A conversation on change: Kathryn Howley

Published: Monday 21st July 2014

Kathryn Howley

ACU Student Centres Manager Kathryn Howley says embracing continual change has become a crucial aspect for universities in maintaining competitiveness. At an individual level, Kathryn says she has learned that a natural resistance to change can be overcome by looking at it as a learning opportunity - an approach that yields ongoing benefits.

"I feel that to reframe your attitude or behaviour you need to analyse all aspects of a change - not just the ones you don't like. And in a customer service environment, you must look at what is best for the customer, not necessarily what is best for yourself," Kathryn said.

She says a massive shift in student engagement over the past decade has turned the tables - and given students the power in selecting their university.

"For far too long universities saw them as students, instead of customers - there has been huge swing towards providing the student with a positive life experience as well as an education," she said.

In response to changing student expectations, ACU is developing a Student Central strategy for holistic service delivery on all campuses. Kathryn says the strategy will seek to deliver more efficient and personalised services, tailored to the needs of the individual student.

"Students want things quickly and easily; especially with administration and services," she said.
"In order to remain competitive, we must provide a seamless and consistent service model that recognises students' needs throughout their student lifecycle. We will also build on delivering current services through new technologies."

The Student Central strategy will be a proactive whole-of-university approach towards student conversion and retention, she said.

While embracing continual change is the lynchpin for a thriving organisation in a competitive environment - Kathryn also believes it is instrumental to personal growth and career development.

"[Earlier in my career] I always thought that I was a bit averse to change," she said. "But looking back on it, it's provided nothing but positive opportunities - so now I look forward to it."

Kathryn started at ACU in 2002 in a temporary reception role, before moving into a variety of roles that drew on her previous skills and experience in customer service, sales and recruitment fields.

"I took a huge career change when I came to ACU, and it was quite unexpected," she said. Kathryn said she felt unclear of where she would like to take her career at that point, but soon realised that stepping out of her comfort zone would help her to gain the confidence she needed.

"I moved through student enrolments, student administration and secondment opportunities in other areas, before coming through to my current role in the Student Centre. This gave me a really well-rounded experience in the University, which has been great."

Once Kathryn had identified a new direction for her career aspirations, progress was not always immediate or straightforward. Yet with persistence and a flexible approach to opportunities, she was successful in progressing into her current management position.

"I think it's important to encourage staff to look at change as an opportunity - to explore how will it will enable them learn new skills and to develop themselves. By doing this, I think staff will only gain in their confidence," she said.

Kathryn also believes developing leadership confidence is crucial for helping staff to navigate change effectively - in conjunction with implementing a good change management plan.

"We will always have change. So a huge part of leadership today is understanding how to manage change and making sure you have those skills. I think mentoring programs in that area - leadership and change - are so important. Because you can learn it - but a lot of us learn it the hard way. It's important to make mistakes, because you certainly learn - but you don't want to make too many mistakes to the detriment of staff or yourself."

She says communication and trust are vital when leading a team through a change - along with allowing time for staff to absorb information when significant changes are announced.

"People don't always ask the right questions at that point, so you need to have regular communication with your team through a change process. People don't always feel comfortable [raising questions] in a public forum, they may feel that their issue is not relevant - yet with change there is no issue that is not relevant."

"Staff should be part of the change process - especially if they are concerned about the change. They should be allowed to offer solutions and those solutions should be considered. They then become engaged in the process and feel valued rather than just pieces in a puzzle. People can go through a range of emotions and these have to be acknowledged and worked through before any change is implemented."

It can be a challenge for managers to remain positive if things don't go to plan, she says, but staying calm and focused is important in helping your team to handle change positively and productively.

She says attending seminars to hear from other tertiary leaders can also yield invaluable advice: "They can also confirm that what you're doing is OK, that what you're doing is correct - and that's where your confidence comes from."

"Leadership networking meetings also help - while we may be from different areas, we have the same challenges. Having someone to bounce your ideas off and who can guide you through it, can eliminate a lot of falling headfirst into a leadership error."

"I've had brilliant mentors, particularly within the University. I still get a lot of guidance from those around me. No matter how much experience you've had leading teams - which I've done for many, many years - you're constantly learning. And that's because the environment changes, your customers change, your staff change. No two staff are the same and you've got to manage them individually, as well as a group."

"How can you be averse to change when every day is different?"