21st Century Leadership Summit

I am delighted to welcome you all to UNSW.

I start by acknowledging the Bedegal people as the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet. I pay my respects to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are present here today.

There are many attributes which are fundamental to leadership.

Humility – Empathy – Humour – Authenticity, are just some of them.

Former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, said that it is the role of a leader to interpret the future to the present.

You must be able to clearly communicate the ‘why, what, how and when’ of a big vision.

The ‘why’ is most powerful if it involves the greater good – a higher purpose.

A clear strategy built on extensive consultation and engagement with your stakeholders will achieve collective ownership of the ‘what’.

A detailed implementation plan takes time and thought to bring all the pieces of the puzzle together. But good preparation is essential if people are to have confidence and trust in the ‘how’ and ‘when’.

And then, resilience and attention to detail, combined with an absolute commitment to openness, honesty, transparency, and reasonable flexibility to maintain buy-in when the going gets tough.

You will hear about all of these and more today from other speakers. There are many approaches to leadership so no single approach is the right one, but it is wise to pick an approach that fits your skills and personality. You can put on a show for a day or two but as a leader you are being watched every day, week after week and a pretence will be exposed very quickly. 

So having acknowledged that there is no right or wrong approach, I want to discuss 3 aspects of leadership that are important to me and place them in the context of my own experience of university leadership.

The first is about the foundation of leadership in a clearly articulated shared vision for your organisation which drives everything  that follows and to which you can return again and again – the ‘why’.

The second is about leading through change, maintaining momentum and buy in when there is opposition and failure, as well as success – however great a leader you are there will be challenges and failures.

The third area I want to talk about is the importance in leadership of partnership and most importantly generosity in partnership.

My approach to leadership depends critically on engaging my team in a shared vision and from that developing a strategy which we all feel passionate about and genuinely believe is worthwhile.  

It may seem like stating the obvious, but you must believe in what you are asking people to do. They also need to believe it if they are to put in the effort needed to deliver it.

Giving enormous amounts of time to achieving that shared vision has worked for me in all my leadership roles, large and small over 35 years, from running a medical service for women’s health and leading a research programme, to setting up a cancer charity, establishing a startup company and now leading a university.

In all of these things I have been fortunate that the vision everyone could support was powerful, because it involved a higher purpose to make a difference to the lives of others whether patients, students or society globally.

Without a genuine belief that what you are doing is for the greater good, things can quickly founder. With it, challenges and set-backs can be addressed and overcome.

And that belief must run through all levels of an organisation.

I applied that approach when I arrived to lead UNSW 4 years ago. UNSW is a big organisation with an annual budget of $2.5b, 6,000 staff, 60,000 students and 300,000 alumni worldwide.

When I started this role as Vice Chancellor at UNSW almost 4 years ago, I knew that the key would to do what I had done before elsewhere – to engage with the UNSW community to identify a shared vision and then a strategic approach which flowed from it.

I spent the best part of 6 months in meetings and discussions hearing the views of staff, students and alumni in open meetings large and small and through surveys and other routes.

The details of the strategy are not key to my point – which is the value of spending a lot of time agreeing on the vision and strategy – but I will tell you a little bit about it to illustrate my point.

We agreed a 10 year UNSW 2025 Strategy at the end of 2015.

It was unashamedly ambitious, altruistic and idealistic.

It was about a great university of the 21st century being a university which acts in everything that it does as a servant of society – local, national and global. The Strategy is about how we, as a hub of knowledge and innovation – as a community – can have a positive impact on not just NSW or Australia, but our world.

It is that goal which drives every part of our institution.

It reminds our community that they belong to something bigger than themselves, both as part of the university community and as part of an organisation with commitment and responsibility far beyond the boundaries of the campus. The great university of the 21st century is about global impact not an ivory tower.

The strategy is built on three pillars.

The first is academic excellence which includes world leading research generating transformational ideas and impact, as well as innovative teaching of the highest quality. You would expect that from a University but we have set ourselves the objective of being amongst the top 50 of the 30,000+ universities worldwide and transforming our educational offering in scale and quality.

The other two pillars were rather different and it was these that most  excited and galvanised our community. One was Social Engagement to deliver equity, diversity and inclusion, to be an influential voice in thought leadership and to drive economic growth through turning our research discoveries in to economic benefit in partnership with industry. The other was Global Impact through international education and our new Institute for Global Development. Symbolically we changed our strap line to ‘Australia’s Global University’ and we mean it.

When we published our strategy we did a staff survey to establish the level of support for the 2025 strategy. People rarely agree on anything in a university. In this case just 0.9% opposed the strategy. 9.1% were neutral. Amazingly 90% were supportive.

Achieving that level of collective support for and ownership of the Strategy was crucial for many reasons including the second area I want to focus on – leading through change.

The reason we’re here this morning.

It can be a frightening prospect when you consider the era of constant change in which we live.

By some calculations, that change is happening at 10 times the pace and 300 times the scale, so with   roughly 3000 times the impact of the Industrial Revolution.[i]

That is phenomenal.

We’re witnessing the rise of China; the ubiquity of technology; an ageing world population; climate change; and greater global connections through trade, people and data. 

We only have to think about how our own lives or workplaces have changed over the last 10, 20, 30 years.

For me, that means going from electric typewriters and Tippex, to PCs and the internet. Not to mention that piece of technology we carry around to text on or post to Instagram is a computer that is millions of times more powerful than NASA used to first put a man on the moon.

The way we live now would be unrecognisable to many of our grandparents.

And the pace of change is not slowing.

And with that the nature of what a university does and the way it is organised is rapidly changing. Research technologies progress at breakneck speed. The educational needs of students are completely different and changing and the needs of the workforce we are training evolves equally rapidly. 

Universities must be able to anticipate and respond.

Like all your organisations we are dealing with digitisation and globalisation. New and radical technologies are allowing more adaptive, more personalised learning options that are responsive to the individual learning pace of each student.

Online degrees are just one option UNSW is developing.

University leaders ponder the question of what globalisation means to the future of universities as unique, independent, geographically-focused entities.

It could be that over the next three decades, a small number of high-quality, high-brand universities, or conglomerates of universities, will come to dominate a globalised market for higher education, producing and controlling a massive output of digital learning content in a highly competitive domain, making higher education more accessible for all regardless of location.

And that is a good thing. Education has been described by Surjit Bhalla as the ‘new wealth of nations’, the key to prosperity and ending inequality. The more people with access to education, the better.

All of this means that our strategy involves enormous change in everything we do, to ensure that we are fit for purpose and genuinely able to deliver on our vision and objectives. The change process required by our 2025 Strategy at UNSW involves every aspect of everything we do including IT, HR, estates, finance, communications, government relations, intellectual property, research, teaching methodologies, performance expectations and I could go on.

That is exciting but there are some very significant challenges in delivering this change which are in sharp focus for us three years in.

The first is that although just about everyone supported the strategy and most realised that it would involve change, a significant proportion of people really meant that they support change when it involves others but not really when it means changing their workplace environment. And even those who support change involving themselves often find it difficult.

The second is that although we spent a crucial 6 months developing a detailed implementation plan, even the most carefully made plans don’t always proceed as expected. There will always be some aspects of change that were planned over optimistically.

The third is that ‘shit happens’. By which I mean that the outside world does some things which are helpful and others which make delivering change even harder. Like government cuts to research or caps on student numbers or geopolitical instability created by the lovely Donald Trump which puts at risk our 20,000 international students.

The fourth is that change on this scale costs an enormous amount of money – in this instance $3b over 10 years and managing finances through complex change can be very challenging.

I could go on but that gives you a sense of the issues.

How are we dealing with these challenges.

It won’t surprise you that the single most important thing is the area I started with. Our shared vision and higher purpose. I return to this again and again, every single day, sometimes 10 times a day. Reminding our staff of the ‘why’. We are delivering strategy 2025 because we believe in it and the impact it will have on peoples lives. It is not easy but it the right thing to do.

That of course is not enough.

We are providing support, mentoring and training.

We are communicating in many new ways.

We have put in place new processes and structures for monitoring and reporting.

We strive to be an organisation which is always open to hearing about issues, acknowledging them and acting promptly.

We have articulated clear expectations for behaviour and an ethos of openness and transparency.

We have a healthy sense of pragmatism and flexibility, being prepared to review plans which are unrealistic or need updating.

We accept that some things will fail and avoid a risk averse culture and we learn from our mistakes.

But most of all we keep returning to the shared vision, the ‘why’ because that justifies the challenge and sometimes unpleasantness of change.

Of course, it also helps that we are already making fantastic progress, rising in the world rankings to 81st place, becoming the favoured NSW university for domestic students, attracting ever increasing numbers of international students, increasing business contracts by 100%, achieving better gender diversity ratios and impacting in many countries around the world.

That brings me to my third area which is core to my approach to leadership.

Embedded in the Strategy is a commitment to partnership and collaboration, and more importantly a spirit of generosity in partnership.

We are fortunate to have some of the greatest research minds in the world at UNSW who are working to solve some of the grand challenges of the 21st century – inequality, climate change, energy, the refugee crisis to name a few.

To get the very best from their work they need to work across boundaries within the university and outside the university.

Breaking down the barriers that stifle innovation and partnership is one of the attributes of good leadership and it often comes down a commitment to generosity in partnership.

Being generous in the conduct of partnerships opens doors, generates mutual trust, and more often than not, returns greater benefits.

I have been lucky enough to be involved in a number of partnerships here in Australia, in Africa, in the UK and USA which have brought together large and diverse groups.

Partnership is not easy but it works best when approached with an understanding that being generous, giving and truly committing usually reaps rewards and opens up new even greater opportunities.

At UNSW we have put an enormous emphasis on partnership to the extent that some argue it is over stretch. I disagree. It is a stretch but through partnership our effort is multiplied many, many fold and has a much greater impact much more quickly. Of course some of our partnerships will fail but the benefits are already accruing.

We have new partnerships internally. For example we just launched four UNSW Futures Institutes in Ageing, Cellular Genomics, Digital Grid and Material and Manufacturing – a key criterion for funding of these institutes is that proposals must cross disciplinary lines across our schools, centres, faculties and divisions.

We partner externally.

In health creating SPHERE, Sydney Partnership for Health, Education, Research and Enterprise involving 14 universities, hospitals, institutes and primary care across Eastern and Western Sydney.

Regionally through the NUW Alliance with the universities of Wollongong and Newcastle asking the question what value can we add for the population of NSW.

Internationally through the PLuS Alliance, involving Arizona State University and Kings College London to deliver education and cutting edge research on a global scale.

Through the Sydney Culture Network linking galleries, museums, libraries and the creative arts across Sydney.

Through partnership with the elders and the indigenous community in Walgett in rural NSW.

By revisiting the basis of our links with our partner medical research institutes, the Garvan, Victor Chang, the George, Black Dog, NeuRA, Ingham and Children’s Cancer Institute.

By creating a new engineering hub in Paramatta with Western Sydney University.

And working with a young university in one of the most disadvantaged areas of the world recovering from civil war in Gulu in northern Uganda

These are just a few examples of our many UNSW partnerships underpinned by a commitment to generosity, which add value to our efforts and align with our objective through Strategy 2025 to use the resources, expertise at UNSW to make a difference to the lives of others.

In conclusion the pace of change in the 21st century makes it an incredibly exciting and challenging time to be a leader.

I hope that I have given you some food for thought from the things I have learned and from my own experience as a leader.

I put particular focus on establishing an inspiring shared vision, understanding and managing the complexities of delivering change and establishing an ethos of generosity in partnership. That is just one approach to leadership – you will hear about many others. I have done it about ten times in different organisations and I know that it works for me. And most of all when it delivers it has a real impact on what matters most – improving the lives of others.

Thanks for listening I am happy now to take questions.

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