One of the themes that has come up in The Interview repeatedly is the importance of open and honest conversations on university campuses to increase a sense of understanding and belonging between students. It’s equally important, however, for the people who run and work in different areas of the university to do so as well.
Co-host of The Interview Luke James spoke to Tracey Lancaster, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) at Leeds Beckett University (LBU), about the importance of making room for conversation and dialogue between various areas of staff to build the relationships necessary to running the institution successfully.
I previously worked in theatre marketing. At the start of 2002, however, I joined the University of Birmingham as their Director of Marketing, which gave me an insight into student recruitment and many key functions across the university. This is particularly in terms of finance as well as being able to influence the academic shape of an organisation. From there, I went on to Sheffield Hallam, sitting on the senior team, and then finally to LBU. Originally, I was looking after student recruitment but, over the course of the last few years, with wider responsibilities that have taken me away from hands-on recruitment.
I have a firm belief that the further you go through your career with an organisation, the more important it is to be able to build relationships. To have valuable conversations with people and to identify those opportunities for collaborations so you can work together toward a shared objective. And I think that’s what that background gave me. You can’t recruit into a university without understanding the academic contract you’re building with the students as well as its impact across the long-term financial health of the organisation.
As an example, we did a big project last year. We brought in an organisation to help us shape our IT strategy for the future in terms of embracing digital technology and looking at our infrastructure and the way our systems work together. Now, it would’ve been really easy to do that in a dark corner. But we understood how important it was for any strategy we came up with to meet the needs of all the different communities within the organisation. So we actively embraced that concept of continual talking, bringing people into working groups to look at particular aspects of the project so there was that broad perspective across the organisation. Then, when we came to the end of the project and had something to share, we already had an informed, supportive audience. So it wasn’t something that was being done to the organisation. It was something for which colleagues could say: “I recognise my contribution as part of a new strategy that is then going to run through the organisation for the future.”
And that’s left us with seventeen different projects that are all about the modernisation of the university that embrace all sorts of different aspects of our activities from pedagogic through to cybersecurity.
Over the course of these last three years, we’ve achieved the Athena Swan Bronze Award which has been really important in terms of actively growing representation of women across the institution at senior levels. And we’ve just gone for the Race Equality Charter, which is all about examining the EDI of our community in a very structured way. On the assumption we attain it, it’s about looking at the action plans associated with these awards and rolling them out in our planning for the future. On a more general level, we have a piece of work currently being led by our director of external relations, looking at how we structure our internal communications. So again, it’s about coming up with a plan of attack that combines both the formal moments to have those briefing conversations as well as seeding them into the way that we run ops, particularly now that we have hybrid working since the pandemic.
For example, next week we’ve got a senior management briefing session. It’s come from the fact that as a result of the pandemic, we have needed to play catch-up, bringing our senior leaders across the university together for briefings on institutional projects. So those meetings are deliberately face-to-face — short presentations and an opportunity for most of that time to be taken with discussion. I think there’s now a greater focus on determining what works best in a digital space and where face to face meetings are best.
Embrace negotiation and collaboration. Make sure wherever we have these new projects going on that they’re not simply owned by the part of the university that’s going to deliver them but are always engaging with the people who are actually going to benefit from them. The long-term benefit is that you’ve built up advocates for that way of working across the organisation which starts to create that cultural change we’re looking for. We have lots of different areas of expertise, but we’re at our best when they’re working together.
Never underestimate the value of discussing and more importantly listening because it holds an organisation together. Continue to have space for those conversations and keep your mind open to the things that are being brought up. Because not only will it inevitably create that culture of collaboration and shared purpose, but it’s how you get new ideas, new directions, and creativity for the future, and who doesn’t want that?