15 February 2019
Article

Ten do’s and don’ts for growing transformative HE leaders

Over the six years that I have spent preparing change leaders for universities, I have had to discuss hundreds of times what should or shouldn’t be done by innovators who are responsible for the development of universities. However, this is not a one-way street. Now the time has come to say what a university should do with regard to these proactive individuals.
Ten do’s and don’ts for growing transformative HE leaders
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For a start, we need to determine the individuals we have in mind here when we talk about ‘universities’. We could debate for a long time about ‘university workforces’, ‘management’ and even the ‘environment’. However, these are abstract concepts. I propose referring in this case to one specific position – the rector (or the chief operating officer by any other name, be it the president or a chancellor).

However, I want to issue a caveat at the start that I only want to address my message to rectors who actually want and have decided to transform their universities and not rectors who adopt a wait and see approach, or to put it another way, rectors who say to themselves: “The status quo can continue as long as I am around.

Be proactive

So what steps should a rector take or avoid taking to make sure that the most lively and proactive people who are ready for change ‘get going’ and to make sure that they don’t only discuss, but also implement their projects?

For a start, you need to strip away the illusion that change leaders appear ‘of their own accord’. Rectors often tell me that they haven’t come across anyone interested in development. They say: “If only I had such people. Then I could move heaven and earth!” At some point in the conversation, the following becomes clear: a) Nobody is proactively looking for them; b) Nobody is also proactively preparing them. As you cannot expect transformative leaders to appear naturally, rectors need to look for and cultivate them.

Look for them ‘by providing clarity’. If your employees have to focus entirely on operations, they simply won’t have any opportunity to prove themselves when it comes to development issues. In order to find people who potentially have innovative skills, you need to create special conditions where they can demonstrate their creative side. Deliver an internal university development seminar and let them have their say. Hold a competition of ideas. You might end up disappointed by the quality of the ideas. At the same time, however, the key here is not the ideas, but rather diagnostics and identification of potential change leaders.

Look in the right places. Junior staff or even students provide an excellent source of future university planners. Include them in strategic discussions. Frequently, these young and proactive people are not noticed because they are kept at a distance from the rector. By contrast, they represent a threat to the tranquil lives of mid-management. They are concealed from the eyes of senior management and rapidly removed, weighed down with routine work and successfully instilled with an inferiority complex. It is useful to hold public competitions and not simply ask line managers to identify ‘promising candidates’.

Hire externally. Never be afraid of hiring external people. Different cultures, different perspectives and fresh energy may not only be useful per se but may also energise ‘dormant’ innovators. When you work at an organisation, you are rarely able to view it with an open mind. We become used to existing norms and processes and try to avoid creating a problem around the structure of our activity. That is human nature. We seek stability and calm. It is often the case that if you want to view yourself and your organisation critically, you need an outside perspective.

Develop in a special way. Outstanding candidates must not be left doing routine work for a long time. They need to be assigned new objectives and intentionally prepared for transformative objectives. This means that you create situations for candidates which present a heightened risk and give them limited resources and a lack of ready responses, in other words, present them with problem situations.

Trust and publicly recognise individuals, both for their successes and their mistakes. The trust of the rector is a key motivational factor. This is more important than money and status. Your personal participation of working with a team of young planners is essential. They should be able to contact the rector directly. Ideally, they should constitute the ‘strategic headquarters’ of the university. It is also extremely important that the rector publicly acknowledges the merits of transformative leaders. However, if mistakes are made, they still need to be publicly recognised. Otherwise, everybody ends up being discredited – both the rector and the new generation of reformers.

Recognise the right to make a mistake. Don’t give up on transformative leaders for erring on one occasion. You need to understand that people grow and change. You should never stigmatise anyone after their first setback, and even less so when it comes to the idea of transformation. However, it is also a bad idea to pretend that nothing has happened and to act as if you are supporting a colleague morally. It is important to explore the reasons for the setback, discuss the actual point when everything didn’t go to plan and relive the project and subsequent developments, however painful this might be. At the same time, you cannot simply document the situation. You have to reach agreement on how you will act going forward.

Take a risk and implement ideas. You need to recall that a key sign of recognition is project implementation. If you are not ready for radical change, then allocate a testing site and facilitate the launch of a pilot project. However, this must be done seriously with all due responsibility and authority bestowed on the project, and not in a playful or e-learning format. If the project is duly developed, but is not actually implemented or is not entrusted to the project’s author, this would be a serious disappointment. In general, after such a decision young people who are burning with the desire to carry out a particular project either leave the university within a year or become disillusioned and stop trying to change anything. Furthermore, others who might become the change leaders of the future are also affected. If you aren’t ready to take a risk, don’t even start involving young people in your initiatives.

Provide resources and a mandate. No serious project can be implemented based on sheer enthusiasm. Resources and a mandate should not be provided as an ‘advance’, but definitely need to be allocated for a project. If transformative leaders focus on transformation in their free time from work and without any budget, then all their ideas will just remain on paper.

Learn to let people go. You need to get used to the idea that people grow and their trajectory should extend beyond the boundaries of the university. The more innovators you grow and let go, the more people you will have in partnership organisations and projects. And the more attractive you will become as an employer and as the lead organisation in transformative processes.

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