Why Leadership Matters

Christine Abbott is a facilitator of Leadership Matters, the Leadership Foundation’s programme for senior women in higher education. Christine has has spent almost all her career in higher education, most recently as university secretary & director of Operations at Birmingham City University. Here she considers how women can achieve senior roles in the sector and how Leadership Matters can support this.  

It is often said that success, in any walk of life, is less about what you know, than who you know. In our now extensively connected world this is increasingly true. Nevertheless good networks alone are rarely enough. Certainly successful leadership requires the ability to engage with people, to understand their motivations, and to recognise and develop their talents. But in addition, a sound bedrock of knowledge and experience are also needed. However the work environment is now so complex, and in such a state of continuing flux, that claiming to know enough to fully understand one’s organisation can seem a fanciful statement.

The tube map of universities

Navigating the current higher education sector, or even one’s own University, can sometimes feel more like travelling in the London underground than following the A to Z. A tourist in London might go down into the tube at Marble Arch, and pop back up at Westminster, and recognise the landmarks in both locations; but they may have little idea of the route between the two places, or what sits above ground as they travel through the tunnels. In our Universities this feeling of limited understanding can become a particular concern when colleagues move from one role to another, or from one department, faculty or service area to another. Moving between institutions or gaining promotion can exacerbate that consciousness of the blocks or blind spots in our understanding.

Why Leadership Matters

The aim of the Leadership Matters course is to fill in some of those gaps in understanding and knowledge, by looking at the frameworks – the strategic, financial, and governance frameworks – within which our institutions operate. Participants on previous cohorts have often been those who have gained promotion to middle or senior management positions, which bring them, perhaps for the first time, into a broader University arena, and feel there are gaps in their understanding of how the whole University entity fits together and functions.

The programme aims to help participants to get to grips with how their University operates, how it takes critical decisions, and the financial, legal, and reputational considerations that impact upon its decisions.

Module one, which is led by Gill Ball and myself, aims to ‘humanise’ some potentially dry topics, such as funding and finance, governance and decision making. Through practical small group work there will be plenty of opportunity for hands-on learning. Module one also includes a session led by a senior woman leader from the sector, on ‘navigating the organisation’. This session links the organisational perspective with the individual and personal, and provides the bridge into the Action Learning Sets and module two.

The second module, which is led by Rachael Ross and Sally Cray, focuses more closely on how to develop the personal impact necessary to be successful as a senior woman leader.

Impact of the programme

Leadership Matters is now being run for the eighth time, and from the outset the Leadership Foundation was keen for the programme to be women-only. The programme director, Rachael Ross, and the programme leaders have discussed a number of times the rationale for this, since as concerns module one, the topics discussed, and the approaches used, are gender neutral. Our conclusion, which has been reaffirmed after each of the cohorts that we have led to date, is that the women-only aspect of the programme enables a particularly rich and reflective quality to the discussions. This is most notably the case in the Action Learning Sets, and in module two of the programme, as colleagues draw upon their personal experiences of leadership and their leadership journey. As programme director Rachael Ross says: “We find that our senior delegates value a women-only programme. They are able to deepen their understanding of these key topics in an open, reflective way, challenge themselves to “claim” their unique leadership approach, and build a supportive network of women leaders right across higher education.”

It is the blend of the broad organisational perspective with the personal that makes this programme special.

At more junior levels in one’s career, the concern is primarily to be able to provide the answers to the questions you are asked. The more senior your role, the more important it becomes to know the questions to ask, how to ask them, and to whom those questions can and should be addressed. The Leadership Matters programme is designed to help female colleagues to identify both the questions, and the audience for those questions, and so to develop their confidence and effectiveness in their leadership roles.


Leadership Matters will 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.

Core stability – the journey towards work/life balance

Professor Shân Wareing is pro vice-chancellor for Education and Student Experience at London South Bank University (LSBU) and a professor of Teaching in Higher Education. She recently spoke at Aurora in London and Edinburgh about her personal experience as a senior female leader during Power and Politics. Shân has also recently spoken at Leadership Matters and Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership. Here, she reflects on her work life balance which formed part of her talk at Aurora this year.

“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives”
(Anne Dillard, quoted in Scott 2003, p80)

Like most people, there are plenty of times I don’t feel I’ve got my work/life balance right, but perhaps strangely, it was worse when I was a lecturer completing my PhD than now when I have three children and more senior job. Along the way, these are some of the ideas and habits that have helped me.

Know your purpose
To work out what balance is right for you, and how to achieve it, you need to be clear about what you want to achieve in life, what your purpose is. In one of my first jobs, a senior colleague had a poster on his wall that said “No one on their death bed wishes they’d spent more time in the office!” and I thought “Hmm, but perhaps I’ll wish I’d achieved more!”  Imagining myself in old age, reflecting on what might cause me to feel pride or regret helped me identify what mattered to me. Being very clear about what is important to you helps you allocate your time and keep things in proportion. That sense of proportion is vital to regulate our emotional response to events at work, which in my experience exact a heavy toll on me if I feel I am living out of alignment with my sense of purpose.

Planning is key
If you know where you’re heading, you can make a plan. And a plan allows you to identify the best opportunities for you, to estimate if you can take on new work without having a melt down, and to prioritise and selectively ignore things.  This is important to protect you from being buffeted by every policy whim, incident, metric, new piece of research, sector panic, and so on. Having a plan helps you spot if you are drawn off your plan too much by fire fighting. I always assume that up to 10% of each day or week will be spent in emergency unplanned reactive activity, but if it starts to increase regularly beyond 10% I need to change my plans to focus more on eliminating the causes of the fire fighting.

The 80:20 Principle
I’ll always have too much work, and probably so will you! In the endless tail of work that is never totally cleared, I have an arbitrary self-imposed cut off point. To minimise the distress of never ticking off everything on my To Do list, the 80:20 principle helps.  If 80% of the benefit comes from 20% of my work and I am fairly sure I’ve done the important 20%, I can go home a bit earlier. Looking at my To Do list regularly from an 80:20 perspective is also important to avoid the feeling that I need to be busy to feel productive. Needing to be busy is the enemy of work/life balance!

Work with and for your team
When the work suddenly piles on, it is easy to feel too busy to talk to people, and I have to fight this instinct! In a management role, and many other roles, people are the job, not an inconvenient extra. The better my team relationships, the more adept my teams are at handling their everyday work and sorting out anything unexpected, which means fewer unpleasant surprises for me. I have found I have a better work/life balance as a manager by talking and listening to my teams. Also working though others is a chance to increase their capability so a win-win for everyone. I could work five hours extra every week but it’s worth a lot less to the university than if I can enable a team of staff to be 10% more productive. To be effective, delegation needs to be in the context of purpose and planning, not random or opportunistic. The better I plan and the higher functioning my teams, the less random rubbish happens, and the earlier we all go home.

Avoid emotional leakage
A lot of stress and unnecessary work comes from emotional leakage – anxiety, fear, hostility, resentment  triggered by projects and people. Work/life balance is not just about what you choose to spend time on, it’s also about how you feel about things. As far as humanly possible it helps not to sink emotion into stuff where it can’t have any positive effect.

Be in the habit of taking care of yourself.
I noticed in pregnancy that what I ate one day had an effect on my mood the next day (protein and vegetables, good; only chocolate all day, bad), and I decided this was probably an exaggerated version of what happens anyway, so I tidied up my eating habits a bit (aiming to avoid chocolate-only days). And I also notice exercise helps my will power.  When I exercise, I’m better able to make myself do stuff I don’t want to do.

Invest in your own growth
Seek out development opportunities that take you in the direction you’re heading.  However experienced and senior you become, you never stop needing to learn. ‘Sharpen the axe’, Stephen Covey calls it.  And to lighten cognitive load (ie fewer things to think about or make decisions about), it really helps to have habits and routines. Barak Obama is reported to have said “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Look for happiness
Another tip from maternity leave and days where it seemed like nothing got done is to remember to pat myself on the back for what I have achieved, not beat myself up for what I haven’t.  Dwelling on what is good about my professional and personal life isn’t about being smug or complacent – it is a necessary exercise in order to sustain optimism for vision and planning.

I still get bad days when it all gets too much, but not so much, and falling back on these principles helps. And for the very impatient readers out there who skimmed to the end, the super-efficient version is: (1) work out what matters to you and do that; and (2) count your blessings.


Further reading
Scott, Susan (2003) Fierce Conversations. London: Piatkus
Covey, Stephen (2004) The 7 habits of highly effective people. London: Simon and Schuster

About Aurora
Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research that shows that women are under-represented in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to change this. Since Aurora began in 2013 we have welcomed 3,477 women from 139 universities and sector bodies, with 1029 women attending in 2016-17 alone.

The Aurora Conference- Thursday 7 June 2018
We are delighted to be launching our fourth Aurora conference.

Participants include, but are not limited to:

    • Aurora participants (current and alumnae)
    • Aurora champions
    • Aurora role models
    • Aurora mentors
    • People working in/leading equality and diversity

Find out more and book

Demystifying Finance – Wednesday 18 April 2018
For women in higher education who want to improve their understanding of finance in higher education and develop financial management skills.

Find out more and book

Leadership Matters
Leadership Matters is our programme for senior women leaders in higher education and will be taking place in Manchester and Bristol in Winter and Spring respectively in 2018. For more information and to book a place please click here.

Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership
Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership is one of our most highly regarded programmes. It will take place once more this academic year:

PSSL Summer
Application Deadline: 8 June 2018
Programme Dates: Tuesday 19 – Friday 22 June
Location: Manchester

How I got onto a board

Jenny Ames worked in academia for 35 years across eight universities. Keen to join a board she attended a Women onto Boards event in 2017 and was appointed board member of Aneurin Leisure in July 2017. Here she reflects on her personal journey to board member.  

Becoming a board member is something that I started to seriously consider around 10 years ago, but the seeds were sown much earlier at the beginning of my career.

My background is in food chemistry research, as an applied subject this meant much of my research involved collaborating with industry. For example my first postdoctoral contract was funded by an American multi-national and following that as a head of my research group, most of my grants involved at least one external company. I enjoyed working with people from the private sector, learning how their companies operated and seeing my expertise being applied to address the challenges they faced. They valued my knowledge and ability to manage my research team and deliver projects on time. I got a sense of achievement.

Get a mentor or coach who is right for you

When I started my academic career in the early 1980s, there was no Leadership Foundation and, at least in my university, no culture of formal mentoring or coaching. From 2005-2017 I lived away from the family home in the week and progressed my career at four universities in different parts of the UK. It became important to me to be part of the community where I worked. I had also reached the stage where I had a wealth of experience that others could benefit from, including mentoring however, it was only in my last 10 years in academia that I myself benefited from various mentors and coaches to whom I will always be grateful.

The most valuable experience I had was with a professional coach and it was she who encouraged me to work towards a board role. The advice was three-fold: find someone who has such a role and ask to shadow them, go on a course so you understand more about what it involves, and join the Institute of Directors (IoD). I didn’t get around to shadowing someone but I did join the IoD.

Learn the basics

Importantly, my faculty supported me to attend an intensive two-day programme, The Effective Non-Executive Director, run by the Financial Times. This covered the soft skills and the hard skills required of a successful non-executive director (NED). This course gave me the tools I needed and it included a session with a NED head hunter. She advised that for someone who hadn’t been on a board before (like me), a good place to start was as a school governor or a trustee of a charity. Another attendee suggested joining Women on Boards to find possible roles. I also engaged with Reach Volunteering and I registered on the SGOSS Governors for Schools website.

Understand the value of the skills you do have and know your own values

It was the SGOSS site where I found an advert for a school governor about 10 miles from my flat. I applied, met with the head teacher and chair and deputy chair of the Board of Governors and was appointed.

I have a separate CV and covering letter template for board roles. The focus is hard skills like budgeting, health and safety, and governance. Soft skills include committee chairing and mentoring. I do not have any children, and so had no experience or knowledge of the current school system, but working at a local university was attractive to the school along with my experience of, for example, managing budgets and chairing large, formal meetings (although all in a research context). It was also important to be able to demonstrate that my values about enabling people to reach their potential aligned with their own.

This role got me off the starting blocks and I was very fortunate to find myself in an excellently run school. I learnt a lot about school education and was able to contribute to the finance and resource sub-committee. I left after a year as I was moving to another university.

Use your network

Early in 2017 I attended one of the Leadership Foundation Women onto Boards events aimed at encouraging more women to apply for a board position. Having given up the school governor role and done nothing since I decided to look for a new position. One point made at the event was that men often get a board position by asking someone in their network for help. Having a large and diverse network, I decided to take this approach. I had recently met someone at a regional IoD meeting and was due to follow up with him. When I asked for advice about a board role, he mentioned that something was coming up that might suit me. He put me in touch with the organisation so I could find out more. Shortly afterwards the job was advertised nationally and I applied. I was interviewed in June and appointed in July 2017 as a member of the board of trustees at Aneurin Leisure in South Wales.  It is early days and I plan to spend a day with the trust to help me to better understand how I can contribute.

A final word

It is important to join an organisation that you feel passionate about. One whose values align with your own. You are contributing your time and skills, usually for free. If you and the organisation are well aligned, you will both be amply rewarded.


Women onto Boards
For more information about the series including dates, location, pricing and how to book your place visit the Women onto Boards homepage.

Governor Development
Find out the latest in governance, including recent publications and what’s next in the Governor Development Programme, via our website

Our Equality and Diversity Programmes
The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education is committed to addressing the lack of representation in senior executive leadership positions of both women and people from BME backgrounds. You can find out more here.

About Jenny
Jenny Ames had a 35 year academic career across eight universities before establishing Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd in 2017. She works with universities, businesses and their stakeholders to develop strategy and talent and initiate and nurture cross sector collaborations. Jenny is now a member of the board at Aneurin Leisure and an Aurora role model.

 

Getting more women onto Boards, is there a shortcut?

Alice Johns, programmes and projects manager, Leadership Foundation, shares her insights ahead of the upcoming Women onto Boards events on what to do if you are thinking of taking the first step in applying to join a governing body. These events form part of the Leadership Foundation’s work to promote equality, diversity and inclusion within higher education.

Since 2013, the representation of women on university governing bodies has increased from 32 to 36 per cent and the number of chairs has risen from 12 to 19 per cent (Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, 2016). Although this does show improvement in the diversity of higher education boards, the rate of progress is slow. Much research has been published on the value of having a diverse workforce. Why Diversity Matters (McKinsey, 2015) found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above national industry medians.

As the lead body for leadership, governance, and management within higher education, the Leadership Foundation is committed in working towards gender equality. Building on our work though the Aurora programme, the Women onto Boards initiatives aim to showcase the benefits and opportunities for women who may be thinking about serving as a governor on a higher education or non-executive body in other sectors. This serves as an important element of our work to equip leaders and governors to respond to contextual challenges in higher education.

In 2017, we journeyed to all four nations of the UK and Ireland, with our Women onto Boards series of events; welcoming 5 chairs, 15 speakers and 180 women. In 2018, we will do the same (see here for dates) hoping to reach more women who are looking at taking their first step into applying for a board position. So how can you position yourself to take this step and what are the key things we learnt from last year?

Start somewhere…

Asking to be an observer can be a good gateway if you’re not fully board ready, or a school board is a useful place to start. University committee positions can also build experience without the time commitment and lack of remuneration.

If you are planning to pursue a commercial board make sure it’s related to something you are passionate about and to your values. Remember board positions are a development opportunity but no one is born ‘board ready’.

… but plan ahead and prepare

Think about presenting your CV in a new way, as understanding any gaps in expertise the board may be in need of is key to success. Focus on your transferable skills (strategy, finance, regulation, HR) and the impact you have made within previous organisations. Highlight your connections and contacts, particularly where these are relevant to the institution and where you have cross sector experience.

Never underestimate the importance of networking! Research the organisation or institution and the makeup of the board, and the kinds of skills those sitting on it may already possess. Be prepared to invest time and check the board is functioning well before joining.

… and above all be persistent and passionate

Think of how you can make a difference and add value but be prepared to make several applications before you are accepted so persistence is key! Push yourself to go beyond your comfort zone. As women we are all familiar with imposter syndrome but be confident in your abilities and be tenacious. Displaying drive and passion could make the crucial difference between being selected for interview or not.

Above all, remember it’s about confidence, knowledge and contacts.  With all that has been in the news lately about the effectiveness of higher education governing bodies, there has never been a greater need for diverse and talented candidates. So whilst there is no shortcut, there are ways to position yourself that might make you more likely to get noticed.


For more information about the series including dates, location, pricing and how to book your place visit the Women onto Boards homepage

Find out the latest in governance, including recent publications and what’s next in the Governor Development Programme, via our website

More information about our women-only leadership development programme, Aurora, can be found here

The 7 leadership blog posts of 2017

As part of our 12 leadership days of Christmas campaign, we are pleased to release our 7 leadership blog posts of the year.

Take some time out this festive season to read some of your colleagues’ favourite blogs of the year and take the opportunity to start thinking about the next steps in your leadership development.

You can follow the campaign by using the hastag #LF12Days 

1. Top 12 things those new to higher education need to know

Rita Walters, marketing and communications coordinator, Leadership Foundation shares the insights from colleagues at the Leadership Foundation on what they believe are the key messages for those new to higher education.

2. Connected leadership: connecting people with purpose
Doug Parkin and Rebecca Nestor explore connected leadership and its applications to the Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership programme.

3. 8 ways to be a better role model

We asked our Aurora facilitation team: Vijaya Nath, Phyllida Hancock, Rosemary Stamp, Rebecca Nestor, Jenny Garrett and Maeve Lankford how to be a good role model. Based on their experience of facilitating Aurora these insights will help you make the most of your experience and be the best role model you can be.

4. 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.

5. Coaching: The advice I would give my younger self
Jean Chandler, programme director of Transition to Leadership, shares her thoughts on coaching as a skill set, approaches to leading others, and her own leadership lessons.

6. Reflections from Leadership Matters

Rachael Ross is the course director of Leadership Matters, the Leadership Foundation programme for senior women in higher education. Two years on from its inception, Rachael reflects on why the programme is needed and how it was developed.

7. Up for a challenge: self-directed group learning for leaders

If our role as educators of adults is to enhance their capacity for self-directed learning, how does that apply to leadership development training? Doug Parkin, director of the Leadership Foundation’s Future Professional Directors programme, reflects on his experience of designing transformational self-directed group learning activities for leaders.

Let us know your favourite via Twitter #LF12Days or in the comments below.


You can read more of the Leadership Foundation blogs here. 

The full list of programmes at the Leadership Foundation can be found here. 

Coaching: The advice I would give my younger self

In advance of the Transition to Leadership programme, which commences this December,  Jean Chandler, programme director, shares her thoughts on coaching as a skill set, approaches to leading others, and her own leadership lessons.

As a young manager in the NHS in the late 1980s, I recall conversations with my late father (who was also a trade union representative), about the challenges I faced early in my management career. Although I felt confident that I had the answers to the challenges my team was facing, I did not have that same confidence addressing those senior to me with solutions, even though they were without the benefit of ‘proper’ management training scheme.

My dad tried to convince me of the benefit of listening first to ensure I understood the challenges of my senior colleagues, before wading in with my advice and latest management thinking. Unfortunately, my dad was up against it, I was on a mission and determined change the face of management and leadership in Support Services in the NHS.

Since that time in my early management career, and now in my role as programme director of Transition to Leadership, I understand the importance of having a coach when you are making the transition to leading and managing others like I had my dad. Coaching is therefore a key programme component as it is a really practical and useable skill, which has earned its place in my management & leadership toolkit.

Why coaching and what can it offer?

What is coaching?
Jonathan Passmore defines coaching as “unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

It is also about future potential and building self-awareness, responsibility and self-belief.  As a leader, building the self-belief of others has the potential to transform the relationship you have with that individual and their performance.

When is coaching useful?
Coaching is particularly useful for people when they are transitioning from one role to another. As coaching can help individuals (coachees) to be more aware of themselves and their impact on others. Coachees become more willing to take responsibility for and be able to respond to situations, and be better able to learn from their experience and increase their self-motivation.

As part of Transition to Leadership, participants also learn about a coaching approach to leading via Daniel Goleman’s research on the six distinct leadership styles and, why a coaching leadership style is recognised as one of the most positive leadership styles. Participants also have the chance to practice coaching skills face-to-face and as part of the programme’s online peer coaching groups.

Once you understand the fundamental principles of what coaching is and, adopt a framework for a coaching discussion, it becomes essentially an exercise in attending to and listening deeply to the coachee to better understand them. To learn to not advise or give answers but to acknowledge that people are inherently resourceful and have the knowledge, insight and motivation within to make a decision.

This is something that we don’t always deploy as we have been schooled to believe we should have and that we must be the expert given our role or status.

I came to coaching quite late in my career, in my mid-40s but how I wish that as a young manager and leader I had listened to the advice of my dad or others to understand there is a better way to do this. I would have then learnt to develop key leadership attributes including listening deeply through asking helpful questions and attending to and allowing others in my team to personally develop while feeling supported with their particular challenges.

I also realise that as a young manager the challenges I found in trying to better connect and understand those I managed, could have been solved by adopting a more coaching approach to leading. This is something I hope that Transition to Leadership, with its focus on coaching and a coaching approach to leading, can help develop for others.

Personally, I apply the skills I have gained through coaching in many aspects of my working and personal life whether it be my ongoing challenges with my teenage son and his life choices about education and the future, or a close friend facing a personal crisis, I ask myself how can I help here? Is it to be in the moment and attend to their issue primarily or what question might help to reframe this or help to look at things a bit differently? I really try not to be the expert or give advice. It invariably does help both them and myself feel that we have made some progress and that they are choosing the best option for themselves.

So, the one piece of advice I would have given my younger self, apart from my dad was probably right about “that guy,” would have been to take his advice and listen hard, seek to understand and ask helpful questions to unearth the inner resourcefulness that we all possess when it comes to our challenges at work and elsewhere in life; to keep myself out of the way and support and enable others to find their own answers.

Jean Chandler is the associate director for membership in Scotland and contributes to a number of other Leadership Foundation programmes. Jean is also a qualified Institute of Leadership and Management level 7 executive coach with coaching experience both within and outside higher education. Get in touch with Jean, jean.chandler@lfhe.ac.uk 

Transition to Leadership is our blended leadership development programme for those who are new to leadership and looking to influence change. The next run of Transition to Leadership will run from Wednesday 6 December 2017 – Wednesday 11 April 2018 with face to face sessions taking place in Manchester.

Find out more: www.lfhe.ac.uk/ttl

Reflections from Aurora

Dr Klara Wanelik

Picture credit: Photo of ‘value map’ from Aurora 2016-17 in London by Dr Zenobia Lewis, Senior Lecturer in the School of Life Sciences, University of Liverpool.

Dr Klara Wanelik is a Postdoctoral Researcher Associate at the Institute of Integrative Biology, University of Liverpool.  She took part in Aurora in Leeds during 2016-17. She reflects on the two aspects of Aurora she found most interesting: core values and the importance of narrative and starting with why.

In March this year I embarked on a leadership training course for women in higher education, called Aurora. You might be thinking, why would I go on a course like this? Well, as an early career researcher (ECR) in science, I am very concerned by statistics like this:

“The proportion of female students (55%) and graduates (59%) in the EU exceeds that of male students, but women represent only 18% of grade A (professorial) academic staff” (Louise Morley, 2013)

The aim of Aurora is to take positive action to address this under-representation of women in leadership positions in higher education.

I attended four development days at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds (quite appropriate really!) and met hundreds of women from the sector. It has taken me a while to digest all of this but I think I am finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I include some of my thoughts in this blog post with the hope of inspiring other female ECRs, and more generally inspiring others, to start questioning what it means to be a good a leader. I focus on two aspects of the programme that I found particularly useful. This choice is personal, and I’m sure that other women attending the programme would choose differently. But here goes…

Exploring core values

During the session, Core Leadership Skills, we were given a list of universal human values and asked to circle those that were most important to us: our ‘core values’. At the end of the session, each group pooled their results together on a kind of ‘value map’ (see image above), where values were grouped under terms like universalism, benevolence and power. What I found particularly striking was that our table had circled lots of values in the former two groups (like equality, honesty and loyalty) but the power section of the map (with words like social recognition, public image and authority) was completely empty. And it wasn’t just our table, a colleague of mine who attended the programme in London, told me the same happened there (see image above).

How could this be? How could these women who had come together for the sole purpose of developing their leadership skills (some of them already in senior leadership positions) not feel that they identified with any of these values? There are two possible answers: 1) they didn’t feel comfortable sharing these values, or 2) they genuinely didn’t prioritise them. Given the spirit of openness that Aurora encourages, I assume that the second answer is the most likely. This isn’t a gender-specific phenomenon – we heard that men in leadership positions who completed this activity also highlighted the non-power-related values. This, I think, calls into question what we think a leader should be. Many of us still hang on to a traditional view of a leader being a dominating individual, with full authority, who is driven to do what he/she does for the recognition, wealth and/or the power they receive in return. This is a view we really need to shift. By doing this activity, we were being encouraged to consider the individuality of leadership and the importance of authenticity; staying true to your values, while leading. As the facilitator, Rebecca Nestor, suggested, the best leaders are those that create the next generation of leaders. I think this is perhaps a more useful (and interesting) view of leadership than the traditional one.

Importance of storytelling and leading with ‘why’

In another session we learnt about the importance of storytelling in leadership. This sounded a bit odd to me at first, I’d never really put the two together but then I got talking to a woman on my table who proceeded to tell me about some charity work she was doing, somewhat connected to her work as a lawyer. The way she created a narrative about the people she was helping and what she was doing to help them captured my attention. I wanted to sign up straight away, even though I would have been of very little help (I’m a biologist not a lawyer!) It was at this moment though, when she was masterfully telling her story, that I realised how powerful storytelling could be in getting people to do what you want them to do.

The tables were turned on another occasion, after I watched a TED talk by Simon Sinek, which was recommended as part of the pre-work for an Aurora session. In his talk, Simon Sinek talks about inspiring action by leading with why we’re doing something, rather than how or what exactly we’re doing: “people don’t buy what we do, they buy why we do it”. Soon after watching this talk I had the opportunity to re-formulate my ‘elevator pitch’ about the research that I do. There is a real diversity of women on the Aurora programme, from professional services to academics, and from all different fields. On this occasion, I happened to be sat next to (another) lawyer, and to be honest, I was pretty sceptical about being able to really (genuinely) get her on board. To my surprise, my pitch did get her genuinely excited about my research and asking multiple questions. I still remember the look on her face! I’ll be trying my best to lead with ‘why’ from now on.

Thank you

I would like to thank the Institute of Integrative Biology for funding my place on the Aurora programme, all the inspirational women I met during my time on Aurora, and my colleagues for supporting me along the way. Special thanks to Dr Zenobia Lewis, who provided much needed encouragement and support and pushed me to re-apply for Aurora after I was initially unsuccessful in securing a place.

If you are a female ECR like me, I hope this post will encourage you to give the Aurora programme a go and to start thinking of yourself as a leader!

This is an edited version of a post originally published on the ‘Institute of Integrative Biology and the School of Life Sciences at the University of Liverpool’ blog on 6 November 2017. The original version is available here.


About Aurora
Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research that shows that women are under-represented in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to change this. Since Aurora began in 2013 we have welcomed 3,477 women from 139 universities and sector bodies, with 1029 women attending in 2016-17 alone. 

Dates, location and booking
Aurora will take place in Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Dublin and London in 2017-18. Book a place here.

Onwards and Upwards study
The first year summary of the five-year longitudinal study of Aurora can be accessed here: Onwards and Upwards year one summary.

The Aurora Conference- Thursday 7 June 2018
We are delighted to be launching our fourth Aurora conference focusing on learning from others – examining what others outside higher education are doing, and what we can learn from them to support women in leadership within the sector.
Participants include, but are not limited to:
• Aurora participants (current and alumnae)
• Aurora champions
• Aurora role models
• Aurora mentors
• People working in/leading equality and diversity
Find out more and apply

Demystifying Finance for Aurorans- Wednesday 18 April 2018
Is for women in higher education who want to improve their understanding of finance in higher education and develop financial management skills.
Find out more and apply.

Contact us
If you would like to know more about Aurora please get in touch at aurora@lfhe.ac.uk.