If someone told you there was a magic bullet to help you withstand the turmoil underway in the UK Higher Education (HE) sector now most people would take it. The level of change today is unprecedented and university staff want help in conquering ever-increasing challenges.  Here, SUMS Associate Consultant Felicity Gasparro explores the role of coaching in meeting these challenges.  Perhaps it's less about finding a magic bullet and more about lighting the fire within.

If someone told you there was a magic bullet to help you withstand the turmoil underway in the UK Higher Education (HE) sector now, most leaders, managers and members of staff working in universities would take it. The level of change today is unprecedented. When I attended and presented at the SUMS Annual Conference in November 2019, the flow of conversation was very focused on this point.

By the way, I’d challenge anyone who states they have the magic bullet to solve this conundrum. The way ahead for universities is far from easy or straightforward, with the quick wins and operational improvements already underway.

Before I began working with SUMS, where I’ve been able to work with several institutions, I worked for the University of Reading as Head of Marketing Operations. Before that, I worked for the John Lewis Partnership as Head of Democratic Engagement, Waitrose.  When I entered the HE sector, I was fascinated to see that many of the well-documented challenges present in the retail sector are also present in HE. Some of the causes of choppy waters may be different, but the impact is similar. This got me thinking about what I could do to help universities which are facing:

A financial crunch – Broadly speaking, the causes of this are three-fold: the commercialisation of HEIs; the customerisation of the student; and a general perception (or reality) of financial inefficiencies and with cash-rich assets but cash-poor bank balances.

Increased government regulation – Hot topics such as value for money, widening participation and the spotlight on grade inflation

Highly competitive recruitment market – These trends are placing increased pressures on both UK and International recruitment success.

Pressure to streamline course profile – Remaining distinctive and appealing whilst being forced to produce sensible and manageable timetables, risking dilution of the offer.

The ascendency of the T-Level and Further Education providers combined – A levelling out of some of the HE playing field where post ‘92s now sit comfortably alongside more ‘traditional’ universities, a shift from which even Russell Group is not completely immune.

Staff who feel disorientated – Staff discombobulated by the whirl of change and impact this is having on their institution. Life at works feels different but people are not yet quite clear on how this affects the vision or their stake in the organisation. Are organisations and structures optimally designed to equip people to deliver well in their roles?

We know universities face the risk of closure, acquisition and merger unless they make long-term decisions to turn their institutions around. University leaders are very aware of this stark reality.

A magic bullet?

I would argue that within any organisation undergoing transformational change and substantial movement in the competitive environment, must start with enabling its people.  The need for leading strategically through transformational change is critical to securing future success and sustainable existence. Restructures, recruitment freezes and voluntary redundancies are options many institutions are actively pursuing – and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, my view from now having worked with a range of institutions, is that fewer are investing in the personal development of their staff or in the resources within the HR function to facilitate the change shift. An age-old habit of organisations under financial pressure is to cut budgets in areas which are perceived to be luxury items – functions such as People and Marketing frequently suffer…

This is precisely the moment when universities need to invest in their staff, contrary to the instinctive contraction in spending on people development.  Coaching has been proven to improve productivity and performance and delivers a return on investment for both the individual and the organisation*. It is also a highly targeted form of personal and professional development.  Not only does a coaching environment provide people with a purposeful time-out, it ‘allows people to think, make connections and to access higher brain structures which lead to breakthroughs in thinking’.**

Although there are no magic bullets (I’m sorry about that…), coaching is a great place to start.

Lighting the fire within

SUMS members and clients can access coaching, mentoring and coaching supervision services, through delivery partner Oyster Outcomes. SUMS members can use membership days to choose from a cohort of highly capable and trusted complement of Coaches, Mentors and Coaching Supervisors with experience across a range of disciplines.

Even if your institution is already fortunate enough to have established an internal coaching network, we can support with the supervision of your coaches. The SUMS coaching offer might also be useful to members of staff who don’t feel comfortable working with internal coaches and would prefer to access an external, truly independent professional coach.

Undergoing coaching with a talented coach can change perspectives, unlock thinking and enable people to find new solutions to persistent problems. It is an important way of investing in staff and accessing this service through SUMS means you’ll be able to do so in a cost-efficient, value-adding way.

I shared this video clip at the SUMS Annual Conference in November, and it is such a powerful analogy for what some of you will be currently experiencing, I wanted to share it again. Take a couple of minutes to watch the burning platform analogy, developed by Dr Peter Fuda. The premise is that the negative impact of threat (i.e. – the level of turmoil which exists in the sector) on human beings’ ability to operate effectively under change.  Threat-based thinking will only get you so far. He presents an alternative option – lighting the fire within – which speaks to the opportunity I believe coaching has for you and your institution.

What next?

If you’re keen to develop your staff, unlock efficiencies and enable people to manage in the present while working towards future success, why not explore what the SUMS coaching offer can offer you? SUMS have been working within this field of expertise for many years and are now deepening its resources to meet the proven demand in this area.

Coaching enables people of all levels of your organisation to develop their performance and make a bigger contribution.  In present circumstances, enabling your people to deliver more without increasing pressure has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

Contact either f.gasparro@reading.ac.uk or your SUMS Consultant to find out more. If you’d like to preview the Coaching Professionals available to your institution please follow this link:  https://oysteroutcomes.co.uk/coaching

* Credit – ICF – https://peopletalkonline.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/icf-infographic.jpg

** Credit – Mark McCordie, CEO of The Conscious Leader.

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