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.