Kieron Broadhead is the Executive Director of Student Experience for the University of Southampton. His career in Higher Education has seen him work across Marketing, Recruitment, Admissions, Outreach and Academic Registry. He currently leads a team of over 600 across a multitude of areas providing services directly to students from initial enquiry through to graduation and beyond. We spoke to Kieron about his thoughts on leadership during a crisis and what the future might hold.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has seen catastrophic impact across the world. How do you feel the sector has adapted to the challenges we have faced?
I think the sector has been quite remarkable in a really positive way. For many years we’ve been a sector with a fairly traditional business model based on face-to-face engagement. Within a very short space of time, we’ve pivoted into delivering in a completely new way. A key part of getting this right has been to keep the student at the heart of our activity, and to bring people together to achieve goals. Within the academic community we are seeing some incredibly innovative practices emerging. It has been no mean feat to take the entire learning provision online!
Student wellbeing has also seen significant changes as staff and students have been away from the normal campus environment. We’ve moved services online and have used technologies such as chat and virtual sessions to ensure no reduction in service. We’ve also rolled out virtual gym classes for all to keep people active and engaged. The pace of change has been remarkable and the expectations on the sector have been high; as an example, the Faculty of Medicine were asked to graduate their students early in order to get them into the NHS workforce, this was realised quickly.
Like many universities, we have researchers working tirelessly on COVID-19 across a range of fields. It is fair to say that universities have played a really important role in their regions and for the nation.
Do you expect the sector to be permanently impacted?
We will undoubtedly ask ourselves the question “how do we continue to deliver in the future given what we’ve now done?”. I’ve been working closely with my leadership team to understand what activities that we would have delivered previously have stopped, and what new initiatives we’ve started. This has helped to form a picture of what our immediate future looks like and how we can take advantages of the changes we’ve made. As an example, Covid-19 and the move to online delivery has necessitated students accessing our services in different ways. Our libraries are an area where we’ve significantly changed service models to deliver online resources. So, what does this mean for the future? We will always have a physical library however we’ll certainly want to see the current levels of online engagement carry on in perpetuity.
I believe the broader impacts for the sector are not yet really understood. We’re currently working our way through what 2020/21 will look like and there are still lots of questions. There are aspirations for a return to what students and staff want which is a campus experience, but these are wrapped up in wider societal issues at present. There will be an impact on sector finances but there is still some waiting to understand how far this impact will go.
You lead a team of over 600 people at the University of Southampton. How has the pandemic impacted your approach to leadership?
I think I’ve had to become even more open, transparent and communicative. The grey-space created by working in a dispersed manner can be an uncomfortable place to be, so the leadership team and I have had to be very clear with our messaging. We’ve had to develop trust too; we can’t manage through seeing people, so we’ve had to ensure we’re setting crystal clear objectives. There has been a clear change in the style of working too; with 100% of my team working remotely this has required a completely different style of leadership. We’ve embraced digital, video and online which has supported the shift in how we’re doing things. I think we’ve had to be mindful to not to be tempted to try and replicate what we do in the office at home using technology. This has been really important in supporting staff given the situation and the many competing priorities colleagues face such as home-schooling and caring responsibilities. Leading a disparate workforce in a non 9am-5pm way has become the new normal.
This all comes at a time where we’re tackling one of societies greatest ever problems. Getting around a table to work out a solution isn’t a tool in the toolbox at the moment. But we have adapted and continue to adapt significantly.
Are you seeing a requirement for new skills/competencies emerging in your people as we approach the three-month mark of working under lockdown?
Yes absolutely. Without question, digital skills are having to be dialled up. This is ranging from how we use our technology to communicate through to using it to provide critical front-line services. With reduced face-to-face interaction, the written word and writing is more important than ever – writing things down is making them ‘real’ and helps colleagues to see and understand what is happening in different parts of the organisation. Communication skills, which we’ve always needed, have become even more important and are under the spotlight much more. If we think back to being in an office environment, having those casual conversations which often lead to a host of different outcomes has been challenging to replicate. Our use of Microsoft Teams and other platforms has become hugely important because of this.
Do you feel the sentiment towards online and blended learning has changed?
Yes, but there are two halves to this. Firstly, I think we have recognised that online is a tool that can be used really effectively to deliver learning. Staff and students are taking real advantage of technology and it is exciting. However, what we are also seeing is that the market is being clear and is mostly saying ‘we want to get back to campus’ and so our challenge is to do this safely and to integrate online with the wider student experience. Although the university sector sees blended learning as an opportunity, students themselves are craving a return back to social contact, lectures and being able to learn together to interrogate a question.
As an Executive Director of one of the country’s leading universities, how are you maintaining well-being?
I’m spending lots of time outside, getting out into the garden and into nature. It feels important to disconnect as I’m having to do a lot more screen time than normal. I’m also being more forgiving that I might not come out of lockdown with that newly acquired talent! The reality is that I feel like I have less time and not more because of the switch in working styles. Something that has really helped me has been to get up in the morning and go for a walk before I start work. This makes it feel like I’ve had a commute and provides that time and space to get into work mode.
For our teams, we’ve given a strong message to say, “do what you are able to”. It’s been difficult for example for families to support their children’s education and do their job. We have found that to support we are communicating a lot more with more regular check-in’s and finding new ways to connect with people. In addition to encouraging staff to use their annual leave allowance, we have also introduced initiatives such as 10 more days compassionate leave for parents and carers.
And finally, any words of wisdom for emerging leaders on how to cope during a crisis?
- Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
- It’s important to be reflective and acknowledge that you’ll see all the best bits and the not-so-best bits of people as everyone deals with this crisis.
- It’s important to take some time out, we are all having to deal with things in new ways.
- Use your networks, I have found myself utilising my network and it’s critical to lean on this for support when needed. One final thing is to keep a diary by jotting down your various achievements. During a crisis such as this, the achievements can be massive and it’s all too easy to forget them months down the line.