Herding cats? Leading academic reforms

The term ‘herding cats’ has been widely used to describe the challenge of leading academics.  The phrase reflects a number of assumptions about academics: that they are independent, determined to go their own way, and largely focused on individualistic (and sometimes hedonistic) desires. Is this the case?  In my experience, the issue is more about leadership than the nature of the academic.

Many universities are focusing on large-scale institutional change. Educational reforms, re-prioritisation of funding and resourcing and academic performance have been large foci for the last few years. The focus on increasing and mapping academic performance has been particularly notable. Academics may  be reluctant to embrace the proposed changes – particularly if they affect academic roles, disciplinary affiliations or performance standards.

Some institutions are adopting processes that assume academics must be controlled and forced to comply with planned reforms.  This strong and aggressive leadership approach is being widely used across the sector – with some significant consequences. Many academics feel that they are being herded and marshalled into pre-determined holding pens designed to regulate their practice, without respect, forewarning or support.   Senior academics are starting to question their future, seeing retirement as a desirable option while less secure junior academics are starting to wonder if they have the necessary tenacity to reach the rising goal-posts.

These consequences can be diminished markedly if we consider what drives academics and how leaders can provide a constructive interface to encourage synergy between institutional reforms  and academic needs.

Academics are high-end knowledge workers, with a keen desire to perform their disciplinary role with high success. Recognition and valuing are important to them: they are reared on peer review and external accolades.  If they are not feeling valued, they become more insecure and destabilised.  In harsh climates, they will hunker down, reverting to the tasks and activities that they know best and which they feel affirm their worth.  Unfortunately, these may not be the things that are valued by their institution. And in many cases, the opportunity to adapt and re-orientate is very short and hard to achieve. The sector is seeing high levels of anxiety related to academics who do not  possess the right skills to excel.  A key principle in effecting academic engagement is to recognise that they can be agile, responsive and incredibly creative – if they understand the goalposts.  The key is ensuring they are well informed about both priorities and measures for success.

In these performance settings academic leaders can also feel beleagured.  They feel isolated and disliked because they are the representatives of “The University”.  Their role in assessing an academic’s merit can be a major determinant of  that individual’s future employment prospects.  The increasing focus on financial viability of teaching and academic outputs may be regarded as high end perfomativity: where academics are viewed as binary inputs: productive – unproductive.  Contributions to service and innovation can be undervalued  – to the detriment of the institution and the individuals who contribute in these areas.

University leaders play a key role in acting as interpreter, consultant and facilitator to ensure institutional  and academic priorities are in synergy.

The leader as interpreter: Many academics remain ill-informed about the sector at large and the pressures that universities are experiencing. They may be largely insulated by their busy roles, focusing on maintaining their current trajectory and habits.  Institutional reforms threaten that security, and need to be explained and outlined.  Academics value the chance to hear about proposed changes and how they may impact on their own setting and role.  They need to feel that the reforms will make sense and to have some idea about likely consequences. They also value a vision as to what the future will look like. The leader plays a critical role in interpreting the various forces in evidence and articulating that future and the logic behind the change.  Some individuals will seek quite robust debate as to the reforms.  Academic leaders will need to be resilient and well-informed as they work through the discussion that needs to take place.

The leader as consultant: Academics value the opportunity to contribute their ideas and perspectives.  Leaders need to consult with their diverse constituents. While some of the suggestions may be unviable, many will offer considerable richness in building organisationally-fit options.  The very process of consultation will also provide an important transition between the old and the new. It is not so much what is suggested, but the process of thinking and testing the new context.

The leader as facilitator: Reforms often anticipate staff  will be agile and ready to segue into new roles and processes.  Assumptions about the skills and capabilities that will be found in the community can undermine many good plans.  The leader plays a key role in identifying the core capabilities that will be necessary to take the community forward, and to ensure the key players in the change are well prepared for their new tasks.  Collective learning can be particularly powerful, as it also encourages a culture shift across the community and encourages joint problem-solving.

They may be a little cat-like: intelligent, curious and adaptive.  However, academics do not need to be herded to force compliance.  They will show great willingness to contribute to reforms if they are offered clear justification, good leadership and an opportunity to contribute to the strategies.

Using the Career T to review your academic strategy


Source: Debowski, S. (2012). The New Academic: A Strategic Handbook, Open University Press.

Academics at any stage of their career benefit from thinking about how well they are positioned for success.

Academic success can be reviewed using a very easy tool: The Career T.  This little model suggests that academics must perform across two broad domains of activity: by building and expanding expertise  in their chosen field of knowledge (Depth); and, by sharing that expertise in various ways, or contributing to its broader use by others  (Breadth).

The Career T is a very quick reviewing tool to assess  your effectiveness and the suitability of your current career strategy.  First, take a  sheet of paper and draw a fat, large T-shape on the page.  Start with the base of the T and note down all the area of expertise, core knowledge and talents that you possess. You can do this as a broad review of every area of your academic work, or focus more specifically on a particular part of your activities, such as teaching or research. Now, move to the horizontal space and note down all of the ways you have applied that expertise.  This might include work roles, committees, projects, your publications… any other ways that you have translated your knowledge or contributed to the broader development of your community.

Once you have mapped your profile, take a good look at how it appears.  You might consider:

  • Do you have good evidence of roles and activities?  Or have you kept beavering away on your depth without considering its translation?  If your horizontal space is very limited, it is a clear signal that you need to act as a high priority.
  • Are your activities diverse, showing how versatile you are? Or have you stuck too long on one role that does not demonstrate your many talents?
  • Is there evidence of leadership i.e. taking ownership of projects?
  • Can you show that you can work well with other people e.g. on committees or projects?
  • Have you been setting stretch goals?  Is it time to aspire to higher targets?

You can now use the Career T to help you plan your next steps by looking at the gaps in your profile. Then identify how you might address those gaps. Are there new roles or activities that you feel will supplement the profile that you have mapped? Identify the most beneficial and consider how you will segue to these new opportunities.  Mentors, sponsors and models can help with ideas on how to achieve these goals.

Importantly, if you have been doing the same thing for more than two years (e.g. course coordination), it is time to think about handing over to another colleague and moving into a different role that showcases your skills in other ways.  Building a balanced and challenging portfolio to show your depth and breadth is a useful way of ensuring you remain competitive and remarkable.

You can read more on career strategy in Debowski, S. (2012) The New Academic: A Strategic Handbook, Open University Press.

Enticing academics to contribute

It’s a challenging time to be an academic leader. Whether you are head a school or department, leading curriculum teams or research groups, or coordinating a course, your critical challenge is to entice your academic colleagues to contribute to the many activities that need to be completed.

Academics are not necessarily a biddable bunch.  Raised to be independent thinkers, they are often inquisitive people who are more interested in the new and exciting than the regulated and mundane.  In an ideal world, they would remain removed from all tawdry administrivia and continue with their single-minded pursuit of knowledge.  But that is no longer an option. The modern academic has to contribute and will be expected to sit on committees, contribute to university activities  and hopefully, move into leadership at some point.

Your challenge as a leader of academics is to engage your members so that they feel the time they spend working with you on administration is worthwhile.  They are busy people with immense demands on their time.  Your desire to progress your leadership agendas may seem to be barriers to achieving their personal goals.  So how can you entice your academics to participate?  Some useful hints are offered below and may increase your success.

  1. Set an expectation that everyone contributes.  Universities are moving more strongly on this front, arguing that university service is part of being an academic citizen. It is best to share this perspective and build the understanding BEFORE you want to recruit people!  The more it is seen as part of the culture, the less resistance you will encounter.
  2. Outline why the tasks are important and what the individual will need to commit. (If you can’t explain why they matter – perhaps you need to think about whether they really do?)
  3. Make sure the processes are smooth and easy to follow. Plan them carefully so that they don’t require a lot of reworking or explanation.  People are more willing to assist if they feel the system is logical and smooth.
  4. Match the demands to the individual’s capacity.  Don’t ask enormous contributions from people who are already overwhelmed.
  5. Don’t kill the workhorses.  Reliance on people who don’t know how to say no is unfair.  They may, in fact, need protection from themselves, so that they can create a more viable balance across their contributions  and academic outcomes.
  6. Acknowledge your contributors. Recognition and valuing means a lot to people.  It signals that you have understood that helping required time that could have been spent in other ways.
  7. Make sure the contribution matters: successful outcomes show that the time was well spent.  If your projects don’t get finished or have no impact, you will quickly lose your willing pool of contributors.
  8. Think about how the role / contribution might assist the individual.  Do they need to have more experience in leadership, or more profile across the university?  Will they develop new skills that will be seen as beneficial in their future roles? Think about creating win-win scenarios, where the opportunity becomes a career enhancing experience.

The academic world has changed and so too, has our notion of academic citizen.  You can entice academics to contribute, but be strategic about what you are asking for , and by whom.

It’s not about you, Jacob! Supervisors as mentors

Mentorship is a word that is regularly used as a catchphrase to describe the provision of guidance to a more junior colleague. Unfortunately, it is often greatly misused. Many universities are assigning mentors to new academics in an effort to assist their career development. This is a laudable intention, but does it work in practice? Possibly, but only if the mentor is truly engaged with the real work of mentoring.

A mentor can assist an individual in their consideration of life and career choices by offering unbiased insights and richer assessments of the options that might be available. In some cases, they may suggest new and unconsidered perspectives that encourage the mentee to think more laterally about how their skills might be deployed. It is sometimes the case that the mentor will also suggest it is time to move on from the existing situation.

In my visits to universities across many nations, there has been a strong push to appoint academic heads or senior discipline colleagues as mentors. The assumption is that they can offer good advice to get the mentee on track. Unfortunately, this assumption can be very wrong. Take Jacob, for example, who attended one of my workshops last year. He had been given very clear guidance by his “mentor” that he should not bother with focusing on his academic writing, despite the fact that he was pre-tenure. Instead, his professor was encouraging him to focus on administration, arguing that his responsibility was to support the department’s immediate needs. In fact, he had tersely instructed his protege that “It’s not about you, Jacob!” indicating that focusing on one’s career was selfish and self-serving. Jacob felt highly conflicted and confused. He could see that he was losing traction and was worried about his competitiveness – with good reason. My advice? Get a real mentor! Someone who will help you identify your long term priorities and assist you in opening up career opportunities.

Can heads, senior colleagues or supervisors also be mentors? Of course they can. But they must be aware of the need to step away from immediate pragmatic management concerns and think more clearly about their protege’s profile, ambitions, capabilities and potential. This may lead to very different advice on possible choices to consider.

(For more information on academic mentoring, see Debowski, S. (2012). The New Academic: A Strategic Handbook, Open University Press: Chapter 5.)