Universities tend to be large and complex organisations, requiring highly developed management strategies that respond well to shifting circumstances. Institutional transformation requires a set of soft skills among higher-level staff to complement traditional management methodologies. This article considers some of these new approaches to management (in particular, counselling, coaching, mentoring, and leadership training) and the benefits of these for enabling supportive relationships and responsiveness to change across large institutions.
The provision of counselling services for staff (as well as students) is essential, sending an important message to staff about their well-being, and removing the stigma from problems to do with mental health. Staff often come under considerable pressure in the workplace, and universities are no exception, with increasing emphasis on performance-driven assessments. The drive to excel among staff should be managed as well as benefited from. Counselling services can also be the ideal place from which to refer staff to forms of directed training (e.g. time management, IT skills, personal and professional development).
Coaching is a particularly useful soft skill with great reach since it takes a non-traditional approach to hierarchies, enabling partnerships from across the institution without regard to level or specialist area. In a coaching environment, staff are encouraged to find their own resourcefulness and creativity in devising solutions, unhampered by deference and the need to maintain face associated with traditional superior/ inferior relationships. Staff operate as equals in a coaching relationship, which helps build self-confidence. Coaching, therefore, creates a more resourceful workforce, stopping people relying unduly on their managers in situations which may be resolved by relying on their own inner resources. Coaching builds a sense of a university community that contains within it a multitude of creative and innovative workers across the institution. The cross- and trans-hierarchical links it fosters will prevent tendencies towards isolation and ghettoisation among an institution’s staff.
This more traditional relationship still has a valuable place in organisational teams. While mentoring presupposes a hierarchical relationship (the junior partner is thought to benefit from the advice of a senior partner), be careful that the mentor/ mentee relationship does not span too many layers of hierarchy. Ideally, mentor partnerships should not span more than one or at most two levels (so, for instance, an incoming lecturer might be best mentored by a senior lecturer, reader, or associate professor). The mentor may also serve as an advocate on behalf of the person being mentored and may play a useful role in shaping the career path of an individual. Ideally, mentoring takes place within a time-limited structure.
Courses in leadership training should be offered at all levels. While it is true that increasingly flat management structures require particularly strong leadership at PVC level, it is also the case that teams need to crystallise at all levels below PVC. Leadership skills are essential to enable small, goal-driven teams to operate effectively across the university. Leadership skills training enables staff to build teams fit for the task at hand, to innovate and problem-solve, and to motivate teams by understanding their own personal leadership style and how this fits with personalities within the team. The provision of university-wide leadership training is essential for creating the context for such small-scale teamwork to thrive (to encourage academics to head up research project teams, for instance, or to take on task-specific managerial roles within their schools or departments).
Finally, there is an array of other soft management tools at your disposal, from listening and consultation exercises, internal ‘roadshows’, and even the use of outside consultants to offer guidance and experience from across the sector. And don’t forget the small touches that bring people together – whether that comes from providing refreshments at university events, or encouraging people to engage in sporting and charitable giving events. It is often from such humble beginnings that great collaborations can grow, and that staff can develop a sense of cohesion and shared purpose. But remember that people will only embrace these skills if they see them practiced by you – so don’t forget that you need to model all of the qualities you wish to see flourishing across the university.