SUMS and Oyster Outcomes have teamed up to provide coaching, mentoring and coaching supervision services – here, SUMS Associate Professor Ellie Highwood (Former Dean for D&I and Head of Meteorology / Professor of Climate Change at The University of Reading), and SUMS Associate Felicity Gasparro, (former Head of Marketing Operations at the University of Reading), share their experiences of the value coaching can bring to staff working in HEIs.  Contact either or, or your SUMS Consultant to find out more.

A View from Ellie – Coaching Academic Managers and Leaders

Coaching for academic managers and leaders – COVID-19

Academics tend to become managers through being successful at teaching, research, or both.

First, you might find yourself managing and leading a research group – a combination of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. After, or perhaps to achieve, promotion, you might be managing and leading fellow academics to deliver teaching programmes, research activity, or as Head of Department or School. From my own experience, the management training available to academics becoming managers is highly variable and not always relevant but people tend to muddle through and get help in a piecemeal way.

Good management of academics and research teams relies on connections with each team person as an individual, since independence is a key part of academic identity. This can mean that management feels a bit like herding cats even at the best of times. And while flexible and remote working is the norm for many academics who aren’t laboratory-based or actively teaching – this may not make it easier to manage a fully remote team when working remotely yourself. There have always been those few for whom working off-campus is interpreted as “being unavailable and unfindable” to colleagues, students, and managers alike. This has eroded trust, and where the behaviour is rife, some institutions have retreated to more presenteeism based measures of activity. The situation we find ourselves in now requires trust, and a move to focus on deliverable or output measures of activity.

The challenges facing academic managers:

There are big things as an academic manager that you are likely to be dealing with  – confused and concerned students, a massive shift in technology use, how to set and mark online exams that reflect students achievements, uncertainty about recruitment (and therefore teaching requirements and income for next year), uncertainty in research funding (and therefore income for next year and possibly the careers of your research team). Your team expect you to know the answers that don’t yet exist. Interaction with your team feels more transactional – the social element that fuels the creative part of academia has been lost. Whilst it would be easy to feel under fire and as if everything is out of control, there are some things you can at least influence if not control and doing this can help.

  • Communication: even more important with staff and students working remotely. Design expectations of communication including email collaboratively via a team call, frequently communicate, reinforce and role model the result.
  • A culture of trust valuing output rather than activity: working patterns are out of sync across the team as people juggle childcare, self-care, and stress. Where you can, give people the gift of trust that they will do what they have been asked without too much checking up – instead, check-in and ask if they have everything they need. Ask when meetings or calls are most convenient and try to agree to something that works for as many as possible. Everyone, including you, needs a rest.
  • Giving everyone the feeling, they are valued and part of the team: inclusive online meetings are an art. Combining reflectors and talkers, introverts, and extroverts, not to mention multiple egos is difficult in the real world. On remote platforms, it can be worse because you don’t always have verbal clues to pick up when someone is trying to speak. Make sure everyone knows how to “raise their hand” and pay constant attention to this. Better still, proactively give everyone, in turn, an opportunity to comment on the biggest issues/decisions – making it clear it is ok to pass if they wish to. Sending agenda and paperwork in advance is even more important as some tech setups may make it hard to be on the call and looking at the material at the same time. Don’t insist on video but make sure you can tell when people want to contribute.

Your ultimate identity

Finally – you are not just a manager – you are yourself an active academic. You probably have your own outputs, research team, students and teaching to worry about / squeeze in. Balancing this with expectations as a manager and your home life is bound to feel like spinning multiple plates.

Coaching can support you and help you develop new ways of managing that work for you and your team. Help to prioritise in a world of overwhelm, brainstorming creative solutions to new situations, rehearsing difficult conversations, thinking through plans to maintain your own research output and planning for the research team. There will be challenges coming over the next couple of years as the impact of 2020 filters through. Coaching can give you the space to build skills and energy for this too when everything seems to leave no time for you.


A View from Felicity – Coaching Professional Services People

Coaching Professional Services in Higher Education

I’ve been coaching people from professional service backgrounds for over 14 years, in both the commercial retail sector (Group and Head Office people), third sector, and of course, Higher Education. I’ve also been a grateful recipient of some fantastic coaching too, throughout my professional career, so not only have I been privileged to see the positive change Coaching makes to individuals and the teams they work in, but I also know first hand the key role Coaches have played in supporting me to successfully navigate my career to date.

Coaching is not a new concept for Professional Services in Universities. Some institutions have established their own internal coaching bank, and this is normally HR led. However, SUMS recognise there is still a gap in this offer for many institutions and are keen to offer professional coaching services to meet this need. Not only this, but we also recognise Coaching should be accessible to all, and we’re less confident that senior leaders and Board Members might access an internal coaching programme. This, therefore, provides a wholly complementary service to what may already exist.

What coaching offers to you

My own experiences of coaching being offered by my employer typically appeared during change programmes – the identified the value of putting an external support mechanism in place during quite stressful circumstances. Coaching can add value at any point, depending on the challenge the coaching client is facing.  Covid-19 is having a substantial impact on the way in which people are required to work. Staff are facing new pressures and working requirements. Speaking plainly, providing staff with access to a confidential space to discuss, strategise, plan and clarify thinking, can bring growth, development and ultimately, enhance performance output when it’s desperately needed.

Our coaching philosophy is we hold many of the answers to our persistent challenges within. Sometimes, you just need to sit with a well-trained and resourceful coach, to work things out.

Coaching people from the Professional Services disciplines is wide and varied. All ‘levels’ of employees can benefit, but at the present time during the Covid-19 crisis, I would particularly callout two groups.

Middle Managers, Heads of Department and Non-Board Directors

There is a distinct need, right now, for ‘middle managers’, who are often the team’s interface between rapid and necessary change – interpreting the needs of their manager and deploying key messages and actions to their staff. This is now made even more complex by the remote working scenario which for many, looks set to continue for some time.

As Ellie mentions, the lack of physical proximity challenges our human natural instincts to connect and socialise, and whilst we are grateful for the online mechanisms in place, these can’t replicate the ‘coffee cup conversations’, or ad hoc by chance meetings at the photocopier. Context and progress can be lost unless Managers and Leaders are equipped to facilitate team results in different ways. They are being forced out of their comfort zones and to use management and leadership skills and techniques they may never have used before. So there’s a certain amount of on-the-job learning involved, which is OK for some, but for others, this is not OK and is leaving them feeling distinctly uncomfortable and even vulnerable and exposed.

One might consider therefore, there should be more skills-based training, and to a degree, I agree! Undertaking a virtual course on how to operate the communications platforms available is great, for example. But this doesn’t get underneath the matter of building confidence to lead, shape and develop your team through substantial ambiguity. It’s also true that as many universities face some very big challenges as they approach the 2020 recruitment peak – there will no doubt be some winners and some losers. The pressure of the middle manager, Heads of Department and Non-Board Directors succeeding in these circumstances is particularly acute. Not only this, but their staff will be aware of these pressures and so there is an additional responsibility for reassurance and support for teams through change when they don’t hold all the answers themselves.

Another challenge faced by this group involves trust. The enforced way of working which has required flexibility to allow staff to navigate around multiple home commitments isn’t necessarily something Professional Service managers are used to managing, and this takes a high degree of trust in others. One day the team is working in the office or in a role on campus (except for those with globally based responsibilities) where work output is visible and checking in, fairly straightforward. These leaders and managers have now been propelled to move to a trust and output-based system. People may not be able to make key meetings due to childcare or caring responsibilities, or always deliver on time. Managers are needing to find their way through striking the right balance between ensuring team performance and offering pragmatic flexibility to team members.

The time of this group of professionals is also likely to be under substantial pressure, which could expose a gap in line manager availability and input. This is not a criticism of those leaders, but just an honest unintended consequence of the position we find ourselves in. If the senior leaders aren’t available to provide regular support to the Managers, Heads of Department and Non-Board Directors, what are the other mechanisms which can be put in place to alleviate some of this pressure?

Board Members

I can’t recall a time in modern history where Universities were under so much strain. The pot on the stove on many HEIs was already bubbling over with financial disarray, significant recruitment challenges, Brexit, grade inflation, pending REF, greater requirements to reach out to the community, offering value for money, OfS regulation and pensions negotiations with the Union. Covid-19 has come along and not only has the water poured out over the stove, it burnt the pot too.

Senior Leaders have the responsibility to lead their institution through this unwelcome added crisis with multiple and often competing priorities. All eyes are on them – the jobs of thousands are in their hands, the educations of even more thousands in some cases are at risks, and the survival of institutions which sometimes hold the heritage of hundreds of years is dependent on the leaders making precisely the right call at the right time.

Leaders must provide a safe environment for any residual employers and students remaining on campus and have the foresight to contingency plan for many different scenarios in September.

Their communication messaging and visible leadership at a point when gathering people in close proximity in town hall sessions isn’t possible, and whilst many will be offering a digital alternative, staff who have also had these circumstances foisted upon them, won’t necessarily feel the same connection to their leader.

Hard, but necessary decisions are being made right now across many institutions to secure financial viability – jobs, courses, faculties even. The strategy they’d diligently built over months and years could now possibly be out of the window, requiring top teams to work at pace and design a new map, when so much is still unknown. Some institutions may be facing closure, some may be working towards acquisition and mergers. These are real and present threats being placed on the shoulders of a few.

Putting myself in the shoes of those leaders, I can imagine there may be times of isolation and loneliness, perhaps even that sense of fight or flight. It’s proven that making decisions under threat will only get you so far and I wrote about this in a blog in February 2020*, just before we all realised just what an impact Covid-19 would make.

Coaching and / or mentoring for the top team might be an essential step towards releasing some of the pressures currently being experienced, allowing clarity of decision making, and frankly speaking, having someone external but completely capable of standing beside you and providing you with support, tools and techniques to make the very best of the situation.


At SUMS, we know coaching, team coaching, team facilitation and mentoring can play an advantageous role in the best of circumstances. But when you’re in the hurly-burly of leading and managing through a global pandemic and the longest lockdown ever known, we believe being able to access external coaching expertise is vital.

SUMS prides itself on delivering high value in a variety of ways to its members, and more broadly to the sector. Members can use their membership days to access coaching and /or mentoring sessions clustered in groups of 6,9, and 12.

Whatever your role in your institution, we want to enable you and your university to come through the crisis stronger and fitter than before, but in order to achieve this, we recognise the vitality of putting on your own oxygen mask first.

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