How and what an outstanding leader learnt

With Neil Black at the helm, TAFE NSW North Coast Institute regularly won the highest VET awards.

On the eve of his retirement he was interviewed about leadership by John Mitchell.

John Mitchell's Inside VET column in Campus Review, April 2006

Black's posts

  • 1971 TAFE NSW teacher, then head teacher
  • 1979 Head of division of horticulture
  • 1989 Chief/state manager of rural and mining industry training division.
  • 1992 Institute director of Western Institute and state manager
  • 1996 State manager role relinquished
  • 2000-06 Institute director TAFE NSW North Coast Institute.

How has the role of institute director changed since you first became a director in 1992?

The role hasn't really changed much at all in that it is about leadership. Certainly there have been changes in the external environment brought about by the national training agenda and government policy, but I see good leadership as creating an organisational culture which is automatically responsive to the changing external environment - whether brought about by changing customer needs and expectations or by the changing whims of key stakeholders. The fundamental business of TAFE institutes in helping individuals, businesses and communities to be successful through enhanced skills and knowledge has not changed.

What initially attracted you to the role of Institute director?

The main attraction was that I saw the position as an exciting challenge, an opportunity to learn and an opportunity to really make a difference in terms of improving access of people in rural areas to education.

Also by the time I became a director, through the rural and mining training division which I led, we had introduced into NSW fromSouth Australiathe certificate in rural office practice (CROP) program. Through this program I discovered the enormous potential of flexible learning as a means of not only improving access to learning but also improving the value of learning. I believed as an institute director I would be in the best position possible to lead the necessary cultural change process within TAFE in westernNew South Walesand to hopefully have an influence on a wider scale.

How did you learn while an institute director?

The most powerful learning for me has come from reading about what makes for high performing organisations and guidance from top leadership consultants and then putting ideas and strategies into practice, then monitoring and reflecting. I sure have made some mistakes, but I have found that as long as you acknowledge something is not working and you work with your leadership team to re-adjust the rudder, you can not only survive at the helm but flourish. I have also benefited greatly from strategic leadership and management programs, although the real learning comes from putting the ideas you pick up into practice - in a planned, not ad hoc way, though.

Do senior managers increasingly need a strong mix of specialist knowledge about their sector and generic leadership skills?

Yes, TAFE institute directors and other senior managers need to have this mix. Generic leadership skills are critical, but to apply these in a way which leads to the highest levels of performance in my opinion requires you to be passionate about the business you are in. I would think it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to be passionate about something in which you had limited specialist knowledge.

I also believe that every TAFE institute inAustraliahas some very unique characteristics in terms of its customer base, communities of interest, culture and general environment. Therefore I also believe that to be highly successful the institute director needs to have a strong empathy with that uniqueness.

Is the role of institute director becoming more about ensuring a budget surplus, and less about education?

It is true and unfortunate that so often the focus of what we do is pushed towards output measures such as ASH and dollars and the bottom line, rather than educational outcomes. I find I need to try and be the buffer between this focus from the external stakeholders and our staff. I'm not always successful, but I try!

Within the institute I like to concentrate on building a culture which focuses on customer service and responsiveness through innovative approaches to facilitating learning, and on devolved decision making with agreed accountability. The other thing we have tried to do in North Coast Institute is to be totally transparent about where our resources come from, to build business literacy and to develop a realisation that the best way for us to facilitate more learning, to meet the needs of equity groups and to meet our community service obligations, is to generate external income. When you get all this right, the ASH and dollars tend to look after themselves and our staff actually do feel they are in the education business.

How have you shared your knowledge and experience with your senior staff?

I largely do this on an ongoing basis - it is part of 'walking the talk' and sharing ideas and experience at every opportunity, rather than specific forums or initiatives. Together we have decided on where we want to go and how we intend to get there. And in this process we all keep learning.

What are some tips for senior managers aspiring to the role of institute director?

The best tip I can give is that 90% of what you learn as an institute director comes from doing - that is, from experience. However, if you don't concentrate on getting the right people on the bus you are driving before you decide where you are going to drive it, and then build your experience through empowering your staff, then at the best you will only ever have mediocre success.

Therefore in your current role I would be applying the same principles as far as your position allows. I would aim to shadow an institute director who applies these principles. I would also make sure you have an extensive knowledge of contemporary developments in VET inAustraliaand beyond. I also recommend undertaking relevant formal education programs, but only those that apply action learning principles in delivery and assessment.

Then if you believe you have the right attributes to be a success, apply for an institute director's position in an institute in which you have a strong empathy with the customer and community profile. If successful, it is then that the real learning begins.

What do you see as emerging challenges for institute directors?

A key challenge in the next few years will be to balance strategies required to thrive in an increasingly competitive VET market place while at the same time meeting the needs of equity groups and continuing to fulfil TAFE's traditional community service role.

Another significant challenge, which is not really new but which has become more of an imperative, is the need to enhance the profile and visibility of the contemporary TAFE institute, particularly in NSW, in the face of totally uninformed criticism from certain industry groups and federal politicians. Relationship building with key industry organisations and businesses is the critical challenge for directors.

A further key challenge is to fully embrace the potential of new technologies and other tools to support flexible learning, so as to meet changing customer needs and remain highly competitive. Workforce planning is becoming a greater challenge than ever as the TAFE workforce ages and the pool of potential staff with the technical, leadership and other attributes required by TAFE institutes gets smaller.

What is the most satisfying aspect of being an institute director?

To attend a student graduation ceremony, or student awards function, or industry lunch and hear story after story of how TAFE through our teachers and other staff have changed lives and greatly contributed to individual, community and industry success.

Black's key learning about leadership

  • To always try and be myself
  • To be caring, trusting and transparent
  • To encourage and support staff to be innovative and to take risks
  • To aim for organisational improvement that is strategic, incremental and ongoing
  • To acknowledge that your people are not your greatest asset: the right people are your greatest asset
  • To continually connect with industry and community leaders, not just listening, but hearing them and responding accordingly
  • To understand that a critical element of success is to devolve decision making and resources to individuals and teams who are at the interface with the customer
  • To foster effective teamwork as it enables the skills of all team members to be better utilised and is more rewarding for the individuals and more productive for the organisation.