What do you actually do?! Episode 9: Laura Hallett, Head of Strategic Projects and Change

Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? is all about working in the Higher Education sector in non-academic roles. We’re talking to Laura Hallett, who works at York St John University as Head of Strategic Projects and Change.

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Hello and welcome to this episode of What do you actually do? My name’s Kate Morris and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode we’ll be talking about working in non-academic roles in the Higher Education sector, and we’re joined by Laura Hallett, who works at York St John University as Head of Strategic Projects and Change.  So Laura – what do you actually do?

L: So I look after a team of staff who manage projects that are strategically important to the university, and we also have a change element to our role as well.  So what that means in practice is, we have a strategy; we have a new strategy that will be launched shortly for 2026, and underneath that strategy there are a number of projects that are strategic projects for the university. Some of them are around our core business: teaching, research and careers for students, others are transformational projects which are about us redefining the space in which we work as a university. And my team manage those projects, and programme-manage the whole range of work that is designed to deliver the objectives for 2026. In terms of the change element of the role, that really does vary. So we work with business units within the organisation on process improvement, on change, and on generally upskilling staff in how to work more efficiently,  more effectively and we do that through project management; so we showcase the tools that are helpful for individuals when they’re managing projects. And I would say that pretty much all of those are transferable to being more effective and managing change within the world that we all work in now, which is one that changes very quickly.

K:  So do you go out and about to different departments and kind of assess, a bit like maybe a management consultant – look at what’s happening in that department and how it could be improved; or do people kind of already make that decision and then you implement it?

L:  They come to as at the moment. So my team have been in place since January 2018, so we’re a new team. And at the moment we’re building up capacity, so I’ve just expanded the team and we have more staff available to do the change transformation work. So I would hope that in time we’d have more of a model where we can go out and sort of offer our services, but at the moment we’re prioritised based on the where the need is; so it’s more sort of demand and they will come to us and approach us and ask us for support. And as our reputation’s growing at the university, we’re finding more and more people are coming to us which is great, but I would really like to target it a bit more. So that’s our plan for the next six months to a year is that we can start to target it, knowing that certain things are happening and that we can work with those areas.

K:  So how did you realise that you wanted to work in the education sector, and in project management in particular?

L:  It was just “happenchance”. I was a graduate and as I was getting towards that last semester, probably far too late to be really thinking about my career, I started looking at graduate jobs and to apply.  And there was a role working as a school manager, in Further Education, and it looked really attractive, so I applied and was successful. So I started in Further Education, really loved being in an educational environment. It was inspiring to work around students and staff who were both passionate about learning. I’m passionate about learning so being in that environment was just really good for me. And then when I finished there a colleague, a friend who worked at the University of Leeds, talked really highly about how brilliant a university environment is, and how similar it is, so I just started to look at universities and then moved into the university/Higher Education sector.

Project management again is something that just fell to me rather than me actively pursuing it. I’ve always been someone who cares a lot about people and about processes and removing bureaucracy and inefficiency from the way that we work, and have always recognised that through having the right people in a team, and supporting and developing people appropriately, you get the best out of things. I’m also a particularly organised person, I’m quite planned and structured. And all of those skillsets together just meant that the work I started to do in the role that I moved into at Leeds was “projecty”. It wasn’t defined as a project manager but it was around project work.

Then when I moved to the University and worked in the Academic Support Office, I worked closely with the Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the time, and a number of working groups were set up to explore different issues that we were having with module choice and the process that students go through to choose modules, and we recognised that we needed to progress this piece of work forward into a project. And I presented this to the DVC and said “I don’t know who’ll project manage it though”, and he said “Well, you could do that.” So that’s how I fell into it; I fell into it, I really loved and enjoyed doing that, and then I started to do more of that, and actually expand my professional development in that area until I actually made an active choice to move into a project management role.

K: Do you think it helps that you’ve worked in a few different departments within different universities, and Further Education, to see what happens in those places? As you’ve then refined and worked specifically with projects you’ve got that insight into what happens in different places around the university.

L:  I’m not sure. I think understanding Higher Education, understanding the sector, means you can be more effective as a project manager. I think one of the tricks of the trade in being a project manager is that you have to learn quite quickly. So you have to know a bit about the subject matter on which the project is based. So I’ve worked on projects that are related to developing students pieces of work, so where I have needed to know about the student experience, but I’ve also worked on financial projects or projects that have involved implementing a new telephone system. So you have to be a quick learner, so that you can pick up enough of that business area knowledge to basically give yourself credibility within the project team.

The core project management skills are ones that you learn, you pick up and then you apply to each project. But having that ability to also quite quickly pick up enough knowledge of the specific business area is really helpful as well. I guess it probably is an advantage that I’ve worked in other areas of universities and that I understand the sector, but I think if you’re someone who engages with relevant information about the sector, that shouldn’t put you off moving into this sort of role, you can find that out quite easily just by keeping linked in to networks.

K:  Because a lot of people work in project management as a consultant don’t they? They do the Prince2 and stuff like that and then they kind of get parachuted in to manage different projects. OK, so you said being a quick learner, and I’m guessing also having really effective communication skills to quickly build rapport and get that credibility and trust. What other kind of skills or personal qualities would you say are important to being effective in the role?

L:  So I think you have to be able to manage a number of conflicting priorities, and you have to be able to not get stressed with that. You have to be able to fire-fight. So on projects, you are mitigating your risks. You think you know at the start of the project what your risks are and put mitigations in place. Obviously if a risk occurs then it’s an issue that you have to actively manage, and that can happen at any time on any day. So you can have a structure for the week or for the month of the project, and these things can be thrown your way and you have to be able to cope. So you have to be able to cope, I guess, with the prioritisation, cope under pressure if you will, because that can feel quite pressured; be creative, because you have to be able to think about how you can solve that problem when it comes up. Interpersonal skills are absolutely critical, absolutely. When you’re managing a project, you’re relying on people who have a day job, who have been placed temporarily in a team to deliver a product – that’s one of the definitions of a project. And you have to be able to get those people to see the vision of the project, and why it’s essential, and to work towards a plan with deliverables, without having line management responsibilities for them, so you absolutely have to have strong interpersonal skills. In fact, I would argue that the interpersonal skills, the can-do attitude of individuals, and that sort of ability to work in brand new contexts that you know nothing about quite quickly, are much more important skills than having the Prince2 badge – you be taught the Prince2 stuff through managing projects, but the other three qualities if you will, are very hard to develop in someone if they don’t actually come with those approaches and attributes.

K:  What would you say you really love about the job?

L:  I love making an impact and changing things. So I love seeing – I don’t love seeing broken things – but I love solving problems and fixing things, and making people’s lives easier. A lot of the projects are designed to improve either staff or student experience, or to remove some of the headaches in doing simple things in day-to-day work, and I really absolutely love that. I also really enjoy working within a team, so creating that team environment, having a shared vision, coming together, working with different colleagues, new colleagues, drawing on different people’s strengths is just something that really gets me up and out of bed in the morning.

K:  I guess it must feel really varied and fresh because you are working on those different projects with those different types of people, so it’s not the same thing every day, year after year.

L:  Yes, it is, it’s really varied and that’s attractive to myself. In my time that I’ve been in Higher Education, so over ten years now, I have moved into more operational roles and I certainly prefer this sort of role to a more operational one; I think it just suits my style. Obviously there are operational elements to my job; I manage a team and there’s an operational element to that, so I have to do that as well, but the enjoyment does come from that variation and no one day is the same as another.

K:  Yes so you have talked there about the many positive aspects of the job, but I imagine it can be quite a stressful job as well. Is there anything that you find less enjoyable about the role itself?

L:  The less enjoyable elements are the one associated to how you prioritise the projects and the work, and this is the same in any organisation be that Higher Education or the private sector. There are always a number of priorities that different stakeholders have, and it’s very difficult to get a collective view or collective agreement on which of those priorities are the actual priorities. So that’s a frustration of mine, that sometimes those priorities change, through no fault of anybody. Sometimes it’s the external environment within which we’re working that dictates the change. Sometimes it is the governance not being quite as effective as it should be. The difficulty and frustration there is that you can get people six months into a project and then their priorities change, and you have to sort of take your foot off the gas, and then try to re-energise a different project team to deliver something which is either brand new or is a lower priority. So that can be frustrating.

It can also be frustrating too if you can’t develop that collective vision and understanding, so that’s the hardest on projects which are coming about because of organisational change. I think when organisational change is being deployed within an institution, you will always get some people who are less positive about the change and it can be really hard to motivate those individuals and to get them to see the rationale for progressing with the change when people’s roles might be changing, or job losses are involved. That is tricky, but it is part of the job, and you have to develop mechanisms to be able to work in that environment.

And I always make sure that I absolutely understand the full rationale and reason for a change happening and make sure that I constructively challenge and critique that with my project sponsors so I fully believe it, so when I’m going into that first project team, I am fully behind it. And that I guess is one of the reasons that I’ve probably stayed in the sector. I do feel that the sector has a culture and a morality, if you will, associated with how it operates, that you perhaps might not find within some other industries, and that’s really important to me. The values of an organisation are really important to me; if they don’t align with my own, then I don’t want to work there.

K: So you believe in it, so you can put everything into it, but I guess you have to be quite a resilient person as well to deal with potentially other people’s lack of motivation at times and that from the staff.

L: Yes

K: So you said at the start that you’re working on a strategy, for 2026 was it? The education sector, and particularly the Higher Education sector, is going through big changes right now. There’s lots of different things; we don’t know how Brexit will affect it and all the rest of it. What are the key challenges people should be aware of? If students are thinking about wanting to work in Higher Education, and I see a lot of students who like the idea of Higher Education but are not too sure about becoming an academic, but obviously there are all these other professional roles you can do, but what are the things that are the potential key challenges on the horizon, or just changes, things they should be aware of to try and anticipate, and the kind of skills they should be looking to develop to cope with that?

L: I guess you would want to go into the sector with a broad skillset, and really transferable qualities that you have. So obviously Brexit will affect not just Higher Education, but it will affect every single business, and it’s an unknown, but it will be a known within the next sort of six months – we’re going to know what’s happening there aren’t we?  So that isn’t specific to Higher Education, so I think that’s probably one to sort of pause on.

The new regulatory framework, so the Office for Students, is a new framework within which the university sector are operating; and recently it was announced, as was to me clear, that the Office for Students will not bail out failing universities. I think the government made that very clear when they opened up the market to private providers. They are creating, whether we like it or not, a competitive environment within Higher Education. So while the culture of a university, and the morality of a university, is something I love and feel, and I believe will continue in some organisations, I do think that organisations, universities, are having to become more business-like. I see that that’s a good thing, because it’s been a frustration of mine in the ten plus years that I’ve been in the sector, that some universities don’t actually acknowledge that they are a business, as well as delivering the transformational role that a university has in terms of educating the minds of tomorrow, and progressing the UK as a knowledge base of the world. That aside, we have to have executive governing bodies, councils, that manage our universities as businesses. It’s public money that’s coming into them and we have a duty to run them like that.

So I think that sort of opening up of the market is one thing that you need to be aware of, and being aware of that is one thing; how you work in that environment, I think if you have those transferable skills so that you can move across the organisation and work within the different business areas of the university, I think that would be a real strength. I think that as a result of that some universities will not be here in three or four years; which those are I wouldn’t sort of put my cards in the hat, but I do think that will be the case. But that can be the case in any organisation. So you just make sure that you keep your skillset up to date, make sure that you are engaging in professional development, networking – that’s just sensible to do no matter which organisation you move into, because there’s always that volatile element to it. So I think that, to me, it’s that that’s the biggest change; I think the fees discussion that’s in the media at the moment – I’m not sure that we will see £6.5k fees coming in, or differential fees coming in, I think that’s perhaps a bit of a scaremonger tactic from the press and from the government, so I’d be less worried about that. If it does come in, clearly that will mean seismic changes in the sector, so yes, that would be something to be cognisant of.

K: So it sounds like, to work in the sector because it is something that changes with sort of political and economic factors all the time, students really need to keep on top of current affairs, to know what’s happening, particularly taking an interest in the education sector. And it sounds like that ability to be flexible, and adapt to being in different situations and not to be thinking in just a linear way: that this is my role and that’s all I’m going to do, being open to change and develop.

L: Definitely, I think whether you’ve got “Change” in your title, like I have, or whether it doesn’t appear in any of your job description, you need to be flexible to be able to change. But I would argue that that’s the case in any job that you go into, in any sector.

I think the awareness of Higher Education, while I said earlier that I didn’t feel that having worked in different universities and different business areas within universities was an advantage to being a project manager, I do think having that sector awareness is advantageous if you want to work in the sector. So you know, a great website to keep abreast of everything that’s happening: Times Higher Education, you know, there are so many resources. And if you want to move into this sector, and you want to have a managerial, professional role in the sector, you need to be abreast of that information. It will make you more effective in the job that you do and be better respected. You absolutely need to understand the challenges that staff, students, academic, non-academic, different disciplines, you have to understand the whole range of issues to be informed and respected across peer groups in universities, and all groups within universities.

K: That’s great, thank you ever so much for joining us today; it’s been really useful and interesting.

L: Thank you, thanks for having me.

Thanks for joining us this week on What do you actually do? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris, and edited and produced by the Careers and Placements team. If you loved this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers and Placements on Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers