Research impact: the importance of effective research management

Tunnel Image

Striving to achieve impact from academic research may appear to be a wholly good thing, but how research leaders and managers interpret what impact means is vital to ensuring they can generate outstanding impact. Catherine O’Connell, lecturer, Liverpool Hope University, asks whether current formulaic interpretations of research impact have a limited, rather than enabling, effect on higher education institutions.

The introduction of research impact to the Research Excellence Framework 2014 prompted significant consternation in the academic community at the time. For some it was perceived as an erosion of academic freedom and increased government control of research agendas. However, a cautious optimism has been evident in some quarters on the potential to broaden the concept of research excellence in a constructive way. The Million+ group, in its response to the Stern Review consultation, indicated that the process would be ‘valuable even if no funding decisions were associated’. The importance of this policy formulation is emphasised by newer universities in recognising and supporting a broader range of applied and translational research, and increased attention paid to delivering on universities’ civic duties. Even more telling is the recently announced decision by Hefce to increase the weighting of impact from 20% in 2014 to 25% in 2021.

So, how do higher education leaders and managers make strategic decisions on how to identify, nurture and select impact examples from research? And how could the Leadership Foundation contribute?

Tunnel vision

Research conducted by Watermeyer & Hedgcoe mid-way through the last REF cycle (2009-2014) highlighted local responses to impact policy in research-intensive institutions. They observed a tendency to frame impact around the activities of individual (and commonly senior-level) academics which can affect the level of resources and support available for earlier career academics in impact-related activities. Watermeyer also identified a tendency among academics to interpret impact in relation to interactions with government, reflecting ‘a rather one-dimensional form of impact as emergent from interactions with a singular research beneficiary/user’. For example policymakers, who are only one specific type of beneficiary from academic research, overlooking industry, public, private and voluntary sectors, as well as the higher education sector itself.

Panoramic view

What is needed is a more critical debate around what impact means, how it can be supported and how broadening the definitions, mechanisms and support for impact planning can ultimately enhance research impact for public and institutional good. The Leadership Foundation has published research on a data mining exercise of impact from REF case studies on leadership, governance and management, which has informed the development of a toolkit. The toolkit aims to assist research leaders, managers and individual researchers to develop an embedded and strategic approach to research impact, covering a broad spectrum of impact areas to enable different staff groups and stakeholders to coordinate their approach to impact. One such tool (Tool 8, Anticipating the horizon of possible benefits) stimulates thinking about where impact might occur across a whole spectrum of categories – from Culture to Policy, and Technology to Environment – and uses prompt questions to discern the nature of such potential impact.

Analysis of the 46 impact case studies in my area of higher education -focused educational research demonstrated greater diversity of impact activities than anticipated by earlier research. There is only limited information in the public domain on those studies which achieved 3 and 4* but, of the case studies where grading can be determined, several reflected pedagogic research and impact strategies aimed at broader policy communities.

Why the narrow face?

To understand this better, I have interviewed academics who have suggested that instead of a broad interpretation of impact, a more formulaic response to impact was described in many cases which seemed to prioritise particular forms of research (based on prevailing hierarchies of research reputation) and effectively narrow the parameters of national REF impact policy:

My university wants impact supported only by 3 or 4 star research – I think that’s a mistake. 

Several interviewees, in senior academic positions, reflected on the advice they were inclined to pass on to early career researchers; effectively to advise against pursuing particular forms of research, such as research conducted with policy communities rather than policy makers. The disenchantment expressed was troubling and reflected largely negative experiences of local management of REF impact policy:

So we’ve got this mad game playing now where you start to decide what is and what isn’t impact in quite draconian ways…  so they’re already starting to be shaped up and crafted, and then anything else that’s outside those case studies, whether it has impact or not, it doesn’t really matter because they’re not important…

Impact leadership to enable

Impact brings a new element to research evaluation policy that gives conceptual and managerial space for interpretation. The Leadership Foundation 2014 report ‘Academic leadership: changing conceptions, identities and experiences in UK higher education’ emphasises the qualities of management and leadership sought by the academic community: of enabling environments which can nurture the next generation of researchers; fostering academic citizenship and reflecting different ways of making a contribution. Potentially, impact can value a broader range of research activities and give recognition to different types of research contribution. In the Research Leader’s Impact Toolkit, emphasis is placed upon the importance of understanding context, engagement and collaboration at an institutional and research team level.

However, the formulaic and normative interpretations of REF impact policy identified in several organisational contexts suggest that impact policy is having a limiting rather than enabling effect. There are clear challenges but also opportunities at organisational level in responding to this indicator constructively and in defining institutional policy responses which foster inclusion rather than exclusion within the academic community.

As highlighted in my study, in some organisations impact policy is being interpreted in ways that resonate with, and build upon, academics’ research practices in departmental and faculty contexts:

I actually became quite a fan. I thought it was something significant and important and it brought to light some of the research people were doing that was having really significant effect in people’s lives […]  That kind of research hasn’t necessarily been valued.

Having a critical debate to develop and define local impact policies and practices, from the strategic to the operational, can be an important first step in this journey – and resources like the Research Leader’s Impact Toolkit will be a valuable companion.

Catherine O’Connell is a Lecturer in Education Studies at the Centre for Education and Policy Analysis, Liverpool Hope University.

Find out more about our Research Leader’s Impact Toolkit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/RIT

Download Dr Elizabeth Morrow’s report on The Impact of Higher Education Leadership, Governance and Management Research: Mining the 2014 Research Excellence Framework Impact Case Studies: www.lfhe.ac.uk/Morrow5.2

Bringing something to the (coffee) table: the mutual benefits of sponsorship

Participants on the Diversifying Leadership Programme are assigned a career sponsor. In this post, programme director Jannett Morgan reflects an early sponsorship encounter.

When a senior leader invited me to “go for a coffee”, little did I know it would be the beginning of a fruitful and long-lasting sponsorship relationship. I met “Kevin” (not his real name) many years ago while on a career development programme for aspiring BME leaders. I was a young(ish) ambitious manager in a successful further education college and highly respected by my colleagues. Kevin was one of the keynote speakers, clearly someone with clout in the sector. And unbeknown to me, I was on Kevin’s radar, hence the coffee invitation.

We would meet up every once in awhile in the foyer of a local hotel. While our meetings were informal in nature, there was always an underlying business brief. I learned to appreciate Kevin’s directness and his desire to discover what made me tick. At first glance one might think a white male and black female had little in common, but our love of family, passion for teaching and belief in social justice revealed similar values. The fact I’m a Spurs fan and he supports that other North London team could have been a deal breaker but we’ve managed to work through this. So far.

As our relationship evolved, Kevin began inviting me to senior-level business meetings and (knowing I was someone who could deliver results) putting my name forward for work. He also invited me to leaving drinks and other social functions – a fascinating study of how leaders behave when off duty.

Sponsorship is not mentorship

Back then I’d not heard the term ‘sponsor’ applied in this way. Mentoring is one of, if not the most favoured development activities offered to BME and other minority ethnic staff groups. Certainly, mentoring from a senior member of staff can be effective in terms of boosting confidence and career upskilling –  a bit like having your own personal Master Yoda at work. So what’s the difference? Sponsorship can be more of a career game changer than mentorship because the sponsor uses his (or her – usually his) influence and power to open doors for you. For me, the spoils of sponsorship to date include visibility, more lucrative contracts and access to a much wider network of associates.

BME staff tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored. And yet, a study by the Center for Talent Innovation found employees from ethnic minorities who had sponsors were two-thirds more likely than their unsponsored peers to be satisfied with their career progression rate. Sponsorship doesn’t just benefit the protégé, either. What’s in it for the sponsor? Well, Kevin’s interest in me wasn’t based on altruism; the return on his ‘investment’ in me was my technical expertise, cultural capital and operational capacity. Most of all, he knew I was a loyal and trustworthy colleague.

For this reason, participants on the Diversifying Leadership Programme have the opportunity to work with a sponsor and develop a mutually rewarding ‘quid pro quo’ relationship. Like the one I continue to enjoy with Kevin.

Actually, Kevin and I are due another coffee very soon. Given Spurs are ahead in the table, I guess I’m buying.

The Leadership Foundation has published a Sponsor Toolkit for use by senior leaders in UK higher education who are sponsoring participants on the Diversifying Leadership. Diversifying Leadership offers targeted leadership development support to early career BME academics and professional services staff.  The Sponsor Toolkit is available at www.lfhe.ac.uk/DLSponsorToolkit

For details of the next run of the Diversifying Leadership Programme click here

Challenges facing good governance

We are delighted to have launched our 2017-18 governance year with a joint event with HEPI, the leading policy institute of higher education in the UK. In this blog post we provide a summary of the debate on the challenges facing good governance that took place last month, which included contributions from governors and governance specialists from within and outside of higher education.

Following adverse comments in the press on its leadership and speculation about changes to the future funding of the English higher education system, the panel session organised by the Leadership Foundation and Higher Education Policy Institute on the challenges facing good governance in higher education proved timely.

The panel brought together individuals working in higher education, those who had chaired and served on governing bodies and those involved with regulation and governance in other sectors of the economy. Panel members offered different perspectives on higher education governance, noting areas of strength, but also highlighting aspects of governance that needed attention.

The context of the discussion was the scale of change facing institutions. ‘Winners’ and ‘losers’ were emerging from competition for students and funding. Balancing the academic and business aspects of running an institution had become more challenging. A dynamic environment made conventional five-year strategic plans a thing of the past. The changes were placing greater demands on governing bodies, changing the manner in which they needed to operate.

Central to good governance was the relationship between the head of the institution and the executive team and the governing body. A culture of openness and trust, was needed to encourage governors to act as ‘critical friends’; able to question and support the institution’s leadership as appropriate. There should be ‘no surprises’. The role of governors was summed-up as ‘noses in; hands out’.

Good governance meant that it was insufficient to focus on structure: attention needs to be paid to processes. In this context, it was important to examine how governance really operated, and not how it was described on paper.

Engagement of the governing body with the institution was critical: ‘lazy’ governance should be avoided. Governors need to hear about issues, while being mindful that the actions to address any issues raised would normally fall to the executive. Effective engagement might mean, for example, participating in staff and student forums held outside of the formal meetings of the governing body. Similarly, in the reverse direction, academic staff might need to be educated about the work of the governing body and its members. Each needed to understand the other.

The composition and orientation of a governing body was key to underpinning effective governance. As governing bodies were now expected to seek assurance about academic governance, the need to have lay governors with an understanding of the higher education sector had grown. Equally, it was important to have members who would forensically examine matters in great detail (e.g. in relation to matters of audit and compliance) as well as individuals who had a deep understanding of finance. Similarly, a governing body should have individuals amongst its membership who had a creative mindset, thereby helping to avoid a governing body becoming overly risk-adverse.

Governors must be able to demonstrate that they are competent in discharging their responsibilities. There should be a process of governor evaluation allowing a conversation between, say, an independent governor and the chair of the governing body to take place at regular intervals. Where a governor was unable to contribute effectively, the individual should be asked to step-down from the governing body.

Chairs and heads of institutions should discuss and agree how the governance within the institution would operate. Setting the right ‘tone’ in the boardroom was crucial. This could, for example, mean encouraging the executive to share ideas, as part of a process of testing and development, with the governing body at a formative stage, rather putting a chosen and well-developed option to the governing body for endorsement.

There was a high-risk that following the most recent criticism levelled at higher education, the sector would respond in a defensive manner: this would be a mistake. The danger was that the sector ‘feels sorry for itself’. Far better to reflect on the matters raised, consider carefully and then respond. Universities also had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes made in other sectors, and to avoid making the same mistakes. The observation was made that ‘universities don’t have the right to be silent’. Accountability was an essential part of autonomy. The risk was that if institutions did not take early and effective action, someone else would.

It was noted that in comparison to other professions such as law and medicine, academic staff were in an easier place in relation to professional codes of practice. For these other professions, there were explicit codes of behaviour, and an individual was at risk of facing sanctions if they failed to adhere to them.

An element of radicalism was needed in relation to institutional governance. The following conditions needed to be met:

• Governance needed to be perceived as honest and independent
• The role of a university, including the balance between teaching and research, needed to be made clear
• The processes of governance needed to be sufficiently open and transparent
• ‘Active’ trust needed to be achieved

Critically it was important to invest time into making the board process meaningful.

As one speaker noted, being a governor might be characterised as ‘intelligent people, asking stupid questions’.

David Williams is the editor of the Leadership Foundation’s governance website. We are hosting a major governance conference Governance: Improving Effectiveness for a New Age on Thursday 30 November. To book places for this conference or on our other governance development programmes and events, or to access our governance resources please go to www.lfhe.ac.uk/governance

To find out more about the work of HEPI, and also whether your institution is a member of the HEPI University Partnership Programme (providing advance embargoed access to all HEPI reports and briefing papers), please contact Sarah Isles, s.isles@hepi.ac.uk at HEPI.

Do university leaders really understand how they are creating value in their universities?

In advance of the Leadership Foundation’s announcement of the universities that will be taking part in the new Integrated Thinking and Report project, Kim Ansell, managing consultant, sets out why the time has never been so important for getting to grips with creating and communicating value. 

Setting out long-term plans in the face of sector-wide turbulence is a challenge for every executive team and it is clear that given very recent government policy commitments, many of the assumptions underpinning institutional strategies have to be revisited, even if they were written as recently as a year ago.

These strategies are often being pursued in isolation without a real understanding of the wider risks and potential to destroy rather than create value. At a time when universities are facing ever more scrutiny and public accountability some have started to embrace a new way of thinking and reporting based on the Integrated Reporting Framework. This framework goes further than simply describing an organisation’s financial performance and among other things describes its contribution to society, the environment and its own community and stakeholders.

One of the challenges that universities face is summed up in a recent article on Media FHE by Professor Nick Talbot, deputy vice-chancellor for research and impact at Exeter University, on how higher education can defend itself from critics.  He asserts that, “It is almost as if there were two higher education sectors – the ‘schooly’ bit and the ‘researchy’ bit, which exist as separate islands”.

Although written in the context of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), this remark makes the case perfectly for integrated thinking, and the Leadership Foundation believes that if universities can create a joined-up approach to thinking and reporting, aligned to clear business and value creation models, they will more successfully navigate the journey ahead and overcome barriers to sustainable strategic planning.

In particular, the need to be able to communicate to all stakeholders (from employees and governors to students and strategic partners) that the institution is creating value in the short, medium and long term is critical to leadership success.

With this in mind we are planning to unpack the concept of Integrated Reporting and facilitate the journey; to think about the full range of resources (or capitals), for example:

  • Intellectual Capital
  • Human Capital
  • Social and Relationship Capital
  • Financial Capital
  • Environmental Capital

Understanding the trade-off between such resources when making strategic decisions is something which could be more successful and provide more sustainable outcomes if done in the context of an informed and disciplined approach to integrated thinking.

University leaders need information that assists them in making sense of a complex world and the direction of travel their institution is likely to take. There have been a plethora of articles recently, referring to changing business and financial models in universities, public value and value for money. Equally there continues to be events, conferences and articles ‘talking’ about institutional strategy, but the Leadership Foundation aims to take the talking one step further: to test and evaluate what works and to provide some real examples of how universities can mobilise integrated thinking and reporting to drive value creation and to implement a sustainable and  successful strategy. With the support of an expert steering group, and building on previous work done by British Universities Finance Directors Group, we will consider what universities need to do

In this new work we aim to tackle sensitive issues with objectivity and equip institutions and their governing bodies with the skills, knowledge and insights to be able to evidence and report on holistic value creation and contribution, and provide necessary assurance on this key topic.

The time has never been better for universities to look to integrated thinking and integrated reporting to help them on their journey through these turbulent times in UK higher education.

For more on the Leadership Foundation’s Integrating Thinking and Reporting project visit www.lfhe.ac.uk/IntegratedThinking 

In conversation with Tessa Harrison, King’s College London

Tessa Harrison is the Director of Students and Education at King’s College London. Ahead of speaking during Module 2 of Leadership Matters in November, we asked Tessa about her leadership style, being resilient, and the impact having a coach has had for her.

Tessa has spent almost 30 years in the higher education sector. She was previously the Chair of the Association of University Administrators (AUA) and spent 6 years prior to this on its board, as well as 2 years on the board of the Leadership Foundation.

Her focus is on students and improving their experience, and she has been bringing a new perspective to her work since her son became a student in October 2016.

What’s important to you as a leader?

I think for me what’s most important is absolute clarity. Clarity about my own narrative, what I am trying to achieve for my organisation and why I am trying to achieve it.

I’ve learnt over the years that having a very strong personal narrative is really fundamental and I wish I had learnt it earlier. I have found that having a strong purpose is making things easier in terms of having the conversations I need to have, and providing inspiration and guidance for my team in what can be choppy times in the sector.

I also think appointing and being motivated by the very best people is essential.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I don’t think I can label it. I think my leadership style is about coaching, recognising that people you work with are talented and that everyone comes to work to do the best job they can.  My job is to create the environment where they can be the best they can be. My leadership style is to be very open, honest, and to be a good giver of feedback. I also like receiving feedback, and have learnt over the years that having honest, reflective conversations is the best way to create a trusting workspace and to drive high performance.

What comes naturally to you as a leader? And what do you feel you have to work on?

Openness, honesty, humility and a good sense of humour come naturally to me.

What I’m working on is the challenge that when you get to a senior level that you need to recognise you are not the expert anymore. I often have days when I ask myself “what have I contributed to moving the organisation forward or moving my directorate forward?” I think making that transition from your day job being about doing things to your day job being about being a leader and enabling other people to do things can be a really hard transition to make and I think it is one we don’t pay enough attention to.  I try to work on that every day.

To tackle this leadership challenge, I have my own coach who helps me articulate the moments when I am getting in the way of others. My coach provides a safe space where I can explore what I am doing and what I think I need to be doing differently. I also try and encourage the people who report to me to be very honest with me when I am not getting it right. You will frequently hear me say to my leadership team, “I need your help with this”. I hope that this approach also helps those I work with on their journey from subject specialist to senior leadership positions to also be open and honest.

At the start of your career what were the biggest barriers to progression you were faced with and what advice would you give to someone aspiring to a leadership role facing similar barriers?

I have always been quite ambitious, not in a naked ambitious way but more internally focussed. I recognised very early on that I had to move institutions in order to progress and I have done that 5 times. I was very fortunate that my family situation made that possible, and I know that it’s not always possible for others.

The advice I would give someone aspiring to a leadership role is to get yourself a coach. Find a coach who is trained in preparing you for senior leadership and to support you through the transitions you make throughout your leadership career.  A coach can also help you define and refine the personal narrative I mentioned above.

How did you find a coach, and how would you recommend others do the same?

The coach I had was made available to me by the organisation I was about to leave. I then took the opportunity when I first started at King’s College London to train to be a coach and we’re in the process of trying to imbed a coaching culture here so that there is an internal register available for staff. But there are numerous ways of procuring a coach externally, via professional bodies like AUA for example.

Managers also need to recognise that their staff getting a coach does not mean they are not getting what they need from you as a manager- it’s a very different relationship. It’s transformational having that person with you and I strongly advise anyone on a leadership journey to get one.

Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, forms part of the Leadership Matters reading list- how important is vulnerability to you as a leader?

Absolutely critical. I think vulnerability and humility are fundamental to good leadership. In the last 6-12 months I’ve really drawn on vulnerability as part of my leadership style and narrative and I can see the effect it has. It is very disarming when someone admits, “I didn’t quite get that right” or “I don’t know what to do in this situation”. I feel strongly that we need to learn to be vulnerable with each other. I think too many organisations are run by people, often but not always men, who have never learnt to be vulnerable, and that is really concerning.  I derive strength from being a woman able to bring humility and vulnerability to discussion and decision making.

What would be some of the milestones that you think “that’s a point where my leadership changed”?

It was when I left an organisation without a job to go to. I’ve always been the breadwinner, and that was the most terrifying moment of my life. My network absolutely wrapped its arms around me at that time and I joined King’s as a result. In the interim I had 2-3 months space where I really had time to reflect on what I wanted my contribution to be. So although it was terrifying, and I empathise with others going through the same experience, those 2-3 months were absolutely transformational for me. I came to King’s with clarity: about my role and about what I wanted to do with it and I can see and feel the difference for both myself and the people around me.

What would you say if someone were to ask you, what makes you most resilient?

The experience I had before joining King’s has made me more resilient. I survived and came out stronger than before. I derive confidence from being able to ask myself, “what’s the worst that can happen?” and to be able to remind myself that even worst case situations can be rescued.

Thinking about your career and experiences, what advice would you give your younger self?

The one piece of advice I would give myself and women in particular is learn how to have the conversation about the terms of your contract, particularly your pay. I’ve never been good at having that conversation but I make a point now, particularly when I hire women, to say “now is your time to tell me what you really want from your pay and conditions, because you won’t have another opportunity to have this conversation”. I make sure that conversation is a comfortable conversation.

My advice is know your value and learn how to lead that conversation about what you want and expect.

Read more: we asked Tessa to review Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg


Tessa Harrison will be the keynote speaker on Day 2 of Module 2 of Leadership Matters in Birmingham.

Leadership Matters Birmingham Autumn 
Module 1: 
Tuesday 17- Wednesday 18 October (residential)
Action Learning Set: Tuesday 7 November
Module 2: Wednesday 29 – Thursday 30 November (residential)

Book your space now.

Leadership Matters will also 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.

Our mentorship journey: Cathie Barnett and Simon Chandler-Wilde

Catherine (Cathie) Barnett is a senior research fellow in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading who took part in Aurora London in 2016-17. Following advice from a role model she decided to ask for a mentor outside of her discipline and was matched with Simon Chandler-Wilde, dean of diversity and inclusion and professor of applied mathematics at the University of Reading. Here they reflect on their relationship as mentee and mentor

Firstly, tell us a little about yourself

Cathie: My original background was in both environmental and archaeological sciences and I worked in management of environmental impact assessments for an engineering company before coming to Reading. After completing my PhD I worked in a commercial archaeological unit as the Senior Geoarchaeologist then Principal Archaeological Scientist before returning to Reading in 2014 to take up this position. Not a traditional academic and research path by any means.

My current role is split between archaeological science research and project management of a large Iron Age Landscape project named Silchester Environs. I also line manage an excellent team of archaeologists and specialists who work on a series of Silchester excavation and post-excavation projects, and report in turn to the Principal Investigator Prof. Mike Fulford.

I’m married to a land manager for the Wildlife Trust and we have 3 boisterous little boys so the outdoors features heavily in my life. They are wonderful and exhausting, so I’m fortunate to have negotiated an unusual working pattern which allows me to balance home life with them and still deliver on a busy work schedule.

Simon: I’ve worked in a number of universities – Bradford, Coventry, Brunel, and I joined Reading in 2003. In my role as dean for diversity and inclusion I job share with my colleague Professor Ellie Highwood, the rest of the time I am an academic. My role as dean is a fairly new university role which we took up 2 years ago.

I’m married – my wife has a senior role at Buckinghamshire New University – and have two daughters; one has just finished university and is now a journalist, the other is in her last year at school.

How did your approach the process of mentorship?

Simon: Cathie and I hadn’t met before, we were paired up by Susan Thornton, our Leadership and Talent Development Manager and Aurora Champion, and then we got in contact by email and had a first meet up. Helpfully we were provided with a pro forma that Cathie completed and we discussed, where Cathie wrote down what she hoped to get out of Aurora and having a mentor. This was really helpful to set the scene initially, and to refer back to in order to focus subsequent discussions.

We met four or five times, about monthly, from about Christmas through to May, meeting about an hour each time. There was no huge structure to the meetings, except that the initial pro forma provided a continuing point of reference, and that we would agree at most of these meetings follow-on actions that Cathie would report back on. Also, I continued to ask what had happened on the Aurora front since the previous meeting, and what outcomes/impact that had had. But we also talked about other things, for example we found out that Cathie was going on holiday in Shropshire just a few miles away from where I go for holiday most years, so we discussed holiday activities too!

My approach to being a mentor is to be interested, encouraging and supportive, and to ask open questions, to get a sense of my mentee’s environment, career, aspirations and issues that she/he wants to tackle. I’m also wanting to explore my mentee’s understanding of the next steps ahead, and to ask questions to expand that understanding. As a more experienced mentor I can make my mentee aware of possibilities, and how stuff works, that they just haven’t been exposed to. And it’s really satisfying to seek to build confidence, for example to challenge and support my mentee to have new conversations with colleagues in her environment.

Cathie: One tip given by one of the role models on the first Aurora day was to aim for a senior mentor outside your own department. Good advice!

Simon has been very encouraging and supportive, I’ve enjoyed our meetings and having another in the diary focuses my mind. I have found it particularly useful to talk to someone so familiar with the university procedures and who could take an objective view of how I fit in the system. I particularly value that he asked and let me find my way to answers rather than leading with advice straight away, it’s a lesson I’m going to try and apply when talking to colleagues and students myself.

Simon, what inspired you to become a mentor?

Simon: Firstly I’ve had great mentors myself, people senior to me who have offered advice, encouraged me to stretch myself, and acted as sounding boards. Secondly, in the leadership and people management roles I have had, for example as head of department and head of school, but also at a lower level, e.g. as line manager for research staff working for me, I’ve enjoyed supporting staff in their development. This has included: personal development reviews, supporting applications for promotion, for research grants, and for new jobs. I think it’s a really important part of our role as any sort of people manager to support the staff we work with and help them to grow and develop (and move up to the next level), and it’s a part of the job that gives me great satisfaction.

Has the mentoring relationship continued?

Cathie: Yes it has, both informally, I know Simon will be there with a listening ear and good advice if and when I need him, and we have a more formal follow-up meeting in the diary. He has also kept me informed of further leadership training which he felt I might be interested in, and which I recently took advantage of.

What has been your biggest learning from the process?

Cathie: I’ve learnt a great deal in our discussions and of course through Aurora as a whole. One of my key aims for doing this was to grow in confidence and to gain more of a voice. By nature I’m rather reticent, awkward and apologetic in putting myself forward in areas such as progression and promotion or in challenging ideas with senior colleagues, although I suspect my colleagues don’t realise it. Speaking with my mentor has helped me be a little braver, I have had conversations in the last 6 months I would have shied away from before and have had some really positive outcomes including further leadership training and setting objectives for further progression within the university. I’ve also learnt that there are gaps in the current system which, when discussed openly, the University are keen to tackle and that there’s a great deal of support and encouragement available if you ask.

Simon: I’ve been an Aurora mentor more than once, and certainly I have played a more informal role as mentor on many other occasions. But I am continuing to learn through practice, and continuing to gain confidence as a mentor. Regarding confidence, it is becoming clearer to me – but really this is pretty obvious – that having done a lot of different things in a lot of roles, and having held senior positions where you are forced to understand how the university (and universities generally) work, I do have a lot that I can pass on, and I am well-equipped to know the right questions to ask to get Cathie (and other mentees) reflecting on what they are doing and what might be possible in the future.

Cathie, have you ever been a mentor yourself and would you consider being one in the future?

I have been, and am now a line manager and try to be an advocate and to encourage my colleagues to take up learning opportunities, to stretch themselves and become more personally visible, but I have not been a mentor to someone beyond my immediate team. I would like to offer that in the future, and have recently let my department know I would be happy to contribute by acting as one. I have a better idea now of what would be useful to mentees having gone through the process myself and having had such a positive experience.

Cathie, what was the best piece of advice you received from your mentor?

I’ve had lots of great discussions with Simon but one of the key things I’ve taken from him has been to take stock, to stand back to look at all I have already achieved and how that has already equipped me for leadership roles. On a practical level, that has led to me recording everyday activities more often and considering how these tasks provide direct evidence for my capability in specific research and leadership areas key to progression.

Simon, what piece of advice would you give other aspiring women leaders?

My advice is to stretch and challenge yourself; to develop confidence through stretching yourself and trying new leadership roles; and to remember that the people more senior to you are only slightly (if at all) different, were at your level rather recently, and are much less confident (and competent) than they may come across.

Talk and ask questions about how everything works and what is possible. Get into the habit of saying: “I could do that”.

Finally, good employers should develop their staff and provides routes and opportunities for promotion and development and taking on new roles – and certainly universities are large enough organisations that this should be possible – but do think also about moving employers as a route to progression, and as a means to reinvent yourself. My own last move – 15 miles down the road from Brunel in 2003 – had a huge impact on my career.

And finally, do you have an inspiring woman leader, and if so, who?

Cathie: My primary female role model is an absolute cliché, being my mother. She retrained from being a GP to become a consultant psychiatrist while I was a toddler specifically so that she could take on part time roles and juggle home life with a successful and meaningful career. It taught me that it can be very healthy for children to see the women in their lives following their chosen profession without being absent. I hope I’m achieving the same balance with my boys.

Simon: There are many women that I’ve encountered who have inspired and impressed me, and that I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside, or working for them as my boss.

Let me kick off – maybe a good place to start– with my wife , Dr Rebecca Chandler-Wilde, who is director of Enterprise at Buckinghamshire New University. I admire her judgement, not least in managing people and relationships, her enthusiasm and sense of fun at work and can-do attitude – this coupled with a large dose of realism – and her attitudes to work-life balance, not least her scorn for presenteeism.

I admire hugely my job share Prof Ellie Highwood, who is a leader in her Dean role and, in the rest of her time, is an eminent climate physicist and President of the Royal Meteorological Society. Moreover she does this working part-time (about four days a week), and so is a great role model for flexible working arrangements at the highest levels.

I’m also a great fan, having contributed to her Wikipedia page, of another former President of the Royal Meteorological Society, Professor Dame Julia Slingo FRS, who until recently was the Met Office Chief Scientist, leading a team of many hundreds of first-rate scientists, developing some of the best weather and climate models in the world.


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, locations and booking for Aurora 2017-18 are available here.

How effective are simulation experiences for leadership development?

One of the most effective techniques we use in our leadership development interventions is to provide leaders with a simulated environment. This challenges them to confront complex, highly interwoven performance management and operational issues. But how effective is this in practice? We spoke with Paul Hessey, Leadership Foundation associate, who leads on this activity on our Leading Departments programme for new heads of department.

How does a simulated environment work?
Based on a very realistic university scenario, this usually involves the programme participants working in groups of six along with three actors who take on the roles of stakeholders and the dean. The simulation is designed to present participants with realistic scenarios they might encounter in their day-to-day work as a head of department. This gives the facilitators the opportunity to help participants’ identify their weaknesses and strengths and enables us to offer guidance and best practice on how to approach difficult situations.

What are the three main benefits of using a simulated environment on a leadership development programme?

  1. Participants are reminded of some simple, robust and powerful theory of influence and learn the skills they need to put that theory into practice in a safe environment.
  2. Reflect and receive tailored feedback on strengths and development opportunities.
  3. Be part of a rich and diverse range of colleagues from both professional service and academic roles, and benefit from observing a wide range of approaches to influencing in action.

Have participants ever surprised you with how they reacted to this type of role playing style activity?
Our approach is more ‘real play’ than ‘role play’ because essentially the participants are experimenting with being themselves in the scenario, rather than taking on a character. In terms of being surprised by how participants react to these activities I am always taken aback by the way participants are committed to a mythical department. They really immerse themselves into the activity and come up with creative ideas and solutions. During a programme’s coaching sessions I found that many participants realised that they want and need to take a more strategic view of their role; in particular delegating more so they can take a step back to better develop and promote their own department through running events and engaging with a pool of stakeholders. These scenarios also increase their awareness of the importance of owning their professional profile and reputation.

What would you say to those who are sceptical about real playing on a leadership development programme?
Real play has an interactive approach which means participants can take a very practical look at how people communicate and influence, and then experiment with different approaches. Real play gives participants the chance to safely assess and practice an expanded range of influencing, management and leadership techniques to help them better engage their own diverse stakeholder base.

Higher education is a very unique sector. In your years of experience of working in different sectors, do you notice any similarities?
Many! People face the same challenges other sectors do in terms of politics and culture. However, in higher education people are perhaps more motivated by their desire to achieve their professional objectives rather than financial incentives. In higher education environments in particular, I’ve noticed that leaders may have less access to organisational benefits and consequences to motivate those around them. They are therefore often seeking to achieve action in their institutions by influencing others without any direct authority or power to demand action. Instead they must find a way to overcome resistance and challenge and encourage staff to buy-in and commit to the mission in a positive way. Many participants have said that they leave the Leading Departments programme feeling more equipped and confident to do exactly that.

Paul Hessey is the programme director for the Leading Departments programme, designed to develop the leadership skills of heads of department. The booking deadline is Friday 6 October, to find out more about Paul or to book onto the programme visit www.lfhe.ac.uk/leaddepts

He is also a facilitator on the Introduction to Head of Department programme for new and aspiring heads of department. The booking deadline is Friday 27 October, to find out more and book visit www.lfhe.ac.uk/ihod

Other Leadership Foundation programmes that use simulated learning environments include:

Top Management Programme: www.lfhe.ac.uk/tmp

Future Professional Directors: www.lfhe.ac.uk/fpd