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.


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