Practical tools

Mini EDGE tool: Leadership

 Do you have individuals across your organisation who champion and lead engagement?

updated on 04 Oct 2023
3 minutes read

Why does leadership matter?

“It’s much more complicated than just expecting the VC to make it happen. We’ve thought about community representation at the highest level – with 3 community leaders on our governing body, for instance, and a community leadership programme. We support champions at every level across the partnership. .... Embedding means that engagement becomes woven into the fabric of the institution.”

Discussion at the Manchester Beacon Leadership Group      

Articulating your institution’s official commitment to public engagement in strategic and operational plans is important, as we explore in the mission  section. Yet, it is equally important to foster a network of leaders who can act as formal and informal advocates for engagement, to help encourage others and to bring that strategic commitment to life.

These champions need to be at every level, from inside and outside of the institution, and across the different functions, including academic and support staff.

Building a critical mass of such leaders and champions helps to encourage the values, attitudes and behaviours which create a supportive culture for public engagement; ensuring that it becomes a natural and visible part of everyday work, conversations and decision-making across the institution.

The experiences of the beacons and others suggest the following four key areas:

Senior leadership

Commitment ‘from the top’ sends a powerful message  that engagement matters. Having the VC/ principal leading as a champion brings obvious benefits, and having a senior manager with formal responsibility for monitoring progress against your strategy helps too. Equally important is encouraging all senior managers to have a clear view of how engagement contributes to their wider responsibilities and aspirations.

Engagement champions

Staff and students are as influenced by their colleagues as they are by the institution’s senior leaders, so it is important to support engagement champions at every level of the institution. Actively supporting and encouraging networking across and beyond the institution is also important. Simple resources e.g. social media can be used to support networking in addition to face to face meetings.

Departmental/Faculty leadership

Heads of departments and faculties face a particularly difficult set of challenges when it comes to supporting engagement.  Department heads can feel ‘caught in the middle’, left with the very difficult job of balancing a host of competing demands relating to staff workloads, performance and income.

Supporting departmental leaders by appointing associate heads or associate deans for engagement can turn a challenge into an opportunity to provide support at School or Faculty level.

Alignment with other priorities

It is possible to become so focused on internal leadership challenges that you risk neglecting the critical role of the public and wider community, and the value of external expertise. People from outside the institution can help catalyse innovation; shape, guide and evaluate your public engagement; and act as critical friends, leaders and champions for your work.

The University of Bristol have community representation on their Engaged University Steering Group – ensuring decisions are informed by external expertise, and relevant to external and internal contexts.

Next steps

Download our leadership mini Edge tool below, to help you work through this area.