While 2020 was a challenging year for tertiary education, there are some bright spots. Dr Nicolene Murdoch at Western Sydney University is certainly one.
Hello, Nicolene! Can you tell us about your career before you joined Western Sydney University?
I always wanted to be a music teacher, so I started my higher education journey as an undergraduate student in 1994 at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. That year was not only significant marking the birth of democracy for the country, but it was also the start of my higher education journey for more than 20 years. I took up a student assistant role in the Faculty of Education, which introduced me to the “inner workings” of a university.
I was responsible for administering student feedback on teaching surveys, analysing data and generating reports for lecturers, making recommendations about how they could enhance their teaching. That is where it all began. I remember the exact moment when I realised this is where I belong.
After five years, I was recruited by Monash University, to help establish their campus in South Africa, where I stayed for 12 years. The campus grew from 200 students when I joined, to over 4000 when I left in 2016. I served in various roles, lastly as the Chief Operating Officer (COO). Laureate International University then acquired shares in the campus and this introduced me to a multi-national education holding company which significantly extended my management experience.
I was exposed to the Laureate network of institutions, spending time in the US, Paris, Turkey, and Spain. Laureate offered me a role and opportunity to relocate to Sydney in 2016. I was promoted to Vice President of the Student Administration and my goal was to ensure a quality student experience across the network of institutions.
In 2018, I was recruited to my dream job, as Chief Executive Officer of Western Sydney University, The College offering pathway programs to students, English Language Programs and proficiency testing, as well as vocational courses.
What does a typical day in your working life look like?
A typical day for me starts with running. This really gives me time to think and prepare for the day. A day is not a good day when I don’t have time to run. I get up really early and don’t let any weather conditions be an excuse. I’m fortunate to be married to a marathon runner, cyclist, and Iron Man medal holder, so he keeps me on my toes. I’m not a natural athlete, but it has become a critical part of my day. I make sure I eat well and prepare food the night before to take with me.
Every day is different. I have lots of meetings, presentations, speeches, board meetings, external stakeholder engagements and I ensure that I stay connected with my team so that they feel equipped and empowered. These days, I do a combination of days on campus and working from home, and I enjoy both. I need to manage my time really well and meetings often subsume time to get actual work done.
I love reading. I believe “good leaders read” – so I ensure I use travel and driving time to listen to audiobooks, news, and podcasts. I also make sure that I make time to prepare, as I believe it is critical to be present and be able to contribute in meetings.
I’m really proud of how The College performed during COVID. In fact, our financial performance in 2020 was better than the years previous.
What kind of impact has COVID-19 had on the bottom line and/or on your strategic plan for the year?
I’m really proud of how The College performed during COVID. In fact, our financial performance in 2020 was better than the years previous. I believe we overperformed because we responded to the Australian Government’s Higher Education Relief Package.
Western Sydney University via The College was the first institution to commence the online delivery of its short courses. These courses assisted many people who found themselves displaced from work during the pandemic to acquire new skills and retrain for new careers. Additionally, we developed and delivered a suite of new short courses which resulted in extra revenue.
The theme of our strategic plan was “creating connections”. This became prophetic during 2020. We had some areas affected by international student enrolment (our English Language courses, for example) and we had to be really creative and redeploy staff to help with the new courses. In this way, we secured as many as possible jobs and we were able to keep our staff engaged.
Last year taught me so much about being agile, and proving how universities can be responsive. It also gave our strategic focus a depth that it did not have before.
What have been your three biggest achievements in any of your leadership roles to date?
During my time at Monash South Africa, we functioned across two regulatory systems which were really challenging and highly political. The internationally recognised Monash degrees we offered had to be accredited by the South African authorities, and I was really proud of how we managed to maintain the quality and integrity (as required by the parent institution), as well as respond to the national priorities of the very challenged South African higher education landscape.
I learnt a lot about advocacy, stakeholder engagement, fighting for the public good and matrix management.
At Laureate, I led a review of the Student Administration function to determine an optimal structure to ensure a seamless and quality student experience. This forced me to revisit the basics, and I did some research about the role and function of universities. I’m really proud of the outcome of the project, and the implementation of a new structure which demonstrated the importance of the student journey beyond teaching and learning.
At The College, I’m really proud of the development and implementation of the new strategy. I did not want to create a traditional strategy, but rather provide a strategic narrative, a story which spoke to staff and students. I wanted it to be meaningful, honest, inspiring and believable, which is aligned with my leadership philosophy. I wanted it to reflect my passion and I believe that I was able to bring staff along on the journey.
What characteristics do you think a great leader has?
I believe that leaders should be decisive. I am often surprised at how leaders are not able to make decisions. This does not mean you have to do this alone. Be consultative, listen to others, but be ready to make a call and to stand by it. Good leaders deliver on their promises.
As I mentioned before, good leaders read. Not only books to better themselves and learn about people and what is happening in the world, but how they prepare for meetings, they read emails, they read responses before they send it, they read meeting papers so that they know what’s going on and that they are able to participate and respond. This is also showing respect for those who are taking the time to prepare the papers and to be able to give them credit.
Leaders should be present. I think leaders underestimate how demotivating it is for colleagues when you are distracted in a meeting, or busy with your phone, or not prepared. Even if you don’t have a lot of time with someone, make it count by being present.
What is your personal leadership philosophy?
My personal leadership philosophy is grounded in authentic leadership. I pride myself on being transparent and approachable, to listen, to build relationships and trust through honest engagements. I have learnt that even if the news is bad, honesty is appreciated. I say it like it is, I spend time with people and need to have difficult conversations. I admit if I don’t know something, and then I make it my business to find out.
Where do you draw your motivation from and how do you motivate others around you?
Contrary to popular belief that all leaders are extroverts, I’m actually an introvert. I draw my motivation from thinking time. I have to ponder things and think it through. This gives me focus, and then I’m able to relay messages with clarity and give direction.
If I don’t have time to think through a presentation, an idea, a meeting, create a storyline or narrative in my head, I get frustrated because I feel like I’m not getting my message across and this confuses and derails my team. If I’m clear on what we need to do and where we are going, I can communicate with conviction, which gives me confidence and it motivates me and the team.
How do you see The College changing in the next few years, and how do you see yourself creating that change?
We are living in a new world. We all have to take time to reflect on how this crazy year of COVID impacted us, and how we move forward. This needs to happen on a personal and collective level.
The higher education sector, like all other sectors, needs to reflect and regear for the next few years. I believe The College will play a critical part in the recovery phase ahead of us.
I believe students will need more help and support with decision-making, planning their careers, changing their careers and finding new ways of existing in the world. At The College, we will need to think about how our students have changed and how we will adapt to the new challenges our students face. I think our main job is to create a sense of belonging, so back to our strategy of creating connections.
I can create change by focussing on student journeys, and helping to teach students, their parents and those around them about their options. Making decisions about studies and careers have always been challenging, but it is even more complex now.
I can also create change by working with my colleagues on how we should teach and engage with students in new ways. I need to create and make new rules, ask big questions and say “no” to some ideas. And I care about people, which is what they need most now.
What gets you up in the morning?
My purpose in life is to make a difference. So, I get up in the morning with the hope and aspiration to make a difference, even in a very small way in someone’s life today. To make a difference in the lives of others I need to be strong, confident and competent. I feel like I have so much to give, that is why I will always be a “teacher by trade”. Every day, I’m still learning to ensure I can teach others.
Let’s close with a hypothetical. It’s 2022. What does a successful year look like for you and The College?
We will talk about how The College created connections. Between students, between staff and students, and between staff, and between The College and the community. How we grew in a post-COVID world, how we took the opportunities which came our way, how our staff are more equipped with new ways of teaching and supporting students. How we gave them a home and a sense of belonging.
Dr Nicolene Murdoch is the CEO of The College at Western Sydney University
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