Leading and Managing in the ACU Context conference

Published: Monday 14th December 2015

Seventy staff attended the annual Leading and Managing in the ACU Context conference in November to explore the topic of Leadership at ACU.  Held at Melbourne and North Sydney campuses, the event began with an overview of ACU’s current context as the Director of Human Resources, Diana Chegwidden, presented results from a Leadership Excellence Review undertaken in 2015.  This review had gathered the views of 114 ACU managers and leaders about leadership strengths and the challenges that lay ahead for embedding a culture of excellence throughout the University.

Review participants identified the following two top challenge areas for leadership:

Communication and Collaboration, and Holding Self and Others to Account

Chief Operating Officer Dr Stephen Weller and Provost Professor Pauline Nugent then shared their views on how these challenges could be broken down.  Conference attendees also engaged in practical exercises to discuss these issues within their own work context, and form action plans.

Professor Nugent highlighted that in a competitive and globalised higher education space, a team-driven and university-wide approach  is crucial to ACU’s continued success and to achieving its strategic goals.

“Across all Universities, there could be the exact same product… so what makes a successful University is their people.  What makes ACU distinctive is our Mission, our people and our values,” Professor Nugent said.

She said 2015 has signalled a new era for ACU, through the University’s rising prominence internationally amongst leading higher education providers, particularly within Catholic networks.

“Our successful staging of the 25th IFCU General Assembly and our new collaboration with The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Rome has brought us increased profile with the Holy See and other stakeholders in Rome.  Fuelled by these two milestone events, our renewed profile isn’t just superficial - doors that were previously closed have now opened to us in our work in international engagement with potential partner universities.”

This foray onto the global stage would bring a variety of new challenges.  There is a strong need for Academic and Professional staff to work together in alliance, to foster creative solutions and to be outcomes-driven:  “This applies both internationally and domestically, and is crucial when the landscape is complex or contested,” she said.

For this reason, she advocates getting the right people ‘around the table’ when collaborating and considering a diversity of views: “My portfolio leads a number of complex initiatives which require a keen eye on strategy and facilitating high-impact dialogue across the University.”

She said it was especially important not to be afraid of hearing opposing views, as these can help to inform better decisions.

Professor Nugent said strong communication can be fostered by seeking to learn about what is personally important and meaningful to your colleagues, and engaging with them in those areas:  “Leadership is a people business.”

She believes that leaders should focus primarily on developing their own behaviors, if they wish to see these behaviors reflected in their staff.

“You have to walk the talk. You can’t really change anyone’s behavior but your own.  If you are able to bring people on board by modelling with your own behavior, that is when you are leading via a dialogue and not a monologue,” she said.

What will achieving excellence look like?

Professor Nugent and Dr Weller highlighted that achieving excellence is a continual aspiration rather than a benchmark.

“It’s a not a tangible one-off thing, it will change, because the organisational context will change,” Professor Nugent said.

Dr Weller said ACU was not pursuing excellence merely for its own sake.  Rather, ACU is specifically seeking to achieve excellence in Mission, excellence in Teaching, excellence in Research, and excellence in Service through the goals set by the ACU Strategic Plan 2015-2020.

“In order to achieve this, we must have excellence in leadership,” Dr Weller said.

He said a new ACU Capabilities Development Framework is being developed, which will define the key competencies needed for ACU’s staff at all levels of role, and will include competencies that define what excellence in leadership looks like.

However, Dr Weller emphasised that good leadership starts and ends with the Golden Rule:  Do to others what you would want them to do to you.

“Success in collaboration and good leadership relies on influence and persuasion, not on authority,” Dr Weller said.

While authority may need to be used in rare circumstances, he said, the emphasis of a good leader should be on empowering their staff:   “If you’re going to try to create a culture of empowerment, you have to work at it constantly.”

Good leadership also requires managers to give candid feedback to assist their staff to improve and to be more effective.   Dr Weller said timely feedback should be given throughout the year, and it is important to hold annual performance reviews (PRPs) with each staff member.  Alongside constructive feedback on areas for improvement, he said managers should also focus on giving positive feedback about the contributions that staff have made through their work.

Dr Weller also spoke on the importance of managing staff with consistency, integrity and transparency, as well as ‘managing up’ to establish an effective working relationship with your supervisor.  However, he believes the biggest challenge is mastering a crucial skill that all employees need -‘lateral leadership’ or managing sideways to influence colleagues.

The conference also explored how fostering strong accountability amongst staff is crucial to the University’s success, and how this starts with leading by self-accountability.

“In my view, you shouldn’t ever seek to hold others accountable. You should seek to have others hold themselves accountable,” Dr Weller said.  “If you have reached a point where you have to hold others to account so that they will do their work, then you’ve reached the problematic end of a relationship.”

Dr Weller recommended that managers have regular self-reviews to reflect on their day-to-day handling of issues.

“I will often do a self-review when sitting in traffic or after a significant issue has occurred: did I handle that the way I wanted to? Was there transparency in the way I communicated?”

Managing change and seeing the future

Attendees also had an opportunity to ask questions during a panel session.  One question raised was how to manage in times of rapid change and how to navigate the change fatigue.

“It starts with an awareness that our day-to-day is influenced by the external environment,” Mrs Chegwidden said.  “How can we start to shift our mindset to accepting that our Business-As-Usual is now the dynamic space?”

Professor Nugent and Dr Weller urged staff to review the ten targets of the ACU Strategic Plan 2015-2020 whenever they felt they were losing sight of the end-goal amongst the daily business and changes within the University.

“Also, if you get to a point where you’re starting to feel that all you can see is shifting goalposts, my suggestion to you is to go to a Graduation Ceremony.” Dr Weller said. “These are delightful, uplifting moments of joy, where you can see the fruits of our labour, regardless of the role you are in.”

Attendees also asked what the new ‘E’ word for ACU would be at the end of the Strategic Plan 2015-2020, once we have moved through Establishment, Expansion and the pursuit of Excellence?

Professor Nugent said the keyword could continue to be ‘Excellence’ in order to ‘Enrich’:

“In 2021, we will be a more internationally-connected organization, driven by our Mission to enrich the lives of our students, our stakeholders and our partners. In particular, our work with the vulnerable in our communities locally and internationally offers opportunities for enrichment. Our international Core Curriculum at the Rome Centre is a key example of this enrichment in action, including outreach to the vulnerable in Rome during the intensive study program.”

Similarly, Dr Weller believed the new word would be ‘Engagement’:  “We are not pursuing excellence just for the sake of it, we are doing it for the Mission.  I hope that when we arrive at our excellence destination, we will measure it in meaningful engagement with our community and our stakeholders.”