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Leadership during the pandemic: it comes back to community

  • 7 September 2021
  • By Mary Stuart & Ceri Nursaw

Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln and board member of the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE), and Ceri Nursaw, Chief Executive of NCEE, talk about the future of leadership. The NCEE will report in early autumn 2021 on leadership in higher education following a survey of university leaders across the UK.

Over the last 18 months, has leadership had to change? In essence Mary’s values have remained the same, with an approach that is rooted in a belief in the mission of universities to transform lives for the betterment of society and the individual. However, is it more enhanced in the pandemic?

Prior to her move into management, Mary had seen people damaged by bad management and hoped she could do better:

that’s not to say I have always done it right, I have made mistakes and hopefully learnt from them but I’ve always wanted, whatever the circumstances, to value people’s contribution and encourage so they can put forward ideas, be excited by something, try something out.

Entrepreneurial leadership is at the core of her leadership style. ‘You do not have innovation if people do not feel they can have a go’. During the pandemic, being entrepreneurial has not been stifled, but it has made it different, there is a challenge for people not being face-to-face and your world becoming smaller.

If you see your colleagues less you tend to live in a smaller world, the world of your house. It is quite difficult sometimes to think yourself in another place and another team for all of us. But I think during the pandemic we have learned about other things, more personal things, and I don’t just mean what pets people have, but the daily challenges our colleagues face juggling different aspects of their lives.

During the pandemic across the sector we have talked a lot about mental health in the broad sense, but there has not been enough conversation about the emotional stress people have experienced. We have always been busy in higher education, but during the pandemic we have not only had to adapt and respond, but also live with a worry and a fear almost the whole time. This has worked individually, of course, but it has affected all of our communities across our universities. It has been very draining and tiring. In this context, it has been important for leaders to acknowledge the emotional stress and just check in with people, providing space in conversations for colleagues to talk through their anxieties.

While working away from each other we have fewer non-verbal clues to work from. Online has enabled us to carry on but we have to compensate for the loss of face-to-face contact. It has been important to acknowledge the emotional challenges for people directly such as saying things like, ‘that must have been a difficult conversation’. Mary’s approach has been to move away from a coaching style to clearly articulating what people are nervous about saying on screen. When openly acknowledged ‘that must have been painful and emotionally stressful for you’, there has been relief from colleagues. In this way leaders can give permission and allow their teams to speak about their feelings.

During the pandemic, local teams have become even more important. Research suggests that friendships only work in smaller group sizes as there are only so many people that we can relate to. So, it is important in large organisations, like universities, to create smaller teams so that people can relate to their group and be part of that community effectively. Recognising and valuing your team members has become even more crucial. All teams have people within them that fulfil different roles. Mary has been very influenced by the work of Tom Douglas and found his work on groups invaluable over the years. Douglas’s work highlights how individuality intermingles with social group dynamics has been even more important to Mary during the pandemic. This knowledge has enabled both a closer focus on each individual in a team and also a greater awareness of the team dynamic itself and how this affects behaviour and team and individual success.

Heads of schools and services are at the centre of our universities, more so than the senior leaders who are more removed from the day-to-day cut and thrust of activity.

Heads of schools and services are at the centre of our universities, more so than the senior leaders who are more removed from the day-to-day cut and thrust of activity. These sectional heads are at the core of what universities do and have had a really difficult time supporting their team and supporting their students as well. Work undertaken before the pandemic by the University of Lincoln, alongside NCEE, has shown that these team leaders are crucial in driving a university forward, in it being agile and successful. During the pandemic it has been essential to keep in touch very directly with them and to try to understand their specific team dynamics. Mary has found she has talked to her Heads more than in normal circumstances:

Without these key people the wheels of a University would come off. I have such respect for colleagues who oversee whole departments and schools.

Working online has had its challenges. Conversations are more forced and formal. You cannot see the subtlety in people’s facial expressions and inevitably the engagement becomes more transactional. However, there have also been a great deal of opportunities.  Colleagues in Lincoln who are working with partners in different parts of the world, have found it much easier to get in touch with people and to progress initiatives and partnerships. During the pandemic Lincoln has established exciting new partnerships, launch events have taken place on Zoom and new collaborations have got underway.

Into the future what do you keep?

The question being asked in Lincoln, is not how much of the technology do you keep but ‘what is the value of face-to-face?’. If face-to-face is not necessary, then is there a technological solution. Lincoln’s starting point is ‘what have we missed?’ and ‘what do we value from being in the same room together?’. Face-to-face is important when you are throwing ideas around or having sensitive or difficult conversations. This was tested with some really sad and difficult times during the pandemic with the death of a dear and trusted colleague, as Mary says ‘sometimes all I wanted to do was to give them a hug – but I couldn’t.’

This approach has led to new thinking of how people will work. At its heart, Lincoln is very friendly institution where people take time to be together. Taking away the conversation has meant that some transactional activities have been more effective. There are certain people who have valued and enjoyed this environment. Understanding that you have different personalities and one way of doing things is not always right has been really important. At Lincoln teams would always do activities together, but now colleagues have had to be inventive to bring some light relief to the day. We did a senior leadership team ‘silly hats day’ asking people to choose a hat that said something silly about how they could be perceived. (Mary went as the Wicked Witch of the West). When some teams had early morning meetings they were encouraged to come in their pyjamas. Social events included sending team members a restaurant box at home to share together and so on. This approach was an attempt to keep a sense of shared endeavour and a bit of fun. In many ways online working has allowed us to get to know each other better, we’ve all got to know each other’s pets, and people have had to share more of themselves as they are in the own homes. However, that has created its own difficulties as for some people separation between work and home life has sustained them, working from home made that much for difficult.

Working from home also exposed inequalities more than ever, for example, those who do not have space to work, who are working off their kid’s bed. You have to be more aware that people are in different stages of their career and are dealing with things at home that may be difficult and complex. It has reminded Mary and her team of the level of complexity that operates in teams. As Mary says ‘We’ve spent a considerable amount of money on kit, but you cannot build a room for people’. However, what you can do is recognise the challenges, and for example, when there is a real challenge for some of working from home, it can be safer to allow them onto campus despite the pandemic.

The whole situation has been so contradictory. For some technology is an enabler and a leveller. Mary remembers when email was introduced, and how it gave her huge opportunities. Being hard of hearing meant that telephones were difficult and stressful. But she had learned to touch type and so email was a quick and efficient method of communication ‘I would not have had the confidence to progress without email’. For some people, online working will have enabled them and helped them to build their career.

So leadership over the last 18 months has had to recognise our community, the teams within them and the individuals who make up those teams more than ever. Life at Lincoln will be changed by our experiences through this time, there will be more online working and recognition of home life. However, it will also reaffirm and recognise the value of working face-to-face. As Mary says, ‘when we met together as a senior team after 14 months of being apart it was incredible. In some senses we picked up where we left off but there was also a huge sense of relief.’

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