Developing mid-level leaders can turbocharge university performance

Developing mid-level leaders can turbocharge university performance


By Peter Wiseman

The success of any organisation depends on the ability of its leaders at all levels to develop successful strategies and mobilise others to execute on the strategy. While leadership works somewhat differently in universities, where authority emanates more from the knowledge and experience of the professoriate,[1] leadership is just as important to drive performance.

Most universities have outstanding senior leadership teams. However, the leadership capability of mid-level leaders (such as Heads of School and Heads of Disciplines) is usually much less developed. Indeed, in our experience, the leadership capability of mid-level academic leaders, and the focus on developing these individuals, is substantially less than in comparable organisations in other sectors.

The importance of mid-level academic roles cannot be underestimated. In a time of continuous and accelerating change, increasing competition, rising stakeholder expectations and financial pressure, mid-level leaders are pivotal.

Most academics, and many non-academic staff, report to a mid-level academic leader, making these roles the fulcrum for university performance and transformation. These roles are primely placed to lead work to identify new education offers, build new research collaborations with industry and expand the impact of community engagement. They are also key to managing change effectively at a local level and to boosting financial performance. Without effective mid-tier leadership, much of a university executive’s strategic agenda cannot be achieved.

Academic leadership requires a unique blend of influencing skills, strategic thinking and personal effectiveness

Leadership in mid-tier academic roles presents unique challenges. In a culture that values collegiality, understanding how to influence and inspire others is crucial. Developing, understanding and executing strategy can be daunting, particularly where this involves decision making in an environment that is often ambiguous.

Moving to a leadership role also involves developing capabilities for personal effectiveness, including the resilience and tenacity to remain focussed in an environment that has been described as “trying to nail jelly to the ceiling while putting out spot fires with my feet.”[2] The diagram below outlines a range of capabilities crucial to success in these leadership roles.

Capabilities that leaders in universities require

Developing leadership capability in mid-level roles involves integrating quality learning experiences with the rhythm of work. This development effort requires considered design that provides valuable learning and builds on the opportunities in the work environment to practice and build confidence in leadership capabilities. In our experience, there are five powerful lenses for considering academic leadership programs for these roles.

1. Assess both individual development and tangible performance impacts

Leadership development needs to be more than professional development – it needs to lead to tangible outcomes for the institution and its stakeholders. Ultimately, success in developing mid-tier leaders manifests itself in delivering marked and sustained change in areas such as student load, retention and experience; research quality, volumes and impact; staff engagement; and financial performance. The metrics that leadership development will be assessed against should be established early, as this sharpens the focus on what specifically the university is aiming to achieve.

A theory of change is the starting point for assessing the return on investment a leadership program delivers. This clearly outlines the impacts that changes in leadership capability are expected to have on strategic priorities, and maps these back to the design of the leadership program. Identifying specific and measurable indicators of program outputs and outcomes provide the basis for assessing program effectiveness and impact.

2. Engage with strategy as well as leadership

Leadership does not occur in a vacuum. Academic leadership needs to be directed towards delivering tangible outcomes for the institution and stakeholders in ways that support strategic objectives. This can be challenging for mid-level leaders because it involves understanding strategy, contributing to strategy development, leading strategy execution and engaging with the necessary trade-offs this entails.

For early-career leaders (and even many established leaders) taking the strategic perspective can mean saying no to others who see themselves as peers, and making what can at times be unpopular choices. Additionally, it involves taking a longer-term view, allocating resources in areas that may or may not ultimately succeed. It means taking the risk of looking for the new, recognising that focussing on what is currently delivered in courses and research is insufficient, and that actively developing a pipeline of new offers that can be introduced in coming years is vital for sustainable success.

There are ways to build skills in strategy, decision making and leading delivery. In our experience, leaders readily engage with tools and frameworks that provide new perspectives on their leadership challenges. A blended mix of spaced working sessions, peer learning activities, curated readings, reflection activities and related supports can markedly lift capability.

3. Tailor learning content to suit roles and context

Understanding the drivers behind common challenges faced by mid-level leaders should inform the design of programs to lift leadership capability. For example, one common challenge is an inability to be timely in making important decisions. One driver is the difference between the evidence required to inform academic research findings and the evidence often available for leadership decisions. In a leadership context, waiting for data that provides definitive evidence for a decision usually means the decision has been made too late – for example, taking action on hints of a decline in staff morale is far better than waiting for the strong evidence a staff engagement survey can provide. Often it is better to take a probabilistic approach, where multiple clues from different sources can inform a decision and lead to early action.

Another driver of decision avoidance is the collegiate nature of academia. Exploring ways to involve others to inform decisions can be of substantial value – for example by using strategies to influence and inspire staff around decisions that have been made. Additionally, knowing how to frame communications about decisions that do not require input from others can assist in overcoming decision avoidance.

Context-specific factors can also inform the development of leaders. For example, the people-leadership challenges of mid-tier universities are qualitatively different from those of top-ranked institutions. Similarly, the leadership challenge for a university or faculty facing a turnaround challenge is markedly different to that of a university with high demand and strong financials.

Leadership in a Faculty of Business is more likely to focus on generating substantial margin for cross-subsidising other areas of university operations, whereas in a Faculty of Medicine boosting research quality and volume will be critical to driving rankings performance and societal impact. The leadership challenge will also be impacted by the priorities for student growth, mix and pathway offers; the level of research and teaching-only academics; and progress towards digital delivery.

4. Make the learning experiential and grounded in evidence

Countless books have been written about leadership, and there is substantial evidence about what works. Indeed, many academics equate “quality” leadership development with academic rigour. Leadership programs need to be grounded in the academic literature and in evidence of what works in achieving development and behavioural change.

At the same time, leadership is profoundly practical – it shows up in what people say and do. In developing leadership capability it is critical to provide ample opportunity to practice leadership in context. Individuals cannot think their way to leadership – they need to experiment and learn by doing. They also need to be supported in doing so – having the opportunity to learn from skinning a knee without breaking a leg.

5. Leverage peers, priorities and the university rhythm in learning design

Leadership is as much an art as a science – it is social and happens in a context. Developing leadership capability needs to be experiential, with targeted and bite-sized theory used as the basis for practice at work.[3]

Spaced learning that is linked to the rhythm of the university brings learning to life. This can be done by aligning learning modules to the university calendar, considering elements such as strategy timelines, business planning and performance management cycles.

Peer relationships and coaching arrangements can enhance an individual’s learning journey. Establishing peer groups to share experiences, test ideas and provide support can accelerate learning and boost the confidence of individuals as they explore and expand their leadership presence. Similarly, coaching and mentoring relationships can lead to powerful insights on successful leadership in a university context.

A diagnostic tool can be useful for understanding leadership strengths and development opportunities. In our experience, a diagnostic tool that focusses on the specific capabilities required by academic leaders is more impactful than a generic tool. Any tool is better than none, but the complexities of academic leadership, and the probing and sometimes sceptical nature of academics in engaging with these tools, means that a more nuanced diagnostic instrument is more likely to deliver insight and prompt tangible change.

People will always be central to a university – the students that come to learn, the impact that research has on people’s lives, the communities that universities operate in, and the university staff that make this possible. And people need leaders, not just managers. Developing leaders is not just a nice to have – it is central to a university’s mission.

Ultimately, the university that delivers high-performance academic leadership at the Heads of School and Heads of Discipline level will achieve lasting competitive, strategic and cultural advantages.


Get in touch to discuss how your institution can build leadership capability. 

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[1] Bebbington, W. (2018), in “What is it like to take a leadership role at a university?”. Times Higher Education.

[2] Scott, G., Coates, H. and Anderson, M. (2018). Learning leaders in times of change: Academic Leadership Capabilities for Australian Higher Education.

[3] Browning, V., Bartlett, J. and Gundmundsson, A. (2017), “Management development programs in the workplace: do we know if they really work?”. The Mandarin.