Alison Orr and Albina Shashyna

Many universities in the United Kingdom (UK) have been navigating a challenging higher education landscape – characterised by a reduction in number of international students, a cost-of-living crisis, increased operating costs, and home-student fee caps limiting income generation. In such an environment, there is a clear need for strong strategic leadership to weather the storm.

Recognising the important role leaders play in driving both meaningful and lasting change, and proactively equipping leaders with the right skills will help to steer the institutions through the increasingly complex and fast-paced higher education landscape and can lead to a profound cultural shift.

In this article, we will highlight some of the key learnings that make a leadership programme in Higher Education (HE) a success. These learnings were identified from work conducted by Q5 in the UK HE sector and most recently from the University of Surrey case study, where after 6 months of completing a tailored leadership programme, 100% of survey respondents reported observing a positive change in leadership behaviours.

Learning  1 – Universities are not all the same; take a tailored approach and understand the organisational need

Rather than employing a generic, ready-made programme, instead, work with organisational health experts to design a tailored intervention that targets your specific context and challenges.

To ensure the programme is bespoke and university values are deeply embedded, it is necessary to understand the university’s strengths and opportunities for future development. To effectively gather these insights, conduct numerous focus groups with cross-sectional representation and one-to-one interviews – capturing responses from executives, leaders who are the target audience, their direct reports, and Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) networks.

Using the feedback from colleagues, identify areas for development and define key learning objectives. This will enable the university to begin co-designing and co-creating their Leadership Programme.

Learning 2 – Make conscious design decisions to shape the overall experience

As part of the design stage, set up a Leadership Development Board to input and help co-create the programme, and make a number of conscious decisions which will shape both the feel and experience for the participants. For example:

Bring together professional services and academic senior leaders in one programme – allowing for shared learnings and synergies across departments as they develop greater awareness of each other’s challenges. This leads to more communicative, collaborative, and long-lasting relationships.

Maintain cohorts together throughout the programme – allowing the development of stronger connections and trust among participants, enhancing the potential for meaningful and impactful conversations.

Introduce coaching as a leadership style – in an environment where progression and reward are based on knowledge and expertise, shifting towards coaching as a leadership style can be difficult. However, it does help with leading people by empowering them, cultivating and embracing shared trust in each other, and allowing for effective delegation.

Learning 3 – Lean into experiential learning

Make the programme highly interactive by using a variety of experiential learning techniques. These techniques are designed to expose participants to scenarios that evoke emotions – sometimes, quite strong emotions – that mimic potential challenges that may arise in day-to-day work. By developing participants in realistic contexts, and reviewing their ‘performance’ after the activities, leaders will be able to reflect on their real reactions in imperfect environments.

Here, the focus is on the learning process rather than the outcome, with participants put in a controlled yet pressurised environment, where reflections and insights are explored after the experiential activity is complete. In a world where leaders are analytical and data-driven, carefully selected experiential learning activities help participants to connect emotionally with the learning, creating a shared experience and adding an element of excitement and fun.

Learning 4 – Build an empowered leadership community

Leadership development programmes tend to last 6-12 months. For a significant impact put as many senior leaders through the programme as possible and use it as a springboard to build an empowered leadership community. A leadership community with a common language and goals, that is supported by the executives, meets regularly to provide peer-to-peer support and gives back to the organisation by developing the next generation of aspiring leaders.

Case study: University of Surrey

Recognising the important role leaders play during the time of change, the University of Surrey decided to proactively equip leaders to effectively steer the institution through the complex higher education environment. Surrey worked with Q5 (a global consultancy specialising in organisational health) to develop and put 86 senior academic and professional services leaders, through a tailored six-month programme that followed the factors outlined above.

Focus groups and interviews with various stakeholders revealed that leaders at Surrey were generally perceived as friendly, collaborative, and empathetic. On the other hand, participants identified the potential for people leaders to be more strategic, to be catalysts for change, and to create a more dynamic and innovative culture. Using these identified areas for development, Q5 and Surrey defined key learning objectives and co-designing the Surrey Senior Leadership Programme.

This three-day in-person modular programme focused on building relatedness, self-awareness, cultural inclusivity, strategic thinking, and change leadership was spread across three months and supplemented with line manager support, an actions learning project, facilitator groups, and peer coaching trios.

Six months after completing the programme, 100% of survey respondents reported observing a positive change in leadership behaviours, with over 10% of the participants taking on additional leadership responsibilities or stepping into more senior leadership roles. One participant noted that post-programme, Surrey was experiencing a “healthier approach to leadership, and greater recognition of team effort – ultimately resulting in happier departments”.

Participants described significant improvements in their confidence and ability to navigate difficult conversations, as well as their ability to trust and delegate within their teams. They described themselves and their peers from the programme as more “focused”, “objective-driven”, “thoughtful” and “deliberate” in their approach to decisions. Notably, one individual observed a shift in culture following the programme, commenting that leaders around them were “being more inclusive and providing equal opportunities for all team members”.

Through a blend of strategic planning, tailored interventions, and experiential learning, the programme has not only transformed individual leaders but also laid the foundation for a more resilient and future-ready institution. As one of the participants described the programme:

“One of the most impressive leadership programmes I’ve ever been on, highly experiential with such a diverse and impressive group of leaders and facilitators.”

About the Authors

Alison Orr, Director of Organisational Development, Culture and Equity, Diversity & Inclusion at the University of Surrey

Alison Orr is a senior HR/OD change leader, with significant experience in organisational design, leadership, and culture development, and helping to transform complex organisations. She has a diverse background, having worked in the Aviation, Hospitality, and HE sectors, and has a real passion for looking at change from the way that people experience it, seeking opportunities to shift behaviours through practical interactions.

Albina Shashyna, Principal Consultant at Q5

Albina Shashyna is a Principal Consultant at Q5, and an expert in Organisational Health. Albina specialises in Organisational Development, Culture, and Change Management. She is passionate about helping leaders improve their performance, achieve their strategic goals and positively change organisational culture.


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