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Universities are changing. Strategy expert Claudia Nuss reflects on what it takes to successfully lead the transformation process.

Change management in the university setting takes many forms. Universities may be confronted with new national funding regulations, for instance: the more students that graduate in a shorter time, the higher the funding will be in the future. Thus, working with students on their mindset so the success rate to pass exams improves and communicating on the financial benefits of increasing lifetime earnings through faster graduation, could further help boost the funding rate.

Elsewhere, the challenge may be linked to organisational barriers inhibiting the development of active fundraising strategies. Due to a lack of time, institutional leaders might be unable to meet potential donors. Improving their mindset, to be organised more efficiently (time management and support in preparing for appointments) might help usher in more sponsorship talks and more donations.

Lead versus manage and the role of leaders in change

The difference between leadership and management is well known: “leading” includes, among other things, developing a vision and strategies, communicating intensively and leading the way. “Managing”, in turn, is more about operations and control.

University leaders may ask themselves: how much time do I spend on leadership and how much do I manage? If I do not lead, who will?

With a high probability, most university leaders are also facing change processes. In many cases, this is no longer just about change, but transformation processes. What is the difference?

“Change” stands for a change in the execution of processes. “Transformation” stands for a portfolio of initiatives intended to reinvent the organisation.

For transformational processes, according to Lee Hecht Harrison, it is important to have a vision and a clear answer to “why?”. In addition, change has an impact on humans and transformation creates uncertainty. Therefore, it is crucial to spread confidence and reinforce that transformation means doing something different. In fact, the key factor in successful transformation is not the process, rather the mindset. Behaviour follows the mindset when there is a match between what one thinks and does, therefore without changing attitudes, there is no behavioural change.

Developing an empowering mindset

What do attitude and successful leadership have to do with each other? At first glance, very little. But attitudes shape behaviours and results achieved.

By changing thoughts, more importantly, subconscious beliefs, one reaches different results. Ninety-five percent of thoughts and behaviours are controlled by the subconscious.

It is possible to change mindsets, so as to internalise a different attitude and develop the supporting belief to reach goals. This helps move from interrogations such as: "How should we do that?" to a more efficient questioning: "What needs to be done to make it happen?"

Fear diminishes thinking power and affects short-term memory and productivity. Rather, it is crucial to communicate confidence to achieve the goal together. Boyatzis (1) shows in a study that the positive emotional tone of leaders directly reinforces the flexibility and creativity of teams.

It seems like a paradox that leaders increasingly face situations that are unpredictable. One of the most important skills is to be able to solve complex tasks and to make decisions. Successful leaders use their brain differently than less effective leaders. A combination of the right and left hemispheres allows one to solve more complex tasks better, make decisions easier and increase efficiency and energy.

So far brilliant leaders, who prefer to use the left rational brain, are on top when all the information is on the table. But if the information is not so clear anymore, they have a hard time making decisions.

The ingredients to successful leadership of transformation processes, therefore, requires that university leaders lead by example with the right mindset, connect both brain halves, confidently spread trust, make decisions and develop themselves at the head for the benefit of the entire organisation.

(1) Boyatzis, Richard & Rochford, Kylie & Taylor, Scott. (2015). The role of the positive emotional attractor in vision and shared vision: Toward effective leadership, relationships, and engagement. Frontiers in psychology.


Claudia Nuss

Claudia Nuss is an expert on strategy and transformations processes at

Photo credit: Foto&Style Sabine Windsor

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