success before and is it replicable in this context?
  2. If they have not done it in private equity before, what elements of their track record will support a successful transition?
  3. What evidence do they demonstrate against the eight traits outlined above?

Without doubt, the reduction in deal frequency and the competitive landscape will place greater pressure on investment teams to ‘sell’ their proposition to each business they see potential in. However, it will be crucial not to lose sight of ensuring high quality leadership that can bring the investment thesis to fruition. Knowledge is power and through identifying any gaps or risks in the leadership personnel, investment teams can define any changes or support required at the very outset of the investment lifecycle, giving the best chance of optimum value creation.

For more information on our services please contact Wickland Westcott on 01625 508 100 or email ww@wickland-westcott.com.

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It does what it says on the tin

It does what it says on the tin

By Allan Howells

It has been remarked that leadership can be a lonely place. Even though there are people and teams around you, carrying the responsibility of organisational leadership can be isolating. When colleagues say that they support you and are with you, how do you know that they actually understand the challenges, believe in the strategy and see the priorities as you see them? It’s a circumstance of human nature that each of us creates our own unique perception of an event or situation and then believe our version to be true.

So as a leader, how do you ensure that your team is aligned with you and see the world and the challenges through a similar lens? How do you ensure that you get best value out of your Boards, Trustees, Governors and Independent Non-Executive Directors who challenge and support you by providing their valuable time and experience, often for free? How do you know that the messages and priorities being communicated to key managers are being received?

One thing for certain is that the clearer the collective understanding of the organisation’s strategy, the challenges that it is facing and the priorities that require focus and attention, then the more likelihood that success will be achieved. When the frequency of interaction of your non-executives is limited or there is a regular turnover of people within the organisation, then many of these challenges are amplified.

At Wickland Westcott we have developed an organisational health check tool specifically for the Education Sector, aptly named MOSAICS. Short for Mission, Outcomes, Sustainability, Attraction, Image, Commerce and Social Responsibility, the tool is a simple and effective means of understanding the relative strengths and areas of focus for organisations as part of a strategic review process. Co-created with organisations from across the education sectors the model provides insight of both self-perception and comparisons to other organisations within sector. “MOSAICS was very helpful in terms of thinking of the bigger picture” was the feedback we received from a recent user.

One feature of the model is that it enables the results from different participant groups and even individuals to be compared. In doing so it can highlight where there is commonality of views and understanding. It also exposes where there are differences. MOSAICS facilitates strategic conversations about priorities; it highlights where groups or individuals need further support or training to improve their understanding; it stimulates discussion and debate on what is and should be important. It provides a structured way in which a leadership group can explore the differences in their understanding of corporate strategy and leadership focus. Feedback from one leadership team was that “MOSAICS was the best strategic workshop we have had as a leadership team!”

More and more organisations are starting to understand and value the opportunities that diversity can offer. As leaders actively avoid the unconscious bias to select and recruit talent with backgrounds, perceptions and experiences similar to themselves, then the opportunity to access new creative tools which can help them extract insight from a more diverse workforce will be invaluable. MOSAICS is one of these tools that can help organisations piece together the corporate strategy picture.

Earlier in my career I received some helpful advice. As a scientist I placed great emphasis on the use of facts as the appropriate way of determining the ‘right answer’. After all I thought, facts are, by their very definition, always ‘correct’. Yet interestingly when a group of people in a room encounters the same problem, each will perceive the situation differently and are likely to arrive at their own unique and different solution. Each person will believe their solution to be ‘right’. The paradox is of course, that unlike facts, perceptions can be changed. At Wickland Westcott we have developed MOSAICS to help leaders and their teams understand their perceptions and then facilitate a way to arrive at a common solution which is collectively ‘right’.

For more information on our services please contact Wickland Westcott on 01625 508 100 or email ww@wickland-westcott.com.

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Collaboration – It’s in our DNA

Collaboration – It’s in our DNA

By Mark Benbow

Just over a year ago, a friend of mine recommended a book I had not heard of called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harari, 2014). Considering how much I enjoyed their previous suggestions, I turned the first few pages with much appetite for the journey ahead. A journey that exposed me to two of the finest books I have ever read, and brought history, humankind and the future to life in a way I would not have thought possible. As I reflect on both Sapiens and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, there are numerous thought provoking discussions on human behaviour that caused me to raise an eyebrow or lose myself in analysing us.

Being in the world of business psychology and human behaviour, maybe I am moulded to analyse Harari’s viewpoints through a particular lens. Perhaps that is why one of the things that struck me the most was his summary of why humankind came to dominate the planet. Harari acknowledges the importance of the cognitive and agricultural revolutions, yet he still suggests that “twenty thousand years ago, the average Sapiens probably had higher intelligence and better toolmaking skills than the average Sapiens of today” (Harari, 2017, p.131). Indeed, “in the Stone Age, natural selection tested you every single moment of every single day, and if you flunked any of its numerous tests, you were pushing up daisies in no time” (Harari, 2017, p.131). How then, has humankind become so much stronger and gone from “hunting mammoth to exploring the solar system” (Harari, 2017, p.131)?

Harari’s research has highlighted two factors related to cooperation that have enabled our species to get ahead, namely: flexibility and large numbers. “Ants and bees learnt to cooperate en masse millions of years before Sapiens, yet their cooperation lacks flexibility” (Harari, 2017, p.131) and they are unable to adapt to new opportunities or threats. Conversely, “social mammals such as elephants and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than bees, but they do so only with small numbers of friends and family members. Their cooperation is based on personal acquaintance” (Harari, 2017, p.131). Harari concludes that, to the best of our knowledge, only Sapiens can cooperate flexibly in large numbers and this unique capability explains our mastery of the planet.

So, as I reflected on this I wondered what the lessons from these conclusions might be. Businesses only succeed when people are able to work together towards a common goal. We often talk about the importance of teamwork and collaboration, but how can we help leaders to harness the power of flexible cooperation within and across teams? After all, it was this power that enabled us to define nations, create written language, invent electricity, land on the moon and develop the internet. At Wickland Westcott we understand that great leadership displays itself in many guises and every business will have a slightly different take on ‘what good looks like’. However, if we look at what history has taught us, finding a way to bring diverse individuals and groups together to work as a collective should arguably be at the top of every list.

How to achieve this is where the fun starts and personality, behaviour, learnt skills and individual experiences will play their part in how effective each leader can be in driving this. That said, if our species can be defined by our unique ability to operate in this way, then we should all feel positive about the opportunity to succeed. Below are five key practical considerations to help leaders foster a culture of collaboration and use it to accelerate their performance:

  • Define a purpose that is clear, tangible and communicated consistently. Work has become more than just a job for newer generations and creating a sense of purpose is critical to ensure engagement and retain talent. This has to be more than just KPI led – the best organisations are creating a unique purpose and brand aligned with making a positive difference to the world and its future. Achieving this will inspire the collective and ensure a consistent vision that every individual and team can work towards.
  • Create a broad framework for individuals and teams to work within but allow people and teams room to explore and innovate. Structure is necessary to some degree but organisations need to be flexible and agile to allow for the most productive co-operation. Remember how we surpassed the ants and bees thanks to our ability to work flexibly. As long as the collective purpose is clear, freedom and empowerment should be disseminated as far as possible.
  • Embrace difference and individuality. Whilst there needs to be a common purpose, game-changing solutions are more likely when different ideas and approaches are brought to the table. This can only happen if a workforce is constructed of a diverse range of individuals who think differently, thanks to who they are and the experiences they have been exposed to.
  • Build trust and inclusion. The above ambitions will only succeed if every individual feels valued and part of the collective. Take time to build relationships and encourage this within and across teams. Encourage (and role model) an environment of openness where everyone feels safe to bring ideas to the table and constructively challenge peers or senior colleagues. Like with elephants and chimpanzees, understanding our co-workers more intimately increases our ability to co-operate flexibly.
  • Ensure line of sight. An overarching purpose creates a common goal but it is crucial that each team understands the part they play within the wider plan. Whether teams are aligned to projects, functions or customers, ensure each team member is clear on how their immediate group can positively affect the broader vision. Ensure ownership of this by engaging everyone within the team to co-create a team charter that aligns with the overall purpose.

Business success and effective leadership is, without doubt, based on many variables. Nonetheless, when it comes to behaviour, past performance is the greatest predictor of future performance. If a certain way of behaving has enabled humankind to achieve greatness for thousands of years, let us ensure we underpin our future success with that unique capability as well.

For more information on our services please contact Wickland Westcott on 01625 508 100 or email ww@wickland-westcott.com.

References
HARARI, Y. N., 2014, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, London: Vintage.
HARARI, Y. N., 2017, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, London: Vintage.

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Leader, Know Thyself

Leader, Know Thyself

By Allan Howells

I enjoyed a recent conversation with an established world-class musician about the skills required to sustain a career as a professional artist. Contrary to popular belief, professional musicians are not just born, they are created through a relentless desire to learn and improve.

Music, like other performing arts, is ultimately very subjective. There is no magic formula or method to composing or performing the classic piece. What my ear finds interesting and stimulating will be very different to the person by my side or the critic across the street. The life of a professional musician is a career of hard work, creativity, criticism and challenge. Not too dissimilar, then, to the experience of many leaders.

In our conversation we explored how professional musicians develop the necessary resilience: “It’s about knowing and understanding who you are as an artist. It doesn’t happen overnight. However, when you have worked this through you are then equipped to filter the critique and extract the learning points that will improve your artistry, and then discard the remainder. If you haven’t worked out who you are, you will be pushed and pulled in different directions, ultimately losing sight of what makes you unique.”

This successful musician has developed the skill and the confidence to tell their story through their music. Really talented musicians, therefore, can build and convey a narrative which each member of the audience feels an emotional connection with.

There is a lesson here for aspiring leaders. To be successful you need more than vision and hard work. You need to develop your strength and resilience, and most importantly you need to develop your understanding of who you are. Your first step should be to look inwards at yourself. Find out who you are as a person, what your values are and how these align with your organisation. In marketing terms, define and develop your personal ‘brand’.

Whilst your brand may evolve over time, being true to who you are will ultimately bring authenticity to your leadership, which in turn will make it easier for others to participate in your (and their) journey. It will ensure that the route you navigate will be adjusted by positive feedback and not by the whims of the critics who shout the loudest. It will also allow you to develop and flourish. After all, leaders aren’t just born ready. They are people who have tried, struggled, failed and learned. And above all, they have learned to understand and dance to their own tune.

For more information on our services please contact Wickland Westcott on 01625 508 100 or email ww@wickland-westcott.com.

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A Slow Road to Gender Equality

University Leadership: A Slow Road to Gender Equality

By Allan Howells

2019 has continued to see further interest in gender equality issues across society. With International Women’s Day taking place on 8 March 2019, it has been an opportune moment to reflect on how well the UK Higher Education (HE) sector has fared addressing gender equality in its leadership.

In 2000, there were only six female Vice-Chancellors and Chief Executives at the helm of UK universities. Today, the proportion of female university leaders has grown from 3% to just under 30%, although alarmingly over the past 4 years the growth appears to have plateaued to around 40 VCs. An improvement of 25% is significant, although when delivered over an eighteen-year timeframe, it cannot be considered a ‘generational’ leap forward.

Digging deeper into sector data is not encouraging reading. In an industry where 55% of staff are men, the pipeline of potential female leaders isn’t obvious. 76% of professors are male and only 33% of senior manager roles are currently occupied by women. Add to this an apparent gender pay gap (roughly a quarter of the female VCs remuneration packages were above £300k whereas the corresponding figure for males was 40%) and some tough questions remain unanswered!

Taking ownership of the equality and diversity agenda at the top of the organisation remains as important today as it ever was. A prominent Vice Chancellor once set themselves a personal objective to include a positive reference to equality in every speech and written communication they issued during a calendar year. Their approach was clear – lead from the front, act as role model, and communicate the organisational benefits from having a diverse leadership team. It made a positive difference to that organisation, however, examples like this are hard to find.

The Higher Education sector established the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) in 2006. The ECU has been an effective resource for promoting equality and diversity; the Athena SWAN programme came from it. Still operating today, it remains a positive example of an approach designed to change cultural and individual behaviours. However, it remains disappointing that even by 2018, only 103 universities held Athena SWAN recognition and of those, with only 17 achieved ‘Silver’ ratings. Likewise, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) has made attempts to support diversity. Its women-only Aurora leadership training programme claims to have engaged almost 3500 participants and yet, with women occupying only 33% of senior management roles, we still await the impact from this investment. However, changes are taking place in the HE sector landscape. In August 2018, AdvanceHE came into existence. Formed from the coalescence of the LFHE, ECU and Higher Education Academy, the sector must ensure that AdvanceHE doesn’t become dominated just by the needs of academic delivery.

In the global and commercialised world of education, universities must also look beyond their own sector to help it. Leadership Consultancy and Executive Search firms, such as Wickland Westcott, have an important role to support the development of talent for the next generation of leaders. Whilst AdvanceHE may be able to offer leadership programmes utilising experienced practitioners from within the Education sector, the challenges facing the sector leaders during the next 10 years will be significantly different to those in the past and need different insights. Tomorrow’s leaders will have to think and operate differently. Leaders with skills and experiences gained from other sectors will provide opportunities to add real value. Strategic partnerships with Leadership Consultancies that help university leadership teams acquire these skills and address the future challenges will become an important part of the solution.

Whilst preparing this article I reflected on the best and worse leaders that I have worked with. The best was a female vice chancellor (one of the six); whereas the weakest was also a female. What’s clear is that great leadership isn’t about gender, it is more about vision and creativity. The more diverse your leadership team the more creative and successful your organisation will be.

For more information on our services please contact Wickland Westcott on 01625 508 100 or email ww@wickland-westcott.com.

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Grade Inflation: The Next Battleground for Higher Education

Grade Inflation: The Next Battleground for Higher Education

By Allan Howells

Data published by Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) continue shows that more than a quarter of UK undergraduates completing their studies in 2017 were awarded first-class honours. In 2012, the corresponding figure was only 18%. Add to this the number of students gaining upper second-class honours and we now find that the proportion of students gaining “good honours degrees” account for three-quarters of the student population in the UK.

The publication of these figures suggests the clash between government and universities on the governance and leadership of the higher education sector will continue to be focussed on how universities self-regulate their academic standards. Whilst the sector tactically sought to seize the initiative in 2018 with the UK Standing Committee on Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) report “The Drivers of Degree Classification”, there is no evidence of action being taken to tackle the “unexplained” 10% increase in first class honours awarded. Even the UKSCQA’s conclusion that degree classifications should be removed from leagues tables does not appear to have been embraced. If anything, the increased awareness of widening access to different socio-economic groups and the on-going use of commercial essay mills will continue to ensure that grade inflation remains an open wound.

There is no doubt that improvements in primary and secondary school education have better-prepared students for their transition into higher education. The drive by the higher education sector to introduce professional standards and support the development of university teaching staff has made a positive contribution to the quality of teaching and learning that undergraduates receive today.

The Higher Education Academy’s UK professional standards framework with its fellowship programme has provided much-needed credibility and recognition on the value of excellent teaching and pedagogy, especially in our on-going environment of “research-first”. Yet it is difficult to see how these alone explain the steep increase in student performance over the past eight years, prompting questions around whether there are other external factors driving this increased performance.

Don’t blame students

It is all too easy and unfair to blame students who, in a market economy and paying fees of £9,000+ per year, are demanding better degree outcomes. One only has to look at the promotional and marketing materials of universities to see that many students have been sold their place under the impression that they will be studying a high-quality course being delivered by the best teachers in a stimulating learning environment.

And in more recent times the focus towards improved employment prospects and employability skills only increases student expectations that their degree outcome will be a “good degree”. So, the challenge must come back to the universities themselves. Universities, after all, are the individual awarding bodies and are therefore accountable for managing their own academic standards. Ultimately it is the individual university, their senates or academic boards, which is responsible for determining the degree algorithms and marking schemes used. This is where the real challenge lies.

Universities now operate in a dynamic market environment where their brand and league table performances have become the proxy for quality. This drives their ability to recruit students, which in turn secures financial sustainability. For many years, more and more university leaders have aligned aspects of their strategies purely to drive improvements in the league table positions. Almost all the major league tables now use “good honours degrees” as a metric for defining “high quality and good teaching”.

I have observed many decisions being taken primarily to prioritise the positive impact on league table performance without deliberate reflection on whether the actions address what is best for the student. Revising degree algorithms or introducing greater flexibility around borderline marks to enable a greater number of students achieve higher results is not uncommon within the sector.

Looking at algorithms

It has been interesting to look at the degree awarding algorithms and regulations at institutions where I have worked or examined and observe how their algorithms have evolved in ways that provide more opportunities for borderline marks to be reviewed. I now see approaches taken that seek to provide outcomes which recognise the level a student can operate at, rather than provide an “averaged” profile that reflects performance over time.

Let’s be honest, these decisions are not being taken for the benefit of the students. With more students gaining higher grades it has become difficult for employers to distinguish between candidates using degree classification alone, yet universities have dragged their feet on other initiatives such as Grade Point Average (GPA) and the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), both of which offer employers a more candid and richer insight into student performance and skills. The lack of progress made on GPA, will be perceived as institutional protectionism which only adds further perception of a sector driven by individual desire rather than collective ownership.

Why haven’t universities engaged with these initiatives with as much vigour as they have done to enhance their league table metrics?

I would argue that the challenge for university leaders is ultimately about governance. Are they prepared to allow league tables, and in particular the media companies who use them to promote their own organisations, to drive the HE agenda? Or will universities, individually and collectively, now take back control? I never saw any real appetite in the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to engage in managing the league table debate, nor its successor the OfS.

I believe that if university leaders don’t step up and take control of the league table agenda, then the next big clash with government will be around the university sector’s ability to self-govern its academic standards. Does the sector really want the Office for Students to become an Ofsted for HE, with all the tools of an inspectorate and the ability to create its own assessment of university performance? It might be an attractive proposition for some politicians who want to remove VCs and reduce their remuneration.

For more information on our services please contact Wickland Westcott on 01625 508 100 or email ww@wickland-westcott.com.

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