Wisdom, grit and compassion

Leadership Summit, June 29 2018

Doug Parkin, programme director, Leadership Foundation explores what it means to be a leader with wisdom, grit and compassion within the context of the current higher education environment. Wisdom, grit and compassion are the stimulus for this year’s Leadership Summit 2018.

In a complex and rapidly evolving environment it takes wisdom for leaders to see that the answers lie in freedom rather than control, in engagement at least as much as direction, and in openness as an antidote to closed management.  It takes the strength of wisdom to see beyond the difficulties of today into the vast potential of tomorrow.  It takes both wisdom and grit to hold fast to a vision that makes a difference in the world; a purpose, cause or belief that transcends the turbulence of change.  And it takes wisdom and compassion to appreciate the impact of positive emotions on individual, team and organisational performance and the importance of creating organisations that people enjoy.

The Leadership Summit has been designed as an opportunity to strip away some of the complexity and get back to a small number of simple and powerful messages that lie at the heart of great, authentic leadership.  It is also an opportunity to engage with some of the most significant developments in leadership and governance that are taking place within and around the Higher Education sector at the current time.

We begin with three wisdoms:

Wisdom of self – “Knowing one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values, and goals – and their impact on others” Daniel Goleman,

Wisdom of others – In his book Flourish,  Martin Seligman  tells us that “… very little that is positive is solitary” and experience shows time and again that it takes collective commitment for organisations to succeed;

Wisdom of context – leadership always takes place in a context and needs to be attuned to the unique needs, challenges and cultural dimensions that make that context wonderfully special.

But wisdom can easily ebb away if it is not cherished and maintained by grit and personal resilience.  The fickle needs of transient agendas can take over, and before we know it we are focused more on structures than people, and more on crude outputs than transformational goals.  No one has written more powerfully and persuasively about the idea of grit than Angela Duckworth in her amazing book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  She makes it clear that “Enthusiasm is common; endurance is rare” and describes how “…. grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time,” whether at an individual or organisational level, and making it so interesting and clear that “most mid-level and low-level goals are, in some way or another, related to that ultimate goal”.  Her central, very focused message in Grit is that “the most dazzling human achievements are, in fact, the aggregate of countless individual elements, each of which is, in a sense, ordinary”.

And with regard to compassion, our starting point is that engagement is a feeling.  It is a feeling that is fundamentally influenced by the emotional tone of the environment in which we find ourselves – the environment in which we either thrive or stagnate.  A key message for teachers is that very often ‘people won’t care what you know until they know that you care’.  In many ways the same rule applies to leadership.  Showing genuine concern is the cornerstone of collaborative leadership, whether in one-to-one supervision or as the head of a large prestigious institution.  Do you have the humility and the compassion to care for those you lead, and the courage to display this authentically?  If so, that can create the kind of trust and engagement that releases high levels of potential, personal energy and performance: compassion and passion are two sides of the same coin.  It also underpins a positive environment, and is part of a leader’s core responsibility to create an organisation that people enjoy.  It is part of their life, after all, whether they are staff, student, visitor, collaborator, community member or anyone else.

To hate is always foolish, and to love is always wise.  And perhaps the greatest wisdom of all is captured in what we could presumptuously call “Leadership value number one: love others and be kind to yourselfDoug Parkin.

Booking is now open for the Leadership Summit 2018 Wisdom, Grit and Compassion, which is taking place on Friday 29 June 2018 in London. Find out more here: www.lfhe.ac.uk/Summit2018

We are delighted to announce that David Taylor best-selling author of the Naked Leader, will be closing the conference with his work on the importance of authenticity with leaders.

Doug Parkin’s book Leading Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Key Guide to designing and delivering courses was published by Routledge in 2017.

Know thyself!

After three years and six iterations of the Leadership Foundation’s innovative blended learning programme, Transition to Leadership (TTL), programme director Stuart Hunt reflects on what he has learned and why he believes the programme is so well received by participants.

When we were working on the design of the TTL programme, we were very keen to make sure that it included two elements that are not often seen in open, introductory level programmes of this kind. We have three days face-to-face and about the same amount of time for online and on-the-job learning activities, and we wanted to make the most of this time. We did not want to lecture too much (and we don’t!), nor did we want the programme to involve a lot of reading (there’s plenty, but only limited to Must Read material), but we did want some clear structure with a real chance of participants holding onto some key ideas and actually putting these into practice.  The two elements described below are what emerged from our extended development phase to help achieve these ambitions.

Co-creation
The first approach was that we wanted the process to be one of co-creation. Sure, we provide theoretical grounding and effective models for participants to review and build on, but we also take advantage of the blended and extended nature of the programme to task participants with co-designing and co-presenting their own understandings and applications of leadership based around their own experiences.

This concept of the ‘flipped’ classroom, with participants leading presentations and fielding questions from colleagues lends itself well to the culture of learning in higher education, with typically independent-minded colleagues having the opportunity to explore, challenge, and occasionally provoke, as well as to provide mutual support and personal reflection. It also provides ample opportunity for colleagues to explore the second key theme, that is self-knowledge and with it the great boon of flexibility.

Self-knowledge
Throughout the programme, we ask participants to reflect on their own styles, their own preferences, what they admire in others, what they bring to leadership that is helpful and where they may need the support of colleagues. We do not encourage participants to aim to become that which they are not. We want them to know what they are really good at and what motivates them, and to consciously seek to demonstrate these attributes to colleagues with whom they work. It is only when we know ourselves that we are in any position to deliberately choose to modify our behaviour and to become really skilful leaders. And thus the programme is filled with diagnostics, self-assessments and structured self-reflection activities, plus face-to-face and online discussions to help people understand that others may have very different perspectives.

Enhanced understanding of self
So, the content of TTL is great and I think well balanced, and this is supported by good design, but the real benefit of our programme for participants is the co-creation of understanding based on the perspective of our lived realities, together with a genuinely enhanced understanding of ourselves. Together these approaches combine to enable participants to make choices, so that they can sometimes ‘flex’ from their places of strength in order to be better able to support the needs of others with whom they work.

The programme continues to evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of higher education leaders, however the core of the programme remains tried and tested as a foundation for new leaders. I am genuinely proud of this programme.

The next run of Transition to Leadership will being on Monday 19 March 2018 and run through until Tuesday 26 June 2018. Click here to find out more about what the programme has to offer. 

Stuart Hunt is an independent consultant and has been a key associate of the Leadership Foundation since its inception. He is currently co-director for the Transition to Leadership programme. Stuart is also currently supporting a major cultural change initiative across Ukrainian Higher Education.

The art of being strategic

Doug Parkin, programme director, reflects on the Strategic Dialogue learning activity in module three of the Future Professional Directors Programme. This year the participants were joined by Professor Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton; David Relph, director at Bristol Health Partners; Justine Andrew, director, public sector at KPMG; and Helen Lloyd Wildman, chief operating officer NMITE (during FPD consultant at Royal Agricultural University) and formerly an army lieutenant colonel.

Our Future Professional Directors (FPD) programme, for aspiring leaders of professional services from all areas of an institution, is transformational by design. From the outset, we developed the programme to ensure learning would take place in a range of experiential activities and active inquiry processes.

A great example of this is the Strategic Dialogue, the centrepiece learning activity on the third and final module of the programme. This module is focused on strategy but, rather than take participants through the received wisdom on strategic planning, we focus instead on the art of ‘being strategic’.

Exploring strategic thinking

So, what does it mean to ‘be strategic’?

This question, at the heart of the Strategic Dialogue session, is explored through four different sector perspectives – higher education, health, commercial and the armed forces. The topic is brought to life by four excellent contributors, each a senior figure with strong experience in one of these worlds, who take ‘how to lead strategic engagement’ as the central theme of their presentations.

In the Future Professional Directors programme’s Strategic Dialogue, the contributors present their perspective and are then interviewed by the FPD small groups of participants. By the end of the session each participant group has created their own unique model for strategic engagement.

The bigger picture

For the participants, having the space and time to ‘lift their heads up’ from the day to day issues they face and take a broader look at how their role fits into the whole organisation – and their own responsibility for strategy development and engagement – is a crucially important part of the session says Justine Andrew.

One of the key learning goals is “getting folk to understand what strategic means and stressing that we shouldn’t be undertaking any tasks that do not contribute to the achievement of the corporate strategy,” remarks Helen Lloyd Wildman.

Nick Petford also emphasises the need in uncertain times to understand the importance of differentiating between long-term planning and strategy. Universities should develop a clear and concise single strategic document (in contrast to a myriad of sub strategies), supported by a business or operational plan designed for flexibility. The days when institutions could set a point on the horizon and expect to sail towards it without being quickly blown off course are gone for most of us.

He draws attention to the powerful link between institutional values and strategy: “there are different ways to think about strategy in a complex institution and institutional values are the fundamental building blocks of strategic thinking.”

The active nature of the session brings to life the dynamic nature of strategy and the fact that engaging people in strategic conversations is at least as important as strategy itself: this is indeed the art of ‘being strategic’ in an organisation.

Engaging professional service staff

These vital strategic conversations must be opened up early and widely. For Nick Petford, “professional service staff are key to the successful running of our universities and need to be engaged at all levels of the strategic planning process”.  Through early engagement, professional service leaders can build up a ‘coalition of the willing’ which pays dividends in the future.

Sharing knowledge

The essence of the Strategic Dialogue session is a powerful opportunity for participants to compare and contrast the challenge of strategic engagement by using the stimulus of four very different perspectives and the opportunity to probe the strategic mind-sets of successful senior leaders.

The spirit of learning around the session is energising, profound and mutually shared, which also offers deep learning opportunities for the presenters as well as the participants.

For the sector more broadly, the programme develops professional service leaders who are confident with strategic engagement and their own authentic mode of ‘being strategic’.


Future Professional Directors takes place over nine months and includes three residential modules, two action learning sets, an online environment to support continuous learning, and a 360-degree diagnostic.

Future Professional Directors is for professional service leaders from all areas of the University who have demonstrated strong leadership potential

Applications for Future Professional Directors are now open. The application deadline is Friday 23 February 2018.

Our mentorship journey Siobhan Atherley and Kerry Jordan-Daus

Siobhan Atherley is a senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ University who took part in Aurora London in 2017. Her mentor, Kerry Jordan-Daus is head of UK and International Partnerships and is on the Canterbury Christ Church Athena Swan Senior Implementation Team and the Faculty of Education Athena Swan champion. Here they take the time to reflect on their experiences and learnings as a mentor and mentee. Their relationship demonstrates conversations can provide clarity and motivation in facilitating learning and development.

Siobhan: Black

Kerry: Purple

Siobhan: I am a senior lecturer with many years experience working in higher education institutions with a range of multi professional health and social care undergraduate and post graduate students and learners. This also included working as a tutor in the Open University and as a non-medical general practice programme director in a Deanery.

I applied for Aurora as I thought it would be an opportunity to help me navigate my way in my professional career and become energised as I was feeling ‘stuck’ in my career. I felt a lack of momentum which I recognised as a hindrance in my motivation to move forward into leadership positions. For me leadership isn’t about being in charge but about being a visionary and enabling different perspectives to be shared, in bringing together talents and ideas from others. In order to shape ideas and influence change I felt that I needed to gain a leadership role but I felt stuck, and hoped that Aurora would help facilitate the personal development I needed. My successful application to Aurora gave me the learning space to reflect and challenge and start to examine how I would integrate my prior knowledge, new knowledge and future knowledge into my work as an academic.

Kerry: I am an experienced senior leader in the university’s Faculty of Education and a member of the university’s Senior Leadership Group. I am new to mentoring Aurorans but I do have significant experience of mentoring as part of my professional role as a teacher educator.

I have undertaken a number of professional development courses to support my own learning as a mentor and coach. Most recently I completed a Manager as Coach Staff Development programme through our university. I am a Department for Education designated coach and currently coach two school leaders. I find coaching to be professionally enriching. I am in a place in my own professional life where I feel I can share my own leadership journey, but I am also in a place where I want to continue to learn and grow as a leader so being a mentor and coach is also about my own learning.

I am a member of the university Athena Swan Senior Implementation Team and the Faculty of Education Athena Swan champion. I am currently completing a Doctorate in Education Leadership with a focus on gender and authentic leadership so mentoring Siobhan seemed like the right fit.

Siobhan: Due to ill-health my first mentor was unable to continue in the role. This was a great loss to me as I find her vision and articulation of the position of women in society including the workplace energising. I was grateful to her visual image and description of ‘sweeping rubbish away’ when I discussed how stuck I was feeling. It gave me permission to do just that and how important it is to move forward in a positive way. The absence of a mentor for a significant part of Aurora contributed to some of my frustrations but I was determined to get beyond this.

I realised how important the mentor was in the Aurora learning and professional development process and I chased for a replacement. Kerry was my second mentor and we met when the programme ended. The meetings took the shape of constructive coaching conversations facilitated by Kerry. With these coaching sessions, my ideas took shape, my energy increased, and I determined to change my views. I got out my broom!

At our first meeting, I admitted to Kerry that I was tired of feeling professionally stuck. For me this was a brave admission as being open might not be seen as a positive strength. I think self-awareness is important and I know many of us are wary of being honest.

Aurora set out an excellent session on a holistic presentation of ourselves. A common theme was that women are not forth coming in expressing their views in meetings for example and that confidence and assertiveness is an issue. Kerry my mentor was not judgemental and provides a space for honest reflection on thoughts and feelings and a solution focused approach to developing skills in for example assertiveness and confidence.

As busy academics, protected time for reflection is vital in maintaining flexibility and Aurora provided this space. Now, mentorship provides a support system and a vehicle for me to critically reflect on my scope of work both as an individual and as a team member. The first meeting was crucial in setting the scope and objectives for enabling me to help myself, feel more in control of where I would like to go, and how I would do this.

I believe passionately in the impact Action Learning Sets can have and although ours was less effective (we only met once perhaps owing to our geographical spread), I have continued to meet with one of the members of the group. I see this informal networking as a real benefit of Aurora.

Kerry: I met Siobhan at the end of her formal Aurora Programme. It was evident to me that she had really engaged with the messages and was determined not to ‘sit’ and wait but to put herself out there. But at that first meeting I heard her frustrations but I also heard her determination. Using the GROW Coaching Model enabled me to support Siobhan to see that there were options and that it was in her grasp to do something to secure the leadership role that she really aspired to. 

I really enjoyed the opportunity to put into practice some of the new techniques that I had been introduced to as part of my own coaching programme and I encouraged Siobhan to evaluate my mentoring/coaching approach.

Research into women in leadership (Blackmore and Sachs, 2007, Coleman 2011, Fitzgerald 2014,) highlight the diversity of women’s leadership life trajectory. Both Siobhan and I spent our first meeting talking about our lives. Work is important to both of us. It gives us a sense of identity. But our stories do not follow a neat pattern. Families, children, health all impact on our journeys. We talked about these experiences as empowering and not limiting. We found ourselves going back to history and reflected on those women who are ‘hidden from history’ (Rowbotham 1973) as our heroines.

Siobhan: It was energising discussing with Kerry the influential work undertaken by women writers and researchers in the past that we both had read, and how their reflections continue to be relevant today. For example we talked about Ann Oakley who explored women’s work both paid (the public sphere) and unpaid (in the home). I felt a sense of connection with my mentor discussing women’s literature as this aspect of women’s history in literature can be neglected and unknown. Certainly there is debate around the word ‘feminism’ and its current relevance. It would be useful to explore the juxtaposition between academic, current social and historical definitions of the private and public sphere of women and work in society, and apply to leadership in general.

Since I completed Aurora I have been appointed as cohort coordinator for the medically themed MSc pathway for clinical fellows in the Institute of Medical Science. I have also led a project to include a range of health and social care professionals in practice education and I am now part of a project exploring the facilitation of learning in the workplace for all learners across all levels and programmes. Finally, I have been invited to contribute to a proposed book exploring practice learning and I am planning to apply for Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. Within less than a year I have achieved some of the leadership space that I aspired to at the beginning of the process.

Kerry: Our mentor/mentee relationship is built upon honesty and trust. This continues to grow which is a natural part of the process of development. We have continued to meet, and the mentoring continues in an informal way. Perhaps it’s not mentoring anymore but I like to think I am providing ongoing professional support and a bit of space, which we all need and pretending otherwise feels dishonest. Both Siobhan and I are committed to our own learning and the relationship has enabled us to both continue to learn and grow as leaders. For me, it has also been about my learning as a coach and a mentor.

Siobhan: Putting together this blog has been another significant part of our developing mentee/mentor relationship – providing scaffolding to support reflection and reflexity.  Kerry and I continue to meet – I think this could continue for sometime!

Siobhan and Kerry’s blog post forms part of our mentor and mentee blogs. There are two more currently online: 


Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research which highlighted women’s under-representation in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to address this.

Dates and locations for Aurora 2017-18 are available here.

This year we are encouraging Aurora mentees and their mentors to attend the Aurora Conference 2018 on Thursday 7 June. Book now. 

Diversity – are universities sincerely up for change?

Ahead of our second Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Retreat, Simon Fanshawe, Leadership Foundation associate and partner at Diversity by Design, shares his thoughts on the need to advance diversity by thinking about the culture within institutions more broadly. The Retreat is an innovative 24 hour immersion that challenges senior leaders to redesign recruitment, promotion and staff and Board assessment processes in order to diversify their workforce and governance in order to get the most out of the talent in their institution.

There is much high level evidence that shows the value in having a diverse workforce in our universities (McKinsey 2015 etc). It is increasingly clear however that for diversity to be truly valuable it has to be articulated in terms that are specific to our subjects and fields of passion. For instance,

  • There is a richness in English literature at the moment much of which comes from the great writing in English by authors who are not English. To reflect that global depth in literature how do we diversify our English Department staff culturally?
  • With an aging population, we need to redesign how we use space and localities at home, at work and in the public realm. Diversity will vastly enrich disciplines such as design, structural engineering, and planning if we engage staff who face challenges to their mobility and can draw on their own experiences of the world.
  • If health provision needs to be more preventative how does research and treatment relate to and communicate with increasingly diverse populations? If Population Medicine is to become the norm, how will that challenge the ‘expertise’ of medical professionals who will need to understand people’s direct experience of health and how will that require a wider diversity of people in the management of medicine and health services?
  • If the axis of the world is moving east, what cultural and ethnic combinations of staff do we need in the study of world economic and shifting geopolitical forces to gain real understanding for students and research?

Change and adapt

I heard a vice-chancellor give an inaugural lecture the other day. She identified six ‘couplets’ which both helped and hindered universities to change and adapt.

Three of them particularly resonated with the work we have done on diversity in universities over the recent past:

  1. Universities have a long and distinguished sense of their tradition. But as they draw on this to produce a richness in academic research and teaching, it also produces a conservatism and risk averseness. When we propose a way of assessing candidates for recruitment or promotion so that those that are choosing the candidate are more able to assess the evidence, with their unconscious biases designed out, it always strikes us how much gentle persuasion we have to use against very traditional push back. Academics seem reluctant to change. In the trials we have been doing in universities; leadership, advocacy, and determination for change has been invaluable.
  2. She coined a phrase to describe the internalised cultures that grow up in all organisations, but specifically in universities. She called it: “normalised weirdness”. It struck me that typical university recruitment and promotion continues to be accompanied by expressions of the desire for change, yet with minimal results in the diversity of applicants, those shortlisted and eventually appointed. Such a poor return on the investment of effort would, in any of the fields of study of the same academics, lead to depressing conclusions on the evidence and a radical change in the approach to the solutions. But, instead, the lack of change in the diversity outcomes is rationalised by the “normalise weirdness” of arguing that there is a trade-off between diversity and excellence. And that despite the lack of diversity, universities are nonetheless recruiting and promoting the “best person for the job”.
  3. And her third (out of six) was a strange (my adjective, not hers) fear of experimentation, which is justified implicitly by an idea of “expertise”. There is an underlying sense that the acknowledged expertise in their field necessarily leads academics particularly to the make the right judgements. Even when the fact of clearly less diverse outcomes show clearly that the processes of recruitment and promotion are failing to draw on and boost the full range of potential talent, and instead continue to advantage hugely one group of staff. The poor diversity results nonetheless leave the claims to expertise unexamined and unchallenged.

Our response

The pace of change in diversifying our governing bodies is also slow and there is a need to look at the underlying reasons of this. This Retreat aims to provide that opportunity in a collegiate and collaborative atmosphere to develop practical solutions which will diversify staff and Board/Council members. It will run on separate and interlinking strands. Bringing together both representatives from the executive and the Board/Council, we will give participants time to work on questions which are within the separate remits of governance and the executive. And then there will be space for both to come together to look at whole institution responses

Built on these principles, the 24 hour Retreat will offer space to:

  1. Examine the latest research on diversity – the reasons for the relative lack of progress, issues in selection, questions around bias and how to design it out, high performing teams – and apply it to the specific needs of your institution.
  2. Hear examples from the work of Leadership Foundation and Diversity by Design in universities – what has worked, where change needs to happen in processes and the hurdles to overcome.
  3. Develop some practical solutions (in governance and operation) for your institution, working with colleagues from other universities.
  4. Lead even more effectively on diversity.
  5. Reflect on how diversity can drive the core functions of a university – teaching, research, student experience and impact on the world – regionally, nationally and globally

In conclusion, the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Retreat has been designed to create a significant difference in how universities can benefit from practical diversity strategies. A huge amount of goodwill and good work is taking place in universities, and this programme seeks to build upon that through the energising of senior executives and governors to enhance their knowledge and tools to support the creation and development of long lasting change.

How to book
The second run of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Retreat will take place in April. Designed for senior leaders and governors it is free to attend. The one-day intensive programme will be delivered by Simon Fanshawe OBE, former chair of University of Sussex, and Roy Hutchins, former director of Astar Management Consultants Ltd, alongside Vijaya Nath, director of leadership development at the Leadership Foundation, and Roger Kline, research fellow at Middlesex University and an associate of Public World. For more information or to book your place online, use this link: EDI April 2018

This is one of three blogs that we shall be publishing in the coming weeks by the leads of our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Retreat

Financial literacy for strategic managers: a simple solution

business workplace

Melvyn Keen, programme director of the Leadership Foundation’s Strategic Finance Programme dissects the importance of financial literacy for strategic leaders, in the context of Hefce’s recent annual review of the health of the higher education sector.

According to Hefce’s annual review of the higher education sector’s financial heath, university finances continue to be sound overall but there is a “widening gap between the lowest and highest performing institutions.” Do you know if your institution is at the right end of that gap?  How do you work out where it sits? Do you understand how your institution’s strategy is improving its financial sustainability?

While Hefce’s financial reviews are doubtless required reading for your institution’s finance directors, it’s probably not the case for other senior managers. Even if they do glance at them, they might not feel confident that they really have a firm grasp on what they mean – and what the impact is for your institution.

Yet a clear understanding of the figures is crucial to good strategic decision-making. Senior leaders need to understand how their institution’s finances stack up and how sustainable they are in order to plan, grow and strengthen.

At the Leadership Foundation we recognised this need and developed our Strategic Finance programme specifically to demystify financial reviews and forecasts for senior managers without a background in finance.

The Strategic Finance programme will help you to understand how you can develop a picture of an organisation’s financial sustainability. Just as Hefce does with its financial forecasts review, we look at (and, more importantly, explain) sustainability through surpluses, cash generated from those surpluses, levels of borrowing, sources of capital funding and other measures. We explain how reserves are accumulated, what they represent and what the impact of large pension deficits in the sector (and beyond) might be.

Once you understand what contributes to financial sustainability and how these measures relate to each other, the next step is to develop a better understanding of the impact of strategic decisions on an institution’s finances. The programme looks at some simple financial decision-making tools to assess resource planning and capital investments.

The Hefce review tells us that levels of borrowing across the sector are predicted to rise from £8.9 billion at the end of 2015-16 to £11.7 billion by the end of 2019-20.   As a strategic decision-maker, you need to understand how much your institution can borrow, if it needs to, where from and what the implications could be. We take a look at the different types of borrowing out there, how you judge if an institution can afford to borrow and what banks and the funding bodies are looking at when assessing that affordability.

Building senior managers’ financial and legal literacy is critical if they are to operate confidently in higher education’s complex area of financial resourcing. It’s worth having a glance at Hefce’s review and assessing if you’ve got the right tools for the job to decode it.

After working for Price Waterhouse, Andersen Consulting and as Interim Finance Director at the University of Cambridge, Melvyn Keen moved to Middlesex University as Director of Finance. In his 13 years at Middlesex University Melvyn went on to become Deputy Vice-Chancellor and held the position of Deputy Chief Executive before moving on to set up his own consultancy practice.

The Strategic Finance Programme is for senior executive leaders who are looking to demystify the complexities of university finances. Previous attendees of the programme have included deputy vice-chancellors, pro vice-chancellors, deans, heads of school and professional service departments and directors.

Taking place over two, two-day modules with additional coaching and online learning, the next cohort of the programme will start on 26 February 2018 in Greater London. Find out more and book a place here: Leadership Foundation Strategic Finance Programme

Why Leadership Matters

Christine Abbott is a facilitator of Leadership Matters, the Leadership Foundation’s programme for senior women in higher education. Christine has has spent almost all her career in higher education, most recently as university secretary & director of Operations at Birmingham City University. Here she considers how women can achieve senior roles in the sector and how Leadership Matters can support this.  

It is often said that success, in any walk of life, is less about what you know, than who you know. In our now extensively connected world this is increasingly true. Nevertheless good networks alone are rarely enough. Certainly successful leadership requires the ability to engage with people, to understand their motivations, and to recognise and develop their talents. But in addition, a sound bedrock of knowledge and experience are also needed. However the work environment is now so complex, and in such a state of continuing flux, that claiming to know enough to fully understand one’s organisation can seem a fanciful statement.

The tube map of universities

Navigating the current higher education sector, or even one’s own University, can sometimes feel more like travelling in the London underground than following the A to Z. A tourist in London might go down into the tube at Marble Arch, and pop back up at Westminster, and recognise the landmarks in both locations; but they may have little idea of the route between the two places, or what sits above ground as they travel through the tunnels. In our Universities this feeling of limited understanding can become a particular concern when colleagues move from one role to another, or from one department, faculty or service area to another. Moving between institutions or gaining promotion can exacerbate that consciousness of the blocks or blind spots in our understanding.

Why Leadership Matters

The aim of the Leadership Matters course is to fill in some of those gaps in understanding and knowledge, by looking at the frameworks – the strategic, financial, and governance frameworks – within which our institutions operate. Participants on previous cohorts have often been those who have gained promotion to middle or senior management positions, which bring them, perhaps for the first time, into a broader University arena, and feel there are gaps in their understanding of how the whole University entity fits together and functions.

The programme aims to help participants to get to grips with how their University operates, how it takes critical decisions, and the financial, legal, and reputational considerations that impact upon its decisions.

Module one, which is led by Gill Ball and myself, aims to ‘humanise’ some potentially dry topics, such as funding and finance, governance and decision making. Through practical small group work there will be plenty of opportunity for hands-on learning. Module one also includes a session led by a senior woman leader from the sector, on ‘navigating the organisation’. This session links the organisational perspective with the individual and personal, and provides the bridge into the Action Learning Sets and module two.

The second module, which is led by Rachael Ross and Sally Cray, focuses more closely on how to develop the personal impact necessary to be successful as a senior woman leader.

Impact of the programme

Leadership Matters is now being run for the eighth time, and from the outset the Leadership Foundation was keen for the programme to be women-only. The programme director, Rachael Ross, and the programme leaders have discussed a number of times the rationale for this, since as concerns module one, the topics discussed, and the approaches used, are gender neutral. Our conclusion, which has been reaffirmed after each of the cohorts that we have led to date, is that the women-only aspect of the programme enables a particularly rich and reflective quality to the discussions. This is most notably the case in the Action Learning Sets, and in module two of the programme, as colleagues draw upon their personal experiences of leadership and their leadership journey. As programme director Rachael Ross says: “We find that our senior delegates value a women-only programme. They are able to deepen their understanding of these key topics in an open, reflective way, challenge themselves to “claim” their unique leadership approach, and build a supportive network of women leaders right across higher education.”

It is the blend of the broad organisational perspective with the personal that makes this programme special.

At more junior levels in one’s career, the concern is primarily to be able to provide the answers to the questions you are asked. The more senior your role, the more important it becomes to know the questions to ask, how to ask them, and to whom those questions can and should be addressed. The Leadership Matters programme is designed to help female colleagues to identify both the questions, and the audience for those questions, and so to develop their confidence and effectiveness in their leadership roles.


Leadership Matters will be taking place in  Manchester and Bristol in Winter, and Spring respectively in the next academic year. For more information and to book a place please click here.