Onboarding senior university leaders during lockdown

3rd July 2020
Alex Albone
Principal Consultant

Starting a new role during the COVID-19 crisis is daunting no matter how you look at it – both for the employer and employee. Across sectors we’ve seen organisations put offers on hold and delay start dates, but at the senior levels where you have a higher density of business-critical roles it’s less advisable to do that.

So how does one successfully onboard a new senior leader during a global crisis without the benefit of face to face interactions? How does one get to grips with new systems, processes, IT, HR policies, and most importantly, key relationships they’ll need in order to be effective in their new role?

I spoke to Niamh Downing, now Provost & Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Regent’s University London on her recent appointment and the lead up to her official start date in early May. By all accounts, her experience and that of Regent’s stands up as a good example of flexibility, agility and innovation in practice to give both her and the University confidence to hit the ground running (virtually speaking).


There are a number of factors that should be highlighted about Niamh’s experience. Firstly, she had already worked with the University’s current Vice-Chancellor, Professor Geoff Smith, whilst they were both at Falmouth University and had an established working relationship. Secondly, she interviewed for a role at Regent’s months prior to the COVID-19 crisis, and had already been on campus as part of that process. She therefore wasn’t coming to the position completely cold – having no prior knowledge of the campus or her eventual line manager – but how she and the University interacted in the lead up to her start date would be equally beneficial for a candidate who has not had the same benefits.

Firstly, clear communication proves fundamental. From speaking frankly with the Vice-Chancellor and PVC and Director of Human Resources ahead of her appointment, Niamh knew exactly which projects needed acceleration and would be her focus coming in. This allowed her the time and space to think creatively about her objectives in her own time ahead of entering a more time pressurised environment following her formal start date.

Secondly, ahead of her official start date Niamh was able to agree a working arrangement between her then current employer and future employer that allowed her to establish a one-day a week working pattern at Regent’s. This level of flexibility is certainly unique to this case, but in other scenarios individuals might find themselves with unused annual leave to utilise. However formal or informal the arrangement is, the fact is that the prevalence of Zoom, Teams, Google Hangout, etc., allows individuals the flexibility to pop into senior leadership meetings without leaving the home office, or worrying about being late for their next engagement. Pre COVID-19 it would have been almost unthinkable to think of new colleagues joining key leadership meetings remotely, yet now it is commonplace, and there appears to be no good reason for this to change post COVID-19.

The ability to engage with her new colleagues regularly in group and one-to-one videoconferences is significant. In her new role it is critical that Niamh win the trust and confidence of her colleagues as she is leading significant projects that require change. Having the time to speak to individuals, get their perspectives, address their concerns, and lay the foundations of good working relationships allowed her to win that crucial confidence. By the time Niamh officially started in her role as Deputy Vice-Chancellor she felt she knew her new colleagues and the organisation as a whole much better than when she had started at her previous role.


By the time Niamh started at Regent’s it felt as if she’d already been there for several months, and as a consequence the normal induction process was slightly disrupted. In truth, being able to have access to University papers, information, and working groups  ahead of her start date meant that her knowledge of the University’s systems developed along the way. Only after starting, and as certain situations arose, did it become obvious that certain parts of a usual face-to-face induction process were not likely to be possible virtually, but she never felt wrong footed or ill equipped.

What has instead been critical to her feeling well-oriented has been the strong executive support provided. Having a colleague (or two, or three) who know the in’s and out’s of the organisation, who know how to support an executive, and who are allocated to work alongside and support Niamh proactively has made some of the fiddly parts of the normal induction process come together nicely.

The fact that Niamh still lives near Sheffield has had no bearing on her ability or enthusiasm to show up every day for work at a London-based university. In this case it is clear to see how good onboarding in a virtual environment has worked to everyone’s benefit.

Our advice for successful appointments

Taking on new employees at all levels whilst a degree of lockdown or social distancing is in place can feel risky, but it needn’t be. In order to secure excellent talent and give them the best start possible, we recommend all clients follow these guidelines:

  1. Be frank and clear about the appointee’s objectives – whether this be KPIs, a change agenda or key projects, allowing the individual time to digest their key priorities ahead of their start date gives them the space and time to think creatively about what they want to do and how they want to do it.
  2. Engage as much as possible pre-arrival – videoconferencing allows you to do more, rather than less, in this area. Though it’s exhausting to chair videoconferences with large groups of people, in some cases it will be unavoidable to do these; but ensure you facilitate a mixture of 1-2-1s, small group and large group forums so that not only can the appointee get to know the institution, but colleagues get to know the appointee as well.
  3. Provide strong executive support – using people who know the ropes of the organisation to support new executive members is transformational. It makes the difference between spending an hour guessing how to do something on your own, to being told and shown how to do something immediately.
  4. Don’t get beholden to a rigid induction processes – by engaging with people ahead of their official start date, individuals will be excited to learn more about their organisation so they can hit the ground running. Don’t hold back, allow individuals to explore your system and processes whilst they have more time to do so, and worry about filling in the compliance gaps later.

For more information, please contact Alex Albone, a Consultant in Berwick Partners Higher Education practice.