Robin Geller: ‘when it comes to embracing change, it’s very hard to do it well’

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Robin Geller, registrar at the University of Bristol
Robin Geller: I draw on what I learned both as an engineer and as a lawyer every day.
Trained as an engineer then as a lawyer, Robin Geller found a home for her problem solving and conflict resolving skills in higher education (HE). She tells Rosie Niven about the challenges she faces as registrar at the University of Bristol.

Could you reflect on the importance of the efficiency agenda for COO / registrars?

There have been significant financial pressures on universities in the UK for a number of years – and these are likely to increase going forward. Operating efficiently and effectively has for some time been a preoccupation for registrars/COOs, but the demands of the current fiscal environment have meant that this has risen to the top of our agendas. At the same time, though, we are keenly aware that delivery of high quality services to students and to staff is essential. Determining how to improve efficiency while maintaining or improving quality is a major challenge.

What have been the key achievements at Bristol in terms of improvements in efficiency, effectiveness and value for money?

The most significant achievements at Bristol in recent years were well in train at the time I joined the university. The support process review, designed and implemented over a number of years, involved the rationalisation of administrative support and the implementation of a hub and spoke model for many services. HR, finance, admissions, marketing and other activities are now line managed centrally, although many of the staff delivering these activities remain physically based in the faculty or school that they support. This has resulted in a significant improvements in efficiency and in increasing consistency of practice and delivery across the institution.

You are both a COO and a registrar – do the two roles differ much?

Actually, I think that I have a single role – with a long title – rather than two distinct roles.  Although both the words “COO” and “registrar” can mean different things in different universities, at Bristol it is essentially a single role. Within the university’s quasi-unitary structure I am responsible for most of the professional services while the finance director, who also reports directly to the vice chancellor, is responsible for finance services, including procurement.

Can you describe the leadership challenges that COO / registrars face in terms of encouraging cultural change within universities?

Bristol is like most universities as it relates to cultural change. And universities in turn are much like many other organisations when it comes to embracing change: it’s very hard to do it well.

I think that it is particularly challenging to lead culture change in the academic community, as work practices are so different and owing to the academic culture of individualism, freedom and autonomy.

Bristol is making a real effort to spread good practice as it relates to change management given that universities today are operating in an environment characterised by virtually perpetual change. We have a small team devoted to supporting staff who are leading on significant change programmes. We try very hard to communicate clearly both the stimuli for change as well as future benefits. We have also, in some cases, adjusted the pace or scale of change in order to avoid change fatigue.

How have your legal background and engineering training helped you in your roles in the HE sector?

Studying to become an engineer – my first degree – was one of the most prolonged challenges that I have undertaken.

The quantity of work over the four year degree programme was immense – and I was not a naturally gifted engineer although studying engineering significantly improved my problem solving skills. So, I learned to work very very hard, to get by on a minimum of sleep and to be highly disciplined with my time.

Law was quite different. I worked hard but it came more naturally to me and I very much enjoyed honing my analytical, presentation and writing skills. Working as a lawyer, as I did for a number of years before entering HE, also helped me to learn how to manage conflictual situations while remaining friends with my opponents.

I draw on what I learned both as an engineer and as a lawyer every day.

You started your HE career in your native Canada. How do Canada and the UK compare when it comes to efficiency in the HE sector?

My knowledge of the Canadian HE sector is becoming less and less current as I’ve now been living and working in the UK for 10 years. Certainly, when I left Canada, the efficiency agenda wasn’t as prominent as it is now in UK HE.  Of course, the funding model for Canadian HE is very different from in the UK – and also differs significantly from one province to the next. So, the imperative to achieve greater efficiencies differs significantly across the country.

What element of your role do you enjoy the most?

I’m quite fortunate that there’s a lot that I like – although clearly not everything.

The most enjoyable part of my role is working closely with talented colleagues – both academics and members of the professional services – who are passionate about what they do, and are highly collegial in how they do it. I am very fortunate to be part of a great senior team who work collaboratively and share a sense of common purpose.

I am also very fortunate that the leaders of the divisions and professional services that I lead are very capable, highly motivated and almost always seem to have a smile on their faces. They are a pleasure to work with.

What do you like to do when you are away from the office?

My children are now 21 and 22 years old and so I have more time to myself away from the office than I did when they were younger.

My husband and I both enjoy keeping fit and being outdoors. I have been running for a number of years and have now completed a number of marathons and am beginning to compete in ultra-marathons. So, a lot of my leisure time is spent running and cross-training.

We also enjoy travelling and some of our holidays are built around running events in (mildly) exotic locations outside the UK.

Robin Geller is registrar and chief operating officer at the University of Bristol

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Rosie Niven
Rosie is the content editor at Efficiency Exchange