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Clear path set for the University’s Operations Group

Wednesday, 7 December 2016 2:53pm

Chief Operating Officer-image
Chief Operating Officer Stephen Willis held a forum for the Operations Group recently.

The University of Otago’s Chief Operating Officer Stephen Willis has outlined his top three priorities for his group of divisions and told staff that “if something you are doing doesn’t contribute to this, you need to question why you’re doing it”.

He also has an audacious goal - for every division in the Operations Group to be recognised as industry leaders in Australasia and among the University’s Matariki partner universities by 2020.

"You are contributing to the country, by catering for our students and academics."

He told operations staff at a recent Group-wide forum that “nothing happens without you guys, and we will work with you, whether it’s improving training, leadership skills - whatever” to help reach that goal.

“Whether you’re building buildings, making sandwiches, doing the gardens … you are contributing to the country, by catering for our students and academics.

“You are probably the most important enablers in the University, without us the University wouldn’t function.

“The Group could improve the way it engages with each other, as a group, with academics, researchers, partners and students.”

Mr Willis’s priorities are:

Enable – the University to achieve its visions and mission
Engage – with students, each other, customers and externally
Experience – of students, customers and externally


He aims to create an environment where academic departments do not have to think about their buildings or information technology because his Group “just supports what they are doing”.

Mr Willis wants 10-year maintenance and replacement plans for the University’s $2.5 billion dollars’ worth of buildings and the University’s information technology infrastructure, because “they are critical to the future”.

Information Technology Services is to create a strategic roadmap as well, highlighting possible opportunities in a changing technological world.

Projects, development, sustainability and disasters

Mr Willis also wants to develop his Group’s project management skills because successfully delivering the $1 billion worth of building projects that are underway or planned is vital.

Staff development in general will include a focus on safety, capability, leadership and succession.

The entire Group also has to target sustainability because it makes sense, especially when “we live in one of the best places in the world”, and the University has only $19 million of unallocated funding for building projects for the next 12 years.

Mr Willis is also zeroing in on five areas which need to reduce costs and have a surplus – energy use, rent, food, cleaning and consultancy.

Engaging – with students, each other, customers and externally

His second overall priority involves embedding operational staff in academic and research divisions, including an operational director in the academic Senior Management Team.

"I don’t know the issues, or what you want to hear about, if you don’t talk to me."

He also wants frameworks for effective communication and student engagement.

“I need to communicate with you … and I need feedback. I don’t know the issues, or what you want to hear about, if you don’t talk to me.”

Staff must communicate more with their internal customers as well: “They don’t care about money, costs, experts. The most important thing to them is that you give them a call and tell them what’s going on.”

Mr Willis says it is vital to engage with students too, to find out their definition of outstanding campus environments and experiences, because creating these is one of the University’s strategic goals.

Experience – of students, customers and externally

Mr Willis has tasked all his divisions with boosting internal staff’s satisfaction with their services by 10 percent, maintaining or increasing student satisfaction, and investigating how a University-wide student app could function.

His divisions are also to document what each part of the University wants from the Operations Group, while working on pastoral care initiatives for students; including the Mental Health Review.


"If you understand my principles, you understand me … why I drive decisions."

Mr Willis outlined his principles for staff at the forum as well because “if you understand my principles, you understand me … why I drive decisions”.

Accountability will be included in everyone’s job descriptions and professional development reviews, key staff will be developed, and all his senior management will have been through a management training programme by late next year.

As part of a new emphasis on teamwork, all Operations Group Senior Management Teams have met together for the first time this year.

Next time

Mr Willis will hold another Operations Group forum next year.