Flexibility

On Monday 3 June we launched our latest research Staffing Models and Institutional Flexibility by Dr Celia Whitchurch and Professor George Gordon. The opening presentation for the research launch by Professor Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton is reproduced here.

Higher education globally is in a state of flux. The forces acting on it are unparalleled and in my opinion particularly well articulated in the recent IPPR report The Avalanche is Coming by Sir Michael Barber.  Current staffing models in UK universities are effectively legacy operations – the national contract was implemented 23 years ago, longer than most students starting  university this autumn have been alive – and a national framework, now 10 years old, with arrangements that look increasingly jaded set against the sweeping marketisation of UK higher education now in play. The message to the sector from all sides is clear – increased flexibility is the name of the game if universities are to survive and thrive in the turbulence ahead. But what exactly are we being asked to flex?

Universities are large and complex organisations with different missions that engage in a range of activities above and beyond traditional learning, teaching and research.  The cumulative stock of this activity is a measure of the vitality of the intellectual capital locked up – and I use ‘locked’  advisedly, primarily in the staff base but increasing in the student population as well. The one thing that links these activities is people. And by and large people need to be managed in ways that get the best out of them, both for themselves and the organisations they work for.

10 essentials of performance management

by Dr Mark Pegg

Is a great performance management system compatible with academic life? Why is it that most professional services organisations find it so much easier than universities to manage in a performance regime, while respecting the freedoms and independence of their staff?

For most of my career I’ve worked in a performance management system. I wanted recognition and reward for success and was ambitious for career advancement, but I never found my professional freedoms were constrained in any way. Later when I become a director in executive education, I held annual objective setting and reviews, with informal half year progress reports. I contracted with my staff to work on their own initiative, trusting them, sharing and agreeing performance objectives, including internal and external performance measures.

These meetings drove reward and remuneration, but the focus was at least as much on personal and professional development as it was on business achievements. This is best practice, but hardly rocket science either. Not much to worry about here, in fact, it is good to know what your boss thinks, to get a pat on the back when all goes well, and a clear steer if more development is needed.

So what is there to fear? There is no one size fits all and teaching can be valued as much as research excellence. Irrefutably 95% of university staff love their jobs, share the values and culture of their organisation, are self-starting, hardworking, and dedicated, creative and innovative people. From this perspective, performance management ought to be unexceptional for academic staff.

How can the psychological barriers be broken down? How do you do build a regime that works, and what can possibly go wrong? I have learned so much from my own staff over the past 35 years, and if I summarise their views, we might have the making of a 10 point plan for performance management success:

1. A clear vision please – we need to know where are we heading, feel we had a part in it, see where what we do fits, then we will believe, work hard and add value;
2. Delegate, delegate – be clear what you want us to do, but don’t micro-manage, set the boundaries and let us get on and make it happen, don’t interfere except when we need a steer, want your advice or where you make connections;
3. Let’s communicate with each other – we hate ‘mushroom management’ –we are not interested in your day-to-day upward reporting, but we do expect to hear about ‘big ticket’ items;
4. Engage with us – we will respect you if you ask our opinions and show you are listening, consult us as knowledgeable team members who want success too.
5. Support and challenge – the best organisations to work for strive to get better and better and we need challenge to aim higher, although an organisation without support is not a happy place.
6. Openness – set clear objectives but also have a reality check, this is a place where we can broach difficult subjects, where a genuine dialogue can be held and nothing is off limits.
7. Trust and respect – why should anyone be led by you? We should trust our boss to fight our corner for us – for resources, for recognition – do this and you will earn our respect;
8. Fairness – treat us all fairly, praise the best performers, but also coach and encourage lower performers to do more and address ‘bad behaviour’ firmly;
9. Appreciative – let’s go for ‘the glass is half full’ if we can – inspire us to see the opportunities as clearly as the threats, be optimistic, and a little humour goes a long way;
10. No ‘i’ in Team – we want to fulfil our own potential, but we value and should contribute to a strong community that helps us thrive and prosper, a secure place to achieve our personal best.

And finally underpinning it all is a strong process. Performance reviews are our moment, give us airtime, listen as well as inform, keep a proper record of what we agree, have the difficult conversation if you think we need it and complement us and reward us if we deserve it.

Dr Mark Pegg is the chief executive of the Leadership Foundation.

The Leadership Foundation’s runs an in-house programme on performance management visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/LFperformance to find out more.