Operating an institution as large as a university requires creative, innovative thinking as a means of creating a workplace that is in constant improvement. In building this environment, both staff and students are given the opportunity to thrive.
Mark Bacon, Chief Operating Officer at Keele University, sat down with Interview Co-host Luke James to speak about the initiatives he is proudest of to date.
I started an academic career and did a PhD at Lancaster but released that wasn't for me and progressed into a more researched based management role. I moved into a more formal business management role, working to bring the university together with businesses in the UK and then internationally as well. At Keele, I am responsible for delivering professional services and also taking the lead on strategy development and delivery.
The main common thread here is that I am still in the university environment, so it’s important that I have been more hands-on with students in the past. It also provides credibility across the academic side of the business and gives me really valuable insight. I still am surprised today at how relevant some of my original science degree is; it’s still so useful even in a very different context in terms of people management and strategy development.
When you have a broad set of responsibilities, the first thing you need to ensure is that you don’t think you’re an expert in any of them. I definitely see a lot of my role as coordinating and integrating the services rather than managing specific areas. The best way to do that is to have clarity of vision and purpose; you have to be prepared to spend a lot of your time talking about it, repeating things over and over before there is a realistic chance of it becoming a reality. I spend a large portion of my week speaking to staff in formal and informal settings for this purpose. You have to be able to articulate the vision in a way that people can access and also discuss with you; the more you do it, the more likely you are to successfully share the vision broadly.
I went into it with the view that it has to be seen to be believed — coming out of the other side of implementing this, we can really see the benefits of something that originally came from a contingent response to Covid.
As leaders, we have to be creative in making great working environments for people; that is our job.
The first thing you’ve got to do in any organisation is ask where people want to be to do a specific piece of work. Where can people best do their role? This can often be at home, but not for everyone. It’s not about home versus work; it’s about where you can do your best work and deliver the best outcomes. That can be in the workplace or remotely. I think it’s a huge positive to come out of Covid that we’ve managed to achieve this mindset. As leaders, we have to be creative in making great working environments for people; that is our job.
I used to be of the opinion that it was best to have boundaries between your work life and your personal life, but my mind has changed in recent years. When it comes to being a part of a university, we have to look after the whole of the people to come here for work or for study.
We have long-standing commitments to EDI. We are now at the equity end and moving beyond equal access towards providing equitable support for students once they are here. For me, it’s been about initiatives such as bringing more visibility to professional services, for example, which we have worked on. This gives me a chance to work with these colleagues to drive culture and values in a way that was more difficult before we made those efforts. Being able to give an identity to that group has given us the opportunity to expand what they can do.
We also looked at balancing more diversity in terms of gender, race, ability, and sexual orientation. This is done by non-strategic approaches — we’re addressing these issues from the root in recruitment practices as well as in behaviour. We work with staff beyond notions like equal pay towards celebrating knowledge, integrity, professionalism, and teamwork. These things are as important as the job description itself.
This is a fundamental part of the job, and it needs to be treated as such. We never view it as an additional commitment — there are sound commercial reasons why diverse institutions do better, and therefore it's a fundamental part of becoming the best organisation that we can.
Colleagues may have different levels of confidence in talking bout these things, but we make it clear that this isn’t something you can opt out of because we all have unconscious biases that must be addressed.