McLean Partnership

Diversity of Work Experience in Higher Education

March 23, 2020

How important is it for Professional Services departments to draw on a team with diverse work experience to face the plethora of strategic and operational challenges coming thick and fast?

A great deal of the press associated with diversity focuses on the protected characteristics, and rightly so. An Equality, Diversity and Inclusion agenda is increasingly something that is core to the values of an organisation and its leadership, and this is naturally evidenced in the construct of its employees.

One area of diversity that gets less attention is the diversity of work experience. This is by no means a new phenomenon, but managing change (good or bad), innovating, driving competitive advantage and diversifying a business can present many challenges to a leadership team.

Rarely does a brief from a client go along the lines of “more of the same please”. Of course, at times that is exactly what is needed, but more and more of our clients are looking to change the status quo and inject fresh ideas. This might come from someone within, adjacent to or indeed from a completely different sector.

Over the last 5 years, McLean has worked with many UK Universities recruiting leadership and interim talent for Heads of Professional Services – mainly covering COO, Finance, HR, Technology and Property functions.  Increasingly, we have noticed a trend in appointments made from adjacent or, often, very different sector backgrounds.

Our experience ranges from placing both interim and permanent executives for Russell Group institutes through to Post-1992 Universities. Evidence from HESA shows between 2015-18, over £250 million was spent on fundamental restructuring exercises across the sector, no doubt that will accelerate with recent events. This might account for the emergence of more permanent and interim roles being labelled transformation, transition and change, or adjectives on a similar theme.  It is often assumed it is easier to effect change in an organisation if you are somewhat detached from it – although clearly, in practice, it is not quite as simplistic as that.

Our own evidence would also support an increasing trend in COO’s, HRD’s, FD’s, CIO’s and Property Directors being appointed with little University experience. We recently ran an exercise for a client where, of the three senior hires, two were appointed from out of sector and one was appointed from an overseas HE background. In this instance, the department Head had also been appointed from out of sector. This highlights a common waterfall effect. If more COO’s are appointed from out of the sector we may, in turn, see this replicated in the number of their direct reports arriving from diverse industry backgrounds.

Taking it a step further, we have also recruited individuals into leadership roles who, not only had no direct industry experience, but also hadn’t had a proven track record in the function they were going to head up. That is somewhat unusual, but in this instance, the requirement was for a decisive leader to motivate and galvanise a large internal workforce of 500+ direct employees.  The individual’s leadership expertise (a stellar military career and a stint in management consultancy), elevated him above other candidates from more immediate functional and sector backgrounds.

We are not saying it is always prudent to recruit from outside of the sector, far from it; there are many nuances even on the professional services side of Higher Education in terms of  governance, regulations and acronyms (to name a few) that would make it difficult, and perhaps, unwise to appoint individuals who have never worked in the sector. Equally, Universities come in all shapes and sizes – to that end many people within Professional Services have been very successful in managing their careers through one or multiple HE establishments.

In the current climate, I don’t think any VC, Chair of Council or COO would view the forward challenges of running a University as steady state. Perhaps more than ever, those appointing professional services leadership need to be bold in their approach. Universities that can attract and retain the most talented individuals, whether they be from inside or outside of the sector, will arguably be better equipped to tackle these challenges.

We expect to see this trend of out of sector appointments continue and, like any other sector, the future prosperity of Universities will rely heavily on the diverse nature of its employees.

McLean Partnership has worked with numerous UK Universities over the past few years. They specialise in identifying interim, advisory and permanent leaders across the professional services directorate. For a confidential discussion on how we might help, please contact Paul Soothill, Managing Director on