Leadership plays a pivotal role in shaping the future of education and preparing the next generation for success. Mark Milton, Chief Operating Officer at the University of South Wales, has led the way in this regard, leveraging experience and leadership to create positive change.
Kira Matthews, GoodCourse’s Community Engagement Lead, met with Mark to discuss his varied experience in leadership, the challenges of the pandemic, and the importance of fostering a culture of learning and personal growth.
I’m the Chief Operating Officer at the University of South Wales (USW).
Without giving you a long history, I started as a general trainee at an insurance company. It allowed me to try my hand at a few different things — auditing, accounting, and administration. My path into people leadership was through becoming an HR professional, moving up through middle management into senior roles, and ultimately becoming an executive leader.
Leading is a never ending challenge but it helps people get the best out of themselves. Seeing them grow is something I really enjoy — I get a great deal of satisfaction from leading, organising, and inspiring.
I’ve had a varied career, but at the heart of it is an understanding of people and how they behave. I’m interested in learning about the people around me — what motivates them, what frustrates them, and how to get the best out of them. My position at USW brings in skills from elsewhere in my career — I.T., finance, and so on — but it’s fundamentally about people. Through my experience in leading and organising, I felt I had the potential to bring something unique to the job.
Everyone wants to feel like part of a team and to have their contributions recognised. As organisations, we need to strive hard to accomplish this. The first thing I’m proud of is my work in outreach — bringing in candidates who might not have otherwise applied. Whether in universities or with the police, I’ve heard many stories about why people choose not to apply for roles, and it can be quite distressing. I’ve been really motivated by stories of success in the outreach operations we’ve been sponsoring.
I’m determined to do everything I can to make everyone feel included.
It’s important to reach out, and let people know they can make it. There are two sides to this: what it means to individuals, and what it means to institutions. In the UK, there is still a long way to go until we have an environment where everyone can feel comfortable being themselves. I’m determined to do everything I can to make everyone feel included.
Well, there were a few different phases. In March 2020, we had to mount an emergency response — identifying key people across the organisation, gathering virtually, and fighting fires wherever we found them. Next, we had to take an intensive approach to problem-solving: responding to government policy and making sure people had the resources they needed. After that, there was an active transition to a planning phase, preparing to bring students back to campus. We’d been told that students would return in September 2020, and we did a lot of work to prepare for that. But then the situation changed again.
Along the way, we had to react to huge challenges: for example, our I.T. infrastructure was not designed for remote learning. We also had to keep up a dialogue with the Welsh Government about when it was safe to return to campus. In 2021, planning became even more complex: the longer things were closed, the harder it became to reopen. Communication was key. Students and staff had to feel safe before they could return. We didn’t reopen fully until 2022 — we had students in their third year who had never even set foot on campus!
I’ve never watched the news so much in my life! I remember the government once asking us to help run a Covid testing centre. It sounded fine in theory — until they drove up with a truck full of kit and asked us to assemble it! The construction manual alone was 275 pages, with another 200 pages full of clinical governance rules. Fortunately, we had some brilliant people here who could organise it. In an institution of any size, you will have talent: for me, the most important thing is allowing those talented people the chance to excel.
That’s a brilliant question. I think you need to find value in yourself first. People join organisations for many reasons — whether it’s a high salary, a convenient location, or even just great coffee. Many people are driven by values: without them, many important jobs would never get done. If you want to be a successful leader, you need to tap into people’s personal growth and aspirations. It’s about what you can do for them as much as what they can do for you. If you give people the room and support to grow, they will pay you back a thousand times over.