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.

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