skip to main content

Higher Education - Capitalising on management talent from other sectors

How can the Higher Education sector capitalise on transferable skills when recruiting? Jon Dilling, Penna’s Sourcing Lead, looks at the options available to HR colleagues in HE.

Many higher education and not-for-profit research institutions are facing unprecedented challenges including significant funding and commercial pressures. The impact of Brexit and COVID-19 has yet to be fully realised and ongoing concerns over student well-being, and new approaches, will require a fresh look on how to engage and retain students and teaching staff alike. This will undoubtedly require new skills and experience, and a fresh perspective. For many professional management roles within Higher Education, this may involve looking to other sectors both in and outside of the UK.

Looking further afield for talent

It has been recognised that appointing managers from non-education backgrounds can bring best practice from elsewhere, positive challenge and change, and an unbiased perspective on policy and commercial strategy. Here at Penna, we have also seen the benefit of utilising technical, HR and financial leadership capability from other sectors on an interim basis to support transformational and cultural change, and to build internal capability.

This growing trend of candidates, from non-HE being appointed to significant positions, has largely been driven by the need for transformational change to keep pace with the macro and micro factors affecting institutions and the HE sector as a whole. In addition, this has also delivered the additional benefit of improving the diversity within organisations.

In an increasingly competitive market requiring greater customer service, both internally with staff and students and externally with partners and funders, there is also a growing need to bring greater commercial acumen to support future academic excellence. We’re already seeing an increase in the briefs we take from HE clients for candidates with previous experience in the private sector and the need for commercial, and even business development experience to help exploit new research and ways for working.

The best candidates don’t come from job sites

However, to attract leadership talent from outside of the sector, and to increase the diversity of candidates applying for senior positions, takes a sophisticated approach that requires more than advertising the usual stock of recruitment content - that does little to differentiate one institution from another. We know from operating across a range of sectors that getting the employer value proposition right, tailoring the recruitment process to allow innovation, and having more meaningful dialogue with key decision makers is essential.

Furthermore, solely relying on the active market - only looking at jobsites being the source of your talent pool - is outdated and highly ineffective as it only ever represents an average of around 20% of your overall talent pool. To ensure you can recruit the exact calibre of candidate you require and especially if from other sectors, reaching the passive market has never been more important. They are regarded as top performers, engaged and productive in the roles they currently have. Yet they are candidates who don’t know they want to move yet, and more importantly, who are not looking on jobsites. And yet they will certainly consider moving when the right career opportunity and proposition is put their way.

In our experience, a combination of our search, direct sourcing and digital outreach capability has proved to be an extremely powerful and cost-effective approach for clients in the HE sector. By carefully market mapping different candidate talent pools, including those that wouldn’t ordinarily have been sourced, we have been able to target highly relevant candidates that might not have thought of the HE sector as a destination for their next move, had we not approached them. Our conversations and further engagement have then triggered their interest and ultimately ensured the most suitable apply, increasing the chances of our clients making a great appointment, along with our candidate making the right career choice.

Some stand out examples of where Penna has assisted clients hire and supported candidates successfully make this transition is in areas such IT and finance, where skills are naturally transferable, but it goes way beyond this into other areas such as procurement, supply, and HR too. We’ve assisted several universities with large scale IT recruitment restructures where many hires have come from outside the sector, and other examples include recruiting to posts such as Senior Internal Auditors and Commercialisation Licensing Managers, again ensuring fresh talent is sourced and appointed.

What next?

Whatever the result of Brexit, the pandemic and other challenges, the emerging competition for leadership and management talent that can deliver positive and lasting change is likely to intensify. Here at Penna, we believe that key to success, in this increasingly competitive space, is developing long term partnerships with our clients which will enable us to invest in finding, exciting and securing the best talent in the market.

If you would like to find out more about how Penna could support you with your recruitment needs, please contact Jon Dilling on or Gemma Matin on

Go to previous article

Engaging and enabling early talent virtually

Go to next article

CIPFA-Penna go North