By David Wright
HECG Managing Director
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take the job. I had just come from a harrowing but incredible time launching a start-up in Silicon Valley and was engaged in an ultimately successful project to turn around a university’s ailing commercial subsidiary. I considered this an interim role while I looked for my next business opportunity.
I had built great professional relationships with several of the university’s leadership, but I didn’t see a senior executive role there as being for me.
My background was in fast-moving international business, where not doing something was just as bad, and sometimes worse, than making a mistake. Personal accountability for delivering was a core value I enjoyed, supported by authority to achieve goals.
I had earned my stripes in business and was now enjoying the rewards.
And now here was an offer to work in university senior management.
What to do?
I had heard talk that political game-playing in universities was rife and that getting things done was nigh on impossible.
I didn’t know if any of this was true – but it sounded as if it could be a pretty painful environment in which to work. Politics mattered in business, but I didn’t have much time for it: results usually spoke for themselves. What would happen here?
I had a previous experience that was indicative in both a good and bad sense.
I had been working in a top investment bank when I was approached by a leading research agency to provide a systematic process for commercialising their research. The leadership was strong and generated great results, but at the same time I had attended meetings at which I was challenged, often by senior academics – “you don’t have a PhD why should I even talk to you?”
This was in an area in which I had 15 years senior business experience and my accusers virtually none.
In hindsight I am sure I rubbed them the wrong way and perhaps caused some of this antagonism – but there are very few senior business people in higher education who have not had similar experiences.
However, I should also say that most of the academics I worked with were great people who respected you if you deserved it and challenged you fairly if you didn’t.
So, back to the job offer. I met the vice-chancellor with the intention of declining and explaining my reasons. But as a last check I would try to find out if he would be the type of leader I had previously enjoyed working with.
He met all my criteria: a strong character, a cross between a statesman and a brilliant academic, plus a great ability to make you feel comfortable. In the interview he set out where he thought higher education was going, the situation facing the university, and specifically what he wanted me to deliver.
I left the interview thinking I knew exactly what I needed to deliver and that the leadership along what was going to be a very difficult road would support me. Many would fight against what we had to do but I felt confident we could succeed together.
I accepted the role and got to work.
Things got worse before they got better. After diving into the opaque world of university data for the first 90 days, it was clear the situation was worse than we all thought.
Drastic action was required but this was opposed by a significant few. The kind of belligerent behaviour I had experience before began as soon as I started to suggest changes beyond minor adjustments to the status quo. I was confident in the plan but flummoxed by how to get it done.
Confession No 1: a plan is not a solution unless executed within the specific environment of the university, its people, culture, time and resources.
A colleague pulled me aside and said: “Let me put a scenario to you – you have analysed an operation that is not performing, have found the cause of the problem and a probable solution, you go to the leader of that operation and provide this information and their response is … ‘No I am not doing that’? No alternative, just “No”. You are a senior executive in that organisation – what do you do?”
I had been trained in “on-the-bus” or “off-the-bus” – a simple choice. I gave a response consistent with my training.
He replied… “Welcome to the university” and laughed as he walked out.
What had I signed up for?
Through trial and error I learned a better approach and eventually made many good friendships, and also several failures to connect – some my fault and some that were never going to happen.
Confession No 2 – I had to invest more time in getting to know my colleagues and in building trust. I had to be more persuasive, respectfully informative and open to challenge and not declaratory. But I could not brush off a clearly incorrect challenge. I could not expect senior academic leaders to understand my commercial knowledge and experience any more than I could so quickly understand theirs.
Confession No 3: I WAS the outsider. In business I was a known commodity, but not so in universities. So while the university wanted to be more corporate it was I who had to adapt. And worse of all for me personally – I had to be a lot more patient, something after nearly 30 years’ experience I still struggle with.
We achieved our goals and I am very proud to have been part of a great team. Learning the values of higher education locked me into a career now spanning more than a decade. I understand the passion its people have for their fields, their teams and their students. Through international engagements in developing nations I have seen the incredible difference education can make to individuals and societies.
I am now witnessing the impact of universities bringing down their walls and working much more closely with industry, and building lifelong relationships with their students. I have adapted to delivering results in universities in line with their values.
Am I still an outsider? Probably, but times are changing and universities along with them. It’s a great time to be in the sector.
Confession No 4: I still have much to learn.