Richard Brooks' HR blog

Updates from the Director of Human Resources

Posts By: Richard Brooks

Out-of-focus Groups

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Last week we held ten focus groups. To all who came along and contributed to the debate, many thanks. After each one I use my phone to photograph the flipcharts, and while I can edit out my shoes, I haven't yet managed to keep the whole thing in focus. The words "clear vision" seem, ironically, to always avoid the auto-focus function and become somewhat of a blur (you can make up your own jokes from Blur album titles).

While being out-of-focus might make translation of the results more challenging, allowing some latitude in the direction of discussions has proven particularly illuminating. Our lay Council members who ran six of the groups last week have all learned something new about how the University operates at the coal face and I have already seen some of this new-found knowledge coming out in email discussions. 'Trust' is probably one of the most repeated words in these discussions, so as I start to draw together the common themes from the whole engagement exercise, I will try to leave the corrective lenses at home.

This week we expect to appoint a recruitment agent. We met with the companies last Thursday to learn from their experience of recruiting Vice-Chancellors, and to understand their perspectives on this job and on the market. All were very positive about the exciting challenges this role brings, and believe that we will have a lot of interest; national and international; from within the HE sector and outside. As a panel, what we were looking for was someone who will work with us, listen, not impose their ideas but add expertise we don't have at the University. I see that the Vice-Chancellors of Sheffield and Dundee have also announced their retirement, so it will be interesting to see how these parallel competitions pan out.

As we come to the end of the first phase of this recruitment project, there is still the opportunity to make your views known on the appointment of our next Vice-Chancellor. The last two focus groups, mixed groups open to anyone are today; the survey is open until Friday.

Mondays

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As we come into the third week of the survey about finding our next Vice-Chancellor, we've had over 500 responses. Thank you; this is a really important decision for the University and will have a serious impact on our future. Perhaps a little disappointing is that only about 170 of those are from staff. Yet this is a group we might consider most affected by the future appointment of a Vice-Chancellor. Each Monday, after we have published a reminder, we get a peak of responses. This Monday, it would be great if an even higher peak was created by staff contributions to the debate.

 

Immediately following Valentine's Day we are seeing four of the recruitment agents to choose one to support us in this campaign. (In case you were wondering, there is no connection between the first and last parts of that sentence.) I am very pleased that Mandy Wilson-Garner from the Students' Union is part of that selection panel. One of the key things we will be assessing is how well these companies understand this University in particular and have creative ideas about how to engage the right sort of Vice-Chancellor to meet our needs; Mandy will bring another perspective to this. We hope to start working with the recruitment specialist to develop our requirements for the new Vice-Chancellor later this month.

I really enjoyed the focus group at the Virgil Building on Friday. Ten people attended, but between them made the noise and contribution of twice that number. When asked what we should preserve about the University, "high ambition" was right up there, but this was coupled with a desire to build a more coherent team culture across the organisation. I once heard someone described as 'profoundly superficial' and, while you might consider me judgemental, I've been looking for an opportunity to use that delightful phrase ever since. But that won't be today. This group was the complete opposite, generating a very thoughtful and challenging discussion and exactly the sort of input I was hoping for. It gives me real confidence in people's interest in this process. Some of our focus groups in the coming week will be led by members of Council and I know that they are looking forward to hearing people's views first hand.

Richard

350

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One week into the survey about our search for a new Vice-Chancellor and we have 350 responses. 49% from students, 25% from Professional Service staff, 18% from academic staff and a range of others including alumni, partners and employers. What a great start and thanks to all who have completed the questionnaire, and particularly to those who have offered some very thoughtful comments. Not many jokes yet, but I’m still hopeful. Of course, this wouldn’t be a blog if I didn’t see if the number 350 has any particular significance. So, it’s a worldwide movement for action against climate change (after 350 ppm, the ‘safe’ concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere). And in 350 AD the Romans started another civil war, though I’m not sure that this distinguishes it from all of the other years of the Roman empire!

Anyway, Googling over and back to the survey. What is most striking in the first week is the broad variety of views. Some highlight the importance of enterprise and innovation; others see it as selling out to the market. Student satisfaction is prioritised by many; others want a less ‘consumerised’ approach. Research (excellence, impact) is coming through as a consistently strong theme along with education, staff engagement and transparency of decision making. We also started the focus groups last week, and these give an opportunity to delve beneath the surface of such comments. What exactly does ‘transparency’ mean in a University? What examples have we experienced of good and bad decision making processes? I was going to title this blog ‘Frank’. Not because he made a particularly good contribution at a focus group, but because those who have contributed so far have been just that – honest and unafraid to express their views. It makes for really healthy, enjoyable and insightful discussions.

So if you haven’t offered your thoughts yet, with just one click, you can be on your way to influencing who becomes our next Vice-Chancellor. Or come along to a focus group and join in the discussion.

Richard

 

The Search for our New Vice-Chancellor

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The most common names for a Vice-Chancellor (or equivalent) in the UK are David and John; there are six of each. That isn’t a requirement for the role, but a rather dull fact. There are many less common names but I was disappointed not to find a Nemo as that would have made a good title for the blog - if a rather inauspicious one for a recruitment exercise (that’s a reference for the Latin scholars).

So, what will it take for the University of Bath to be a success in the next ten years? These and many other questions set the context for our search for a new Vice-Chancellor. For a University which has only just celebrated our 50th birthday we have been incredibly successful, and there is no need to repeat those accolades here. That success has been achieved through the contribution of many thousands of people over the life of the University. But we are now in an era when the environment for higher education is changing again – debates over student fees, access to higher education, a new Minister, Brexit and new regulators in the sector will all have an impact in the coming years. So how do we position ourselves to continue to be successful? What skills do we need to achieve that success?

Choosing the right Vice-Chancellor to lead us in this uncertain environment is a big decision for the University. Here are a couple of my observations on the process to date.

The Committee on the Office of Vice-Chancellor hasn’t been needed since 2001. There is only one person on it today who was involved last time and we need to do more to expand the skillset on that Committee and make it more representative of our community.

There are 7.6 billion people in the world, with an estimate that 1.5 billion can speak English (I am going to assume this is a requirement for the job) so that’s quite a large haystack in which to look. We plan to bring a specialist search firm in to help us, and we are currently speaking to a number (think random surnames strung together to create a company name) to find the one best suited to this task.

Wikipedia defines a blog as “consisting of discrete, often informal diary-style text entries”. As the recruitment process progresses, I’ll try to keep you up to date with progress. Very happy for anyone who wishes to email me with observations or questions, but please accept that this is an informal personal view of the process and not a formal management statement! I look forward to some interesting conversations.

 

Lamblog

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Ten of our Exmoor Horn ewes are in lamb, we hope - it was our first time with this ram. I won't try and use this blogpost as a way of drawing out lessons or metaphors for life as I am sure that readers are capable of doing that themselves. This just records our lambing experience this year.

o1 Apr. First lamb, a single male, born to ewe number 63. Its her first time, which was obvious when we approached her in the field with her new lamb, and she ran away. So while my wife tried to distract her by making lamb noises, I crept up on the ewe, grabbed her, and together we got them into a pen in the barn. Lamb #1 decided that he wasn't going to feed from his mum, despite the number of times we pointed him in the right direction, so 48hrs of bottle-feeding ensued. At which point he decided that he didn't like that nasty artificial milk and is now feeding quite happily from his mum, then practicing balancing on her back.

03 Apr. Lamb #2, another single male. This ewe (we don't know which one as she has now lost both of her eartags) spent a lot of time shouting about her lamb as she followed in from the field. By a process of elimination we think that she had a single female last year who didn't survive, so perhaps she was being particularly protective this year.

04 Apr. Ewe number 52 had twins about 7.30 this evening out behind the shepherd's hut. Numbers #3 and #4 are a male and a female who are already feeding well in the barn. Had to start building another lambing pen as they're now starting to come thick and fast. The ram was in with the ewes for six weeks so hopefully they won't all arrive at once.

 

Silence

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Poetry isn't about the words, its about the spaces between the words. This was an observation by my wife. It reflects the power of silence - either creating spaces to think or to allow others to contribute.

Ernest Hemingway is reputed to have once written a story in six words. "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn". I enjoy a bloated airport paperback as much as many other people, but which creates the most powerful, enduring images? Which inspires creativity?

When I was involved in multi-national Governmental meetings in Europe each nation took its turn to speak. I was taught, very early on, that sometimes remaining silent was a good tactic. It encouraged others to fill the vacuum, and perhaps more progress would be made. Its a great approach in negotiations as well. Remaining silent can give the other party time to extend their ideas, and develop that sweet spot where both sides are able to agree.

Much of the training offered to me in my career has been about how to make an impact. When best to intervene in meetings. How to do an effective presentation. But I don't remember any training about creating spaces; silence; listening. As our world becomes more infested with infotainment, and we are encouraged to fill every waking hour with consuming information, perhaps we are losing something by crowding out the spaces and ignoring the power of silence.

Try it. Its ok to daydream.

 

Change

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Through gritted teeth, there is always someone who says that they love change. That is until a particular change comes along which causes them to worry. I suspect, a bit like Room 101 in George Orwell’s 1984 where people are subjected to their own worst nightmare, fear or phobia, we all have a vulnerable point when it comes to change in our lives. This week we are moving offices. On the surface its only a shuffle round in the existing offices to create a bit more space following a restructuring. Surely no-one can be worried or anxious about that?

One of the subjects which has come up at the University Equality and Diversity Committee recently is how change – re-organisation, relocation, restructuring – can particularly affect people with a disability. Such discussions tend to start out ensuring that some of the more obvious, physical disabilities are catered for such as access to buildings, availability of specialist equipment etc. In today’s age most managers are already very sensitive to this. But sometimes the less visible disabilities are, well, less visible and perhaps forgotten in these situations. A friend has dyslexia which, for her, is very sensitive to different lighting conditions. A move of desk could easily create concern, and not everyone wants to speak up. I have worked with colleagues on the autistic spectrum, for whom certainty about their work surroundings is vital if they are to be able to work effectively and not suffer stress. I once led a business restructuring which had a huge effect on an employee with bipolar disorder as the anxiety about change seriously affected her mood and ability to do her job.

These are just some of my experiences. With over 10 million disabled people in the UK, and nearly 7 million of those of working age, it is likely that many of us will either experience disability ourselves, or work with people with a disability. Its something that that BBC are highlighting in the coming week. If you are facing organisational change, either as a manager or a member of staff, do consider what support everyone needs, but especially those who may be finding the change even more difficult. Its always a good idea for managers to meet with people before embarking on change, and for those with a disability help is available through the usual University channels.

Looking up

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So this blog could be a cry for optimism in the dystopian, post-truth, alternative factoid future being presented in most of the media. But its actually far more literal. As I walked across an icy car park this morning I glanced up to the clear sky to see that someone had scribbled across it. The most amazing contrail, which was linear at one end, following the line of the aircraft, but had broken into dashes, each of which was starting to bend and twist the further it was down the line. Scientifically I suspect that its something to do with vortices, vapour pressures, shear and stuff like that, but aesthetically it was very uplifting. Did the pilot know what impact he/she was having?

And there's more. While watching the contrail with a colleague, we then spotted a drone hovering over 9 West. It was probably doing something quite prosaic such as taking pictures to support the building work, but who knows? While we may have started taking the technology for granted, as observers we couldn't determine its intent - a useful tool for the construction industry or something more sinister and intelligent?

Given the fog down in the valleys which made today's journey to work rather less joyful, it was real pleasure to climb out of the gloom (both meteorological and on Radio 4) up the hill to the University, and be entertained by looking up.

Richard

 

Books

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I am reading a book I was given for Christmas called The New Philanthropists by Charles Handy. He has developed a whole series of short studies of modern, often smaller scale philanthropists in contrast to the picture we often envisage of Rothschild, Gates, Wellcome etc. What I found more interesting was that he asked each one to put together a still life of five objects, including a flower, which represents them, and their journey.

We have just spent the weekend in Hay-on-Wye, an annual treat exploring secondhand bookshops. On returning home, and scattering my purchases on the bed, I wondered what the set of titles I had chosen said about me:

  • The Complete Book of Plant Propagation
  • Six Easy Pieces : The Fundamentals of Physics explained by Richard Feynman
  • Home sausage making
  • The Zen Calligraphy of Thich Nhat Hanh
  • Cancel the Apocalypse : the new path to prosperity
  • The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid

The last one was a 50p paperback in an honesty bookshop beside Hay Castle, and will probably end up in book sale fairly soon. But the others will find space on the shelves at home and become part of my life. As I visit people around the University, there are books and other personal items which adorn their workspace. Things they have elected to keep. Things which are important to them. What do these things say about us to those we work with and live with? Are we conscious of what they say about us?

I am really interested in authenticity, particularly with respect to leadership and management. Are the objects we keep around us a clue to the authentic individual, or perhaps just another artfully arranged layer masking the real person? I don't know, but I will be looking even harder at the bookshelves in future.

 

Thoughts

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The summer season has arrived and the nature of the University has changed for a couple of months – another new experience for me. While the media rejuvenates their ‘silly season’ stories, here’s a few thoughts, none of which really warrant a full blog…..

At 07.10 this morning, as I was heading off to catch a train for London, my wife started a conversation about trans-personal consciousness and wave-particle duality. She is a Minister of Religion, not a psychologist or physicist, but its interesting to see how academic fields are crossing boundaries even more than ever. I suggested that Schrodinger’s cat needed feeding and hurried out of the door.

I changed my car recently and am enjoying having a SatNav for the first time. I’m still excited enough to use it for my journey to work each day, and press the buttons which say “Favourites”, then “University of Bath”. It reminds me that this is somewhere I have chosen to come and work; that we spend so much of our lives ‘at work’ that its really important to find something we enjoy doing. You can make up your own minds about what sort of person enjoys being an HR Director.

How does our work environment affect our performance and enjoyment of what we do? The HR team still sit in breeze-block cells behind grey doors on an ill-lit corridor. Yet today I’m working online on a train using my phone as a WiFi hub (which is starting to get very warm in my pocket). Much of our work is still focussed around offices, desks and desktop PCs and I am keen to explore new ways of using space to improve the way we work. I would welcome the opportunity to visit any parts of the University you think work really well.