Leadership in Higher Education: Dr Tim Westlake, COO of University of Sussex

Leadership in Higher Education: Dr Tim Westlake, COO of University of Sussex
Published: 5 June 2020

Dr Tim Westlake joined the University of Sussex as Chief Operating Officer in August 2017. He is also Secretary to the University’s Council and responsible for governance matters. He serves as Deputy Chair of UCAS Council and as a board member of the Higher Education Careers Service Unit. Berwick Partners’ consultant in Higher Education, Alex Albone, spoke with Tim about his 30-year career in Higher Education, starting out as an academic before transitioning to professional services, and what challenges have propelled his career along the way.

Not long into our conversation it became apparent that Dr Westlake (or Tim, as he prefers to be called), seriously enjoys his job. Throughout his career in Higher Education he has been motivated by his genuine interest in supporting young people, describing the pleasure he takes in crossing campus between meetings and being able to stop and chat with students about how they’re getting on. Tim’s pleasure in connecting with people, whether they be students, academics, or members of staff is a theme that popped up throughout our conversation.

Tim started out his working life as a Town Planner. During his degree he was invited to stay on at Cardiff University and do a PhD studying ‘Electronic Home Shopping’ (the forbear to online shopping as we call it today) and its potential effect on our towns and cities. Tim had no intention of becoming an academic, but by the time he was nearing the end of his PhD it became apparent he was the only person in Town Planning working in this area. At the age of 26 a part time Senior Lecturer role in Retail Planning came up at Birmingham City University and he jumped at the opportunity. Tim describes this time as an exciting adventure. He had travelled extensively in his childhood thanks to a army background, and perhaps because of this and his life stage at the time he was a natural candidate to teach on secondment in Malaysia and through the Erasmus programme in Germany and Italy – setting the foundations for a later focusing on the internationalisation agenda.

For Tim, life as an academic Town Planner combined a few things that appealed to him personally. As an organised, pragmatic sort of person, the practical side of Town Planning was a pleasure to work in, and being intellectually curious, it allowed him the space to explore and study new concepts and ideas as an academic. It is a time that he looks back on fondly, but then life circumstances changed. With a spouse commuting 35 miles in one direction every day, and Tim commuting 65 miles in another direction every day, the allure of a more stable home life was too good to pass up when his ‘Retirement Job’ came up at Cardiff University, his alma mater, at the age of 31.

With an undergraduate, masters and PhD all from Cardiff, and with a knowledge base in the retail and marketing sector, Tim found himself intellectually and professional stimulated by the Head of the International Office role at Cardiff. It’s clear that he had, and still has, a strong affinity for the city and university, describing the excitement he felt at being able to “sell the place you love, and telling people why they should come there”. He leveraged the knowledge he’d developed in the Home Electronic Shopping context to pivot into student recruitment, and eventually became more involved with the international and overseas partnerships side of the portfolio. He was privileged to travel and work closely with the then Vice Chancellor, Sir Brian Smith, and learned a lot from him in the process – Tim’s capacity for absorbing the best qualities of the leaders he has worked with is a constant theme throughout his career.

Tim started his ‘Retirement Job’ in 1995 as Head of the International Office, growing his remit and breadth in the role until 2004 as Director of the International Division. By this time he had become comfortable in his position and had begun to think about what next for him – and thinking he’d pivot again to a new direction. But instead he was head hunted into another International role. In 2005 he took up the position as Director of International Development at the University of Manchester. Though he had no intention of doing the same role elsewhere, he was persuaded by the extraordinary vision and ambition of the then Vice Chancellor, Professor Alan Gilbert and then Pro Vice-Chancellor External Relations, Professor Paul Layzell. Professor Gilbert’s belief that universities in the developed world should be supporting the developing world chimed perfectly with Tim’s world view and values drivers. After a few years in the role the University was looking at a wholesale restructure to drive greater efficiencies through its services. By chance this gave Tim the opportunity he’d been originally looking for to broaden his portfolio, bringing home recruitment, admissions, widening participation (WP) and international development under one roof as he assumed the role of Director of Student Recruitment, Admissions, and International Development. The WP agenda ignited a new stream of energy into his remit, and it is clear he supported huge strides in furthering the University of Manchester’s reputation for commitment to WP, driven by his firm belief in the wider societal role universities have to play. Now under the leadership of Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, a highlight of Tim’s international work was in travelling with her to attend Tsinghua University’s Centenary in 2011. The main centenary ceremony took place in the Great Hall of the People with Xi Jinping, President of China and a graduate of Tsinghua University in attendance as Guest of Honour

In 2011 another restructure brought more professional services under Tim’s portfolio. He applied internally and was appointed as the University’s first Director for the Student Experience, bringing together all teams involved in student activity, including teaching and learning, student welfare and support staff, accommodation and the sports facilities. He oversaw 600 people in this position, and through their work and a new strategy, moved the University of Manchester 6 percentage points up in the NSS and significantly improved DLHE data. It was a challenging but amazing seven years and he again credits part of his enjoyment and development in the role to working closely with a tremendous senior academic leader – this time in Professor Clive Agnew, then Vice-President for Teaching, Learning and Students.

In 2017 head-hunters came knocking on Tim’s door again, and again at an opportune time. With so many professional services under his remit, Tim wanted to test whether he could be a COO. He had been enormously successful in his position at Manchester, overcoming complex interpersonal and structural challenges to create a cohesive team, develop a new strategy, and supported a tripling of overseas income. But he had a new challenge in sight, and again, a broader remit that would energise him.

Joining the University of Sussex as COO was in reality a much bigger step than he originally appreciated – you don’t really know the job until you do it, after all. Additionally, going into a new institution at a very senior level without a reputation to back him up (whereas in both Cardiff and Manchester he was a known quantity prior to assuming his most senior roles there) was a new, slightly daunting experience for him. But since day one he has found the University of Sussex – his Vice Chancellor and wider senior leadership team – to be incredibly supportive. The University has a strong values base which resonates with him, and he was struck in the first two weeks of being there how much passion people feel for the University.

Tim counts himself lucky to work in another amazing HEI. Colleagues want Sussex to be a huge success, and with that underlying motivation prevalent, it makes getting people to travel in the same direction slightly easier. He has been able to bring an outsider’s perspective to the University which has built on the institution’s inner confidence and belief in itself, and allowed it to borrow best practice and learnings from elsewhere. Along the way he was won the confidence of his direct reports, peers and Board.

Tim lives and breathes world class professional service in the Higher Education context. And figuring out what that context means exactly – in a rapidly changing environment – is key to fostering the new attitudes and abilities successful university leadership needs to embrace. With the world changing at pace, Tim promotes flexibility and agility as crucial in a university’s success. The HE sector is under an enormous amount of strain at the moment – whether that be because of Brexit, COVID-19, or rapidly developing technologies – but as a sector Tim maintains that HE needs to be confident about what it delivers, and stand up for the value it provides to the individual and wider society.

Several unique qualities stand out about Tim’s career. Timing and luck has certainly had a hand to play in providing him the bridging opportunities he needs to move on to the next big role, but it has been his need for challenge, and the energy he gains from being challenged, that has propelled him into his next big roles. And indeed, his time as an academic early on in his career cannot be inconsequential. Though he was spared the usual academic-professional tensions at Cardiff where he was a known quantity, accepted and trusted by his colleagues when he moved to head up the International Office, he has never been afraid to acknowledge and work with those tensions in other institutions. His lived experience affords him the perspective of how life is on both sides of the fence, and where sometimes the grass is not always greener. Being able to share these perspectives with colleagues probably goes much further in creating harmony than he gives himself credit for.

But it seems that the most significant key to Tim’s success thus far has been in his ability to be guided by roles he is truly interested in – underscored by the values he assigns to Higher Education - and derives great joy and pleasure from. Perhaps his example provides a strong evidence base that the key to success is enjoyment in what you do.

For more information, please contact Alex Albone, a Consultant in Berwick Partners Higher Education practice.

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