The Interview UK
Aston University
Chief Operating Officer

Richard Billingham

For a university to truly become inclusive, community building needs to be at the heart of everything that it sets out to achieve. This is certainly the case for Aston University, which strives to make positive change both in its people and in its local community.

Richard Billingham, Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Aston University, sat down with Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, to speak about some of the community-building initiatives he is proudest of to date.

Richard's Journey

Luke: What brought you to your current role?

I’ve travelled a non-traditional journey to COO as I have come out of HR and People Management. In terms of my professional life, I've worked in the people space in a variety of roles, firstly as an HR Director in local government, and then I switched sectors to Higher Education (HE) here at Aston. I held that role at Aston for five years before becoming COO.

Luke: How has your HR experience influenced your approach to being COO?

My HR background was around organisational change anyway; I had come through HR doing organisational development, which I define as helping organisations and those working there to be the best they can be. So I was in the change space already, and the COO remit has more functions, but essentially, it is about enabling the enterprise to perform optimally both in terms of doing things well and doing better things; efficiency and effectiveness.

Luke: Your role has an emphasis on community building. Can you tell me some more about that?

That's the coming together of people and space as well as digital; these three elements build community in any organisation, particularly in a university. The physical campus is an important component of community but so are effective policies and people practice and, increasingly, digital too. Specifically in terms of universities, what I am creating here is a sticky campus, a place people want to come to and a place people feel that sense of community. When people are here, we want them to feel they want to stay.

Luke: What are some of the initiatives you are doing to build that sense of belonging on campus?

Belonging starts with a sense of purpose, and deep within our DNA is a sense of purpose. We are different from other universities in that we are purpose-driven; we are here to make a difference in the lives of our students and also in the place where we exist. We are firmly an urban university in the heart of Birmingham, and we play a purpose in that community by attracting so many students from the local area.

In terms of social mobility, the areas that neighbour Aston have some of the lowest rates of social mobility. We are second in the country for social mobility. So we are enabling people to come here and create a change in their lives; so fundamentally, we are about impact. That is where belonging comes from; without that, it’s difficult to create.

Luke: How do you create an inclusive environment when managing so many people?

Inclusion is at the heart of our institution. Regarding ethnic diversity, we are the top in the country, and we have staff from more than 72 different countries. Then, of course, we have a huge diversity of roles as well, but actually, Aston’s atmosphere is always one of inclusion, and that is what we are about.

We create inclusion in terms of how we are as an employer, how we design our spaces, and how we interact with each other. There can be a divide between staff in different roles in some environments, but we don’t see that here.

We create inclusion in terms of how we are as an employer, how we design our spaces, and how we interact with each other. There can be a divide between staff in different roles in some environments, but we don’t see that here. We are a centred and modest place — in fact, we probably don’t shout enough about the great things we do! The main thing is that everyone that makes this place work has a valuable role, and we want to make them feel that way.

Luke: How do you ensure employees are engaged on topics like inclusion, given how busy everyone’s schedules are?

We've got a new Vice-Chancellor who is working on a new vision for Aston, which we explain to people via multiple means, and everyone is engaged in that because we have all helped to make it a reality. Engagement comes with how people connect with their purpose and how meaningful they feel their role is in contributing to the common goal. Everyone has a fundamental role to play in elevating our ambition and achieving the outcomes we want.

Luke: How do you draw that vital link between the work people do and the outcome that it has?

At the moment, we are doing a lot of work around performance management, which is understanding fundamentally how the organisation is travelling and what we are doing to achieve those outcomes. It’s not just about having the big strategic objectives front and centre but looking at how we are progressing towards them over time. It's about ensuring that conversations are regularly had regarding how people’s individual jobs contribute to the wider goal and enable them to be the best they can be.

Luke: What is the main challenge you face as an institution?

The number one for us at Aston is about elevating ambition, growing and playing a more significant role within the city. We want to grow with purpose so we can have stable foundations. The second challenge is the digital challenge; we want to lead here and grow that ecosystem that makes an impact on the place we exist in, but in order to do that, the parallel challenge is that we really need to become a digital organisation in terms of how we work and how we leverage that. We have a physical front door and a digital one, so how do we make that a reality?

Luke: What is your top tip for creating a culture of learning?

Learn as you go. To do that, create an environment that is psychologically safe, allows people to evolve, and value the process of learning and the process of looking up and seeking best practice not just in the sector but beyond the sector. Looking at how we can bring the outside in.

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