For fifteen years I have had the privilege of working with senior leaders in global higher education. Over this time, the operating environment for universities across the world has changed significantly.

We have seen the era of abundance for (most) universities come to an end. The public purse has tightened considerably. The sustainability of current funding models for higher education appears close to a tipping point. We have seen a shift towards nationalism in many countries across the globe. A pandemic that brought the value of universities to the fore. A post-pandemic world in which new digital technologies and the rise of AI have created new opportunities but have also challenged what the university of the future will look like.

It is working alongside leaders in higher education, in the context of a disrupted and turbulent world, that has helped to shape my understanding of the key challenges that face university leaders. Today, I see these four challenges as the strategic challenge, the change challenge, the political challenge, and the culture challenge.

These are not new challenges, but I believe they encapsulate the critical areas that leaders must move towards in order for universities to thrive in the future.

The Strategic Challenge

One common response to the strategic challenge is to start by developing detailed and rigid plans for the long term. This response can set out a clear and unambiguous focus for the future. It can provide assurances of how the university will go from one point to another, and try to tell you when. This approach can have success in stable and predictable operating environments, but can quickly become obsolete when faced with uncertainty and disruption.

My view is that in responding to the strategic challenge in universities today, a more emergent approach is required.  In response to a changing world, some universities have replaced traditional strategy with a set of design principles which guide ongoing evolution. This approach frames what the university stands for, whilst providing the space for ongoing adaptation in response to a changing world.

So, how do I believe leaders best respond to the strategic challenge and create conditions for sustainable success? To develop the right strategy leaders will need the time and space to think and be curious about the strategic environment.  This can start with leaders challenging their own assumptions as they make sense of the strategic landscape and becoming more attuned to the trends and forces that have the potential to fundamentally reshape the strategic agenda.  This process can help leaders ask better, more probing, questions about the future, which I see as a critical part of strategy development.  Better questions lead to improved strategic conversations, which, in turn can help define distinctive and future-proofed institutional positioning and inform choices around areas of investment and focus, and also, importantly, choosing what not to do.  Once these choices have been made, leaders are often better placed to effectively distil and disseminate a clear and compelling sense of purpose and strategic narrative that creates a collective focus and motivation.

The Change Challenge

The change challenge often emerges during the implementation of strategy. From my experience working in higher education and beyond, it is the leaders that are clear that strategy is about change, and therefore go about preparing the organisation for change, that create the conditions for strategy to be realised.

In preparing for change, leaders often have to make assessments as to the permeability of organisational interfaces, the current engagement and empowerment of leaders at all levels to support the change, and the alignment of systems and processes.  These assessments can help leaders understand the organisations change readiness, and allow them to adapt change projects accordingly.

In many universities, a sense of change readiness can feel a long way off.  A number of leaders I work with often point to complex organisational structures, lack of resource and embedded behaviours and ways of working as barriers to change.  Leaders also observe the strong reactions that change can invoke in higher education, and the tension and anxiety that comes with this.  What I have noted from my experience is that the most effective leaders understand these reactions often stem from a fear of losing something. In responding to the change challenge, leaders who demonstrate a sensitivity to local needs (and people’s worlds), are willing to name the loss, but also effectively communicate and anchor people on what is staying the same, often have most success. Change is rarely about changing everything.

In approaching change more broadly, I believe that the clarification of key priorities is central to achieving successful change. This avoids universities trying to do much with too little and the high levels of organisational tension and flux that often come with this. Without this clarity of leadership, change is resisted and implementation tends to drift.

The Political Challenge

How to ‘get things done’ within large and complex institutions remains a significant challenge for leaders in higher education. I term this the political challenge – perhaps the most misunderstood, or ignored, challenge faced by leaders.

In leadership development workshops with senior executive teams, I often talk about the concept of ‘thinking and acting politically’. To some this invokes a sense of resorting to Machiavellian tactics of cunning or scheming. In reality, ‘thinking and acting politically’ is the opposite. The political challenge, in my view, involves finding ways to establish trust and legitimacy to facilitate positive influence. It is underpinned by an awareness and understanding of the political system (internal and external) and its key stakeholders.

In my experience of working alongside senior leaders and executive teams, those who build the inclusive coalitions to get things done are more likely to succeed than those who rely on command, control, and the manipulation of power dynamics to achieve compliance. The ability of leaders to create power in others, by valuing and harnessing difference, is the best response to the political challenge, and to organisational success.

The Culture Challenge

I believe that culture is the most critical challenge facing leaders in higher education. In my view, culture is the key enabler to progress in universities – but also the biggest barrier to sustainable success.

For some leaders, the response to the culture challenge is to do nothing. This response can arise from a lack of understanding of what organisational culture actually is, or a view that culture is something we cannot fundamentally change. For others, leaders respond by seeking to change the organisational climate, trying to improve the current (short-term) mood of the institution, perhaps seeking to create a window to push through a new initiative or work stream. This can be important, but risks unhelpful or counterproductive assumptions and behaviour remaining unchallenged and unchecked. Some leaders confuse climate with culture.

Organisation culture is a system of shared assumptions, values and beliefs that govern how people behave. In leadership workshops, I often start by suggesting culture is the worst behaviour a leader is willing to tolerate. Culture is enduring and is slow to change. It is not surprising some leaders, and leadership teams, attempt to skirt around the cultural challenge, or park it in a separate box (that is rarely returned to). The potential issue here is that, in my experience, the prevailing organisational culture is likely to be the biggest barrier to realising an ambitious new strategy.

The most effective leaders seek to align culture with strategy. These leaders seek to clarify which aspects of the existing culture makes them strong and need to be taken in to the future, which aspects are impeding excellence and need to be left behind, and which new norms and behaviours need to the embedded and enacted to help the university to thrive. From my experience engaging with university leaders around the world, those that actively respond to the cultural challenge, have better conversations, achieve more collectively, and create better places to work and study.

by Richard Sharpe, Principal Consultant and Managing Director