Leaders on the line: Enhancing the leadership capability of first-line-manager-academics

sharon bessant


Prof. Sharon Mavin and Dr Ceridwyn Bessant, Newcastle Business School

UK business schools have experienced rapid growth and proliferated change in an increasing challenging and competitive environment where funding constraints, government policy, technology, international expansion, recruitment of international students, and contradictory stakeholder expectations are major considerations in decision-making.

Within this context, business school performance is frequently evaluated and accounted for against diverse and often competing internal and external key performance measures. This includes instruments such as league table criteria, research, impact and teaching quality assessments, professional/accreditation body standards, corporate and public engagement, enterprise and innovation.

The assumption in a growing number of UK HEI strategies and associated KPIs is that effective internal ‘management’ is required to compete successfully and that academics play a part in this process. One response to managing diverse activities and evaluating accountability in large complex ‘full service’ business schools has been to devolve ‘management’ below the level of the dean, associate dean, head of department, and professoriate to ‘front line’ lecturers, senior lecturers and principal lecturer/readers.

In doing so, business schools adopt a human resource management approach operating in public and private sector organisations where aspects of management and leadership and associated responsibilities lie with the first line manager in the organisational hierarchy. Many HR strategies and policies in UK HEIs now adopt structures incorporating the first-line-manager-academic (FLMA) role in schools and departments. The FLMA role is the level at which academics first take responsibility and have some accountability for the line management of staff, budgets, resources, product/service portfolios and are therefore recognised as a part of the management infrastructure. Examples in UK business schools include the roles of programme director, accreditation lead, workload planning lead, doctoral director, learning and teaching enhancement and assurance (National Student Survey), impact and enterprise leads, and heads of centres.

While academics who hold FLMA roles can be seen as a key part of the pipeline of management and leadership capacity in business schools, ‘management’ by and of academics is highly contested by administrators and academics alike and the challenges facing FLMAs are under-researched and remain an ‘untold story’ (Mercer, 2009: 348). The points which follow result from research from three linked surveys of UK FLMAs, deans of business schools and university human resource directors (HRDs) investigating the difficulties faced by FLMAs and the extent to which those in the FLMA role are enabled and supported to fulfill their responsibilities as both academics and managers in an increasingly challenging environment.

Key findings from the research into the first-line-manager-academic role suggest that:


  1. Different cultural and contextual conditions within individual institutions influence the nature, perception, recognition, enactment, and support for and impact of the FLMA role in UK business schools.
  2. The FLMA role is important now and it is likely to become more important to both the personal and career development of FLMAs as well as to business school effectiveness.
  3. There is a lack of shared clarity, definition, and recognition regarding the FLMA role.
  4. Appointment processes are subject to significant variations between institutions and sectors.
  5.  The development of appropriate managerial skills and the acquisition of managerial experience are important to FLMA performance.
  6. Recognition of the importance of early career exposure to ‘management’ requires an institutional response in determining the nature of, and support for, the FLMA role.
  7. The volume of demands that FLMAs have to balance as lecturers, researchers, and managers creates work overload and tensions between management and academic role expectations which are significant and impact on the performance of each.

HR systems, frameworks, and policies are not always as well constructed and implemented as they could be. If business schools are going to be effective in meeting the challenges of capacity, capability, change and competitiveness, then greater attention to the role that FLMAs play is essential. This means that FLMA roles need to be universally recognised as important, clearly defined, aligned to career pathways, and supported by institutional and sector resources. Appropriate processes of recruitment and selection, talent management, training and development, mentoring and coaching, appraisal and feedback should be in place alongside adequate resource support. However, these changes will only be fully effective if cultural resistance to the acceptance of academics as managers is addressed and established institutional practices are challenged. As the FLMA role plays a significant part in UK HE strategies and policies and impacts on organisational performance, then substantial organisational and human resource development support is required to legitimise and facilitate the role of the FLMA within academic environments.

Mercer, J. (2009) ‘Junior academic-manager in higher education: An untold story?’ International Journal of Educational Management, 23(4): 348–359.


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