Insight into coachee context in action – the case of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs)

Remember we looked at benefits and potential drawbacks to coaches having insight into coachee context? Well, now we’re going to go one step further by checking out an actual coachee context to gain some practical understanding of how ‘background issues’ might influence the experience of coachees working within it…

I’m an internal coach in one of the largest Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the mortar board hat So let’s briefly explore some wider ‘background issues’ currently affecting UK universities to gain deeper insight into a ‘context’. We’ll then be able to suggest ways these issues might affect employee experience in the sector, as well as understand how insight into them might help coaches in their professional work.

Background issues affecting HEIs

When discussing the benefits of having insight into coachee context, I suggested 5 questions to answer which would help put a coachee’s experience of an organisation into perspective. Two related to ‘background issues’, and it’s these I’ll take a look at here.

1. What kind of organisation is this?     Although most universities in the UK are structured as charities, that doesn’t mean their priorities are the same as your general charity on the high street. Unsurprisingly, the main ‘product’ of HEIs is education. But don’t let that fool you. Behind what may seem a straight-forward raison d’être lies a complex set of drivers. Yes, universities exist to deliver advanced education – but add to that diverse imperatives such as these (and the list is not exhaustive):

  • income generation  (universities are businesses)
  • student recruitment   (in the UK and possibly overseas)
  • student satisfaction   (to improve ranking on the National Student Survey)
  • research
  • collaboration with industry
  • commercialisation/exploitation of Intellectual Property (IP)
  • enhancement of organisational reputation (including national and international rankings)
  • management of estate and investment portfolios

Checklist boxes plus handClearly HEIs have ever-increasing numbers of boxes to tick and stakeholders to satisfy. That’s where employees come in. A university is a workplace for a whole plethora of individuals and teams structured in a myriad of different ways, aiming to take the institutional vision forward. Faculties, departments, centres, institutes, academic support, administrative functions, estates and services  –  a bewildering assortment of types of people and skill sets, from academics and PAs to maintenance specialists and IT experts. Complex stuff…

2. What’s happening to the organisation currently?     Universities have traditionally been risk averse, concentrating on campus teaching and academic research, and relying for the most part on funding from government and grant-awarding bodies. It seemed a safe world. That world has well and truly gone. For the past few years universities have been grappling with significant change in a range of areas – the uncertainty and pace of which are only accelerating. Consider these issues (again, the list is not exhaustive):

  • introduction of tuition fees for UK and EU students
  • reduction of government funding
  • need for diversification of income streams  (possibly by introducing or growing non-core areas such as online programmes, Work-Based Learning services, Knowledge Transfer, local skills and growth programmes)
  • potential falls in student numbers  (affecting not only the income but also estates planning of universities investing in expansion/upgrading of student accommodation)
  • planned introduction of the Office for Students or OfS (the new sector regulator that will have competition, choice and the student interest as its focus)
  • introduction of new ‘excellence’ rating systems with potential impact on future funding levels  (the Research Excellence Framework REF and Teaching Excellence Framework TEF)
  • the Brexit vote  (with its uncertain effects on access to EU funding and continued participation in EU research, as well as on EU student recruitment)
  • immigration policy and changes to visa regulations  (affecting international student recruitment and the reputation of UK universities as welcoming destinations)

Coloured jigsaw pieces in circleSuch elements interact in complex ways and need close monitoring with an eye to their effects on current institutional strategies.  Even strategies set as little as one year ago are being and will continue to be revisited. What does all this mean? Managed growth? Re-balancing of portfolios? Investment in new ventures? Rethinking of capital project investments? And how can these be planned, let alone achieved, when the HEI landscape is still in flux? Whichever course is taken has implications for staff… and therefore for coaches.

How background issues might affect staff

Clearly, coaches in HE are working in organisations that are facing ever-more thorny issues on a whole host of fronts. There’s no getting away from the fact that times are hard for most strategists in HE, and difficult decisions cannot be avoided. So key words and concepts to take in here are:

uncertainty, change, diversifying, re-allocation of funds, rethinking of business and operating models, re-balancing of portfolios…

We’ve already said that it’s employees that take the institutional vision forward. The ‘human resource’ is fundamentally important. And the human resource will be hit hard. Consider the following points:

  • What happens when the institutional vision keeps changing? What if employees, despite their best efforts, become surplus to needs? And this could be anyone – academic as well as support, administrative and/or manual staff.
  • Top management may well be having sleepless nights worrying about which disaster could hit next. Yet a sense of calm needs to be transmitted down the hierarchy which allows sufficient transparency on how unpredictable the future may be (promoting trust), whilst supporting in the interim period the continuation of ‘business as usual’. How can this be achieved?
  • For some, yet another institutional vision might be in the offing. How can those who have worked hard to date for institutional success be ‘brought along’ without feeling short-changed? After all, their previous efforts may seem to be being rewarded with demands for redoubling of exertion, re-deployment, re-allocation of funds, possible redundancy…
  • Rethinking of business and operating models means re-balancing of portfolios. And that could mean reorganisation, merging or even cutting of departments, faculties, and administrative functions. And that means losing some staff whilst bringing in others. How can new employees be integrated, who are brought in to contribute to the success of these re-balanced portfolios? Some of their colleagues may be at different points on the Change Curve (possibly in denial or in doubt). What might that mean for team dynamics, office ‘politics’, workplace satisfaction, ‘collegiality’?

Dandelion clock balloon blown in windThe background issues facing HEIs are clearly not merely theoretical. They have direct impact on every individual working in the sector to a greater or lesser degree. Detailed knowledge of the precise issues and their overall impact may not be widespread within all parts of an organisation, but there is no doubt that their effects, like those of the wind, will be felt in some way by everyone.

How insight into background issues helps coaches in their work

So what does all this mean for coaches working in universities? Well, it depends on the size and particular specialisation sets of the institution concerned, as well as particular ways in which the issues influence particular policies. However, as I pointed out when considering potential drawbacks to insight into coachee context, the first thing is for coaches to check out the situation of their own institution, as well as their personal feelings and potential triggers in relation to it. This means ongoing self-reflection to avoid pitfalls regarding the following:

  • misinterpreting a coachee’s situation
  • collusion with a coachee
  • collusion with the organisation

In general, however, regarding a coachee context such as the above, coaches might expect to see and deal with some of the following (yet another non-exhaustive list):

  • increased levels of stress amongst staff fearing possible organisational change in the future, or facing actual organisational change in the present.
  • increased requests from staff facing a change of job or role for help with confidence-building, as well as upgrading of skills relating to CV preparation, applying for posts, and performing well at interviews.
  • increased levels of fear and discord in areas of the institutions that will face changes, resulting in potential for deterioration in team dynamics, ranging from bullying to ‘presenteeism’, disengagement to lack of cooperation, and absenteeism to increased ill health.
  • increased need for input on integrating teams made up of new employees and those who have been in post longer.
  • increase in requests from individuals for help to think through options, including motivation, skill appraisal, change in career, and training opportunities.
  • possible increases in requests from senior management in how to deal with change, as well as the difficulties entailed in shouldering responsibility for decision-making and policy implementation. This may also involve input on ‘difficult conversations’ as well as advice on a ‘coaching style of interaction’ which builds trust rather than suspicion, and cooperation rather than resistance.

Jigsaw coloured squareAnd how might all this help coaches operating in HE?     By alerting them early on to the kinds of interventions that might be necessary, including non-coaching related options such as training, work-shadowing, mentoring and counselling… Being able to see the possible needs ahead of time should mean the ability to initiate proactively the necessary Learning & Development (L&D) conversations – which can then be beefed up (if and when appropriate) into plans, preparation and programmes that can ensure the ‘human resource’ is likely to be fully supported when the need arises.

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