McLean Partnership

From Defence to Higher Education

October 23, 2019

Prior to joining Loughborough University as the Director of Estates and Facilities Management in March 2019, Graham Howard had spent four decades working in Defence, the vast majority in uniform culminating as the Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Logistic Operations) in MOD Head Office followed by 4 years as a consultant with KPMG. Seeking new opportunities and challenges, Graham opted to make a significant change and swapped defence and security for a new sector – Higher Education.

Graham shares his thoughts with the McLean Partnership around leadership and the perspective on the sector as seen from a fresh pair of eyes.


Why Move?
Anyone who has served in the Armed Forces will be used to postings to a new role and locations on average every 2 years. During my military career I had around 20 different appointments, moved house 12 times and before the children entered secondary school, had decided to live away during the week and go home at weekends. This arrangement is the norm now for many service personnel. So, after nearly 4 years with KPMG, I was starting to get itchy feet and was looking for a new challenge.

The recruitment processes
It was against this background that I received a blind call from McLean enquiring if I would be interested in joining the competition for the role of Director of Estates and Facilities Management at Loughborough University (LU). One of my daughters was a Loughborough graduate and I also knew from the Sunday Times survey of universities that it was in the top 5. In March this year I joined an outstanding professional services senior leadership team at a fantastic top university that does what is says on the tin – it delivers a distinctive reputation for excellence and a culture of delivering excellence in everything that it does.

First impressions
My first impression after having accepted the job was that Loughborough must be very brave because I had no previous experience in the HE sector and was a military operational logistics SME with a bit of consultancy experience. My perception was that many universities recruit from within the ‘pool’ and do not venture outside the sector to seek a wider field, and of course I would say this, but I believe that they may be limiting themselves. Since joining the ‘pool’ despite being in post for only 6 months I have been approached by several recruitment consultancies enquiring if I would be interested in a similar role at another HE institution. I will leave others to draw their own conclusions but what I will say is that at the director level, the key skills and experience gained outside the HE sector are transferrable and the landing was softer than I imagined.

One of the most obvious opportunities of a fresh approach is the ability to import new ways of doing things. The military is second to none when it comes to leadership which is based on a set of core values and ‘doing the right thing’ rather than the easiest. This demands moral courage, integrity and respect for others. The ability to conduct an assessment of a situation, develop a plan, test it with the team and then implement it by empowering individuals and teams are core military skills and these are just as relevant in the HE sector.

Programme and project management
A common theme in all the organisations that I have worked in is the need for and presence of project management. The university had effective project management processes and an obvious area where value could be added was in the introduction of a programme management capability based on Managing Successful Programme principles. We have taken the opportunity to form a Programme Management Office to manage the many projects and this approach will enable us to deliver better quality outcomes.

Analysis and Operating Model design
The great advantage of being new is the freedom to consider a fresh approach and the opportunity to look at issues through a different lens. My last project at KPMG involved the delivery of an operating model for a large public sector organisation and it was obvious that this approach could benefit the organisation I was now responsible for. The operating model template is divided into 4 design layers: Performance, Technology, Structure and People and these groupings mapped across well.

The University has a robust governance regime to manage the capital programme and adoption of an integrated performance management system embedded through Estates and Facilities Management should help to realise a step-change.

An obvious opportunity is to optimise the Computer Aided Facilities Management (CAFM) system to improve performance. This represents the biggest area of opportunity but is perhaps the most challenging and we have taken sufficient time to ensure that the requirement and process flows are mapped.

Changes to structures are usually the most emotive and an observation from other sectors is that people need to be consulted and bought into the case for change and time allowed for their ideas and contributions to be considered – if not they may not embrace it and make it work. There are many similarities between sectors here and time spent in communication and explaining the case for change before structural changes are implemented is seldom wasted.

A common theme that translates across the sectors is how to motivate staff and colleagues who may be low paid and on zero hours contracts. Focussing on capabilities, leadership, behaviours, cultures, values, CPD and rewards/incentives are all tools that need to be used intelligently and sensitively.

Would I recommend changing sectors? Absolutely and my advice would be do not be afraid to consider other sectors as it may not be as scary as one may imagine. In a career transition workshop I attended prior to leaving the military, a piece of advice we were given was stick to your strengths and don’t expect employers to take a punt on employing somebody in a sector they are unfamiliar with. Against this background its perhaps understandable why people tend to stick in their lane. The HE sector is welcoming, friendly and is growing fast. There are fantastic opportunities and a sensible life/work balance. My advice would be to be bold, trust your instincts and speak to your network who will have great advice and counsel. On the other side, senior managers should also be bold and embrace people from other sectors. Universities have strong processes and governance in place so an out of section appointment is less risky than people may perceive, and the benefits of the external perspectives that come from it are amazing.


The McLean Partnership offers executive search, interim management, and board services with expertise across Higher Education, NHS and Financial Services.  We have worked with a number of top ranked Universities in the UK helping to restructure and transform their corporate services teams. For a confidential discussion on how we can help, please contact Paul Soothill, Managing Director on