I attended one of the series of conferences that the University Administration and Services (UAS) division of our University puts on three times per year today. The event was at the Andrew Wiles Building, Mathematical Institute, a great venue for conferences.
The UAS conference is a chance for members of Oxford University, particularly those in administrative and support roles to get together, learn from each other, engage in netowkring and generally galvanise for Michaelmas term ahead. The event is organised by UAS Communications and I think they did a pretty good job this year.
The opening plenary session was by Sir Jonathan Phillips, Warden of Keble College. He spoke about leadership in large and complex organisations and focused on four aspects – Communication, Ambiguity, Resilience and People. CARP was the acronym Jonathan taught us and he reminded us to beware of others for this particular four-letter combination! My take-away point were that:
- It is important for leaders regularly to take time to visit their workforce in person and explain their thinking, vision and plans to them. Failure to communicate early, regularly and clearly from the start of any process or change risks a catastrophic loss of trust. Be visible and present, regularly. It will pay huge dividends. Engage with people both together and individually.
- The front line (in our case – academics delivering research and teaching) are rarely enthusiastic about administrative support. I think that includes IT.
- Your own intention is always obvious to you, but if you fail to communicate it to others and ensure they have understood you risk loss of trust and confidence.
- Ambiguity is not always bad. Perception of ambiguity can be negative but it is sometimes much better than being perceived as having not made a decision at all.
- Leaders must remain resilient and optimistic even in the face of awful knocks and events that make progress look impossible. It’s important for leaders to look after themselves in this respect so they can show that resilience. A leader’s glass should always be half-full, never half-empty!
- Your co-workers may share your ambition and enthusiasm but may not. You need to recognise which is which and work with each in appropriately different styles.
- Set clear goals, communicate well, create climate of trust and respect. Set boundaries and thresholds and stick to them.
- Difficult conversations (about performance, behaviour) etc. become more difficult the longer you leave them.
- Top performance is only achieved by a people-centric and consistent leadership style.
After a brief break my next session was about website redesign, given by Mikal Ann Mast, PR and Comms Officer at COMPAS. It was a short session but showed some of the good work COMPAS is doing with its website. It was a good reminder that lots of time and effort must be put into thinking about and optimising every stage of the user journey when redesigning a website. Use of mobile phones and tablet devices is growing more and more to access websites so it is more important than ever that designs are responsive, look nice and work well on any size and type of web browser. It’s also interesting to note that people often visit academic departments’ websites to find specific people – so COMPAS is trying highlight them and use their locations on the site cleverly to direct browsing.
My next session was given by Anne Currie of the Blavatnik School of Government and gave a fascinating insight into the Master of Public Policy Programme’s summer placement scheme. It was an eye opener to realise how much work goes into making such schemes work and it was good to hear how much those offering placements value the students that are placed with them. The placements are like having a skilled consultant in to work on a specific issue, rather than just being work experience opportunities.
A longer break enabled a bit more networking and was augmented by the welcome addition of popcorn to the other refreshments.
My next session was about working effectively and efficiently by understanding the University’s performance objectives and being able to measure them. It was given by Loren Griffith, from International Strategy; and Helen Watson and Pamela Flood from Planning and Resource Allocation. My take-away was that while Oxford is leading the world in its research and teaching, it is not necessarily doing so with its monitoring and continuous improvement. Being the best is not necessarily as good as being the best we can be. Networking, communications and interdiscipliniarity are important to measure and it was good to hear that University is striving to achieve more college affiliation for research-only staff and encouraging interdisciplinary centres in colleges.
I took a break from the conference for lunch as the Maths Café was very busy and I needed to pop back to the office to keep on top of day to day operations.
After lunch my first session was an extremely informative talk about the coming changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme and it was a bit depressing to hear about the end of being able to accrue final salary rights and various other technicalities that those of us who are mid-career will have far less comfortable retirements than our colleagues coming to the end of theirs. It will be even worse for our early-career colleagues though. I was impressed at the openness and the knowledgeability of the presenter, Alan Cunningham from the Pensions Office.
I delivered a session in the next slot and share some of my gathered experience of many meetings in many contexts, hoping to enable people to organise, run and chair better meetings in the future. I considered things people often overlook right from initial planning to pre-meetings, chairing, follow-up and minutes. My take away was that if you plan carefully to optimise time use then people will respect you for not wasting their time and will come to more of your meetings in the future.
After a teabreak, at which I sadly missed the warm cookies, I went to an interesting session by Rebecca Horley from Estates Services about the new Town Planner role that she has recently taken up in that department. It was good to hear how it aims to help the University take a more holistic view on the built environment and how the expenses, time-scales, political and social impacts, and risks of the Planning Application process will affect the Estates Services Master Plan for ongoing developments to enable the university to continue to grow, fulfil its core mission and retain its world-leading status. It was also good to hear about the Headington Neighbourhood Plan and how it is leading the way in Oxford and working well with the University, with careful input from Rebecca.
My final session was an enjoyable and brief whistle-stop tour of the history of Finance in Oxford University, given able by Rob Williams, Deputy Director of Finance in the Finance Division. Did you know that the University Chest is where the finances all started and that the Chest of the Five Keys is one of the earliest examples of financial operations needing shared responsibly for reasons of probity, or that the Proctors were caught fiddling the books in the 16th Century?!
The day rounded off with a reception where it was good to have conversations with colleagues from around the University who I don’t see on a day to day basis. The value of Networking can never be underestimated in a large and complex organisation like Oxford so I’m hugely grateful to UAS Communications, particularly Tara and Susannah for making this event happen and happen so effectively.