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.

Want to be more successful? Start with the end in mind

Maeve Lankford leads the Vision Workshop. 

Following on from the annual Aurora Conference 2017 Aurora ambassador, Maeve Lankford, shares insights from her workshop, Vision.

There is a saying that many of you will be aware of: “There is no wind favourable to the sailor with no destination in mind”. In order for us to achieve success in life, in our careers, in our relationships, it starts with us knowing what we want. As Stephen Covey puts it, “begin with the end in mind.”

So what are your plans for the next three years? If you aren’t sure then read this blog to develop clear ideas for yourself to take your first steps in successfully achieving what you want.

Identify your longings and discontents

As a leader, it is important to think about where you are in your leadership journey and where you see yourself going next. Ask yourself, how do I want to develop personally and professionally? Perhaps you have just completed Aurora and are thinking about your next steps, or maybe you are planning on doing a development programme in the future? Whether you are at the start or the end of a programme, you need to know where you are heading next!  That is the essential prerequisite to achieving a successful outcome.

The Universe provides us with two signals for growth: our longings and our discontents.  As a transformational coach, many of my clients start with building their vision and goals from identifying the things that they don’t like in their current situation – unsatisfactory commute; no work-life balance; no time for family, hobbies, or the bits of your job you love. Our discontents are often the things that give us clues as to how we’d prefer things to be.

And our longings – our dreams of career success; better sleep or less stress; acknowledgement of our contribution at work, at home or in our community; time and resources for hobbies or holidays, new interests – professional or personal – these too suggest the goals we aspire to.

Your vision and goals

Once you have started to identify your longings and discontents, you can start to define your vision and goals. I recommend you take a holistic approach to this. Look across the four domains of your life – health and well-being; career and creative expression; relationships; time and money freedom – and ask yourself the question – What would I love?

Allow yourself to really dream into that question, using your imagination as vividly as you did as a child. Will you allow yourself to imagine? Does it feel too childish for the grown up academic or professional you’ve become? Remember Einstein who said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Suspend your knowledge of your current conditions and circumstances and imagine the outcomes you would love.

Once you have the end in mind. Take some time to write it all down using the following style:

  1. Start with gratitude: I am so happy and grateful now that…
  2. Write your vision in the present tense. Imagine you are describing a scene from a movie where everything is already happening just as you want it. This is a way for us to bring ideas from our imagination into current experience.

For example, you might open each section as follows:

  • I am so happy and grateful now that I am a successful leader who is admired by my peers and my staff.
  • I am so happy and grateful now that I spend quality time with my family
  • I am so happy and grateful now that I am healthy, well rested, and exercising regularly
  1. Paint the picture. Be as specific as you possibly can because the image you create transmits energy.

When you read it back, you want to get an emotional response in yourself that says ‘Yes, I LOVE this life’.  If it doesn’t feel like that when you read or speak it back, change it: keep changing it until it gives you that enthusiastic emotional response.

Live and breathe it

You’ve set your course for the outcomes you want to achieve.  In the coming days and weeks revisit your written vision regularly, preferably building it into your daily routine, consistently reminding yourself that this is the path you are on. Ask yourself each day, ‘what action can I take today that takes me in the direction of my goals? And then take that action!   As you start to achieve progress, you may well wish to make changes to your vision and goals.  This is normal.  Keep making those changes and tweaks, adding new details and goals as you achieve what you’ve set out for yourself, always seeking that emotional charge – Yes!  I love this life

When things crop up that demand your time and attention, your resources or energy, and if you’re not sure what to prioritise, ask yourself the question: ”does this take me in the direction of my vision and goals or not?” Let this help you decide whether to do something or not. Having this level of clarity and decisiveness alone will catapult you towards your end results.

In the coming weeks, we’ll share two further blogs about how to build your momentum in achieving the goals and successes you want.  We’ve started with clarity about the end result.  Next, we’ll talk about the importance of committing to your goals, and in the final blog, we’ll discuss how to overcome fears and doubts along the way.


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 and is currently Director of her own training and coaching company.  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

Bungee jumping my way to leadership

Payal Gaglani-Bhatt reflects on how her experience at Aurora in 2016-17 helped her find her voice.

It was a cold and grey morning in London as I made my way to the Aurora London 1 cohort in October 2016. I was cold but curious, hungry but excited, slightly sceptical but looking forward to meeting new people.

The day began like any other conference begins, but about halfway through the morning, we had to come up with a visual image of how we see ourselves with regards to leadership. For me this was a very powerful, thought provoking and reflective moment. I saw myself as a bungee jumper – tied to a harness, standing on the edge of a cliff, reluctant to take the next step.  This was a momentous image because it was exactly what my approach, attitude and stance was towards leadership. I was holding myself back, uncertain of my own ability, and reluctant to take the plunge!

That’s where Aurora has really made a big difference. It’s made me confident in my own abilities, it’s helped me channel my thoughts on “what’s possible” rather than what’s not, and encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and bungee jump…literally!

On that very first day, it became apparent that all of us Aurorans were in the same boat: personal insecurities, preferences for a healthy work-life balance and multiple priorities were the backbone of what made us who we are. More often than not, we wear more than one hat in our lives and are inclined to commit extensively to each of our roles – be it as a mother, a mentor, a manager, a volunteer, an author….that’s where I really began thinking more and more about wearing one hat in another context and vice versa.

The reflective practice made me analyse and critically look at the ways I behave, interact, make decisions, influence others around me and most importantly how I was using, or not using, my voice. I knew subconsciously that I often used my skills as a mother with my team and my professional performance management techniques to deal with my kids.

This began the process of vocalising my thoughts and recording the parallels between the two through reflective writing. I found my voice through a blog and after taking on board constructive feedback from colleagues, I had the courage to take the plunge and publish it. In March 2017, I launched School of Mumagement – it is my creative and constructive platform to rationalise what I do as a parent and apply successful parenting tips, techniques, and tactics at work and in management situations to unbelievable success…. naturally this needs tweaking to accommodate varying scenarios, but the theory remains valid.

So, how has finding my voice helped me in my career and what does that have to do with leadership or bungee jumping? Below are three main aspects that “finding my voice” has had an impact on. I believe these are the pillars to being a good leader:

1) Confidence – First is the confidence in my own skills and abilities: in wanting to try new things; in being experimental; in vocalising my beliefs, thoughts and opinions; in standing my ground.  I developed the confidence that my knowledge, skills and expertise were my harness and would always be with me… even as I jumped off.

2) Conviction – Second is the conviction in my passions and energies: in being comfortable in my own skin and personality, in my authenticity and individuality; in my inherent knowledge and self-worth. I found the conviction that I could do it and take the plunge, but more importantly, found the passion and enthusiasm to want to do it.

3) Control – Third is the control over my career trajectory: over my ambitions, my fears and my hesitancies.  I gained control not only on how and when I jumped but also on how I could enjoy the fall, the rise and the bounce and the most important of all, the WHOLE journey.

So my dear Aurorans, I hope you too have found your voice. I hope you have been challenged to step out of your comfort zone, to understand yourself and to reflect on your aspirations. More importantly though, I hope you have found the confidence, conviction and control to bungee jump your way to leadership with authenticity!


Payal Gaglani-Bhatt is Head of Events at SOAS, University of London. She completed the Aurora programme in London in 2017. Since completing the programme, Payal was inspired to create her own independent blog, School of Mumagement.

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.

 

Talent management – for the many or just the few?

Dr Wendy Hirsh, co-author of Talent Management: Learning Across Sectors, the Leadership Foundation’s latest research publication, challenges higher education to consider the development of staff in the same way they would the learning growth of students.

Working on talent management with many organisations, their managers and staff, I often encounter unease and even hostility to the possibility that some development opportunities might be offered to some people but not others. So is talent management for the many or the few or can it be both?

If we unpick this issue from the business perspective first, we see that the ideas of business needs and business risk are very central to what organisations in a range of sectors mean by the term talent management. Talent management is absolutely not about giving employees all the development they would like, but about prioritising business investment in development where it will make the most difference to business effectiveness – and decrease business risk. Therefore it must be central to an organisation’s strategy.

However, often in universities, the human resources and talent management strategy (if it exists) sits alongside the core priorities and can become disconnected. This blog draws from new case study research commissioned by the Leadership Foundation to learn about talent management as practiced in other sectors. A key issue for universities like other organisations is whether to focus development resource on the many or the few.  For example, does a university need to invest in senior leadership, mid-career academics and professionals or helping younger researchers gain the skills and exposure to get their feet on the funding ladder? The answer to this question will always be a mix, but it is unavoidable that the decision will be informed by budgets and capacity if nothing else.

The public sector in the UK has traditionally been very good at investing in those just starting out on their careers and those near the top. This can leave the “middle” neglected. The more successful businesses, for example leading technology and professional services firms recognise the importance of prioritising and developing the capacity of the “middle” by redesigning roles, changing work and skill mix and business practices. The message here is this kind of development is not just about courses but about giving well established staff access to new experiences, extending and expanding roles, such as being involved directly in leading change, albeit supported by  informal coaching, mentoring or perhaps learning sets to practice new approaches. We suggest universities might usefully re-examine the capability of their experienced teachers, researchers and professionals, assess the skills gap and unfulfilled potential and use institutional wide talent management strategies as an enabler for success in an increasingly competitive environment.

We also see some talent management priorities arising from labour market shortages in what companies often call ‘operationally critical’ jobs or workforce groups. For example, some universities find it difficult to fill technician roles when long-serving staff retire or find clinical-academics in areas like medicine when higher salaries can be earned outside the academy. These are national, not institutional problems. Pharmaceutical companies adjusted their training pipelines for technician roles many years ago to accommodate both graduate and vocational routes and to raise skill levels to respond to increasingly complex lab techniques and equipment. Such issues could be addressed by universities sectorally or regionally as well as individually.

The second set of business decisions about priorities is trickier. Will we develop everyone in a particular workforce group to the same skill level or will we sometimes select individuals for more stretching development activities? The trend here in other sectors is clearly to aim for a both/and answer to this question. For example, companies are re-investing in first line manager training for all such managers, because good management is so central to the performance, engagement, development and retention of the people they manage. However, on top of this universal development, a talent management approach may also be trying to spot first line managers who want to progress their careers and have the ability to do a bigger or more complex management job. Depending on the context, a university may be wanting to invest in people already thinking about becoming a Head of Department, or looking a bit earlier for individuals who simply want to grow and are interested in exploring their leadership potential. Such individuals may be offered more stretching developmental opportunities to help them progress their careers and also to test their career preferences. The Leadership Foundation’s Aurora programmes and Athena SWAN does something of this kind for women in academia. So taking a business view, different kinds of development investment may address both the many and the few.

Of course, if organisations try and spot potential for career progression, they need to be very careful to avoid managers just developing their favourites or perpetuating inequalities of gender, race and so on. This is why talent management does have to be inclusive and include relevant definitions of potential for different kinds of jobs or levels in the organisation, test and challenge the views of individual managers and integrate talent management with real time tracking of diversity and inclusion data.

Moving from the organisational to the individual perspective, the idea of a Personal Development Plan is long established. However, other sectors are trying to move this away from being just about courses and to make it individually tailored and genuinely personal – that is related to the strengths and needs of each person and their situation. So we would not expect PDPs to give the same development to everyone doing the same job. PDPs are also being modified to include career-related development as well as development to improve performance in the current job. Talent management explicitly includes talking to individuals about their career aspirations and interests. There is little point developing someone towards being a Head of Department if this is simply not something they want to do or if they show no sign of the people skills required to do it successfully.

In essence talent management brings together these two perspectives and has to be “everyone’s business” and not just human resources “baby”. It needs to focus development where it is needed by the business and where it matches the aspirations and abilities of individuals. When it works well it’s a win-win for the “many” in the organisation and also for the “few” at the level of the individual. But to go down this route, we have to get used to the idea that not everyone needs to learn the same things at the same time in the same way. The best universities aspire to attend to the individual needs and interests of their students – supporting those who needs extra help and challenging those who can go further. Why would they wish to do less for their staff?

Dr Wendy Hirsh is an employment researcher and consultant specialising in career development, talent management, succession planning and workforce planning. Talent Management: Learning Across Sectors, was co-written with Elaine Tyler, Research Fellow, Institute for Employment Studies.

Download the report here: www.lfhe.ac.uk/hirsh5.8

Leadership and the multiplier effect- Andy Cope

Following on from the Leadership Foundation’s Leading and the Art of Being Brilliant, author, Andy Cope shares his thoughts on how being a happy leader is key to your team’s success.

Before you read on, I want to lighten the load on your weary managerial shoulders. Your job as a leader is NOT to inspire your people. Your job is to BE inspired.

But how, when we live in a world of permanent pressure and are bombarded with a gush of information that would have been staggering to comprehend even 10 years ago. This makes me sound crusty but when I first entered the workplace the inputs came from paper letters delivered to the office first thing. These were distributed to my pigeon hole for mid-morning and perhaps again in the afternoon if I was super-popular. I was taught to schedule my phone calls in a batch. Dealing with these tasks would take maybe an hour a day and I was then clear to do the stuff of ‘real work’.

Now this information is the real work. The background noise of 10 years ago has been replaced by the deafening cacophony of screaming emails and texts. Look around your workplace and you’ll see colleagues buzzed up on caffeine and sugar, masking their exhaustion as they count down to the weekend or their next holiday.

The conundrum is that happiness and energy are in short supply, yet they’re vital for business success. Academic research merely confirms what you intuitively know, namely that happy employees are good for business. Cherry-picking a few studies, McNair[1] suggests that energy and vitality inoculate you against mental ill-health; Den Hartog & Belschak[2] report links between happiness and personal initiative; and plenty of others report that happy employees are more entrepreneurial, creative, motivated, productive, energetic, stress-resilient…

If you throw in the fact that happy employees also create an emotional uplift in those around them (thus raising the productivity of their co-workers), then the argument gets ramped up to the next level.

In Connected, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler[3] describe something they call the ‘hyper-dyadic spread’, the tendency of emotions to transmit from person to person, beyond an individual’s direct ties. They make the point almost poetically, describing the complex web of social connections thus: ‘Ties do not extend outward in straight lines like spokes on a wheel. Instead these paths double back on themselves and spiral around like a tangled pile of spaghetti.’ They found evidence to suggest that your emotions have a ripple effect that reaches three degrees of people removed from you. The magic numbers are 15, 10 and 6. If you’ve got a smile and a positive attitude, everyone with whom you come into direct contact experiences an emotional uplift of 15 per cent.

That’s terrific news because you’re raising the emotional tone of your family, friends and work colleagues. But it doesn’t stop there. Those 15 per cent happier folk then pass on their happiness to everyone they encounter, raising their levels by 10 per cent. Remember, you haven’t actually met these 10%ers directly but they have caught your happiness. And to complete the ripple, these 10 per cent happier folk pass your happiness on to everyone they meet by an extra 6 per cent.

But hang on a second. They’re the stats for ‘normal’ people. You’re a leader and Shawn Achor suggests “the power to spark positive emotional contagion multiplies if you are in a leadership position.” (p. 208)[4]. George & Bettenhausen[5] conclude that a positive leader engenders positive moods in their team, coordinating tasks better and with less effort, and Kim Cameron weighs in with the notion of positivity being analogous to the ‘heliotropic effect’; “All living systems have an inclination towards the positive… plants lean towards the light…” (p xi).[6]

So, it transpires that YOU are the secret ingredient in the happiness cake, or the yeast in the organisational bloomer. Whichever metaphor you prefer, the point was made most simply in sentence #3 of this article.

My seminar seeks to give you some clues about how best to sustain and enhance your leadership multiplier effect.


Andy Cope describes himself as a qualified teacher, author, happiness expert and learning junkie. He has spent the last 10 years studying positive psychology, happiness and flourishing, culminating in a Loughborough University PhD thesis. Andy appreciates that his ‘Dr of Happiness’ label is terribly cheesy but it affords him an important media platform. In times of rising depression and an epidemic of ‘busyness’, Andy believes there has never been a more appropriate time to raise the happiness agenda.

He has worked with companies such as Microsoft, DHL, Pirelli, Hewlett Packard, Astra Zeneca and IKEA. He is also a best-selling author having written, ‘The Art of Being Brilliant’, ‘Be Brilliant Everyday’ and ‘The Art of Being a Brilliant Teenager’ (Capstone).

Open Programme Alumni Network Event: Leadership and the Art of Being Brilliant

For more information on the Leadership Foundation’s upcoming programmes. 

References

[1] McNair, D. M., Lorr, M. & Doppleman, L. F. (1971). Manual for the Profile of Mood States.  San Diego: Educational & Industrial Testing Service.

[2] Den Hartog, D. N. & Belschak, F. D. (2007). Personal Initiative, Commitment & Affect at Work. Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology 80, pp 601-622.

[3] Christakis, N. & Fowler, J. (2011). Connected: The Amazing Power of Social Networks & how they Shape our Lives. Harper Press

[4] Achor, S. (2011). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles that Fuel Success & Performance at Work. Virgin Books.

[5] George, J. M. & Bettenhausen, K. 1990. Understanding Pro-social Behaviour, Sales Performance, & Turnover: A Group-level Analysis in a Service Context. Journal of Applied Psychology 75, pp 698-709.

[6] Cameron, K. (2008). Positive Leadership; Strategies for Extraordinary Performance.  Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc. San Francisco.

 

The Recipe for Perfect Leadership – Louise Fowler

Following on from speaking at the Aurora Adaptive Leadership Skills day in Cardiff in May 2017, Louise Fowler shares some key learnings from her 25 year + career in senior marketing roles.

So to save you the trouble of reading all the way to the bottom, I’m going to give you the punch-line right upfront: What’s the recipe for perfect leadership?  Well, you probably already know the answer:  there isn’t one.

But that doesn’t mean, of course, there aren’t things we can all do to improve our leadership skills and capabilities.  All leaders get it wrong, all of the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not leading, so what are they doing that inspires others to get behind them?

Someone once told me that leadership is being yourself only with more skill, and I think that’s a wonderful thought.

Human beings are innately expert at sniffing out insincerity.  The authentic leader hones and develops qualities they already have and builds on the things they are already good at.

I first found myself in a position of leadership over 25 years ago.   I was offered my dream job being appointed the youngest, and first female, Regional Director for British Airways in Africa, based in Johannesburg. It was scary, but also very rewarding.   Since then, I’ve held numerous leadership roles, mainly in the private sector working for consumer service businesses, but also in the public and not-for-profit sectors where I sit on several boards.

I’m no expert:  I make mistakes on a daily basis, but what I have learned in all the years of trying to lead well is that there is no recipe for successful leadership and what works for one situation may not help you in different circumstances. It also doesn’t matter whether you think you’re leading or not: that’s an assessment for other people to make, not you.

That said, there are some key qualities I think successful leaders draw on time and again and I’ve found there are some personal resources I have repeatedly come back to on my leadership journey:

Leaders need courage.   Courage is about not knowing what the “right” answer is, but being prepared to make a decision anyway.   Great leaders are prepared to make a decision when a decision is what’s needed and to deal with the consequences later if they’ve got it wrong, which quite often, they have.

But courage on its own is risky:  I’ve seen, even worked for, the odd “maverick” whose courage has out-stripped their other qualities and although it might be fun for a while it’s a risky way to operate, and can be destructive.  Leadership relies also on credibility.  This is a really important quality because it comprises two elements:  it’s about not only your capability and competence as a leader, but also about how others see you.

This, I think, is particularly important for those of us who may not conform to the more “traditional” view of a leader.  Although, thankfully, this image is changing, too often people still expect a leader to be an experienced gentleman of a certain age, probably wearing a suit.   If you are a woman, or a young person, or anyone who doesn’t fit that stereotype for any reason, there is a risk you are starting with a credibility gap.  Not your fault, and certainly not fair, but there are things you can do about it.

Remember what I said, though, about authentic leadership.  Trying to conform to what peoples’ mental images are is not the way to go:  trying to be something or someone you’re not is a recipe for stress and disaster. Being clear about what you’re good at, the strengths you bring to the party and the value you add is the best way to disarm any potential discrimination or prejudice based on others’ perceptions.  This is where the “skill” in being yourself comes in.

There are two other qualities great leaders have in my experience, and they fall firmly on the emotional, rather than the rational end of the spectrum.  They are curiosity, and care.

Curiosity is something we are all born with but learn at an early age to curb.   How many of us remember an adult answering our youthful question “Why?” with the rather impatient “because I said so!”? Leadership is born out of curiosity; about the world, about the art of the possible (and not-so possible) and about people.  Great leaders are driven by this and it’s in part what inspires us to get up and follow them.

The final quality is perhaps the most important:  Care.  Leadership is always founded on a deep-seated, sincere care, not just for the people in the organisation but for the organisation overall.   The leader who cares solely for status, power, position or themselves is quickly found out.   Too many “managers” go through the motions, working for organisations or causes that no longer light the fire in their belly.  These are not leaders.  True leaders can’t help but be driven by a care for what they’re working on and who they’re working with.  And that’s infectious.

So don’t go looking for a recipe or a prescription or even advice on how to be a great leader.  Don’t try to copy others, although you can learn from them, but be yourself.  Be courageous, credible, curious and full of care; be the best version of you that you can be and you will find yourself leading.   Enjoy it!

_____________________________________

Louise Fowler is a marketing and brand specialist and founded Davenport Strategy in 2012. Prior to this, Louise has held senior marketing roles at organisations as diverse as British Airways, Barclays and First Direct. Louise has worked in organisations within the private sector, the mutual sector and not-for-profit.

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.

 

Mindfulness: right here, right now – the leader’s dilemma

In advance of the Leadership Foundation’s events on the Art of Being Brilliant at Work, and Mindfulness in Higher Education, programme director, Doug Parkin shares his thoughts on mindfulness as the leader’s dilemma. 

Right here, right now is in a very real sense the only moment that really matters.  If we can’t be happy in this moment, then what reason have we to expect that we might be happy in any other?  The past is gone and the future is yet to happen.  The past is a complex web of interactions and events, always open to interpretation that we may cherish, value or regret.  The future is nothing more than a tableau of personal, social and cultural expectations, some fixed firmly through either certainty or routine, others more loosely cast as speculation, anxious uncertainty or, perhaps, the stuff of dreams. The present, though, is now.  It is the breath we breathe in this moment and no other.

So, what has this to do with leadership?  Well, everything.  It could almost be described as the leader’s dilemma, in fact.  The word leadership, in its Anglo-Saxon origins is about ‘the road or path ahead’.  Transformational leadership is about vision, direction and the challenge of aligning the energies of a diverse range of more or less connected people behind an attractive goal. Driven by what, though? Well, a combination of events that have occurred in the past, near or far, and our best guess about what may happen in the environment around us in a range of future scenarios. We are both pushed by the past and pulled by the future, and leaders find themselves bouncing between the two as they react to one and try to be proactive about the other.  That’s the dilemma!

Now, we are often told that ‘if we fail to plan we plan to fail’. A neat statement that it is very easy to nod your head at and which contains one kind of truth. Within most organisational endeavours it is certainly helpful to plan and prepare, and in terms of shaping the future and having a vision another leadership maxim tells us that ‘if we don’t know where we’re going, then any path will do’. And all of this leads us towards the ‘doing’ trap – the busy business of doing – and we neglect the fundamental importance of ‘being’.  Taking that vitally important reflective breath and being present.  After all, this is the moment that everything before it, quite literally, was building towards. And if we go on postponing it, waiting for another better moment that our wonderful planning and change management may yield, then we become like a child chasing a reflection.

To some extent we are programmed to regard the future as a brighter place than today.  “Sniffing a wonderful carroty horizon,” as Andy Cope puts it, propels us to struggle, survive and evolve.  Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, suggests that these positive illusion, as psychologists call them, make us as “part-time residents of tomorrow”.  However, this forward looking energy, whether driven by fear or optimism, can rob us of our ability to appreciate the here and now.  And the tragedy of this is that it is only in the ‘here and now’ that happiness can be found, and then only if we stop and look for it.  Linked to this, in organisations there is definitely something concerning about the current vogue for futurism and future gazing that, as well as being almost doomed by the same uncertainty on which it thrives, draws us increasingly away from truly valuing our engagement with the present.  After all, engaging with the present is the most profound engagement there is.

So, is it possible for a leader to model ‘being’ as well as ‘doing’?  To value the wonders of the current moment, who we are, where we are and how we are, as much as the agenda we are trying to progress?  If so, such an approach could be seen as embodying values that directly and positively impact the lived experience of colleagues and their wellbeing.  The mindful present, when brought into focus, is refreshing, restorative and relaxing for busy minds.

There is undeniably a strong link between organisational leadership and wellbeing.  Studies by Daniel Goleman and others show that, for example, unrelenting, pacesetting leadership can result in colleagues feeling overwhelmed by the demands, disempowered, micromanaged and mentally fatigued.  Okay, perhaps, with another pacesetter with a similarly single-minded drive to succeed and exceed expectations on every front, but for the overall work climate a potentially destructive approach if it is not combined with a wide range of more collaborative and affiliative leadership styles.  And yet, some may argue, isn’t that the nature of the modern workplace?  Isn’t it more driven, more competitive, and more focussed on targets, outcomes and impact than ever before?  This may be true, although it seems the prerogative of every work generation to claim that it is living through an age of ‘unprecedented change’.  And even if is true that ‘in the modern workplace’ we need to set the pace and work smarter with less, would that not make it even more important for leaders to support the health and wellbeing of colleagues by modelling and encouraging mindfulness.  What a turnaround it would be if, for example, being in a meeting could literally include consciously ‘being’ in the meeting, even if for just a few short enlightened moments.

Mindfulness is a relatively modern term for an ancient insight: we replenish ourselves and find fresh energy and insight when we discipline ourselves to be in the current moment and to notice only the things that are happening now (sounds, images and sensations).  Meditation, contemplation and prayer have been the heartbeat of spiritual life in cultures around the world for as long we know, and in more recent times ideas to do with emotional intelligence, reflective-practice and mindful self-awareness have gained currency as ways for leaders and others to be present, to suspend judgement, to show empathy and to redirect disruptive emotions and make better choices.

The final chapter of my book, Leading Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Key Guide to Designing and Delivering Courses, published last year, is focussed on leading yourself.  Self-leadership is a strand that runs throughout the book linked to a set of core leadership qualities, and in this short chapter I bring together as a summary some key ideas relating to what I have termed ‘attuned leadership’ and having compassion for yourself:

“In this attuned leadership the leader looks to achieve a level of deep influence that is as much about ‘being’ as it is ‘doing’ (we are, after all, human beings, not ‘human doings’). The emotional and interpersonal environment will figure highly in the leader’s focus and priorities, and the emphasis will be on the climate of the group and liberating potential rather than giving strong direction.”

This highlights another important aspect of mindfulness for leaders, the crucial need not to let passion for the task overcome compassion for people, and this includes having compassion for yourself.  A people rather than a performance culture will be essential for mindfulness principles and practices to flourish, where the individual and the community come first and the work we do and the things we achieve are significantly better for it. And having “compassion for yourself should not be an awkward concept because if you do not sustain yourself in your leadership then it will be impossible for you to sustain others” (Ibid.).  The chapter ends with ten questions based on self-reflection and mindfulness that encourage leaders to find peace and balance in an often frantic world.  This is actually a short mindfulness activity in itself intended to be illustrative of how these principles and practices can put you back in control of your life, as a leader at any level of seniority, and thereby help others to begin to do the same.

“Mindfulness is about observation without criticism: being compassionate with yourself… In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting you back in control of your life.”
(Williams and Penman, 2011)

Doug Parkin is the programme director for a range of Leadership Foundation development programmes, and in demand for consultancy projects within universities. You can find out more about his book ‘Leading Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Key Guide to Designing and Delivering Courses’ by clicking here

Mindfulness in Higher Education takes place on Monday 19 June 2017 at Woburn House, London. To find out more and book, click here

Andy Cope will be facilitating our Leadership and the Art of Being Brilliant on Wednesday 28 June 2017 at the Royal College of Nursing, London. To find out more and book, click here