Is the time right to reform the auditors?

The world’s largest audit companies are the external auditors for the majority of higher education providers in the UK. Governing bodies rely upon their work but is this reliance justified? Our governance editor David Williams says a new, hard-hitting book, Bean Counters: the triumph of the accountants and how they broke capitalism, argues it may not be.

A former tax inspector, who writes for Private Eye magazine, Richard Brooks traces the roots of auditing back to the nineteenth century and the fraudulent practices associated with the development of the railways. The auditor was an independent and trusted agent exposing cases of fraud and false accounting. Their independence and actions checked the excesses of capitalism. The roots of today’s Big Four accountancy firms can be traced back to the early audit companies.

In a tough assessment of their power and influence, Brooks offers multiple examples where the auditors failed in their primary task of finding or exposing false accounting.

Brooks believes the independence and actions of the large audit companies no longer align with those of their predecessors. He says today’s auditors are compromised by conflicts of interests. An audit offers the opportunity to sell a client non-audit services (eg. tax advice, management consultancy) and boost their fees. The latter, rather than the former, is their primary objective.

He notes that when auditing financial statements, too often auditors fail to challenge management. False accounting is either not identified, or only identified at a late date by the auditor. If junior members of an audit team raise concerns about an organisation’s business practices, they are often over-ruled by their seniors. He says that too often organisations ‘fall over’ shortly after gaining a clean audit opinion. Regulators are in most cases ineffective, current or past senior members of the Big Four often serving on their governing bodies.

Brooks sees the process as circular, with the influence and lobbying of the auditors limiting reform and allowing existing business practices to continue. He suggests “…most accountancy failings are less about dishonesty and more of tales of insufficient courage, curiosity and independence of thought in the face of huge commercial incentives.”

The collapse of Carillion, including the application of accounting standards which were signed-off by the auditors, suggests criticism about the rules and their application (see, for example, the Financial Times, 18 June 2018) has substance. Further, the recent parliamentary select committee’s report into Carillion’s collapse laments the weakness in the checks and balances on the company shown by three regulators. Criticisms of one, the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), as “chronically passive” and “timid” and requiring cultural change, are requoted in the call for evidence as part of the current review of the FRC.

Cynics might suggest the FRC’s recent findings that the audit quality of the ‘Big Four’ has declined, comes late in the day. The FRC finds a significant number of audits require improvement, not least in the challenge to management and the exercise of professional scepticism. Is the same true of audits in higher education?

What needs to change then – the rules, the auditors or the regulators? Brooks believes the system of setting accounting standards (the rules), the functioning of the auditors and their regulation (the checks) are fundamentally broken. Tinkering will not result in an effective system of audit. The Big Four should be broken-up and their accounting and consultancy services separated – a fundamental flaw is that the auditee pays the auditor. For this to be addressed, auditing should become a public regulatory function funded by taxation/levies. Auditing should be conducted in the public and not the private interest. To create an effective multi-level approach, independent regulation is also required.

How far might some of the issues about audit influence the current revision of the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) handbook for HEI audit committees? Equally, in future, will the competent authority for audit (the FRC) expect more of auditors? Will the regulatory bodies for higher education in the different nations of the UK, require enhanced assurance from the auditors?

Future standards and regulation do not detract from the current need for all institutions to have an effective audit committee. Effectiveness includes ensuring that the external auditors are indeed challenging management, testing key assumptions behind financial forecasts and exercising appropriate professional scepticism.

Auditors are a vital part of the governance system and any suggestion that their work is not effective has to be taken seriously.

Further information for governors about audit can be found via this linkDavid Williams edits Advance HE’s governance pages.

Dates for our governor development programme 2018/19 are now available

We need to talk… to students

A group of students working in a groupStudents lie at the heart of our higher education institutions. And it is the success of its students that will determine a university’s ability to thrive. In the third of our series about integrated thinking and reporting, Simon Perks asks how can universities better understand the needs of their students and how can students engage in a productive discussion about the ‘value’ that a university education represents?

Advance HE is looking at how higher education insititutions (HEIs) are taking an holistic approach to stakeholder engagement as part of the integrated thinking and reporting project (IT&R). Ten HEIs are participating in this pilot project and recently met to consider the need for students to engage in discussions and decisions around value creation and its reporting.

Andrew Connolly, chief financial officer at the University of Exeter says that the reason Exeter is involved in this project is because the sector has “consistently failed to convey to students how research and inspired teaching creates value, and by the way, measuring it is even harder”.

These were among the issues discussed at the recent IT&R workshop when the project participants set out to explore how they can use the principles of the international integrated reporting framework to communicate more effectively with students and other stakeholders. You can read more about putting all stakeholders at the heart of value creation here.

“The first thing to realise,” explained Rhys Dart, chief executive of the Students’ Union at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, “is that there is no such thing as ‘the student perspective’.

“All students are different and they all have differing views. They value different things. And they make decisions in different ways.”

Furthermore, says Rhys, your students probably do not read your annual report. Instead, prospective and current students get information from online chatrooms, National Student Survey results, Teaching Excellence (and Student Outcomes) Framework (TEF) rating, university guides and league tables. They also seek advice from parents, peers, older siblings, teachers and school careers advisers – some of whom may even be alumni of your institution.

The problem, suggests the group, is that HEIs have very little direct control over any of these channels of communication. And most of them provide little in the way of context to explain why, for example, you got a bronze in the TEF or why your staff-to-student ratio is so low. It is through your own communications with prospective, current and even past students, that you can provide the vital contextual information that will bring your institution to life.

It may be your prospectus, your website, your social media feeds, promotional videos, virtual tours, your strategic plan or even your annual report. But if your communications are going to have an impact, they need to focus on the things that are important to your students. And these may not be the things that are important to you.

So you need to find out what is important to your students. Consider the following:

  • What factors did they take into account when making their decision about where to study?
  • Whose advice did they seek?
  • What do they think about their current course?
  • Do they feel that it represents a valuable investment of their time and resources?
  • Would they recommend their course or institution to others?

Various organisations have already undertaken research in this area, including the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), Universities UK and, most recently, the Office for Students. But participants in the IT&R project questioned whether students are genuinely able to make an informed assessment of the long-term value of their studies as opposed to just a short-term decision based on a more narrow definition of value.

This is not to say, however, that universities should not seek out and listen carefully to the views of their students and their student union colleagues. Indeed, if institutions want to improve their teaching activities, then there really is no substitute for engaging proactively, positively and effectively with their own student and alumni body.

Which is where IT&R comes in. Because with its focus on thinking holistically about how a university creates value for its students and other stakeholders in the longer term, it represents a way for institutions to change the nature of the conversation. Away from short-term factors like contact hours and the cost of the campus bus service, and towards the longer-term impact of a university education on a student’s personal, social, intellectual and employment prospects.

So, more effective engagement with students might be:

  • Clarity about who you are engaging with, whether this is prospective students, current students, alumni or a mixture of all three
  • Time spent building trust between the university and its students, shown through your actions, as well as in your words, that you have their best interests at heart
  • Use of communications channels that are relevant to them
  • Capture the full range of voices, not just those which shout the loudest
  • Fully engage with your Students’ Union, ask them to contribute to research, to collate student opinion, and to help you capture and review feedback
  • Above all, show your students that you trust and empower student representatives.

The critical thing is to maintain continuity, listen to what your students are telling you, and engage with them before decisions are taken. Because while your students may not speak with one voice, they do all have a voice. And even if you do not listen to what they are saying, others will. Your students are your ambassadors to the world. And their success is your success.

Read: Putting all stakeholders at the heart of value creation
Read: Are governors facing information overload?

You can find out more about integrated thinking and reporting at the IT&R conference on Tuesday 11 September. Contact Kim Ansell for more information.
Simon Perks has written two “Getting to Grips With” guides for Advance HE: Getting to Grips With Finance and Getting to Grips with Efficiency. He is the founder of Sockmonkey Consulting.

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.

 

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.

Are governors facing information overload?

Four clear baubles containing who where when how why

Governors must have confidence in the information that they are being given. They also need it to be clear, concise and timely information upon which they can rely. Simon Perks asks how that can be achieved.

The Advance HE project, integrated thinking and reporting (IT&R) can help governors and their institutions to focus on material issues and take a holistic approach to strategic governance. Ten HEIs are participating in a pilot project to examine how universities can better report on how they create value, particularly to critical stakeholders such as governors and students.

The higher education sector and the responsibilities of individual institutions are becoming ever more complex. Institutions are actively seeking approaches to deal with the range of issues and challenges with which governing bodies are required to concern themselves, and scrutiny of what institutions do and how they do it has risen swiftly to the top of the political and media agenda. Consequently, the need for governors to obtain reliable assurance on their institutions’ activities has never before been so great.

Whilst a holistic approach to stakeholder engagement is part of the integrated thinking and reporting concept, the need for governors to engage in the process of short, medium and long term value creation and to be part of the communication process to demonstrate that value is critical. You can read more about putting all stakeholders at the heart of value creation here.

The drive for greater and better information, and assurance took centre stage in the recent workshop for the IT&R project and the needs of governors featured strongly.

“Governors need to know what their institution is doing”, explained Simon Taylor, director of financial services at Sheffield Hallam University and a governor of Barnsley College.

“They need to know the risks that it is facing. And they need clear assurance around the management of risk, exposure to fraud and other challenges”.

As the challenges faced by institutions and the assurances required by governors grow, so too do the number and length of reports that governors are expected to read. Participants in the IT&R project agreed, that can make it difficult for governors to stay on top of the information provided to them. Furthermore, reports to governors on specific issues do not always set out the bigger picture. And in their drive to provide full and complete information, such reports may not highlight adequately the issues that are of most concern to the governing body.

We need a more holistic way of thinking about our institutions’ activities and of reporting to governors. And integrated thinking and reporting provides a way of doing just that.

The project draws on the principles and practice of the international Integrated Reporting (IIRC) framework, which is designed to allow organisations across all sectors to communicate more clearly how they create value in the short, medium and long term. An integrated report should be concise yet reliable, complete yet focused on material issues. Ideal, then, for governors.

The benefits to governors of such an approach to reporting are clear. It provides a complete and inclusive insight into the institution and its activities. It focuses on how the institution creates value for its students, staff, funders and society. It considers how well the institution uses the financial and other resources available to it. And it provides information on the institution’s failures as well as its successes. In short, it goes behind the facts and the figures to really tell the institution’s story.

Participants agree though, that an integrated approach to reporting to governors can only work if governors themselves are engaged actively in developing the reporting framework. What issues are most important to them? What information do they want? How frequently do they need it? How would they like to see it presented? What other assurances do they require?

By creating clear, concise and insightful reports that get quickly to the heart of the issues facing institutions, these institutions can help governors to focus on what is important. To see the bigger picture.To gain insight into what the institution is doing and the challenges that it might face. That is what integrated thinking and reporting is all about. And that, surely, is what being a governor is all about, too.

Simon Perks has written two “Getting to Grips With” guides for Advance HE: Getting to Grips With Finance and Getting to Grips with Efficiency. He is the founder of Sockmonkey Consulting. Click here to find out more about the IT&R project, or come to our national event on 11 September. Browse our extensive resources for governors and sign up to our governance new alert service.

Getting to grips with talent management in higher education

Circus acrobats doing a balancing actThe concept of talent management seems to be striking a chord in higher education at the moment. Ahead of our Talent Management Symposium in June,  Dr Wendy Hirsh from the Institute of Employment Studies reflects on what she sees as the talent management issues emerging in higher education and some of the practical barriers that need to be tackled.

In 2017, in response to growing interest in talent management, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (now Advance HE) published a report entitled Talent management: learning across sectors, which has generated considerable interest. The publication of the report has created several opportunities for me to work with many HEIs over the past months at events, in smaller networks and with HR teams inside individual institutions.

In several events and workshops I have asked relevant professionals working in institutions to identify where in the workforce talent management is a real issue. These are some of the common themes emerging from such discussions.

A lack of successors or talent pools for leadership roles. This can apply to the executive team, but seems a more pressing issue at head of department and dean or head of school / faculty levels. The main issue is not really about potential but a set of structural and cultural problems with these jobs. Becoming a head of department is a big leap into the unknown in terms of leadership, brings with it a mass of routine administration and has an uncertain impact on the individual’s career thereafter. To put it politely, the historic head of department role seems to have passed its sell-by. Some institutions are starting to address this by reviewing administrative workload and offering more development support in preparing for these roles and in getting up to speed after appointment.

HEIs need productive and high profile professors, principal investigators and heads of research units, especially in subject areas of priority to the institution. Many sectors have a similar need for top professional talent, including science-based industries, professional services and the arts and creative sectors. Attracting and retaining top academics is a challenge, and Brexit is an added concern here. But their leadership approach is also of concern, as they need to role model the values of their institutions and play a positive part in leading and developing the early career academics who work with or for them. Concern about the early career development of researchers – and indeed teachers – often comes back to the quality and consistency of support received from their principal investigators (PIs) and professorial colleagues.

In the layers below institutional leaders and high profile academics, HEIs rely increasingly on the skills and good will of highly experienced academic and professional service staff. They are experiencing greater workload pressure and sometimes unsettling change in response to top-down strategies. One challenge often reported is of experienced academics who may become disengaged. Here talent management needs to adopt OD approaches in addressing anxieties, involving staff more actively in the change process and decisions affecting their work, and supporting skill and career development at all career stages.

Other sectors see increasing workforce diversity as a key strand of talent management, and this is certainly the case in higher education. Attention is certainly being paid to the appointment process, but initiatives to change the external brand of the sector in this regard or to offer differentiated development opportunities to under-represented groups are not yet widely embedded.

Many HEIs are strengthening their leadership development at a range of levels, which is to be welcomed. Many also want to adopt more systematic and rigorous succession planning for key roles, but there is still a lack of confidence about how to make this happen. In particular there are concerns about explaining this process to staff and how to broaden the talent pools of successors as part of the approach. Institutions have been re-articulating promotion criteria, but less often communicating the criteria to be used in succession planning or in identifying potential for promotion.

In getting to grips with talent management, there seem to be a few common hurdles which the sector needs to address. Talent management rests on workforce planning but there is often a big gap between strategic planning at institutional level and the rather short-term, reactive and budget focused planning at faculty or departmental/service level. Talent management rarely has clear governance in terms of collective decision-making at either institutional or faculty/school level. This still gets in the way of it being a systematic and transparent process. There is much talk of better career conversations but it is often unclear in HE who individuals can have these conversations with.
As the research showed, talent management is a mindset. HEIs need to make sure that the senior leaders and academics they are promoting or appointing right now understand the importance of spotting potential in people and then helping those people to grow.

How to tackle shared challenges, consider potential solutions and ensure that the focus on talent enables diversity in access and outcome enable will be the focus of the Talent Symposium on 19 June. Featuring case study inputs from inside and outside higher education, this event will be the first in a series exploring differing approaches to talent in higher education.

Dr Wendy Hirsh is one of the speakers at the Talent Symposium, along with Jacqui Marshall, deputy registrar & HR director, Exeter University, Sarah Churchman, head of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing, PwC and Debra Lang, director HR and organisational development, organisation development and change, DCMS. Book your place for the Talent Symposium.

Get a mentor, be a mentor

Mentoring quote: "The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves." Steven SpielbergCat Turhan, policy officer at GuildHE and Shân Wareing, pro vice-chancellor education and student experience at London South Bank University and Aurora speaker, have both had positive experiences of mentoring, and its power to support women’s careers. A generation apart in age, they compare some of those experiences.

What does having a mentor mean to you?
Cat: One of the most important things about mentoring is that there isn’t a fixed definition or relationship. Having a mentor has meant different things at the different stages of my life and career. The three most significant mentors for me were Judy Ryder, Jacqui Clements, and Kate Dolan from Warwick Students’ Union during my time as welfare and campaigns officer, and then president. Judy was not only someone who taught me about how to be an effective trustee, but helped me think strategically about where I wanted my career to go, and how to make that happen. Jacqui taught me how to be an effective leader by modelling great leadership: she showed me that women could be leaders by being themselves – and that kindness, passion and principles were more important than anything.

Finally, Kate gave me space and patience to help me articulate what I was worried about, and showed me great empathy and kindness when I was finding things particularly stressful. I found her experience very reassuring – whatever I was feeling was normal, and never impossible to solve. What has also been wonderful about these relationships is that even though I have moved to a different organisation, we are still very close – and I still turn to them when I need advice.

Shân: I had one formal mentor, at a time of job transition. I asked a senior women I very much respected for her leadership, intelligence, calmness and warmth, Carole Baume, to mentor me when I became a Dean. I was worried about the impact of a promotion on my family life, and wanted to make sure I could balance the two parts of my life. Her mentorship helped me articulate what I was worried about, and her example made me believe I could do it. It helped me see a way forward beyond my own knowledge and confidence levels. I’ve also had lots of informal mentorships, where I asked someone further along their career path than for help. Shout outs to Linda Thomas and Sally Brown in particular, who helped me with job decisions! My colleague and friend Nancy Turner gave me a tiny replica of an inuksuk, a First Nation’s people statue, which in real life are giant stone monuments that stand on the horizon to show travellers that people have journeyed that way previously. They symbolise ‘you are not the first, it is possible’. That’s what mentoring means to me.

What does it mean to you to be a mentor?
Shân: I want to give something back. Life experience is easy to share and what I hope is that it accelerates the career journey for other people, and perhaps takes some of the stress and uncertainty out of it. When I mentor, the other person says what they want out of the process, and we make an informal agenda out of their questions, and talk through them at agreed intervals. It’s like helping someone see round a corner, and navigate that turn in their life.

How do mentoring relationships arise? (Formal/informal)
Shân: The formal relationships have happened when I asked someone to mentor me, and gave a reason (a transition to a more senior, more demanding job with a longer commute, when I had young children). When someone has come up to me and asked me to mentor them, it’s also been because they felt they were facing a particular dilemma they couldn’t quite see past.

Cat: Some mentoring relationships are developed from the professional circumstances or working environment. My current line manager, Kate Wicklow, is an amazing mentor – not only for helping me navigate HE policy, but also for advising me on how to strengthen my policy skills and confidence. However, she might not have been my mentor if she wasn’t already my boss. In the students’ union, sabbatical officers were paired up with mentors who were the senior managers of the organisation, as were student trustees with non-student directors (who were selected for having previous board experience). I think organisations that understand the benefit of mentoring show that they really value staff development. It certainly helped me grow as a person, and seek out different mentoring relationships in future roles.

Who initiates the mentoring relationship? Can the other person refuse?
Shân: It’s always been the mentee who initiates the relationship, in my experience. I turned down a request once, where I barely knew the person, and I have been turned down, twice, by people who said they were too busy.

Cat: Organisations can facilitate relationships, but ultimately it has to be down to the mentee to want it. Recently, an ex-colleague asked me if I would mentor one of her members of staff, as I have relevant experience in her chosen career path – so occasionally they come from surprising places.

How much challenge do you welcome / can you tolerate from a mentor?
Shân: I think ideally there is enough trust between the mentor and the mentee for the mentor to challenge the mentee quite robustly, but it has to feel safe. Knowing where that boundary is and not going beyond it into territory that may feel too challenging, or bullying, is really important. If the mentee doesn’t want to have a particular conversation, the mentor needs to respect that.

Cat: I think that depends on the context of the relationship. Mentors have to build trust and understand the mentee’s background before they challenge them directly, but in turn mentees should expect a mentoring relationship to be challenging them in order for them to progress.

Is a mentor purely professional, or do they overlap into your life outside work?Cat: I would count some of the most significant mentors in my life as great friends. A successful mentor understands the whole person, including any personal issues that person wishes to divulge. Having that in-depth understanding of someone can lead to a friendship.

Shân: definitely about the overlap, in my experience. Not to advise on how to live life outside work, but to talk about how professional and domestic life fit together.

Is it more important for women to have mentors/to be mentors?
Cat: There is already a systemic bias against women achieving in the workplace, and it is even worse for women of colour, for LGBTQ women, disabled women, and working class women. Women who have navigated through the system in spite of those biases have so much to teach younger women who are trying to do the same. There is a famous quote from Madeleine Albright (former Secretary of State of the USA) – ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other’. I’ve always tried to live my life by that quote, and hope that I will be in a position to mentor people in the future.

Shân: We still don’t have so many women in senior positions yet that it’s easy to see how women’s careers grow, so seeing someone in a similar field as yourself in a more senior position gives women insights into what’s required. The tensions between caring responsibilities and work trajectories are real, and hard to navigate. Women can find themselves in teams where they feel out of place, and talking to someone who has navigated that about how to be part of that team but retain your integrity and sense of self is very important.

How do you know when you have been a successful mentor?
Shân: When I am mentoring, I can see usually by someone’s next actions whether they are able to move on past whatever they were concerned about. You don’t know really what goes on in some else’s head, but you can see if they feel able to act positively. I do think mentors, like teachers, send people out into the world and often don’t know the effect they had, so it’s good to say thank you. I just wrote to my school English teacher to tell him what I am doing now, and that I am still grateful to him for teaching me Julius Caesar in 1981, and how my life changed because he inspired me to go to university.

If a mentor has feet of clay, does it matter?
Shân: No, it’s part of the deal! We all muddle through with our flaws, and recognising you don’t have to be perfect to get a job done, be good enough, and go home at the end of the day, is part of what you learn from mentors who are human just like you and me.

Cat: Absolutely not! If anything, it enhances the relationship. The stories where my mentors have made mistakes – and how they handled them – have been fundamental to the way I have treated mistakes in my own life. Women are often told that they have to be superwoman in order to succeed, and I think these narratives are particularly damaging to our self esteem and mental health. Flawed women are also successful women, and my mentors taught me that.

How long do mentoring relationships last? What’s the frequency and length of mentoring conversations?
Shân: The literature on mentoring tends to describe it as a long relationship, over years, but my experience has been of quite short relationships, to deal with particular transitions or issues. I think that’s a more flexible model that’s easier to adopt, and less commitment on both sides. It also allows for the growth of the mentee, who may need different guides at different career and life stages.

Cat: I think relationships can wax and wane, depending on the needs of the mentee, and the availability of both parties. Some relationships are very ‘of the moment’, whereas others will last for years. I think it is crucial that both parties communicate often and honestly. There should also be respect for the other’s commitments, priorities, and changes to their life which may have an impact on the relationship.

We hope by sharing our positive and varied experiences of mentoring, we have inspired and encouraged you to seek mentors, and to offer mentoring, as part of your career journey.

Many of our leadership programmes have mentoring or sponsorship elements to them, read about the sponsorship toolkit. You can also read others’ experiences of mentoring via blogs here and here. We are now accepting Aurora programme bookings for 2018-19 – find out more here.