Professor Susan Lea has worked in higher education for over 30 years. A psychologist by training, after an early career at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, she held a variety of roles in a diversity of UK universities, including those in the Russell Group and those established ‘post 92’. Most recently, she was Vice Chancellor/CEO of the University of Hull where she led a significant successful transformation of the university’s financial sustainability and academic performance. Susan’s leadership is infused with a strong commitment to matters of social justice, drawing on her academic research, including in areas of sexual violence and racism. Susan is now Managing Director of Sagewood Consulting Ltd and works to support institutions, their leadership, and governing body, in delivering strategic ambitions through inclusive change processes that realise intended benefits. She also coaches and mentors senior executives to contribute to leadership development programs and lectures on a successful turnaround. She serves on a number of Boards and remains passionate about the role of higher education in securing a more equitable and just society.
Not enough attention is paid to the narrative. Yet, it is vital to leading successful change in any context, including Higher Education. A clearly articulated, honest, and compelling narrative explains why change is necessary, how it will be led and operationalised, what the outcomes and benefits will be, and the difficulties as well as the opportunities that will form part of the process.
Those leading changes need to be able to describe succinctly the unique story of their organisation for a diverse range of people with different stakes and interests. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, how often leaders are not able to be explicit about their vision, strategy, and plans for delivering change. This can see members of leadership teams working to slightly different or even contrary agendas, staff feeling unclear as to leadership’s ambitions and the role they are expected to play in achieving these, and partners being uncertain as to the implications of change programs for them and those they serve.
Of course, the majority of leaders have definite ambitions for the institutions they lead and know how they intend to realise them. Consequently, the lack of clarity resides not in the leader’s head but in their effective communication of those goals via a well-honed narrative. Moreover, university leaders often report that the pressures associated with the execution of their duties and responsibilities mean taking the time to engage formally and informally with staff, students, partners, and members of external communities drops off the agenda or is delegated to others.
I would argue, however, that being explicit about intentions, outcomes, and how these will be realised is essential to securing successful, sustainable change for a number of reasons. First, a clear narrative provides the foundation for the formulation of strategy and associated operational plans. It tells the story of the institution’s journey – its recent history, current situation, and intended future – in language that is accessible and compelling. As such, it provides the framework within which people will understand progress, evaluate outcomes and celebrate success.
Second, precisely because the narrative should provide an honest, transparent, and straightforward account, it forms the bedrock of engaging staff, students, partners, and supporters in the change process. It is the basis of an ‘a call to action’. Taking people with you through meaningful engagement and collective action is a sine qua non of leadership. Facilitating dialogue around the narrative and encouraging participation in delivering a vision for the future fosters a sense of collective identity and purpose. At the same time, integrity as to the challenges that lie ahead and the difficult decisions that will likely need to be taken is critical.
Third, successful change depends on leaders and managers throughout the organisation being visibly aligned. In the absence of a narrative, leaders or managers may need to develop their own account of what is happening in their institution and why. This can be challenging for those individuals, who may feel variably confident in their own understanding of what is happening and may face robust questioning and confrontation from staff, students, or trade unions. In essence, then, a well-articulated narrative supports a variety of leaders and managers – often those in the mid-layers of the organisation – to understand their role in bringing about change and in guiding those for whom they are responsible. In turn, they can provide valuable feedback to senior executives as well as offer insights and observations that might otherwise be invisible to those in the highest echelons. Significantly, in the absence of a compelling narrative, differing versions of events will inevitably circulate within any organisation including unhelpful and erroneous myths. These can precipitate a sense of confusion, anxiety, and mistrust, which will mitigate against engagement and adversely impact delivery.
A helpful tool for developing an institution’s narrative is what I would term ‘a case for change’. This represents a pithy, formal document that presents evidence-based arguments for what needs to change and why, and then with brevity sets out aims, objectives, plans, and intended outcomes and benefits. Although a case for change requires careful thought, this investment pays substantial dividends later. Not least, the very discipline of writing such a document tests the veracity of one’s arguments; the strength of the rationale; the clarity of prioritisation; the degree to which the change program is cohesive, purposeful, and robust; and, ultimately, the organisation’s capacity, resilience and determination to see it through. Testing the ‘case’ within the executive team and Governing Body helps to refine and strengthen it, thereby building collective confidence and buy-in at senior levels. Articulating the ‘case’ to staff, student leaders, and external stakeholders in forums that encourage dialogue and thoughtful exchange allows for further checks and balances and often surfaces valuable ideas that may make a material contribution to the change agenda.
The development of a ‘case for change’ is just the first step on what is usually a reasonably lengthy journey. However, without this clarity shared by the institution’s leadership and understood by those within the university community, a program of transformation is already compromised. According to research by McKinsey (Arononowitz, De Smeth, and McGinty, 2015), fewer than a quarter of organisational redesign efforts succeed: 44 percent ‘run out of steam after getting under way’, and a third fail to meet their objectives or improve performance. From my perspective, one key factor in this lack of success is the absence of a clear and compelling narrative.
Language is the medium through which we communicate with one another. Yet I would argue that we pay insufficient attention to the power of language in delivering change. Without generating a widespread and clear understanding of the need for change, how it will be delivered, and what sustained benefits it will bring to individuals, the organisation, and the wider community, results will be compromised or never realised. In a world beset with significant and existential challenges, we need resilient, purposeful universities and higher education institutions which create inclusive, dynamic environments in which their staff and students can thrive. Narrating our mission, purpose, value, and plans is our responsibility as leaders, one we should take seriously as we seek to serve our institutions and wider communities.