University Leadership for a New Age

By Professor Ian Findlay, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Puthisastra

By Professor Ian Findlay, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Puthisastra

Good leadership is one of those things that everyone knows what it is when they see it but find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is other than banal generalities such as “being authentic” or “doing the right thing”. It's also often invisible, like a well-oiled machine.

However, the opposite applies to bad leadership, which we only hear about when a thing goes wrong. I’m sure we have all experienced bad leadership and can point to many (perhaps personal) examples of toxic cultures where leaders are feared rather than respected, morale is low, no vision, apathy is rampant and bad behaviour is tolerated.

Of course, there are many leadership models, each with its pros and cons:

1. Transformational: Creates strong vision. Arguably the best model, big picture but often deficient in important details or operational matters as well as individual staff needs. Often the devil is in the detail, and if the big picture is too big without plan or support, it will fail no matter how great the vision is.

2. Transactional: Straightforward rewards-based model. Short-term rewards (bonus etc.) an d consequences. It can be very effective for short-term individual tasks but discourages innovation and long-term planning

3. Servant/people first: Focus primarily on staff needs, mentorship, coaching etc. It can build staff satisfaction but can be very draining long term. It can lose sight of company goals.

4. Autocratic: Essential when quick, urgent decisions are needed but can leave others disengaged

5. Democratic: Seek many opinions before making decisions. Encourages engagement, creativity and innovation but can be very time-intensive and lengthy decision-making months.

6. Laissez-Faire: Passive leadership, allowing staff to work things out by themselves. It can work very well with motivated, empowered staff but can lead to chaos without structure.

7. Bureaucratic: Strictly follow the rules with little flexibility. Works very well in highly regulated environments, e.g. finance and health, where small deviations can lead to serious repercussions. But can be very frustrating, stifles innovation and can be disempowering.

8. Charismatic: Needs charm and magnetic personality to turn staff into “disciples” and maximise staff engagement. But can be self-absorbed, domineering and selfish and resistant to other ideas

9. Driven: Driven to get results. Works very well for short-term goals but is not sustainable and can rapidly lead to burn-out of the leader and the entire team

10. Ethical/fairness: Similar to the servant but more societal. Develops large levels of trust, goodwill and staff engagement. Focussed on values, beliefs, and behaviours but can be difficult to manage as there is no single objective measurement of fairness etc.–what may be ethical to some may not be to others. It can be time intensive and result in lengthy decision-making. This can limit development opportunities.

Of course, the answer isn’t a single approach, it’s entirely contextual. The best leaders must be highly flexible and adapt their leadership styles depending on circumstances. For example, a leader may be naturally transformational but will need to be autocratic in crises, sympathetic, and servant/people focussed when motivating individual staff or democratic when creativity and innovation are required.

And, of course, we haven’t yet touched on management styles and the extensive literature on what management is and the differences between leadership and management.

In general, the main differences are:

• Leaders create and inspire the vision; managers make it happen
• Leaders are ideas focused; managers are action focussed
• Leaders inspire others to do their best (discretionary effort), whereas managers manage time
• Leaders manage the future, managers lead the present.
• Leaders shape culture, managers reinforce it.

The best leaders recognise that just as leadership styles adapt to circumstance, leadership and management skills must also overlap.

Whilst there is extensive literature on leadership and management, the literature is often generic - lacking practical measures or specific examples to improve leadership/management. Whilst I’m sure many leaders and managers may already apply many or all of these approaches, I would like to offer some practical tips which have transformed a small, struggling university in Cambodia into arguably the best in the country in just four short years.

The University of Puthisastra (UP) approach.

1. President/CEO responsible for painting an inspiring picture of the vision, explaining where we should be in 3-5 years, the road to get there and everyone’s contribution. Don’t overcomplicate or dilute the vision with countless vision, mission, purpose statements, KPIs, strategic plans, etc. Inspire people to believe, and you have inspired them to do their best.

2. Create 3 years ambitious, achievable but simple1-page strategic plan. 1 year plans are too short for lasting change, and 5 or 10-year plans are simply too long to get immediate engagement. Then divide that up into annual Operational plans for each department by defining key objectives and timelines. EmpowerDepartment heads to use operational plans to guide the creation of their own Departmental plans. Depts are local and know their own jobs and challenges much better than any CEO.

3. Set high expectations but jump in the deep end and hold hands together to help staff achieve these expectations. Do it behind the scenes, so they get the credit.

4. Strategic and operational. CEOs need to get their hands dirty in the weeds occasionally to demonstrate to their teams that they actually do know what they are talking about. CEO should know enough details about each department to ask challenging questions to be useful but not details be bogged down.

5. Share success. At least once every 3 months, share and celebrate (cakes are good) recent successes – everybody wants to be on the winning team and be part of something great. Develop a track record of success.

6. Fortnightly individual and confidential meetings with the leadership team. Quality time to ensure that each is aligned, get updates, address issues, and provide individual coaching as necessary. Focus on Major Activities, Successes, Challenges, What can I (as CEO) do to help and Actions (with a time frame to provide focus)

7. Fortnightly group leadership meetings. Each member gets 3-4 minutes to update the group on successes, challenges and upcoming events.

8. Active communications – both directly and “behind the scenes” to identify and solve issues

9. Publicly call out success. If someone has done a great job, let everyone know, don’t keep it a secret. Everyone enjoys praise, no matter how senior.

10. Privately call out thanks. A private thank you email to a junior staff member (cc’íng their manager) lets them know that the CEO recognises and appreciates them. This can be incredibly powerful to the “troops”.

11. Compulsory training. Training is an investment in staff. “Take care of staff so they can take care of customers” (students, staff, stakeholders etc.). My university offers more than 70 training courses ranging from advanced excel and pedagogy to customer service training – all staff must undertake at least 3 courses per year.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating – have these approaches resulted in success?

Despite a disastrous last few years for universities (and many companies), with many going bankrupt around the globe due to covid-19; in the last four years, UP has gone from strength to strength:

• 105% increase in total revenues, only a 50% increase in expenses
• 73% increase in student revenue, 647% increase in other revenue
• 470% increase in international publications
• Only Cambodian university in prestigious THE World rankings
• 85% increase in student applications
• >65,000 hrs of online delivery ongoing
• 54% increase in student graduation
• 14% average pay rises each year
• 1080 courses improved each year
• Only Cambodian university offering CPD across its major fields

Good leadership works despite the many challenges.

Weekly Brief

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