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.

The power of the decision

In her second blog post, based on her Vision Workshop at the Aurora Conference in June 2017, Maeve Lankford, Aurora Ambassador, looks at how we can commit to our vision to be more successful. Maeve’s first blog post is available here.

Once we have clarity about the life we wish to create it is essential that we commit to that vision.  We do that by making a decision that yes, this is the life I want to live and we commit to making it happen.

What happens in the absence of a decision?

In the absence of a decision, we have ongoing deliberation and hesitation.  This causes stagnation and ultimately, in my experience, can have quite a depressive effect.  We want something but we are no closer to getting it.  We wish we had the qualification or ran the marathon or achieved the weight loss, but we’ve done nothing to achieve it so we feel even worse than before we set a goal in the first place.  Now we experience both the desire for it AND the disappointment of not having done anything about it!

The power of the decision

You must make a firm decision for what it is you want in order to be able to bring your vision to fruition.  Napoleon Hill, author of the book “Think and Grow Rich” concluded after studying 25,000 men and women that highly successful people formed the habit of making decisions quickly and changing them seldom, if ever, while unsuccessful people made decisions slowly and changed them frequently.

Making the decision therefore is the next requirement for setting in motion everything you want to achieve and it completely changes the game.  While it may feel daunting, the good news is that it is actually the hardest part!  As Robyn Davidson shares:

“The two important things I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor (sic) is taking the first step, making the first decision.”

Ultimately, it’s the decisions we are willing to make that shape our lives.

Articulating the decision:

You can literally use the phrase “I have decided… “  eg.

  • I have decided to apply for the next leadership position in my Department or School…
  • I have decided to spend quality time with my family…
  • I have decided to eat more healthily and join a Walking Club…

Making such a statement has an immediately energising effect.   It takes the spotlight off what is lacking and puts it onto taking action.  This creates a positive emotional charge and you will feel both relieved and empowered by making the decision.  Try it out.  Notice how it feels to say to yourself and others “I have decided …”, it will instantly increase your confidence and motivation.

Taking action based on the decision

It is essential that you now reinforce your decision by taking regular, supportive action.  You can do this, as mentioned in the previous blog, by daily asking yourself, what step can I take today that takes me in the direction of my vision?  Then take that inspired step.  Sometimes it might be as simple as repeating the good habit you have set in place – choosing the healthy option, avoiding a particular person or conversation, working on rewriting your CV.  Occasionally it might be a bolder step, like submitting the CV for the leadership role you’ve been thinking about.  In general though you simply want to take consistent, small steps that incrementally, over time, deliver your vision.

Finding support in uncommon places

The act of making the decision and taking action to support that decision, also gives a clear signal to the universe about your intentions, enabling supportive situations and circumstances to come into your experience.  William H Murray, the Scottish mountaineer, was three times invited to participate on the Everest expeditions.  On the first two occasions, as he describes it himself, he was put off by the cost, believing he couldn’t afford it.  On the third occasion, knowing it was his last opportunity and wanting to be involved, and despite still not knowing how he’d afford it, he made the initial down payment.  He paid up, knowing he’d forfeit everything paid if he didn’t make all payments.  But that initial decision to make the first down payment changed everything.  This is how Murray explains it:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans, namely: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamt would have come their way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: ‘Whatever you can or dream you can, begin it because boldness has magic and power and genius in it.’” (Emphasis added)

No new process can begin and no new path can be forged until a decision has been made. And once you make a firm decision, even in the absence of perfect conditions, a whole manner of things begin to occur and rush to your aid for its fulfilment.  So take your vision to the next level, make the decision to commit to it and start taking regular small steps to achieve it and you’re half way there already.

In the final blog of this series, we’ll discuss how to overcome the fears and doubts that inevitably arise when we start to make changes in our lives, sharing hints and tips for successfully working with them.


Maeve Lankford, joined the Leadership Foundation in 2015 as Aurora Ambassador to promote Aurora in the UK and Ireland, having formerly been Aurora Champion for University College Cork. 

Maeve has over 25 years’ experience of working in personal development and growth in higher education and beyond.  Having held various roles in HR, Equality, Learning and Development and Welfare, her principal expertise lies in leadership and management development, group facilitation, action learning, executive coaching, personal development, resilience and well-being.   

Details of the Aurora Conference 2018 will be available shortly, and the Aurora programme dates for 2017-18 are open for booking

Our mentorship journey: Karen Twomey and Val Cummins

Karen Twomey is a Researcher at Tyndall National Institute, Cork who took part in Aurora in Dublin in 2014-15. Karen chose, Val Cummins, Senior Lecturer at University College Cork to be her mentor for the duration of the programme and the relationship continues to this day. We asked Karen and Val to reflect on their relationship as a mentee and mentor.

Firstly, tell us a little about yourself

Karen: My name is Karen Twomey, and I participated in the Aurora Course in 2014-2015. I’m a mother to one year old boy/girl twins and, I’m a researcher in autonomous chemical sensing systems at Tyndall National Institute, Cork, Ireland. My research activity encompasses sensors, mixed-signal instrumentation, and signal processing and data interpretation algorithms.

Val: My name is Val Cummins. I had the pleasure of being invited to work with Karen on her Aurora Programme. My background and track record is in leading research with impact, including fostering innovation for the sustainable development of the global ocean economy. The sea has been a focal point for most of my career; from the formative years as a zoologist working on the humble periwinkle, to managing a large research centre, directing a maritime and energy cluster, and most recently as an academic in UCC. My leadership in the Blue Economy was recognised by a number of awards, including an Eisenhower Fellowship in 2012. I am married to Ken and we have three, beautiful young daughters.

How did you approach the process of mentorship?

Karen: I went into the mentorship process not fully knowing what I wanted to get out of it. However, I did know that I wanted a mentor who was a great public speaker and who understood the R&D environment. Val was suggested to me as a suitable mentor by the UCC Aurora Champion. I contacted Val over email and after our initial meeting, we agreed to meet face-to-face once a month with contact in between over email or text message.

Val: When I was contacted directly by Karen, I was struck by her commitment to the Aurora programme, and it was a no-brainer for me to agree to a mentoring relationship. I was fascinated by her work and achievements to date. We arranged to meet regularly. Our initial meetings were well structured, with clear objectives and actions to pursue. At the same time, it was natural for us to be very informal, which helped us to get to know each other better.

What has been your biggest learning from the process?

Karen: I think the biggest learning for me has been the realisation of how powerful having an outside perspective can be. You can start to get tunnel vision, especially when working in the same workplace for 15 years.  Having the right mentor can show you your potential, can give you a push to try new things. For instance, with Val’s help and encouragement, I applied for a Science Foundation Ireland Industry fellowship, which allows an exchange between academia and industry. I’m now on a one year secondment from Tyndall and am working in a corporate R&D environment.

Val: My learning from the process is that you can never underestimate the importance of mutual support between women in the work place. It is not a linear process flowing from mentor to mentee. It works both ways. Karen’s focus and capability inspires me.

Val, what inspired you to become a mentor?

Val: I was inspired by Karen, in her approach to me, which encouraged me to believe that this would be a valuable process. I was also inspired by my experience with my own personal mentors, who have been generous to a fault with their time and advice which they have provided unconditionally.

I had my head in the sand for many years in relation to the need to advocate for equality in the workplace. Through personal experiences I have come to appreciate the importance of this issue. Mentorship provides an important mechanism for women to provide the support needed to encourage their counterparts to break through the many glass ceiling that prevail in working environments.

Karen, have you ever been a mentor yourself?

Karen: I haven’t previously been a mentor but I would like to pay it forward to other women pursuing a career in STEM by passing on what I have learnt from Val and from my own experiences as a research scientist.

Karen, what was the best piece of advice you received from Val?

Karen: The best piece of advice that I got from Val was to have a can-do attitude and to give new things a shot.

Val, what piece of advice would you give an aspiring woman leader?

Val: My advice is that what constitutes ‘success’ is personal to every individual. Capability, intellect, talent, and good luck are all factors that can help an aspiring leader to achieve successful outcomes. However, ultimately, success, or if you like, a sense of fulfilment and wellbeing, are contingent on relationships. Taking the time to relate to others, and to value your colleagues, is an imperative. It’s a cliché, but there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’.  Aspiring leaders need to understand how to build and maintain vibrant teams.

Finally, for you both: do you have an inspiring woman leader, and if so, who

Karen: I am very inspired by Professor Linda Doyle, who is Director of CONNECT/CTVR Research Centre in Dublin and Professor of Engineering and The Arts in Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. She is a wonderfully passionate speaker and is an expert in her field yet is completely unassuming.

Val: It is hard to single out any one individual, as there are many characteristics among many female leaders that are inspiring. For example, Ellen MacArthur, is an amazing example of someone with vision and an indefatigable determination to succeed. As a professional sailor, she broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005. Her autobiography, which I just re-read, is incredibly compelling. Since she retired from professional sailing, she founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to promote the Circular Economy, prompted, in part, by her acute awareness of debris in the ocean. In business, Sheryl Sandberg stands out, for her communication skills. I admire her for her honesty, and in her ability to use her influence to tackle the issue of gender equality in the workplace. Angela Merkel also deserves a mention, as a political leader committed to stability in a difficult time for the European project.

 


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.