Leaders in Lockdown: starting a new role at the height of Covid restrictions

In spite of periods of intense pressure, we have found candidates open to considering new opportunities: new ways of working have often been a catalyst for a new look at options for the future.

With these in mind, we sat down (virtually, of course!) with Professor Karen Stanton, Vice-Chancellor of Solent University, and Dave Hall, University Secretary at the Open University, about their experience of starting a new role during lockdown. In these conversations we explore what it was like to take on a new role during such completely unexpected circumstances,  how they approached leadership and building relationships in a virtual world, and what opportunities the sector can learn from the lockdown.


Professor Karen Stanton, Vice-Chancellor of Solent University

You started your new position with what must have felt like a baptism of fire. What were the major challenges over the first few weeks as lockdown came in?

It was certainly a challenging time to take up my new position as Vice Chancellor of Solent University. However, as everyone rallied around and stepped up to the challenge my Team and I grew together and learned a lot about how to get the best out of each other. We ran our response as a major incident and kept asking ourselves: “how do we act in the quickest and most appropriate way for the health and safety of our students and staff ”. By making staff and student health our top priority it enabled us to stay focused and make the right decisions.  Alongside this we had to consider how we were going to finish the academic year, lock down the campus and maintain both the student experience and learning provision.  We communicated as much as we possibly could.  As part of the interview process for my role I undertook a media exercise – these skills have certainly had to come to the fore in recent months.  The feedback on our communications has been positive which is so important. At this time it’s critical to get comms right.  During the Pandemic if you are not communicating you are not leading – it’s as simple as that

How have you found building relationships with the executive team/board in a fully virtual world?

It has been a learning experience for everyone. We were in crisis management mode to begin with which meant we got to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses a little faster than would be normal. During this stage we were very task focused however as time went by we realised the importance of investing in some team-building work.  We now have a weekly team challenge – something fun such as taking a photo that summarises your experiences of lockdown .  On reflection I am really proud of the fact that we have built a team in the virtual environment. To do so I have deliberately taken a little bit of a back seat sometimes to let others lead and share their ideas.  In a world of ‘virtual leadership’ VCs don’t have to be at the centre of everything but do always need to be there to support and encourage others.  We all have something to offer and we can all contribute.  I don’t have all the answers and I have also worked with the Board in this way. Of course ultimately I am still responsible for our collective actions, including for the difficult decisions. The team know this and feel supported to make the right decisions.

You lead a large team at Solent University.  How have you approached leading this during lockdown?

In two ways. First by recognising that the most important leadership attribute at the moment is being adaptable. I have changed the way I lead and will continue to do so. Flexibility and agility are the keys to success at the moment. Second, a lot has been written on the topic of leadership in lockdown and I have read a lot of this and critically reflected upon it. My conclusion is that some of the old ways of leading may not work in the current environment and that we need to change and adapt.

What advice would you give others who started new positions during lockdown?

 It is really difficult to create the same presence virtually.  The key thing to consider is how you communicate your aspirations.  Proactively supporting staff balanced with transparency and honesty is  important. Ensure that you take critical decisions. Trust, honesty and transparency are very high on the list. Good communications are vital.  I spend a lot of time on scripts and preparation and it is important to share the good news and the tough stuff.  You have to give people hope about the future alongside the current reality.

What benefits can the sector learn from lockdown?

 It is too early to reach definitive conclusion as the learning process is still going on. However, we have learnt that you can change quickly and rapidly. We should never say ‘we can’t do that’ in the future because this crisis has shown what we are capable of.


Dave Hall, University Secretary at the Open University

You started your new position with what must have felt like a baptism of fire. What were the major challenges over the first few weeks as lockdown came in?

I’d been to an away day and I’d had met a lot of people during the interview process itself, so I had managed to meet most of my line reports and some members of SMT before I started. I arrived on the Monday, a week before the lockdown, and therefore also had a chance to meet some of the team in the office before going into lockdown on the Sunday.

The first challenge was getting used to new modes of communication – I hadn’t used teams or zoom before. For calls with senior colleagues and council etc it was quite tricky at first when there is no body language and you are essentially talking into a vacuum with no idea about how you’ve been received. The whole experience was a bit unnerving, but once I started getting into the routine, it surprised me how quickly it began to feel normal and how quickly I began to get to know people, particularly through one to ones where there is a full picture and you have some sense of talking to someone in a more intimate manner. I still struggle with skype business meetings where you haven’t got a visual.

There are some advantages to communicating in this way, in that it gives you a new level of control. You’ve got the ability to have a conversation and read other’s thoughts on the chat icon. If you are chairing the meeting it sometimes feels like you are flying an aircraft having to control 3 or 4 things at once which can be quite exhilarating at times.  I’m surprised by how quickly I could tolerate the technology. I also always used to print papers off and now I only print off an agenda every now and again to help me keep control of a meeting but that’s about it.

How have you found building relationships with the executive team/board in a fully virtual world?

I haven’t really found it too much of a challenge, but something has definitely been lost.  If I was in a meeting, I’d be more likely to make a joke but it’s a bit more difficult in a virtual world. You’ve got to be more organised. The ability to create a sense of team is much harder – I find we are able to be operational but can’t be as personable when we are not all in the same room. On the upside, it’s easier to have a bigger meeting with more participants and feel that you’ve had a productive meeting.

What advice would you give others who start new positions during lockdown?

It’s definitely possible, I wouldn’t be put off.  One to ones are good and very useful and in fact I find you are able to hold more effective meetings online. I’ve had some difficult meetings at times such as with the trade unions where people have become a bit exercised which can be difficult to manage online. However, I find seeking out feedback is helpful.  On occasion things could be a bit awkward at times, for instance how do you banter online with people you don’t know? It’s also more work in that if you don’t control diary you will find yourself sitting in the same place for hours on end which is not healthy, so you need to work out what’s feasible and be able to give yourself a break from the screen. A good working environment is also key – the search for a better chair is my next port of call!

What benefits can the sector learn from lockdown?

Crudely, I used to think if people were working from home they were skiving. I used to not trust someone to work from home, but this has now changed. We are running at about 80% capacity as an institution, and I got staff to create a weekly dashboard to look at levels of activity in order to give us a better sense of how people are operating which has been eye opening. Good management has become even more important, especially for staff who aren’t as productive from home because they are juggling all sorts of responsibilities. Talking to staff regularly and supporting them to make sure they are able to perform is essential. Data has been very helpful in terms of the performance management of some staff, for example those in our call centres. However, it has been more of a challenge to monitor and ensure we are getting the outputs we need in terms of academic work. As an institution we have therefore embarked on new management and training programmes.

Saxton Bampfylde has successfully helped to place over 70 appointments during lockdown. If you would like more information or a discussion about how Saxton Bampfylde can help advise on your next leadership appointment, our team would be happy to hear from you. Call us on +44 020 7227 0800 or  email us at contact@saxbam.com.