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 takes place this March,  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 Monday 19 March – Tuesday 26 June 2018 with face to face sessions taking place in Birmingham.

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.

 

Leslie Shoemaker: inspired by Aurora

Leslie Shoemaker is a lecturer at Dublin Institute of Technology. She took part in Aurora Dublin in 2016-17. Since completing Aurora, Leslie has set up the ESTeEM (Equality in Science and Technology by Engaged Engineering Mentoring) programme at her campus and is now the programme’s coordinator. Here Leslie reflects on how she was able to use elements from Aurora, such as mentorship, to inspire ESTeEM’s format.

When the application process opened for Aurora I knew immediately this was not only something I wanted to do but something I had to do. I was stuck in a rut at work for a variety of reasons. Although I had managed large projects and events in the past I felt like I was lacking in formal training in leadership and management so didn’t have the confidence to know whether I was doing it right. I have picked up leadership skills over the years but I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on why I needed these skills and how I had acquired them. My leadership decisions had an effect on other individuals as well as the projects I was working on, I didn’t want to create an adverse impact due to my lack of knowledge about leadership.

When writing my application, I realised that although I wanted these leadership skills for myself, I could also try and become an ‘everyday’ role model for my female students. The module I teach is for first year students on the soft skills needed in Computer Science, Engineering and Science subjects. It would not be uncommon to have small numbers of female students, if any at all, in what can be very male dominated classes. I began to see how Aurora was an opportunity to bring my knowledge back to these young women and make a positive impact in their lives. I just needed to work out how I could do this effectively.

I was delighted when I found out my Aurora application had been successful.

The Aurora sessions and reading materials provided me with an opportunity to step back and reflect while also learning new leadership tips, tools, and skills. I began to understand how ‘normal’ my thoughts, feelings and experiences were. But regardless of how much I was getting out of these sessions for myself, I couldn’t shake the niggling feeling there was more I could do for my female students.

In March 2017 when I was a little over halfway through the programme, I had a brain wave: adapt the Aurora model to a target audience of female students studying Engineering on the site where I work (the Dublin Institute of Technology has two Engineering campuses). During Aurora each participant is given a mentor. My idea was to recruit female Engineers who are working in industry to mentor young women who are studying engineering. The mentoring would happen over a series of five lunches each academic year and the mentor would ideally stay with the student for the duration of her academic career in this college. After a couple of phone calls and meetings not only was my immediate boss behind me but I had two major international engineering companies, Arup and Schneider Electric, sign up to the project. The ESTeEM programme, Equality in Science and Technology by Engaged Engineering Mentoring, was born.

On 9 October 2017 we had our launch and our first lunch. Currently I have 35 young women participating in the initiative and they range from first year students right through to post graduate students. In addition, there are fourteen female mentors from Schneider Electric and Arup who are graciously giving their time, knowledge and experience to this programme. The buzz in the room during this first lunch was amazing. Both the mentors and the students were clearly excited during the event and the feedback from everyone has been overwhelmingly positive.

Despite this great start I recognise I still have some battles to fight such as helping some of the current female engineering students see why a programme like this is of relevance (I have had about a 60% uptake on the programme from the students who are studying engineering on this campus) and I would like to expand the ESTeEM programme to the other engineering campus. With thanks to Aurora I have a better idea of how to approach the challenges I face but know that I will get there.

I also understand that I will make mistakes along the way but I know this is part of my leadership development. The standards I was holding myself to in order to ‘prove’ my worth because I am a woman working in a male dominated area are not as rigid these days, which is a nice change for me (and very possibly others who I work with). I am thankful I was provided with the opportunity to take time out to learn more about myself and leadership but I am hopeful that ESTeEM will make a difference in the same way for my students Aurora has for me.

So fellow Auroran’s embrace the opportunities that come your way or the ones that you create and feel able to take risks, even if it means feeling really uncomfortable because that will pass in time. We are often our own worst critics, let’s show ourselves some self-compassion.


If you would like to find out more about ESTeEM you can contact Leslie here.

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.

Sustainable change: moving from driven to organic approaches

Doug Parkin, programme director, reflects on the live case study that is one of the centrepiece learning activities on the Future Professional Directors Programme.  The case study contributed by the University of Hertfordshire in March this year captured the essence of co-inquiry as a process for engagement and change. 

With thanks to Gill Sadler, Head of Planning, Development and Change at the University of Hertfordshire for her input and support.

People don’t resist change, they resist being changed (something done to them)Peter M Senge.

Terms like ownership, having a voice, creating buy-in and personal investment will be familiar to many leaders who have considered what it means to create staff engagement with organisational change. Likewise, through their own experience or the wisdom of others, they will have reflected on the importance of high quality communication outlining the need for change, the purpose of change, the benefits of change and the process through which change will be achieved. Often these reflections are framed ‘in absentia’ where either the lack of engagement or the poverty of communication caused the change initiative to falter or fail. And these menu-like observations regarding the ingredients for leading successful and sustainable change, including engagement, communication and having a compelling vision, have become well established in the change literature. For example, in 1996 John Kotter identified undercommunicating as ‘Error #4’ in the thinking which gave rise to his well-known 8-Step Change Model:

“Without credible communication, and a lot of it, employee’s hearts and minds are never captured.”

However, this methodology of change can feel very driven. These steps or stages can come across as leadership imperatives that are ‘done to others’ within a system. The leader (or leadership group) develops a vision, communicates, creates buy-in, develops a sense of ownership, looks to highlight early signs of progress, and so on. It is, perhaps, questionable how well such ‘driven’ approaches work in collaborative environments with committed teams and empowered individuals, such as the modern university context. Do we need a more organic approach that is about co-creating change? Do we need engagement to be the very means by which change takes place rather than something leaders strive for within a more abstract process? And if change is to be about culture as well as systems and structures, then is a more organic, engagement-driven approach essential?

The Leadership Foundation’s Future Professional Directors (FPD) programme aims to support the development of leaders who can not only thrive in a culture of change but also work collaboratively with diverse communities of colleagues to develop collective commitment, shared purpose and new and enhanced ways of working together. Key ideas relating to this approach are:

  • Co-inquiry – The principle of working “‘with’ rather than ‘on’ people”
  • Collaborative engagement“The key to collaborative engagement… is to bring people together and ask good questions”
  • An appreciative spirit“We need to discover the root causes of success rather than the root causes of failure”
  • Being at ease with complexity – Containing “the anxiety of creative activity in the midst of… complexity”

The live case study

To explore these ideas actively and have a hands-on experience of this approach we have introduced a live case study as the centrepiece for the first three-day residential FPD module. An unfolding inquiry process is used to work with the university team contributing the case study.  It is a ‘live’ case study because it is real, still active in the institutional context concerned and has further stages to run, and levels of complexity to scale as a change initiative. This year, in March 2017, the live case study was generously contributed by the University of Hertfordshire based on their highly innovative Engagement Driven Approach to Process Improvement (EDA).  The case study was led by Gill Sadler, Head of Planning, Development and Change, with colleagues from the University of Hertfordshire’s Improvement and Change Team and other colleagues from across the university who had been active participants in and champions of the EDA.

In outline, the learning process for the live case study follows a reflective structure that combines both looking back and projecting forwards. The shorter ‘looking back’ phase, focussed on the story so far, is an opportunity for the group to explore things like the strategic context, drivers for change, different organisational perspectives and key decisions.  Most of the time is then spent on the ‘projecting forwards’ phase. The FPD participants work with the live case study team on three questions or themes identified by the team in advance that open up an active inquiry into the future of the project or initiative and particularly next steps. Working in teams, the final stage of the exercise involves the FPD participants presenting back to the live case study team their impressions, recommendations and challenges. Alongside the exercise, we invite participants to reflect on the idea of internal consultancy as part of the skills-set for enabling transformational and sustainable change using collaborative engagement. In one sense, the live case study could be regarded as a piece of collaborative consultancy.

An engagement driven approach

What was exceptional about the live case study this year was the close fit between the University of Hertfordshire’s change initiative and the process and principles we were using. Gill Sadler summarises the engagement driven approach as:

“An approach to process improvement within Higher Education that focuses on people, taking differing perspectives seriously, in an iterative process of improvement to enhance both individual and organisational capability. Key to its success is early and ongoing engagement with staff not as stakeholders but as full members of the improvement team.

The approach brings people together at the beginning of a project and encourages their involvement throughout. It focuses on facilitating discussion, raising awareness of processes, improving communications and building relationships.”

Within the live case study exercise, this close alignment between what we were exploring, an approach to change based on collaborative engagement, and the style of learning activity we were using to engage with it (also collaborative engagement) created a real sense of excitement. The learning itself became very deep, highly energised and multi-layered.  Everything became about engagement, from the questions the FPD participants asked and the way they asked them through to the detailed narratives the Hertfordshire team were able to share. There was, for example, something fascinating and liberating about the way Hertfordshire had defined engagement based on four levels:

  • Attraction – to interest
  • Involvement – to draw in
  • Connection – to bring together
  • Bond – to build relationships (Ibid.)

As the FPD participants discovered, through the examples shared, these levels were used as references in the selection of engagement practices for different change projects.

Considering the involvement of senior leaders, it was also valuable to reflect on the role of effective sponsorship for the success of an engagement driven initiative:

“We found that strong, visible and accessible sponsorship was essential for the success of an engagement driven project. By demonstrating active commitment to engagement, sponsors set the tone and mood of the review.” (Ibid.)

Mutual learning

A key premise for the live case study is mutual learning. It is a purposeful approach which should benefit the live case study team as much as it does the course participants. Reflecting on this after the event, Gill Sadler made the following observations regarding the Hertfordshire team’s experience of the exercise:

“The case study provided us with a safe environment away from the pressures and distractions of `business as usual’ to review the way in which we use our approach to change. By bringing to the event both members of the change team and colleagues affected by engagement driven change, we benefitted again from those different perspectives on which the approach is based.  We had a unique opportunity to reflect on our `elephants in the room’ – those tricky issues that we knew were there but which we had been unable or unwilling to address! The FPD participants provided innovative and diverse ideas on how we can move forward.  Free consultancy – what’s not to like!”

Learning points and take-aways

In terms of specific learning points, take-aways, new insights and realisations that the Hertfordshire team gained to apply to both current and future initiatives, Gill highlighted the following:

  • The case study emphasised what we already knew – the engagement driven approach takes time and commitment but is well worth the investment.
  • The approach needs all players to remain engaged through what may be a lengthy process; this sustained engagement must be supported and resourced.
  • The case study reminded us that the model is not suitable for all change situations. For example, where change must be delivered quickly or there are fixed parameters (such as legislative change or cost reductions), it is difficult to apply the model in full. However, elements and principles of the approach may still help to progress such change.
  • Early engagement with a committed sponsor is essential and the sponsor must remain visible, engaged and committed through the process.
  • Project boundaries must be clear with `red lines’ open and transparent but flexibility is essential if significant issues emerge which challenge the scope.
  • Participants will develop trust in the process if any issues can be raised and recorded. If those issues are in scope they must be considered, if they’re not, they will be captured and redirected or addressed at a later date. Trust grows if participants see their views and comments are not being ignored.
  • Senior managers need support in hearing what may be tough messages. People watch the way managers respond to these messages and see it as evidence of the culture of the organisation.
  • Communication is key – a range of channels must be made available for comment, including confidential ones. The wider change team must be kept informed, even when there may not be much progress to report.
  • The case study reminded us that an organisation must always be aware of the impact change has on service delivery. Few organisations have the luxury of isolating or suspending a service whilst change happens.

Using engagement organically as the very means by which change takes place is the key to the engagement driven approach or people-powered change. It is not only empowering, energising and interactive, it also draws people into strategic thinking, and uses them as a resource to re-imagine or co-create the future. It brings change leadership out from behind closed doors and makes it an active and involving part of organisational life, and it is also a key means of sharing leadership.


Doug Parkin is the programme director for the Future Professional Directors programme at the Leadership Foundation. He also runs a number of other bespoke and core programmes, in addition to international projects. 

Gill Sadler is the Head of Planning, Development and Change at the University of Hertfordshire. In 2016 she produced a report on a practice-based project funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the Higher Education Funding Council for England Innovation and Transformation Fund: Engagement driven approach to process improvement.

Applications for Future Professional Directors are now open
Application Deadline: 
Friday 23 February 2018
Module 1: 
Wednesday 21 – Friday 23 March 2018
Webinar: 
Friday 20 April 2018
360 Day: 
Tuesday 22 May 2018
Action Learning Set 1: 
Wednesday 23 May 2018
Module 2: 
Tuesday 3 – Wednesday 4 July 2018
Action Learning Set 2: 
Thursday 6 September 2018
Challenge Group Submission Deadline: 
Friday 12 October 2018
Module 3: 
Thursday 15 – Friday 16 November 2018