The Interview UK
The University of Manchester
Director of People and Organisational Development

Adèle MacKinlay

Higher Education (HE) institutions benefit from being centres of lifelong learning for staff as well as students. This means that, on the whole, employees fully embrace the idea of continuous professional growth. However, with employees being busier than ever, it’s important that we ensure that Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Wellbeing remain top of the agenda, and are embedded in ‘how we do things around here’.  

Adèle MacKinlay, Director of People and Organisational Development at the University of Manchester, sat down with Co-host of The Interview Luke James to discuss how she manages competing priorities, her career journey so far, and the importance of being kind. 

Adèle's Journey

Luke: Please introduce yourself and your institution. 

My name is Adèle MacKinlay, and I am the Director of People and Organisational Development at the University of Manchester, where I have been working for the last two years. The University of Manchester is one of the largest universities in the UK. Our research is internationally recognised, with current rankings placing us among the world's leading universities.

Based in the heart of Manchester, it’s our 200th anniversary next year, so we’ve been doing this for a long time! Manchester has a significant social responsibility agenda which includes the work we’re doing in the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) space. 

Luke: What has your career journey looked like?

My life has never followed a set plan. Post my undergraduate degree, I joined an American financial services organisation based in the UK. When I started, there were 40 people, and when I left thirteen years later, there were about 6,000 in three European countries. The growth meant there were many opportunities to develop one’s career — I started in customer service and left as Chief People Officer. After leaving, I moved into HE, joining Aston University in 2009, before moving to the US for five years and then returning to the UK. I was happily working at Loughborough University when this opportunity at Manchester came up that I couldn’t resist. 

Luke: Not many people have worked in HE both in the UK and US. What did you learn from your time in the US?

I think HE is very similar in the UK and US in many ways. Structurally it’s different, but in terms of the aspirations of an academic, they’re fairly similar. However, working and living in the US is culturally very different — I have tried to bring that appreciation of others back with me to the UK. You would expect that by speaking the same language, we would be the same, but that’s not the case. 

I was living in the US during a polarised time when Trump was elected, which had a significant impact on many communities. But generically, as HE is all about the people, and as you don’t know what’s happening in anyone’s life, we must all create environments where people can thrive and be successful, regardless of where they’ve come from and who they are. 

Luke: When it comes to creating that sense of community, inclusivity and belonging, what approaches have you been taking?

There are several key things. The first one is that when I joined Manchester, I developed a People and Organisational Developmental strategy, which was the first time the organisation had one. The other simultaneous development was that the EDI Director developed an EDI strategy to bring greater equity and inclusion to the Manchester community of students and staff. Both of these strategies have been alive for about two years and are making a real difference to our community.

The second thing is that we are currently very active with the Race Equality Charter, Athena Swan, and Stonewall. We are also in the process of working towards the Disability Standard charter, and already follow many of the recommendations contained within this. A lot of initiatives come out of these, which over time will make us a more equitable and inclusive environment. We listen to staff and students, which might sound soft but is actually the most important thing that one can do. We’re trying to make sure that whether you’re a member of the cleaning crew or the Chief Operating Officer, you feel like you have a voice. We have a number of staff and student networks that meet regularly and input on the strategies we’re deploying. 

A further initiative is that we have recently completed a staff survey last year and are in the process of implementing the key findings. One of the interesting aspects of the results is that there’s a strong correlation between the annual appraisal and a colleague’s engagement with the organisation. In general, colleagues who have an annual appraisal are engaged; those who don’t are disengaged. So, we are trying to ensure that people have frequent conversations with their managers. One of the key pieces of feedback from the staff survey was a need for a greater focus on wellbeing. We now have a Head of Staff Wellbeing and a strategy in place; this will make a huge difference.

Luke: How do you ensure that people management and EDI strategy align with one another?

The EDI Director role split apart from HR just before I joined, which was a deliberate strategy by leadership to ensure that EDI had a specific focus at the highest level, as opposed to something within an HR directorate. There are advantages and disadvantages of splitting, but the EDI Director and I talk every week and align on what we want to achieve. We work together even though we’re split structurally. We have also put in place some great events and committees, most of which are shared by both of us. It’s not perfect, but it works really well. 

Luke: You mentioned there are active employee networks. We often hear that it can be challenging to get all staff engaged on topics such as belonging and inclusion because people are busy. How do you overcome this?

I agree that it is a challenge. We actively try and push membership in our key networks, which have events that we support. Each of them is sponsored by someone on the senior leadership team, which gives members someone they can connect with. Hybrid working has really helped because we do a lot of webinars and network meetings online, which has made life a lot more inclusive. 

Luke: When it comes to the culture piece of the institution, how do you develop a culture of learning and growth across the organisation?

We are a learning organisation, which gives us an advantage. Inherently, for many colleagues, there’s an attraction to HE and its focus on lifelong learning. We have an appraisal system that encourages people to articulate how they want to develop in the next year. Professional development should be about expanding your mind — it could be learning a foreign language or gaining a mentorship relationship. We’re trying to actively help junior colleagues and different groups to provide different choices for them. 

Quick-fire Question 

Luke: What is the best piece of advice you have received in your career?

That’s an easy one for me: be kind. The advice was given to me early in my career, and it could not be more important. For people to feel valued, treat them with respect and compassion. 

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Luke James
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