Go to: Taking ownership phase
Learn as much as you can as quick as you can. Many successful people don’t simply settle for one success, but have a high need for achievement. This means they like to have multiple projects on the go but also are realistic in not taking on too much. But it’s a fact that the more you get involved in, the more you learn. It’s generally a given that the quicker you learn, the quicker you should progress in your career. It’s worked for me and others. Here’s what you should be learning about and how you can learn more.
- Soak up knowledge (‘shortest road travelled’ principle)
If you want to learn quickly you need master the art of soaking up knowledge. See everything as a learning opportunity. Learning quickly doesn’t necessarily mean that you should digest facts quickly. It means you should increase the available opportunities around you to give the chance to learn more.
Much like speed reading, you have to master the art. People thing that speed reading is about reading quickly! It’s more about being smart with what you read, skimming what you can, so that you can make more texts for you to read.
Firstly ask yourself, what or who can you learn from? We have new things being thrown at us all the time and we just don’t know it. Because it doesn’t relate to our role, we often filter the communication or message out as noise. If you’re a quality manager dealing with collaborative partners or validation events, you may not necessarily be immediately interested in a new legislation requiring all organisation in the UK to be compliant with new data protection regulation. But what if your next role was a broader role in Academic Registry and you took the time to learn about this new regulation, you could find that this knowledge was invaluable.
Indeed as you progress higher up the career ladder, your remit will become broader, looking after more departments or functions than before. Many employers in such cases often ask you to have experience in at least one or more of these areas. But don’t you think someone with experience in many of these areas will stand out more than others in a job interview?
You can become smarter in carefully picking which areas you want to learn more about that don’t relate to you role. You can start by deciding what role you actually want to do next and see what knowledge requirements they list as essential and desirable – see my comments on this below.
Read articles now and again such as on Times Higher Education, WonkHE, UniversitiesUK, Association for University Administrators (AUA) and many other websites. After you’ve read something that you found interesting, then try to read something that you wouldn’t have thought about reading.
Then, just try to remember one fact from an article you’ve read, and use it when you’re speaking to people by finding a way to talk about it. This will help you internalise what you’re saying, which will help you better remember it the next time around. Make it part of your daily language.
You will often find that you can learn from someone else, such as your manager or the manager of their manager! Who will no doubt be even more accomplished. You have to remember, so take notes of what they might say.
A key to success is learning to work in unfamiliar contexts because when you start a new job of if your department in your existing role changes structure, you need to be able to get to grips very quickly to the new environment.
When I was a young teen, probably 13, working with my father, I was tasked with drafting a letter to an external organisation. It was my first such attempt at drafting a formal communication to an organisation I knew nothing about. He made so many changes to the draft, and it took me three tries before he eventually signed it off and I sent it in the post. It hurt my own pride that it took so many attempts because (though I never knew at the time) I had high standards for myself and I wanted to get it right. I loved what my dad had done with the letter. Apart from the etiquettes of writing a letter, it just flowed more naturally, each paragraph was linked well to the next. It capture the attention and had clarity around what was being communicated. I learnt a lot that day and I thought to myself, it took me three attempts because I didn’t fully pay attention to what my father was saying. What if I could get it right in one go next time and reduce the time it took for me to get from point A (initial draft) to point B (final draft)? That way I would have learnt more quickly and I can move onto learning something else. That’s been my implicit philosophy ever since.
You can apply this ‘shortest road travelled’ principle to anything. If I attend a webinar on regulatory conditions for registering with the Office for Students (the new HE regulator in England from 2018), I’m not trying to get a few pointers, I’m trying to get the whole god damn game plan! I’m making furious notes, even of points I think I already know so that they further crystalises in my mind. When I was asked to help produce a Career Development Framework for programme administrators, I did it with a great deal of passion. Unbeknown to me, that would be what would lead me to create this blog and the new qualifications in Student and Academic Administration (learn more here).
You need to create opportunities, please don’t expect people to come to you with a handout. I get surprised at the number of people I meet who simply blame the institution for not providing them the opportunities! Whilst employers should invest in their staff and provide development and training, this is not always possible.
Many activities you will do have to be voluntary and may often be in addition to your normal duties. It may be in the weekends or evenings. After all, if you’re already doing everything that is involved in your next role, then you’re not looking at the right job! There will always be something new in your new role. Even if the new role is similar to your current job, it may be on a larger scale by there being a greater number of staff, students or stakeholders or more research grants or sites for you to administer.
Now, I totally understand that this isn’t for everyone. But then ask yourself, what are you truly prepared to sacrifice? Because if you’re not, then you should lower your expectations.
It’s true for any job. If you want to become an Equality and Diversity Manager, and are not doing anything remotely related to this area but it’s a new interest, then take up a role volunteering on committees such as an Athena Swan Committee, or other work. If you were contacted by an enthusiastic person from another department in your college or university, who wanted to help you for free, wouldn’t you bite their hand off? There are opportunities, offer your services. It’s always difficult for institutions to find volunteers. There is greater probability of you being successful in being chosen as a volunteer simply by expressing an interest.
When I was at King’s College London I was a professional services staff member. I knew I wanted to stand out and eventually progress into academic leadership, and so teaching experience at King’s would do me well. I knew I had taught extensively before and could do an equally could job as the lecturers at King’s. I requested the Programme Director of a BEng degree if I could teach. Initially he was hesitant and asked me to check with the faculty if this was allowed and they said it was up to the programme. Therefore the Programme Director gave me a chance. When I did well he made me the module lead coordinating other lectures. As I say above, you often have to do this in your spare time. I still lecture on the programme for free! It’s beneficial for me.
I do a lot of work voluntarily including in a charity where I learn about governance, taking part in a conference committee helping to organise a national conference, and speaking at conferences about my work. I previously volunteered to help an Athena Swan application (to improve diversity in the work place) which taught me how diversity is managed and how we can change culture to increase number of females being promoted.
I gain a lot of valuable knowledge and experience from these opportunities.
2. Familiarity principle
A key to success is learning to work in unfamiliar situations and environments. It’s also a given that when you want to learn as much as you can, and different aspects of new areas, you will encounter concepts, knowledge and situations that are unfamiliar with. Embrace those areas you feel most vulnerable in otherwise it will hold you back.
How can you do this? You can follow a checklist created by Michael Watkins in his best-selling book on how to successfully into a new career in the first 90 days. Now, imagine, if you lived your life like that and not just when you got a new job!
You can do the following:
- Eliciting information – you can often find information about a certain area from other colleagues. But you have to have the confidence and communicative ability to be able to elicit that information from them. Be prepared with the questions in advance to get the most of your time with that person. You need to be able to ask curious and searching questions to be able to get to the heart of a process or system so you can find out how things work. The common questions should be: what is done, who does it, why is it done, and most importantly how is it done.
- Improve your research skills – to learn something new you’re going to have to improve your research skills so you can find information on the new area you’re tying to learn about whether that’s data protection or value for money frameworks, etc.
This could be applied to a situation where you want to learn about what is done to meet requirements to track and improve the destinations of students via the Destination of Leavers in Higher Education (DLHE) survey. The why it needs to be done could be because it is a regulatory requirement but also because higher destinations in further education or employment is keenly looked at by students to know whether they will have a job at the end of their course which also feeds into the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). How the survey is done is critical and if you were good at finding out why it’s done (!) then you would be able to research more on the regulators websites (HEFCE/HESA) and research more on the exact process and also speak to internal staff – those ‘who’ carry out this work.
3. Institutional and sector knowledge
Learn how they are set up, the different faculties, services and departments and how they link to each other. The role of a Head of Registry, Director Student Services, Faculty Education Manager, Assistant Registrar, Governance Manager. Identify the different names given to each of these roles in different institutions, the role of the governing body and academic board.
Why? How can you expect to progress in your institution when you don’t know what roles exist? Knowing how the institutions work and the roles available also helps you understand which roles you could make a career in.
The larger the institution you work for the more chances you will get to the complexity and the differing roles available. At the same time, working for a smaller institution gives you more scope to learn as they generally have less resources and so you have to take on multiple roles which gives you more chances to learn (remember principle 2 about taking up as many opportunities as you can). There’s no excuse as you can always research other institutions structures to learn more.
You lean that there are teaching-led institutions and then there are research institutions. Some Russel Group universities will require experience of working in a research intensive environment. Others may ask that you have an appreciation of working with a diverse group of learners to support their needs. Eventually, you will be leading a department or faculty or a division of an institution one day. Knowing how institutions are formed, their mission, provides useful insight to help direct your career and reach a senior level.
The HE sector is changing dramatically with the introduction of the Higher Education and Research Act in 2017 and the new regulator in England called the Office for Students in 2018. It’s a perfect time to understand the scale of changes.
By researching the sector, I then knew that I wanted to move from professional services leadership into academic leadership. In fact, I see myself as a hybrid of the two, a ‘third space HE professional’ – hence the name of this blog. By conducting research into the sector I learnt that quality assurance and regulation was becoming more risk based and helped me keep abreast of these trends and ultimately helped me developed a risk based approach at my institutions. I’ve further developed new data governance models on account of data being increasingly relied upon now not just for business decision in my institution, but also by external regulators such as HEFCE, soon to be Office for Students.
Go to: Taking ownership phase