Talent Management And Succession Planning In Higher Education Institutions

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I believe the process of recruiting, nurturing, promoting, and retaining talents in higher education institutions must be by design, not by chance. An academic institution is unique compared to other institutions. There is no real boss; the basis of leadership is collegiality. Hence, managing so-called ‘intelligent people’ can be a nightmare for many, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. Having climbed the academic administrative ranks from a junior-level programme coordinator back in 1999 to the Vice Chancellor (or President) in 2019, I believe that potential academic leaders must be taught to lead not only from the top but also from the side and below.

To lead, having vision alone is insufficient.

To do the job effectively, an academic leader requires special skills including negotiation and persuasion, while possessing traits such as being motivational and inspirational. While most will have established research or teaching credentials, the demands of leadership are much greater.


Experience Matters

The skill sets required for academic leaders are different at different levels. It is difficult to become an effective academic leader without going through the ranks and gaining valuable lessons and experiences along the academic journey. For example, as a programme coordinator, one must be able to lead from below in order to convince the Head of Departments, Deputy Deans and Dean.

The same goes for the heads of departments and deputy deans. Their responsibilities are more than carrying out the duties as instructed by the Dean. As part of the faculty’s management team, they must be visionary enough in assisting the Dean to plan and effective enough to execute the plans.


Faculty Management

Being a Dean is more challenging as one is responsible for the whole faculty. Deans must not only be aware of the effectiveness of their academic programmes (including graduate employability and student outcomes) but also research and publications, consultations and community services as the main Key Performance Indicators. Additionally, they must not forget to master financial management.

In this regard, one must be able to lead from the top to gain the trust and support of faculty members. Concurrently, the Dean must be able to lead from the side to gain the confidence and support of other Deans during Senate meetings.

The ability to establish a good working relationship with Deputy VCs and VCs is also important, but it doesn’t stop there. Deans must be able to establish strong networking with the industry and relevant government agencies. That will ensure the relevance of the academic programmes offered and the employability of the faculty’s graduates.


University Management

Deans’ experience in leading their faculty successfully is a critical criterion when they are earmarked as a potential Deputy VC. The knowledge and skills required for university management are different than at the faculty level. It carries a much bigger responsibility, and thus requires a higher degree of leadership skills.

For example, the Deputy VC (Academic and International Affairs) is responsible to strategise and lead all Deans from various backgrounds and disciplines in academic-related matters. The Deputy VC (Research and Innovation), on the other hand, is responsible to plan research, publication, commercialisation and consultation activities.

Industry networks and negotiation are of particular importance. Without the trust, confidence and support from the industry, Deputy VCs will not be able to carry out their tasks effectively. Ultimately, the experience as a Deputy VC will prepare one to become an effective VC. 



Despite all their knowledge and degrees, most academicians are lousy administrators. Many fail to translate theory into practice. Compounding these challenges, most universities do not have talent development and/or succession plans for academic administrations. This is likely the biggest gap in the current system which exposes institutions to external interference and weak governance.

Being a good researcher – while important for rankings, peer recognition, and societal impact – does not guarantee good academic administration abilities. Just like in football, being a talented player does not guarantee coaching success. It is a different game altogether. Thus, it is important for academic institutions to have proper talent development and succession planning in place.

In order to develop leaders with the required quality that can elevate Malaysian universities in the global standing, the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) established the Higher Education Leadership Academy (AKEPT) in 2006. The academy trained potential academics for the positions of Dean, Deputy VC and VC.

Despite the noble effort, the selection process of Deputy VCs and VCs of public universities requires more transparency. At the moment, despite the leadership profile by AKEPT and recommendation by the selection committee, Minister still has absolute power when it comes to the appointment of Deputy VCs and VCs. Thus, political considerations may take precedence over talent.

The key to choosing the right talent is professionalism.


Getting the Best Mixture

I have said earlier that universities are unique institutions. They are like gardens full of different types of roses. The University Transformation Programme (UniTP) Orange Book, published by MOHE as part of the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education), ingeniously proposed four career tracks for academics: Inspiring Educator, Accomplished Researcher, Institutional Leader, and Experienced Practitioner. This was in recognition of the important role played by all types of academics in achieving the vision and mission of the university.

Thus, there are two arising questions when it comes to academic leadership and achieving an institution’s goals. Firstly, what types of roses do we want and how many do we need? Secondly,  what are the baseline skills and expertise required for each type of rose before it can specialise in one of the four tracks?

It goes back to the fundamental role of an academic: Teaching, Research (including publications and consultations), and Community Services plus Administration. For example, one cannot be an effective and respected academic administrator without proving that one is also a respected teacher and researcher. Therefore, choosing the right talent as a future academic leader is critical.



The role of a leader is to connect the dots. Thus, VCs must have sound knowledge of, among others, finance, human resource, governance, information and communication technology, and marketing. Their ability to ask the right questions is crucial for them to make the right decisions. As CEO of the university, VCs must report the university’s performance to the board of directors in a quarterly meeting. Some of the chairmen and board members are from the industry with no exposure to the academic world, which makes it more difficult for the VCs to convince the board.

The VCs are also answerable to the Ministry. For public universities, some decisions especially those relating to the national interest such as the number of students intake and tuition fees are governed by the Ministry. Financial constraints due to the decline in government funding, and the increasing demands from students and stakeholders raise the stakes for top university leaders. While some forget, it is important to remember that leadership is not all glam but rather, trust (amanah). 

I wish to conclude the discussion by quoting what the former CEO of Visa International, Dee Hock once said, “hire and promote first on the basis of integrity, then motivation, followed by capacity, understanding, knowledge, and experience”. Without integrity, motivation is dangerous; without motivation, capacity is impotent; without capacity, understanding is limited; without understanding, knowledge is meaningless; and without knowledge, the experience is blind.

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