Tell me about your role at the university
I’m Executive Director of Human Resources and Organisational Development here at Aston University. So, what does that mean? I’m responsible for the human resources function, which looks after all aspects of people and people management here in the University. My shorthand is, it’s about developing the organisation and the people to be the best that they can be. I sit on the University’s Executive, so I suppose I am the voice of the workforce on the Executive looking at all matters pertaining to the employment of people, the engagement of them in the work, improving performance and ensuring that we offer a great working environment here at the University. I’m also responsible for health and safety in the buildings and across the campus, both of staff and students. I’m responsible for business continuity as well, which is putting into place appropriate plans to ensure that we’re able to respond to emergencies or incidents as they happen and that we are planning for continuity in those instances.
How did you come to work in higher education? Please tell me about your career background.
I would describe myself as a HR and organisational development professional. I’ve worked in a number of different organisations and a number of different sectors as well. I’ve worked in the private sector. Immediately prior to moving into higher education I worked for 15 years in local government in similar sort of roles. I was Director of HR and Change at Bristol City Council, which is a large urban local authority and I decided I wanted a change of sector, then an opportunity arose in my home city. It was a great coming together; an opportunity to come into a new sector, to get under the skin of that sector and explore the challenges of higher education and, ultimately, to make a contribution to higher education. I like working in organisations that are complex and complicated. But, overarching, I really like working in organisations that have a purpose and I think higher education has a purpose. In particular, here at Aston, we’re really focused on making a difference to the lives of the students who come through our doors. Aston University, especially, has a focus on widening participation, on working with students who perhaps don’t have the advantages that other people have had. We take in people with really good results and we turn out great, employable graduates.
Would you say your job is rewarding/meaningful?
I love my job. I find people endlessly fascinating. I like the responsibility of creating an environment which is vibrant, where we offer really good employment. It’s a place where people can be professionally fulfilled, where they feel that they’re making a difference, where they’re developed at whatever stage of their career they are. Hopefully if they do leave Aston, they leave Aston saying that was a really good experience. One of the things that characterises any working environment now is change, and I think that’s really challenging for people. The thing that gets me out of bed in the morning is the challenge of supporting people through that change, developing the University, helping us to adapt to every increasing need. The sector is becoming more competitive, and I have the opportunity to work in a dynamic, vibrant environment, and bring a set of experiences into the sector that perhaps people in the sector haven’t been exposed to so much.
Why did you choose to switch sectors?
Each individual organisation that I’ve ever worked with has a completely different context and what I wanted to do was challenge myself to move to a different context, to learn about the challenges in higher education and in particular, the challenges that Aston faced. That was a career development theme for me, to push myself and hopefully bring a set of experiences. Higher education ticked the boxes because it does have that social purpose as well as a business purpose. I’m particularly motivated by going into that type of environment, which was undergoing change, that needed to bring in some expertise that perhaps they hadn’t previously had and building a team around me, to enable the University to develop the working practices, working environment, the skills and structures that it needed to really thrive.
How do you think working in higher education compares to working in the commercial/government sector?
I think there are a lot of differences. There is an obvious difference working with an academic workforce. It is very different to working in other sectors, but equally, those sectors themselves have different workforces. It was interesting understanding the world of academics and hoping to create an environment where they can contribute to the best of their abilities. Universities are having to operate in a sector which is competing increasingly for students, and for Aston, partly it’s about being a rapidly expanding University. It’s a medium size, competing in a sector where we’ve got big established universities, and holding our own in terms of the market, in terms of improving the student experience and student outcomes.
Universities increasingly are having to be commercial and this is partly the challenge that I’ve found since I’ve moved into higher education; introducing different ways of thinking to the University with a slightly more commercial mind-set. Obviously, universities don’t exist to make a profit. However, we need to run it as a viable business and organisation. We need to create sufficient surplus to be able to invest in facilities, invest in staff and invest in students as well, to run as efficiently as possible. We need to become more customer-focused and be mindful about creating a great service user experience for all students, wherever they come from in the world. It’s a real challenge and I think it requires the experiences that I’ve build up in the commercial sector and in local government, which is very focused around delivering to customers.
Please highlight the development opportunities you’ve had
For me, development has always been about working with inspirational people, and certainly what you get at the University is massive exposure to some fascinating individuals, to a load of different ideas, to a lot of different experiences and that’s been hugely developmental for me. I particularly value the ability to work with colleagues across institutions, who’ve got more experience of the sector, and I do find it quite a collaborative sector. People are very generous with their time. They’re willing to share. A lot of the issues that institutions face are quite similar and there’s a genuine willingness to share each other’s learning. You never stop learning. I don’t believe you ever achieve a seniority which means that you no longer need to learn. If anything, you need to accelerate that learning and working in a learning environment, that’s our business.
Please tell me about your experience of the facilities on campus for university life/wellbeing
One of the things I do really like is working in a community, and our campus does feel like a community. We’re based in the city centre. We have an open campus, so people are walking across the campus all the time. It really is a green oasis in the heart of the UK’s second city. It’s a lovely environment to work, to walk into work from the station each day and actually feeling the buzz of having students around, both in the buildings and in the wider campus. The facilities are great. If I want to go to the gym, I can go and use the gym facilities. We can participate in all sorts of sport here. There are great areas where we can go and have coffee. The working environment is really fabulous. We’ve got a large School of Optometry here, so I can go and get my eyes tested on a regular basis. There’s the opportunity to get involved in research as well. That’s unique, in a sense, to working in higher education. About wellbeing, universities do offer good flexible working opportunities. If individuals are looking for non-standard working and looking for an environment where they can work in an agile way, then increasingly universities are offering that.
What has been your career highlight whilst working in higher education and why?
A highlight is taking people on a journey and watching them flourish. I suppose I inherited a service that was in need of refreshing, that was in need of being given some confidence. The highlight is watching people take up that challenge, succeeding, and realising that what they’re doing and the way in which they’re approaching work is up there with the best in any sector. As a senior professional you only ever achieve things through other people and so you’re only ever as good as the people that are around you. Often, that is about giving the confidence to people to perform at their best.
What are your tips/advice for those considering a career in HR at a university?
Universities offer a great exposure to the world of HR. You can work right across the spectrum with a whole different range of people and roles. So, the ability to work with professors who are doing world class research and then in the next instant, working with campus service staff who are maintaining the grounds or providing the catering, or working with some of our commercial areas that might be providing, for instance, conferencing facilities. You really do get to experience the full range of HR and organisational development. There’s never a boring moment and it does give a fabulous grounding, there’s great career development opportunities. You don’t need to have been in higher education in order to come and work here. I’m more interested in people who are able to bring in their wider experiences, who are open to learning and have a growth mind-set. People who are focused around supporting individuals and the wider University and helping it to be as good as it can.
This interview was conducted before the Coronavirus Pandemic. Working arrangements on university campuses may have changed due to social distancing measures.