Lessons from a transformational leader

At our last ODHE meeting in February, we were lucky enough to hear from a transformational leader, Professor Bob Cryan, Vice-Chancellor of Huddersfield University. Prof Cryan was recently awarded The Guardian Inspiring Leader award, and his presentation certainly inspired me to reflect on some of his leadership philosophies.

People not structures: Prof Cryan spoke about how his focus is on the leadership in the University, not about its structures. In his time at the helm, he hasn’t changed anything structurally.  I find this remarkable when I think about the amount of structural changes happening in HE across the sector. I wouldn’t like to guess how much OD time is spent helping management teams plan and enact structural change, when much of it seems to be cyclical. Schools, Units and Faculties merge, only to be split again a few years later.

Simple hooks: Prof Cryan asks staff ‘What have you done to be inspiring, innovative, and international?’ By keeping things simple and memorable, the University can pare its desired staff behaviours down to three key elements. I think about the lengthy and generic values statements I come across, and I think, here too, there’s definite mileage in brevity and simplicity as Cindy referred to in her last blog post.

Never stop learning: Prof Cryan outlined his career-long learning approach, comprising top management programmes, postgraduate study, and even recently returning to undergraduate study to gain an understanding of the modern student experience. It made me reflect on how many leaders don’t prioritise and protect time for their own development. One of the challenges in my Institution is engaging academics in development who (often by virtue of their superb research skills) suddenly find themselves with management and leadership responsibilities. Having a senior leader model the way is admirable.

100%: Prof Cryan mentioned that he sets 100% targets “so that there’s nowhere to hide.” For example 100% of academics should research, 100% of academic staff are HEA Fellows etc. This made me reflect on whether my targets are ambitious enough. By aiming for 80% or 90% completion on tasks, or on satisfaction ratings, does this allow everyone to psychologically take their foot off the gas?

It can’t be easy to be a transformational leader, but I’ll be mindful of Prof Cryan’s approach and aim to factor it in to leadership discussion and thinking in my own Institution.

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