Growing at the top – developing self-awareness and confidence

A tree growing out of the top of a mountain

Developing self-awareness and confidence doesn’t stop just because you reach a senior position. Mark McCrory of Ulster University shares some of the key findings to emerge from recent research into the Top Management Programme (TMP).

How self-aware are you as a senior leader? How confident? Self-awareness and confidence are perennial buzzwords in leadership development and not without reason. Self-awareness is considered by many to be fundamental to leader performance (Avolio & Hannah, 2008), while confident leaders display more flexibility and adaptability across varying challenges and situations (Lester et al., 2011).

In our recent research into the Top Management Programme , we conducted 50 in-depth interviews with a representative sample of alumni and a further 95 participants completed a survey linked to their experience of the programme. During the interviews, we asked alumni what they would say they had gained from TMP. Without prompting, “self-awareness” was specifically mentioned by over two-thirds of the interviewees, whilst “gaining more confidence” was discussed by half.

Improvement to self-awareness comes in different forms. It can be about gaining a deeper understanding of personal strengths and weaknesses. To illustrate, for one interviewee the journey as a leader in higher education meant becoming very adept at administration which supported the management of complex business processes. However, for this person TMP led to a realisation that “my real strengths are probably in that more creative side, seeing opportunities and taking forward change”. Consequently, this was the key learning that that individual took away from the programme.

Another interviewee described how the programme helped to recognise some weaknesses in leadership which led to trying out new ways of communicating across the faculty. Self-awareness can also be developed through insight into the impact we have on others or by becoming more conscious of how we typically behave. Examples of these were also provided in the interviews.

As stated, half of the interviewees discussed the confidence they gained as leaders through participating in the programme; one participant characterised this as enhancing ‘maturity as a leader’. As with self-awareness, interviewees discussed how increased confidence led to attempts to change aspects of behaviour that previously would have been left unchanged; to seeking out leadership opportunities; and for some, to applying for more senior positions.

Self-awareness and confidence clearly interact and this interaction was found in other reflections interviewees shared. It was most pronounced in one case where an interviewee discussed how she had questioned her leadership style as it differed from senior leaders she had observed in her career to date. The programme helped her clarify how her style was different and what that might mean. Rather than concluding that this style of leadership was wrong or a weakness, the programme gave this person the confidence to accept that a different style was equally valid. Given current debates around the importance of understanding how context and dominant cultures may impact on leadership styles, this interaction of self-awareness and confidence seems particularly valuable.

We were also interested in how participants believed improvements had been achieved. There are techniques within TMP that we expected to be discussed such as the 360-degree feedback, the psychometric instruments completed, the coaching and participation in various simulations. These were all mentioned and believed to be of value. For some, successfully completing a programme like TMP helped to develop confidence because it was felt to lay down a marker of an individual’s credentials as a leader. What we did not expect to emerge as frequently as it did, was that many interviewees directly connected their gains in self-awareness and confidence to their interaction with other participants.

Other programme participants were described as instrumental in helping self-awareness to develop (there is a TMP alumni network), particularly through comparison. Such comparisons seemed to be most pronounced during the group sessions and the impact groups, the participant-driven elements of TMP when the delegates meet regularly to discuss issues they face and then test in action the ideas arising.

As one interviewee explained: “You realise that there are such a wide range of different approaches… you have got to work out where you sit [on the leadership spectrum]… I probably imagined that I was fairly typical and I clearly wasn’t when we looked at the balance [of approaches].”

These comparisons were particularly impactful because the composition of the TMP group draws from across higher education institutions. As one interviewee phrased it, how enlightening it was “[to] see yourself in amongst the group of people who have got the aspirations to be top managers”.

Confidence was also developed through interaction with other participants. This interaction was not only about making comparisons with others – almost like informal personal benchmarking – but also from hearing that others were facing similar challenges in their institutions, and from peer feedback during the programme, as these two quotes illustrate:

“It was surprisingly comforting that, in confidence, people shared similar concerns, similar challenges, and you thought, oh thank goodness, I’m not alone in all of this.”

“I was very struck that [in] my impact group, the feedback was that they saw me as someone who had big ideas about higher education and what we were doing, and I think that has helped me, having that group validation, affirmation, to challenge what I felt were some really difficult and potentially very damaging policies that were on the table when I first arrived here [at the institution].”

Developing as a leader often involves deeper and more personal insights compared to other types of development. Self-awareness and confidence are two such examples. What we learnt from this study is that while techniques such as 360-degree feedback have an important place in developing self-awareness and confidence, for many leaders it is the interaction with others that plays a crucial role.

If you are interested in your own development, key questions to consider may include:
• Who are the leaders that I can observe?
• How is their leadership style similar and how is it different from mine?
• Who can you seek feedback from and how can I use this feedback?

Mark McCrory is a lecturer in management at Ulster University and part of the research team working on ‘Leadership Journeys: Tracking the Impact and Challenge of the Top Management Programme’. We are accepting applications for the Top Management Programme cohort TMP 43, taking place in 2018-2019. You can find out more here.

For an opportunity to learn more about this research, Ulster University Business School is running a workshop on executive isolation at our Leadership Summit on 29 June. Find out more and book your place.

 

Time to think: leaders and the opportunity to reflect

Person taking a break from their work

Having some time out to think and reflect is extremely valuable for senior leaders within universities. In this blog post Marie McHugh, professor of organisational behaviour at Ulster University Business School shares some of the key findings to emerge from recent research into Advance HE’s Top Management Programme (TMP).

How often do you take time out to think through the best way to develop your work unit? When did you last think about how you approach decision making? What worked? What didn’t work? Why? These questions lie at the heart of thinking and reflection, providing us with a better understanding of past actions so that we are more likely to create a better future.

Alas, having the time to think and reflect is an alien concept for busy leaders and managers. Often we hear them complain that the pace and demands of their job role do not provide them with any opportunity to pause for thought, let alone reflect on the quality of the decisions that they have taken, how their behaviours and actions have impacted upon others, and / or whether they could have done things differently or better. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the turbo-charged, rapidly changing higher education sector where those who are engaged in senior management and leadership roles face daily work schedules characterised by back-to-back meetings, frequent interruptions, unexpected events and emergent fires that require immediate extinguishing!

Such apparent chaos is unlikely to create an environment where leaders and managers are best-placed to make good and well-informed decisions that enhance individual, team and organisational well-being and effectiveness. This, against a backdrop of calls for enhanced leadership and management and researchers such as Dopson et al. (2016) who argue that higher education institutions and their leaders need to adapt and become more outwardly focused, collaborate with different institutional partners, respond to changing funding mechanisms and generate economic impact – all within an increasingly politicised public sector.

Arguably, there has never been a greater need for leaders and managers within higher education to recognise the value of thinking and reflection, and to ensure that they take the time to engage in these activities. But this raises many questions – how do you create space for overly committed, time-pressed leaders to think, to reflect and respond to the immediate demands of the ‘here and now’? How do you enable them to recognise the value of allowing themselves to indulge in such seemingly frivolous activity?

Leadership development programmes provide one such opportunity. Vitally, as has been recognised by Jarvis et al. (2013), if they are designed and delivered appropriately, they can provide an environment for the exploration and the development of key relationships, offering a safe reflective space to promote learning.

Evidence for this is provided by our recent research into Advance HE’s Top Management Programme. Over the course of 50 in-depth interviews with a representative sample of alumni, with 12 sponsoring vice-chancellors, and a survey completed by a further 95 participants linked to their experience of the programme, we found that repeatedly, programme participants / sponsors, referred to the multiple benefits of having time out to think and reflect.

One of the key benefits that TMP alumni gained from their engagement in the programme, and particularly from the impact groups, was the opportunity to reflect deeply on their role, on their practice and on the nature of the higher education sector, long after their run of TMP has ended. The groups provide an opportunity for participants / alumni to meet regularly to discuss, think and reflect on their plans to bring about change within their organisations. Many groups continue to meet long after the TMP. Simply having the space and time away from the workplace for an extended period is highly valued, and it appears for some, that a recharging and revitalising process takes place. The leaders we interviewed were often at career forks or turning points. Consequently, having some time out to reflect and associate with others who were often experiencing, or had experienced, similar issues relatively recently, was deeply appreciated.

Many of the TMP alumni interviewed mentioned the opportunity to reflect, which the programme offers, as a significant personal gain. Sometimes it was to reflect and compare practices at their own institution with others; sometimes it was to reflect on their own behaviour and relationships with others, and sometimes it was to think about where in the organisation they could make the best possible contribution. Alumni frequently acknowledged that the daily grind did not provide any opportunity to think and reflect, but that the TMP provided them with the time to do so. In the words of the participants, “I found the fact that you go away for a dedicated amount of time really helpful in focussing the mind in getting you away from your day-to-day world” ; “I get about two hours a week when I’m not at meetings so [TMP] gives you that time and distance…it’s easier to see things, the wood for the trees if you are slightly further away”.

Engaging with peers from other organisations creates multiple opportunities to think and to reflect. This was acknowledged by TMP participants with one commenting, “the reflections that came from talking it through with my peers on the programme, I found that extremely valuable…the mix, mixing with people from other institutions and in that safe space, is crucial, having a safe space in which to expand and explore”.

For some alumni, the benefits of reflection were experienced at a more personal level, for example by them “…thinking about how, the way that I do things”. For others, reflection related to the institutional level, that is, the nature of change within their institution; or focused on the sector as a whole, for example, “…about knowledge and understanding of the context, the higher education context at a global level”.

While TMP participants cited having time out to think and reflect as a positive outcome from the programme for them as individuals, the real impact of this on their leadership practice and effectiveness was acknowledged by their colleagues, particularly those who had sponsored them. In the words of one sponsoring vice-chancellor, “I think the key thing that you see in people participating in the programme is just…. the ability to critically review the way they work and the way their teams operate…. It gives them a chance to step back and see things differently through another lens almost, and so it is bringing back fresh thinking and that willingness to question some of what they have always done because, I think all of us get very wedded to the way we work”.

At a time when we need leaders and managers to perform at the highest level, building in some time to engage in the practices of thinking and reflection is an essential part of the job. Reflection is likely to promote action rather than re-action, and decisions that lead to better outcomes for individuals, teams and organisations. Use the following questions as prompts:

  • How are you going to make time to think about the best way to develop your work unit?
  • How did you approach your last significant decision?
  • Was it a good decision?
  • Why?

Marie McHugh is professor of organisational behaviour at Ulster University Business School. She and her team are evaluating the TMP ‘Leadership Journeys: Tracking the Impact and Challenge of the Top Management Programme’. You can find out more about the study at our Leadership Summit on 29 June – book here. Read more on Marie’s research into leadership and change here. And we are accepting applications for the Top Management Programme cohort TMP 43, taking place in 2018-2019. Find out more.

Are governors facing information overload?

Four clear baubles containing who where when how why

Governors must have confidence in the information that they are being given. They also need it to be clear, concise and timely information upon which they can rely. Simon Perks asks how that can be achieved.

The Advance HE project, integrated thinking and reporting (IT&R) can help governors and their institutions to focus on material issues and take a holistic approach to strategic governance. Ten HEIs are participating in a pilot project to examine how universities can better report on how they create value, particularly to critical stakeholders such as governors and students.

The higher education sector and the responsibilities of individual institutions are becoming ever more complex. Institutions are actively seeking approaches to deal with the range of issues and challenges with which governing bodies are required to concern themselves, and scrutiny of what institutions do and how they do it has risen swiftly to the top of the political and media agenda. Consequently, the need for governors to obtain reliable assurance on their institutions’ activities has never before been so great.

Whilst a holistic approach to stakeholder engagement is part of the integrated thinking and reporting concept, the need for governors to engage in the process of short, medium and long term value creation and to be part of the communication process to demonstrate that value is critical. You can read more about putting all stakeholders at the heart of value creation here.

The drive for greater and better information, and assurance took centre stage in the recent workshop for the IT&R project and the needs of governors featured strongly.

“Governors need to know what their institution is doing”, explained Simon Taylor, director of financial services at Sheffield Hallam University and a governor of Barnsley College.

“They need to know the risks that it is facing. And they need clear assurance around the management of risk, exposure to fraud and other challenges”.

As the challenges faced by institutions and the assurances required by governors grow, so too do the number and length of reports that governors are expected to read. Participants in the IT&R project agreed, that can make it difficult for governors to stay on top of the information provided to them. Furthermore, reports to governors on specific issues do not always set out the bigger picture. And in their drive to provide full and complete information, such reports may not highlight adequately the issues that are of most concern to the governing body.

We need a more holistic way of thinking about our institutions’ activities and of reporting to governors. And integrated thinking and reporting provides a way of doing just that.

The project draws on the principles and practice of the international Integrated Reporting (IIRC) framework, which is designed to allow organisations across all sectors to communicate more clearly how they create value in the short, medium and long term. An integrated report should be concise yet reliable, complete yet focused on material issues. Ideal, then, for governors.

The benefits to governors of such an approach to reporting are clear. It provides a complete and inclusive insight into the institution and its activities. It focuses on how the institution creates value for its students, staff, funders and society. It considers how well the institution uses the financial and other resources available to it. And it provides information on the institution’s failures as well as its successes. In short, it goes behind the facts and the figures to really tell the institution’s story.

Participants agree though, that an integrated approach to reporting to governors can only work if governors themselves are engaged actively in developing the reporting framework. What issues are most important to them? What information do they want? How frequently do they need it? How would they like to see it presented? What other assurances do they require?

By creating clear, concise and insightful reports that get quickly to the heart of the issues facing institutions, these institutions can help governors to focus on what is important. To see the bigger picture.To gain insight into what the institution is doing and the challenges that it might face. That is what integrated thinking and reporting is all about. And that, surely, is what being a governor is all about, too.

Simon Perks has written two “Getting to Grips With” guides for Advance HE: Getting to Grips With Finance and Getting to Grips with Efficiency. He is the founder of Sockmonkey Consulting. Click here to find out more about the IT&R project, or come to our national event on 11 September. Browse our extensive resources for governors and sign up to our governance new alert service.

Getting to grips with talent management in higher education

Circus acrobats doing a balancing actThe concept of talent management seems to be striking a chord in higher education at the moment. Ahead of our Talent Management Symposium in June,  Dr Wendy Hirsh from the Institute of Employment Studies reflects on what she sees as the talent management issues emerging in higher education and some of the practical barriers that need to be tackled.

In 2017, in response to growing interest in talent management, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (now Advance HE) published a report entitled Talent management: learning across sectors, which has generated considerable interest. The publication of the report has created several opportunities for me to work with many HEIs over the past months at events, in smaller networks and with HR teams inside individual institutions.

In several events and workshops I have asked relevant professionals working in institutions to identify where in the workforce talent management is a real issue. These are some of the common themes emerging from such discussions.

A lack of successors or talent pools for leadership roles. This can apply to the executive team, but seems a more pressing issue at head of department and dean or head of school / faculty levels. The main issue is not really about potential but a set of structural and cultural problems with these jobs. Becoming a head of department is a big leap into the unknown in terms of leadership, brings with it a mass of routine administration and has an uncertain impact on the individual’s career thereafter. To put it politely, the historic head of department role seems to have passed its sell-by. Some institutions are starting to address this by reviewing administrative workload and offering more development support in preparing for these roles and in getting up to speed after appointment.

HEIs need productive and high profile professors, principal investigators and heads of research units, especially in subject areas of priority to the institution. Many sectors have a similar need for top professional talent, including science-based industries, professional services and the arts and creative sectors. Attracting and retaining top academics is a challenge, and Brexit is an added concern here. But their leadership approach is also of concern, as they need to role model the values of their institutions and play a positive part in leading and developing the early career academics who work with or for them. Concern about the early career development of researchers – and indeed teachers – often comes back to the quality and consistency of support received from their principal investigators (PIs) and professorial colleagues.

In the layers below institutional leaders and high profile academics, HEIs rely increasingly on the skills and good will of highly experienced academic and professional service staff. They are experiencing greater workload pressure and sometimes unsettling change in response to top-down strategies. One challenge often reported is of experienced academics who may become disengaged. Here talent management needs to adopt OD approaches in addressing anxieties, involving staff more actively in the change process and decisions affecting their work, and supporting skill and career development at all career stages.

Other sectors see increasing workforce diversity as a key strand of talent management, and this is certainly the case in higher education. Attention is certainly being paid to the appointment process, but initiatives to change the external brand of the sector in this regard or to offer differentiated development opportunities to under-represented groups are not yet widely embedded.

Many HEIs are strengthening their leadership development at a range of levels, which is to be welcomed. Many also want to adopt more systematic and rigorous succession planning for key roles, but there is still a lack of confidence about how to make this happen. In particular there are concerns about explaining this process to staff and how to broaden the talent pools of successors as part of the approach. Institutions have been re-articulating promotion criteria, but less often communicating the criteria to be used in succession planning or in identifying potential for promotion.

In getting to grips with talent management, there seem to be a few common hurdles which the sector needs to address. Talent management rests on workforce planning but there is often a big gap between strategic planning at institutional level and the rather short-term, reactive and budget focused planning at faculty or departmental/service level. Talent management rarely has clear governance in terms of collective decision-making at either institutional or faculty/school level. This still gets in the way of it being a systematic and transparent process. There is much talk of better career conversations but it is often unclear in HE who individuals can have these conversations with.
As the research showed, talent management is a mindset. HEIs need to make sure that the senior leaders and academics they are promoting or appointing right now understand the importance of spotting potential in people and then helping those people to grow.

How to tackle shared challenges, consider potential solutions and ensure that the focus on talent enables diversity in access and outcome enable will be the focus of the Talent Symposium on 19 June. Featuring case study inputs from inside and outside higher education, this event will be the first in a series exploring differing approaches to talent in higher education.

Dr Wendy Hirsh is one of the speakers at the Talent Symposium, along with Jacqui Marshall, deputy registrar & HR director, Exeter University, Sarah Churchman, head of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing, PwC and Debra Lang, director HR and organisational development, organisation development and change, DCMS. Book your place for the Talent Symposium.

Get a mentor, be a mentor

Mentoring quote: "The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves." Steven SpielbergCat Turhan, policy officer at GuildHE and Shân Wareing, pro vice-chancellor education and student experience at London South Bank University and Aurora speaker, have both had positive experiences of mentoring, and its power to support women’s careers. A generation apart in age, they compare some of those experiences.

What does having a mentor mean to you?
Cat: One of the most important things about mentoring is that there isn’t a fixed definition or relationship. Having a mentor has meant different things at the different stages of my life and career. The three most significant mentors for me were Judy Ryder, Jacqui Clements, and Kate Dolan from Warwick Students’ Union during my time as welfare and campaigns officer, and then president. Judy was not only someone who taught me about how to be an effective trustee, but helped me think strategically about where I wanted my career to go, and how to make that happen. Jacqui taught me how to be an effective leader by modelling great leadership: she showed me that women could be leaders by being themselves – and that kindness, passion and principles were more important than anything.

Finally, Kate gave me space and patience to help me articulate what I was worried about, and showed me great empathy and kindness when I was finding things particularly stressful. I found her experience very reassuring – whatever I was feeling was normal, and never impossible to solve. What has also been wonderful about these relationships is that even though I have moved to a different organisation, we are still very close – and I still turn to them when I need advice.

Shân: I had one formal mentor, at a time of job transition. I asked a senior women I very much respected for her leadership, intelligence, calmness and warmth, Carole Baume, to mentor me when I became a Dean. I was worried about the impact of a promotion on my family life, and wanted to make sure I could balance the two parts of my life. Her mentorship helped me articulate what I was worried about, and her example made me believe I could do it. It helped me see a way forward beyond my own knowledge and confidence levels. I’ve also had lots of informal mentorships, where I asked someone further along their career path than for help. Shout outs to Linda Thomas and Sally Brown in particular, who helped me with job decisions! My colleague and friend Nancy Turner gave me a tiny replica of an inuksuk, a First Nation’s people statue, which in real life are giant stone monuments that stand on the horizon to show travellers that people have journeyed that way previously. They symbolise ‘you are not the first, it is possible’. That’s what mentoring means to me.

What does it mean to you to be a mentor?
Shân: I want to give something back. Life experience is easy to share and what I hope is that it accelerates the career journey for other people, and perhaps takes some of the stress and uncertainty out of it. When I mentor, the other person says what they want out of the process, and we make an informal agenda out of their questions, and talk through them at agreed intervals. It’s like helping someone see round a corner, and navigate that turn in their life.

How do mentoring relationships arise? (Formal/informal)
Shân: The formal relationships have happened when I asked someone to mentor me, and gave a reason (a transition to a more senior, more demanding job with a longer commute, when I had young children). When someone has come up to me and asked me to mentor them, it’s also been because they felt they were facing a particular dilemma they couldn’t quite see past.

Cat: Some mentoring relationships are developed from the professional circumstances or working environment. My current line manager, Kate Wicklow, is an amazing mentor – not only for helping me navigate HE policy, but also for advising me on how to strengthen my policy skills and confidence. However, she might not have been my mentor if she wasn’t already my boss. In the students’ union, sabbatical officers were paired up with mentors who were the senior managers of the organisation, as were student trustees with non-student directors (who were selected for having previous board experience). I think organisations that understand the benefit of mentoring show that they really value staff development. It certainly helped me grow as a person, and seek out different mentoring relationships in future roles.

Who initiates the mentoring relationship? Can the other person refuse?
Shân: It’s always been the mentee who initiates the relationship, in my experience. I turned down a request once, where I barely knew the person, and I have been turned down, twice, by people who said they were too busy.

Cat: Organisations can facilitate relationships, but ultimately it has to be down to the mentee to want it. Recently, an ex-colleague asked me if I would mentor one of her members of staff, as I have relevant experience in her chosen career path – so occasionally they come from surprising places.

How much challenge do you welcome / can you tolerate from a mentor?
Shân: I think ideally there is enough trust between the mentor and the mentee for the mentor to challenge the mentee quite robustly, but it has to feel safe. Knowing where that boundary is and not going beyond it into territory that may feel too challenging, or bullying, is really important. If the mentee doesn’t want to have a particular conversation, the mentor needs to respect that.

Cat: I think that depends on the context of the relationship. Mentors have to build trust and understand the mentee’s background before they challenge them directly, but in turn mentees should expect a mentoring relationship to be challenging them in order for them to progress.

Is a mentor purely professional, or do they overlap into your life outside work?Cat: I would count some of the most significant mentors in my life as great friends. A successful mentor understands the whole person, including any personal issues that person wishes to divulge. Having that in-depth understanding of someone can lead to a friendship.

Shân: definitely about the overlap, in my experience. Not to advise on how to live life outside work, but to talk about how professional and domestic life fit together.

Is it more important for women to have mentors/to be mentors?
Cat: There is already a systemic bias against women achieving in the workplace, and it is even worse for women of colour, for LGBTQ women, disabled women, and working class women. Women who have navigated through the system in spite of those biases have so much to teach younger women who are trying to do the same. There is a famous quote from Madeleine Albright (former Secretary of State of the USA) – ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other’. I’ve always tried to live my life by that quote, and hope that I will be in a position to mentor people in the future.

Shân: We still don’t have so many women in senior positions yet that it’s easy to see how women’s careers grow, so seeing someone in a similar field as yourself in a more senior position gives women insights into what’s required. The tensions between caring responsibilities and work trajectories are real, and hard to navigate. Women can find themselves in teams where they feel out of place, and talking to someone who has navigated that about how to be part of that team but retain your integrity and sense of self is very important.

How do you know when you have been a successful mentor?
Shân: When I am mentoring, I can see usually by someone’s next actions whether they are able to move on past whatever they were concerned about. You don’t know really what goes on in some else’s head, but you can see if they feel able to act positively. I do think mentors, like teachers, send people out into the world and often don’t know the effect they had, so it’s good to say thank you. I just wrote to my school English teacher to tell him what I am doing now, and that I am still grateful to him for teaching me Julius Caesar in 1981, and how my life changed because he inspired me to go to university.

If a mentor has feet of clay, does it matter?
Shân: No, it’s part of the deal! We all muddle through with our flaws, and recognising you don’t have to be perfect to get a job done, be good enough, and go home at the end of the day, is part of what you learn from mentors who are human just like you and me.

Cat: Absolutely not! If anything, it enhances the relationship. The stories where my mentors have made mistakes – and how they handled them – have been fundamental to the way I have treated mistakes in my own life. Women are often told that they have to be superwoman in order to succeed, and I think these narratives are particularly damaging to our self esteem and mental health. Flawed women are also successful women, and my mentors taught me that.

How long do mentoring relationships last? What’s the frequency and length of mentoring conversations?
Shân: The literature on mentoring tends to describe it as a long relationship, over years, but my experience has been of quite short relationships, to deal with particular transitions or issues. I think that’s a more flexible model that’s easier to adopt, and less commitment on both sides. It also allows for the growth of the mentee, who may need different guides at different career and life stages.

Cat: I think relationships can wax and wane, depending on the needs of the mentee, and the availability of both parties. Some relationships are very ‘of the moment’, whereas others will last for years. I think it is crucial that both parties communicate often and honestly. There should also be respect for the other’s commitments, priorities, and changes to their life which may have an impact on the relationship.

We hope by sharing our positive and varied experiences of mentoring, we have inspired and encouraged you to seek mentors, and to offer mentoring, as part of your career journey.

Many of our leadership programmes have mentoring or sponsorship elements to them, read about the sponsorship toolkit. You can also read others’ experiences of mentoring via blogs here and here. We are now accepting Aurora programme bookings for 2018-19 – find out more here.

Leadership isolation: it’s lonely up here!

Leadership can be a lonely job

Many senior leaders in higher education experience isolation when they reach higher positions in their universities. In this blog, Martin McCracken shares some of the key findings to emerge from recent research into the Leadership Foundation’s Top Management Programme (TMP), linked to the issue of isolation.

Although knowledge, skill, drive and ambition are clearly vital to achieve the ambition of reaching a leadership position, we must also recognise that in modern organisations, regardless of sector or industry, establishing and cultivating a network of close trusted colleagues with whom we can work collaboratively will be critical. Therefore, we need to invest time and energy in nurturing the right kind of relationships which will support us at different stages of our career.

However, if and when we are in the most senior roles we may find ourselves in a new quandary: we would still like to tap into our internal networks, but realise that our new role and associated responsibilities compromise these established relationships with our most trusted friends and professional confidants. At the base level, we may now hold line management responsibility for some in this group, which may erode some of the old relationship certainties that were taken for granted.

Also, we will increasingly move in different circles due to our new leadership role, which can result in a scenario where we find ourselves missing out on valuable information originating from the network where we once were core members. In addition, given the changes in the relationship and power dimensions, certain colleagues may become more suspicious of our intentions and more distant, while others may try to better insulate themselves politically from perceived disruptive change and begin to display what might be termed as uncritical ‘cheerleading’ of our actions.

All of this can impact upon our effectiveness as leaders and ultimately there is a real threat that we begin to experience what has been termed as ‘executive isolation’ (Ashkenas, 2017), which is characterised by the erosion of our most trusted networks. Meanwhile as our workload and responsibilities increase, we may find ourselves continually surrounded or ‘crowded’ by people, as we get caught up in a seemingly endless round of meetings and events.

The end result is a feeling of frustration where increasing demands on a leader’s time leave little space to reflect, recharge or plan for the future. So, what can leaders who find themselves in such a precarious position do to address the negative effects of isolation? How can they reinvigorate their networks and who do they now turn to for advice and guidance on the manifold issues linked to organisational vision, strategy and mission setting on which, as senior leaders, they are now supposed to be expert?

From our research into the Top Management Programme it is clear that a progamme of this nature is invaluable in offering senior leaders an opportunity to come together and reflect upon the salient issues of the day for their universities and the higher education sector as a whole. What emerged most strongly when we spoke to TMP alumni was the power of the programme to erode some of the worst effects of executive isolation.

The vast majority of TMP alumni (over 50 participated in in-depth interviews, and a further 95 completed a survey linked to their experience of the programme) described how interacting with like-minded colleagues offered them a route towards replenishing their social capital networks and building awareness or, as one explained, “turbo charging your knowledge of the sector”. Also, clearly linked to the concept of leadership isolation was the fact that the TMP impact groups offered what one alumni referred to as a “safe space”.

Impact groups are the participant-driven element of TMP, participants meet regularly to discuss issues they face – particularly difficulties – and then test in action the ideas arising from that discussion. Finding this safe and secure place is vitally important for leaders in the higher education sector who often work in politically-charged environments. It was clear from comments made by alumni that having the opportunity to interact with like-minded leaders in the sector or “test stuff out with peers” as well as “step back and look at what happens in other universities in another environment” was considered essential.

Perhaps the best illustration of the value attached to the impact groups and networks they created was borne out by the fact that many groups continued to meet long after the formal TMP proceedings had been wrapped up. It was not uncommon to hear of alumni groups still keeping in contact for many years, meeting maybe as often as two or three times a year. As we listened to the testimonies of those we interviewed, we realised that such meetings were viewed as vitally important and many looked forward to these ‘get-togethers’ as offering a cathartic experience and a real opportunity to get away from  busy roles and reflect deeply with like-minded people.

Ultimately the last word on this is illustrated by the words of one alumni who remarked: “I guess sometimes you feel a bit isolated in a leadership role in your own institution and actually realising that everybody else has similar problems and you are not alone can be energising, but also then seeing different contexts and slightly different solutions that you can adapt back to your own institution.”

So, to conclude, we can clearly appreciate that leadership isolation can be a problem, but undertaking a programme like the TMP can be an effective way of addressing this as it can allow leaders to develop more effective networks as well as offering them some much needed structured time out to reflect and take stock of their aspirations.

Martin McCracken is a senior lecturer in organisational behaviour at Ulster University and also leads the research study evaluating the TMP ‘Leadership Journeys: Tracking the Impact and Challenge of the Top Management Programme’. Find out more about his research into management development, leadership and change.

Nominations are open for TMP 43, the deadline is Friday July 6. Find out more about the TMP Alumni group.

Putting all stakeholders at the heart of value creation

An illustration of a forum

Higher education in the UK is looking for better ways to show the value it creates for students, funders, governors and society. Advance HE (formerly the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education) is working with a pilot group of institutions who are exploring how creating an Integrated Thinking and Reporting (IT&R) framework can help them do this. Ahead of a conference in September, and in the first of a series of blogs, Simon Perks reveals that the pilot is already yielding some illuminating insights.

The ‘Integrated Thinking and Reporting’ project is applying the principles and practice of IT&R to the higher education environment to take account of the interests and expectations of all stakeholders in a holistic approach. It is bringing together various strands of activity in which institutions are already involved, such as student engagement, communication with governors and connecting with their employees.

It is also helping them improve their reporting processes, by encouraging them to think carefully about the information needs of different stakeholders, particularly students, and how these can be accommodated.  “Understanding that financial value is not the ‘only game in town’ puts a completely new perspective on how we communicate with stakeholders,” said Scott Allin, vice principal at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama.

The participating institutions, including Newcastle University, Sheffield Hallam University and Abertay University, are already noticing a number of benefits to changing the way they think about and report on their activities. The clear focus in the Integrated Reporting framework on how organisations generate value in the short, medium and long term is helping to put value at the heart of their strategic planning and decision-making processes, and it is leading to a greater focus on the needs of HEIs’ stakeholders, particularly students.

Reassuringly, there is a consensus among the pilot institutions that the adoption of an IT&R approach to thinking and reporting adds genuine value to their activities, rather than simply creating yet another bureaucratic process. And there is a hope that, by developing a sector-driven approach to better reporting on the value that institutions create for their students, the conversation about value across the HE sector will change into something which is much more holistic.

The use of IT&R is not, however, without its challenges. An integrated approach to creating and demonstrating value necessitates a change in how institutions think – and talk – about value.  It may also require a reappraisal and realignment of institutions’ visions and strategies, which is not always possible. Furthermore, some of the Integrated Reporting framework terminology needs to be translated or better understood, for and by the higher education audience.

The pilot institutions have also started thinking about the nature and frequency of their reporting, edging from a single annual written statement towards more frequent and more varied reporting and communications targeted at different stakeholder groups. This is in addition to other ways of engaging with these audiences that are more likely to capture and to retain their attention.

More fundamentally, though, the disclosure of a holistic view of positive and less positive aspects of performance – which lies at the heart of an integrated report – may sit uneasily with management and governors alike. Some institutions have concerns about the commercial sensitivity of such information, while others fear the negative publicity that poor performance can bring.

Overall, however, IT&R is having a positive impact within most of the institutions participating in this project. It is changing how they think about the concept of value and giving them a framework to communicate with others about the value they create. It presents all institutions with the opportunity to reframe the way in which students and other stakeholders think about the benefits of higher education.  “Enabling students to understand how intellectual capital and social relationships are part of the value proposition will help us to tell our story in way that is congruent with our values, not just meeting the compliance of reporting,” said Professor Neil Marriott, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Winchester.

As Advance HE’s IT&R project progresses, it is stimulating debate and could become a viable sector-driven model for reporting, which meets the needs of universities, their students, staff, governors, funders and regulators alike.

Simon Perks has written two “Getting to Grips With” guides for Advance HE: Getting to Grips With Finance and Getting to Grips with Efficiency. He is the founder of Sockmonkey Consulting.

Visit our website for more information about the Integrated Thinking and Reporting project.

Read: Why Newcastle University is taking part in the project.