International directors: managing up, down and across

International directors: managing up, down and across

How often have you as an International Director focused your efforts on the practical issues and resources over which you have direct control, only to be thwarted by what you consider to be institutional bureaucracy and people who just don’t get ‘it’?  It happens to us all. A key challenge is the extent to which it is possible to pursue internationalisation strategies within wider, and often competing, institutional priorities. This blog gives insight to International Directors on how to best manage their role within the entire organisation.

Many will be familiar with Jane Knight’s Internationalisation Circle (see figure) which depicts the operations of International Directors within the wider cycle of institutional strategic planning and delivery. It’s a useful tool, because it clarifies that International Directors can begin to deliver effective internationalisation strategies (stages five and six in the circle) only when prior approval has been received from senior management (stage three). Without this approval, they run a significant risk of devoting their energies to tasks that may never come to fruition.

How can we avoid this trap? One way is to understand better the different spokes on this wheel – in particular the importance of commitment of senior management (stage three) and to engage actively with stages one (analysis of context) and two (awareness of need) not only to secure approval, but to influence its nature.

To engage in this way is not something about which International Directors are always enthusiastic. Often their focus is on the daily challenges and issues of running an International Office. International Directors are not just in executive roles, but on executive time – responding to pressures, problem solving, seizing opportunities and dealing with events as they arise.  Moreover, not only is governance an additional drain on the very limited time of International Directors, it works more slowly, more cyclically and is dependent on high-quality information to grind out its decisions. What could be more different to the cut and thrust of internationalisation?

Get to know your governance

We think it’s worth investing some time in getting to know how your institution’s governance system works though – and to help we offer some thoughts on their key operational principles. All institutions are different of course, but if you take a look at you own institution’s governance system, it will look a little like this…

We have written elsewhere about our general approach to strategic planning in higher education. With this approach we argue that there are different levels of management which work together to develop and deliver institutional strategic plans. We normally speak of three:

  • Governance – comprising the development and management of the overarching strategic objectives of the institution. It is normally fulfilled by boards of trustees and/or sponsoring organisations;
  • Executive – conducted by the institutional leader and the senior management team, each of whom is responsible for the delivery of the objectives identified in their respective sections of the institutional strategic plan;
  • Operational – occurring within these sections and representing the day-to-day activities of the institution.

These levels are hierarchical – operational activities seek to deliver the objectives which are managed at the executive level, which themselves contribute to the delivery of the strategic plan as monitored at the governance level. In practical terms, this hierarchy enables institutions to develop meeting and reporting structures which facilitate the effective development, delivery and monitoring of institutional strategic objectives. We find it useful to depict this as:

Logically, objectives at the governance level are more stable and require less frequent meetings than at the executive and operational. Our usual starting point is to suggest governance meetings once every six months with executive meetings taking place every one to three months depending on the size and complexity of the institution to enable effective vertical reporting and monitoring. Operational meetings should take place frequently – daily if necessary.

Communication on all levels

As International Directors our priority is to ensure that we understand where we sit within this matrix – usually at the executive or operational levels – and to be aware of the intersection points, so that we can communicate with its different levels, at the appropriate times. Let’s work through an example.

In our matrix, our International Office (B) is placed at the operational level. It has recently been presented with the opportunity to develop a new strategic partnership. The initial challenge is to consider the extent to which this partnership contributes to the delivery of a wider institutional strategic goal. The second is to consider the extent to which it is likely to draw on the resources of other parts of the institution – for example Human Resources (C) and/or Finance (D). This proposal should be prepared at the operational level for consideration by the executive. The executive would:

  • seek consensus on these points;
  • inform other parts of the institution;
  • allocate the appropriate authorisations and resources;
  • monitor progress of this partnership and report it to the governance level.

This is a complex and iterative process. Circumstances and priorities change over time. Future policy is developed at the same time existing policy is implemented, monitored and assessed.

It is the different speeds of these three levels which enables this complexity to function effectively. The relatively slow operation of the governance level provides a sufficiently stable framework within which those at the operational and executive levels can respond both flexibly and creatively. However, ‘slow’ should not be mistaken for ‘static’. Nor should it be regarded as justification for ignoring either the executive or the governance levels. To do so is to risk being crushed beneath their ponderous wheels.

The onus is therefore on International Directors to understand where they sit in Jane Knight’s circle and our matrix. To do so is to recognise the importance of not only managing down (within your own team), but also horizontally (with units on whom you rely for effective support) and up – with the wheels of your institution’s governance system. You’ll be glad you did.

Fiona is Associate Director at the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation (CHEI) at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Italy and an independent higher education consultant. Neil is an independent consultant in higher education management and strategic planning based in the UK.