Excellence in HR: Odgers Interim presents the 2018 UHR Awards

Excellence in HR

Recognising the success of innovative workplace strategies and transformational HR practices within UK universities, this year’s UHR Awards celebrated the institutions enhancing their organisational culture and performance to put them at the very forefront of the higher education sector. As a major provider of sourcing critical expertise for the UK’s education sector, Odgers Interim, in association with Odgers Berndtson and Berwick Partners sponsored the awards and Gala Dinner.

People are the core of any organisation and the awards brought home the impact that can be achieved by having a truly successful workplace. With Sarah Shaw, Partner at Odgers Interim presenting the awards, we wanted to offer a huge congratulations to the winners and runners up.

Business Effectiveness and Organisational Performance

Establishing clear pathways for career development with their Academic Career Framework, Northumbria University was presented with the award for Business Effectiveness and Organisational Performance. Liverpool John Moores University, the runner up in this category, demonstrated its commitment to supporting and developing its staff with the formation of its Leadership and Development Foundation (LDF).

Organisational Development and Culture Change

Challenging unacceptable behaviour in the workplace is no easy task but Imperial College London’s Active Bystander training to tackle bullying and workplace harassment saw it win the award for Organisational Development and Cultural Change. The runner up in this category was the University of Birmingham for implementing an executive-level coaching scheme.

Equality and Diversity

A clear winner in the diversity category, the University of Edinburgh introduced a staff development programme which has increased the number of women in director level roles by 300% in three years. Focusing on similar issues, Glasgow Caledonian University’s Advancing Gender Equality initiative came in as runner up for addressing the imbalance of male to female leaders across its organisation.

Exceptional HR

Introducing its social enterprise initiative ‘GiveGetGo’, the University of Liverpool has assisted 32 long-term unemployed locals in finding work. The initiative offers volunteering roles on campus and trains staff in mentoring roles, seeing the university win the Exception HR Award. Canterbury Christ Church University came in as runner up for its digital platform ‘StaffSpace’ that enables staff to take control of their own development.

Celebrating achievements in organisational performance, staff engagement and diversity and inclusion, the UHR Awards serve as a microcosm of the wider challenges the education sector’s HR community are overcoming. Addressing these challenges, plenary sessions from Margaret Heffernan, Matthew Syed, Moira Clarke and the Vice Chancellors of Bath Spa and UWE looked at how organisations can tackle the adverse effects created by competitive led models, out of touch measurement methods and disparate teams so common in higher education.

Every metric introduced and measured against comes at the cost of moving a university’s focus away from becoming more effective in its role of providing a quality learning environment and place of work. According to management expert and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan, the importance placed on university league tables and other performance measuring methods has resulted in a culture of competitiveness that’s permeated across the higher education sector, leaving academics chasing ratings instead of genuine academic improvement and a rise in mental health concerns amongst students.

HR has the opportunity to alleviate these pressures by realigning quantitative thinking to more qualitative methods of improvement. Crucial step-changes include resisting performance related pay, investing in people instead of infrastructure and introducing more collaborative cultures of working.

Picking up on this narrative, Moira Clarke a Professor of Strategic Marketing at Henley Business School, discussed the competitive edge that can be gained by shared values amongst employees. Open communication, flexibility, the feeling of ‘team spirit’ and even sharing a ‘common enemy’ are the hallmarks of a successful organisation. Breaking down barriers between departments and siloed teams within universities to create a culture of cohesion, participation and shared perceptions amongst employees is the key to improving performance.

The effect of an organisation’s culture is that much more significant in a sector of highly-talented individuals. Matthew Syed, high performance and cultural change expert, explained that the brightest academics and senior education leaders are often highly susceptible to the psychological pressures of leadership. Struggling to admit their mistakes for fear of ‘looking weak’ in front of teams can lead to a fixed mind-set and culture of concealment that is antithetic to the behaviours they are attempting to instil in their students. To prevent this, academic leaders should aim for a ‘growth mind-set’ where they can make a mistake and learn from it in a culture of openness and continuous improvement.  

The standard for cultural change was taken up by Sue Rigby, Vice Chancellor of Bath Spa University and Steve West, Vice Chancellor of the University of West England. League tables and other performance metrics have stifled innovation and uniqueness in universities, impacting both the student experience and workplace environment. The fallout has created power structures between academics and students, and a sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’ amongst employees. However, 15 years of unimpeded funding puts universities in a position of strength to tackle the rifts. Echoing the plenary sessions that came before them, Sue and Steve argued for a cultural shift to one that is open, respectful and engaging – something that must come from the top and filter down.

The UHR Awards and conference continues to be a spotlight for change-makers challenging the status-quo within higher education and demonstrates to the sector the impact HR has on workplace culture and performance within universities.


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