Progression for Professional Service Staff in Higher Education

I have worked in several universities over the last 14 years now. Despite universities always claiming a commitment to education for all and developing their staff, in my experience they just don’t.

In universities, people are split into academic and non-academic roles – there are different pay scales and different terms and conditions.

In a university, academic staff have several paths for progression:

  • the teaching route – you can become a Fellow of the HEA, gain a PGCHE, and move from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer to Principle Lecturer to Professor
  • the admin/management route – from lecturer to team leader, Programme Director, Head of School, Dean, Pro-VC, VC
  • the research route – you can move from researcher to Reader, Research Fellow to Senior Research Fellow and Professor. You can measure the number and quality of your publications and your submission to REF

But if you work in a university and are not an academic, your lot is different.  There is no progression route except management.  Some professions within HE may have professional recognition (eg Finance AAT/ACCA qualifications, CIM, CIPD) but the effect on your role and pay scale may be minimal.

concrete stairs going nowhereAnd the rest of us do not have this option.  So you automatically go up the pay scale about three times and then that’s it.  You’re stuck.

Up or Out

No, for other professional service staff, your lot is to be employed in an ever narrowing role with no progression except to leave for another role, or the incredibly narrow route into management.

And the only way you’re going to move up in your niche area is if:

  • the department expands, a new supervisory role is created and so you’re in the right place at the right time
  • your manager moves on and you have a chance to apply for the job
  • you move to another institution

For the latter, then, the university loses the expertise you’ve built up over many years, and your future potential.

The middle one is dead man’s shoes.  Your manager probably got his/her opportunity to go up the ladder 10 years ago when the department was small and they promoted one of the 3 people working there at the time.  The chances of you getting the same opportunity now in a team of 15 is much lower.  Your manager has stayed in post for 10-20 years, and s/he’s not moving.  Are you really going to hang around on the offchance that you’ll perhaps be considered for the job in another 10 years or so, if it still exists?

And to go into management at all, someone at some point has to believe in you and allow you to practically develop your skills while in your current post, because guess what, one of the ‘essential criteria’ for getting the management job will be ‘must have successfully led a team of people for at least 2 years’.  It’s hard to demonstrate management skills when you’re not in a management position.  And it’s hard to get the management training until you’re in a management post.

And more importantly, what if you don’t want to go into ‘management’?  That route involves a particular skill set which requires both technical and people skills, training and ongoing commitment to development.  I’ve seen far too many managers without the people skills they need to do the job well.  They’ve gone into management because they were good in their narrow technical job and it’s the only progression option that’s available.  The damage poor managers do in an organisation can be immense.

Recognition and Reward

People want to be recognised for their work; they want to feel they are progressing, learning new skills and able to take on more.  Good managers will understand this and seek ways to ensure their staff are using all their skills, being recognised (a genuine ‘thank you’ goes a long way!) and getting opportunities to develop new skills.  If they’re canny they’ll be delegating part of their own role, freeing up time for themselves and everyone wins!  But be honest, how many managers are actually doing that for their employees?  If employee engagement rates are anything to go by, not many.

Most university HR departments understand that to retain good employees you need to offer ongoing training and development.  They have staff development policies in place and an appraisal system whereby at least twice a year an employee should be looking at their goals, achievements and future potential. But for me, despite this being enshrined in company policy (and having worked for several universities now) the appraisal is brushed over, signed off, then ignored and put away in a drawer somewhere never to be referred to again.

And so the employee moves on, because they’ve been left to slowly rot in a job which uses only a fraction of their skill set and doesn’t allow them to explore potential; they feel unvalued and unappreciated.  Or they stay on, because a job is a job, but disengage and go through the motions.  Either way, the company loses out on the talent they originally hired.

Progression Routes

For years I’ve been hearing a call from professional service colleagues for ways to formally recognise professional service staff.  I see far too many of these staff taking qualification after qualification (Masters, MBAs, PhDs) because that’s all that’s on offer.  But they’re not developing the skills they need for their job, progressing professionally or being rewarded for gaining these qualifications.

So let’s have a progression route that professional service staff can follow, just like the academic staff have.  One that allows them to feel that they are moving forwards, and yes, to get the opportunity to move onto different pay scales and take on additional responsibilities.  Because the skills that are being learned will enable better, more efficient working and the investment will soon pay for itself.

Develop and allow them to follow training paths to develop the skills they need to demonstrate for promotion to a higher grade.  You could train them in HE practices and how your own institution works.  But also think of all the ‘soft’ skills that nobody teaches you but that are vital to everyday working at any institution.  Here are a few I’ve studied over the past year just to give examples:

  • Teamwork
  • Time management
  • Communication skills
  • Critical thinking/problem solving etc
  • Technical skills (eg IT qualifications, social media techniques)
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Resilience
  • Stress management
  • Challenging conversations
  • Giving and receiving feedback
  • Influencing
  • Project management

And yes, leadership and management skills because these are needed at all levels.

Think of all the ways that these skills can be developed:  training (formal/informal, face-to-face/online), delegation, working on projects, secondment, shadowing, mentoring, coaching, cross-training (across silos), buddying, and the most important and never offered in my experience: feedback.

And yes, there could be a management track too, for those that want that route, that taught the skills needed before getting a management job for both academic and professional service staff. Thus, when promotion opportunities become available, an employer will have developed an internal pipeline of potential managers who are already prepped for success.

And just make sure that people don’t need to ask for their manager’s support to get on one of these tracks – don’t let managers hold employees back.  (What if the manager doesn’t understand the importance of developing their team? What if, even, the manager is threatened by subordinates learning new skills rather than grateful for the additional skills and resource?)

And yes, the risk is that you’re training up your employees to leave.  But if you don’t offer development opportunities they will either leave or disengage anyway.  Employees are in a much better position to train themselves now, with online learning opportunities widely and freely available. But the potential for loyalty and retention if you recognise learning and offer progression routes in-house is immense.

Come on universities!  Developing progression pathways and CPD is your bread and butter.  Try doing something for your professional service staff.  Recognise their skills and give them the same opportunity to progress that academic staff already have.

When did someone last believe in you?

About a year ago I signed up for a MOOC on Coursera titled “Conversations that Inspire: Coaching Learning, Leadership and Change.

The first exercise we had to do was to:

‘Reflect on your past and think of the people in your life who have most helped you to grow as a person, to motivate and inspire you, and to help you accomplish what you have in life.’

We were told to separate our lives into distinct stages or eras, for example primary and secondary school, university, then 10 year blocks in our working lives.

I started this well.  I could think of the Geography teacher at 6th form who gave me good grades, encouraged me when I wanted to apply for Cambridge and tutored me for the entrance exams.  Then at university, there was my dissertation supervisor – I got a 1st in my dissertation and she encouraged me to think about postgraduate study and to consider publishing the dissertation.

There was a pattern emerging already – getting good grades (doing something I was good at), people who believed in my ability and encouraged me to go further.

And then I realised I couldn’t think of any other examples.  As soon as I went into working life it seemed to stop and I struggled to think of even the slightest encouragement at work.  Some of this is down to the fact that in my early career I was teaching in remote areas completely on my own.  (This was fine at the time – I was getting plenty of feedback from the students and I had a strong desire to do well.)

But looking back at the larger organisations in the UK I’ve worked in, I’m struggling to think of any manager or leader who ‘helped me to grow as a person’ or ‘motivated and inspired’ me.  This, despite the fact that conversations about direction and growth could happen at least once a year in the annual appraisal.  Have I just been incredibly unlucky?  Or unobservant?  My memories, if anything, are of being held back.  Even when I went back to university to study at postgraduate level, there was no one who put any time in for me to succeed – no supervisor to guide me, no support when I asked for help.  (The opposite, if anything.)

Yes, we’re adults and we’re supposedly all in charge of our own careers and lives.  But we all need to know we’re doing a good job, to get a little encouragement now and then and to be given the opportunity to push ourselves a little and move forwards.

And yes, this encouragement can come from family and friends, but we spend the majority of time at work and we get meaning from our professional lives.  I read articles from leaders who mention someone who mentored them or gave them a break, and their desire (or sense of duty) now to pass it forward.  So there are definitely people out there who do this.

But if the majority of people out there are like me, then what on earth are we doing in our organisations?

Why does encouragement and desire to support someone’s development stop when we leave school or university?  We could all be doing more of this for each other – let’s make an effort to do so.

But in particular, I would consider it part of any manager’s role to get the best out of their people – to encourage them, make sure they’re growing and learning in the role and prepare them for the next.  I’ve seen glimpses of this in other managers I’ve come into contact with.  But until I undertook Aurora leadership training last year, I’d never had a mentor and it was a revelation.  For the first time, here is someone talking to me about me!  About what I enjoy and what I want to achieve.  Wow!

So my advice to managers today is this.  You are in a privileged position.  You have the power to influence another person’s life for good or otherwise.  You can choose to make your mark and be an inspiration to the people you’re leading.  If you’re in a managerial role and you’re not taking the time to talk to your staff and about their ambitions and encouraging them to grow, start now.  Don’t knock their ideas or plans for the future – listen, encourage them, find ways to support them, offer advice, connect them with others.  Do what you can.  And if their plans involve something else other than what they’re currently doing, still help them.

Just one conversation that shows an interest could be enough.  Just one stretch assignment could send them on their path. It could be the moment they remember in years to come and you could be the manager they name as the ‘person that inspired and motivated them’.

Go on – I know you can do it!

Managers as Staff Trainers

As part of manager training I’ve been considering values – what I’m prepared to stand up for.  There are a few obvious ones for me: fairness/equality, honesty, integrity; if you’re in a position to help, you help (particularly if it’s part of your job), and you don’t leave people in the lurch.

That final one has led me to a rather specific rule I’m not prepared to compromise on:

You don’t ignore a training request without addressing the need that prompted it.

I consider it part of the manager’s role to ensure that employees have the skills, knowledge and resources to do their job.  No employee comes into a job with all the skills they need.  At the very least, they will have to get to know new staff and adapt to new ways of working.

Besides, in an increasingly complex working environment and a climate of constant change, no role stays the same for long: technology changes; expectations from customers increase; laws change; the organisation has to adapt and introduces new ways of working; new work is added to your current role.  While you may have been on top of things before, that doesn’t mean that you won’t require some training or development at some point in the future.  Your learning needs don’t stop when you’re hired.

So if you, as a manager, are not sitting down with your employees regularly to monitor their development needs, then you’re probably letting them fall behind.  And you’re short-changing the organisation too by not maximising your human resource.

Yes, employees can and should take charge of their own development, and these days they have many more options available to train themselves, with plenty of free online learning, MOOCs and blogs.

But if your employee has come to you with a request for training, it means they are offering training as a solution to a perceived problem.  As a manager you have no idea of how big this problem may be, or how it’s affecting them or their work, until you ask them and listen to the answer.

There may be many reasons that you can’t support that request for training at that time – perhaps there’s no budget, no training provider, no places on the course.  But that doesn’t mean you can then ignore the request and hope everything will sort itself out.

You need to understand what prompted that request.  What problem is the employee trying to solve?  How does it affect the quality of their work now or in the future? Is there a wider issue there?  Is training the best solution anyway?

There are always several solutions to any given problem.  If training isn’t available, sit down with the employee to discuss what those might be and how you, as their manager, might support the employee to gain those skills.

Here are a few obvious options.  Do you have the skills yourself – can you teach them?  Can you use your contacts in the organisation to introduce them to a mentor?  Is there anyone you can buddy them with to get informal training?  Can they shadow someone?  Is there a manual or book available?  Are there alternative training options such as online courses? Is coaching an option? Does the employee themselves have any other options or suggestions to solve the problem?

Don’t leave the employee stranded and frustrated, trying to do a job without the skills they need to do it well.  Have a conversation and make a plan for the employee to develop those skills within a given timeframe.  And then follow up.

Asking people to do a job without the necessary skills or knowledge for extended periods of time leads not just to inefficiency, but potentially to stress and burnout.  There are always several solutions to any given problem.  And one of the solutions for the employee, if you leave them stranded in an unsustainable position, is to leave.

What I learned on my holidays

This time last year I quit my job.  Although I didn’t want to leave, I felt I had little alternative.  It was a big blow.

laying on beach with bookMy response to anything when things go wrong is to try to understand and to learn, to put myself in a better position for it not to happen again.  To that end I have immersed myself in MOOCs, articles, podcasts and resources on Leadership, Management, Psychology and HR issues such as employee engagement and wellbeing.  I was reassured to find that my values and views of what good management and leadership look like, and what a happy, productive organisation was all about, were there in the materials – all the leadership coaches, organisational experts and HR professionals were telling me I was on the right track.  (Confirmation bias, perhaps, but reassuring all the same.)

I’ve also been keeping my eyes open and tried to reflect on the organisational behaviour I’ve observed.

I’m about to retake a couple of MOOCs on Management and Leadership, and to that end I’m going to put down some thoughts as I go, as a way of collecting my ideas together.  There’s probably nothing new here that hasn’t already been said by people with more knowledge and experience than me, but it’s good to be part of the discussion.

There will, necessarily, be negativity – you tend to remember the negatives more than the positives.   But I do have some good examples too, and particularly more recently in my latest role.

And there may be the odd digression on the way.

So here goes….