Growing at the top – developing self-awareness and confidence

A tree growing out of the top of a mountain

Developing self-awareness and confidence doesn’t stop just because you reach a senior position. Mark McCrory of Ulster University shares some of the key findings to emerge from recent research into the Top Management Programme (TMP).

How self-aware are you as a senior leader? How confident? Self-awareness and confidence are perennial buzzwords in leadership development and not without reason. Self-awareness is considered by many to be fundamental to leader performance (Avolio & Hannah, 2008), while confident leaders display more flexibility and adaptability across varying challenges and situations (Lester et al., 2011).

In our recent research into the Top Management Programme , we conducted 50 in-depth interviews with a representative sample of alumni and a further 95 participants completed a survey linked to their experience of the programme. During the interviews, we asked alumni what they would say they had gained from TMP. Without prompting, “self-awareness” was specifically mentioned by over two-thirds of the interviewees, whilst “gaining more confidence” was discussed by half.

Improvement to self-awareness comes in different forms. It can be about gaining a deeper understanding of personal strengths and weaknesses. To illustrate, for one interviewee the journey as a leader in higher education meant becoming very adept at administration which supported the management of complex business processes. However, for this person TMP led to a realisation that “my real strengths are probably in that more creative side, seeing opportunities and taking forward change”. Consequently, this was the key learning that that individual took away from the programme.

Another interviewee described how the programme helped to recognise some weaknesses in leadership which led to trying out new ways of communicating across the faculty. Self-awareness can also be developed through insight into the impact we have on others or by becoming more conscious of how we typically behave. Examples of these were also provided in the interviews.

As stated, half of the interviewees discussed the confidence they gained as leaders through participating in the programme; one participant characterised this as enhancing ‘maturity as a leader’. As with self-awareness, interviewees discussed how increased confidence led to attempts to change aspects of behaviour that previously would have been left unchanged; to seeking out leadership opportunities; and for some, to applying for more senior positions.

Self-awareness and confidence clearly interact and this interaction was found in other reflections interviewees shared. It was most pronounced in one case where an interviewee discussed how she had questioned her leadership style as it differed from senior leaders she had observed in her career to date. The programme helped her clarify how her style was different and what that might mean. Rather than concluding that this style of leadership was wrong or a weakness, the programme gave this person the confidence to accept that a different style was equally valid. Given current debates around the importance of understanding how context and dominant cultures may impact on leadership styles, this interaction of self-awareness and confidence seems particularly valuable.

We were also interested in how participants believed improvements had been achieved. There are techniques within TMP that we expected to be discussed such as the 360-degree feedback, the psychometric instruments completed, the coaching and participation in various simulations. These were all mentioned and believed to be of value. For some, successfully completing a programme like TMP helped to develop confidence because it was felt to lay down a marker of an individual’s credentials as a leader. What we did not expect to emerge as frequently as it did, was that many interviewees directly connected their gains in self-awareness and confidence to their interaction with other participants.

Other programme participants were described as instrumental in helping self-awareness to develop (there is a TMP alumni network), particularly through comparison. Such comparisons seemed to be most pronounced during the group sessions and the impact groups, the participant-driven elements of TMP when the delegates meet regularly to discuss issues they face and then test in action the ideas arising.

As one interviewee explained: “You realise that there are such a wide range of different approaches… you have got to work out where you sit [on the leadership spectrum]… I probably imagined that I was fairly typical and I clearly wasn’t when we looked at the balance [of approaches].”

These comparisons were particularly impactful because the composition of the TMP group draws from across higher education institutions. As one interviewee phrased it, how enlightening it was “[to] see yourself in amongst the group of people who have got the aspirations to be top managers”.

Confidence was also developed through interaction with other participants. This interaction was not only about making comparisons with others – almost like informal personal benchmarking – but also from hearing that others were facing similar challenges in their institutions, and from peer feedback during the programme, as these two quotes illustrate:

“It was surprisingly comforting that, in confidence, people shared similar concerns, similar challenges, and you thought, oh thank goodness, I’m not alone in all of this.”

“I was very struck that [in] my impact group, the feedback was that they saw me as someone who had big ideas about higher education and what we were doing, and I think that has helped me, having that group validation, affirmation, to challenge what I felt were some really difficult and potentially very damaging policies that were on the table when I first arrived here [at the institution].”

Developing as a leader often involves deeper and more personal insights compared to other types of development. Self-awareness and confidence are two such examples. What we learnt from this study is that while techniques such as 360-degree feedback have an important place in developing self-awareness and confidence, for many leaders it is the interaction with others that plays a crucial role.

If you are interested in your own development, key questions to consider may include:
• Who are the leaders that I can observe?
• How is their leadership style similar and how is it different from mine?
• Who can you seek feedback from and how can I use this feedback?

Mark McCrory is a lecturer in management at Ulster University and part of the research team working on ‘Leadership Journeys: Tracking the Impact and Challenge of the Top Management Programme’. We are accepting applications for the Top Management Programme cohort TMP 43, taking place in 2018-2019. You can find out more here.

For an opportunity to learn more about this research, Ulster University Business School is running a workshop on executive isolation at our Leadership Summit on 29 June. Find out more and book your place.

 

Get a mentor, be a mentor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leadership isolation: it’s lonely up here!

Leadership can be a lonely job

Many senior leaders in higher education experience isolation when they reach higher positions in their universities. In this blog, Martin McCracken shares some of the key findings to emerge from recent research into the Leadership Foundation’s Top Management Programme (TMP), linked to the issue of isolation.

Although knowledge, skill, drive and ambition are clearly vital to achieve the ambition of reaching a leadership position, we must also recognise that in modern organisations, regardless of sector or industry, establishing and cultivating a network of close trusted colleagues with whom we can work collaboratively will be critical. Therefore, we need to invest time and energy in nurturing the right kind of relationships which will support us at different stages of our career.

However, if and when we are in the most senior roles we may find ourselves in a new quandary: we would still like to tap into our internal networks, but realise that our new role and associated responsibilities compromise these established relationships with our most trusted friends and professional confidants. At the base level, we may now hold line management responsibility for some in this group, which may erode some of the old relationship certainties that were taken for granted.

Also, we will increasingly move in different circles due to our new leadership role, which can result in a scenario where we find ourselves missing out on valuable information originating from the network where we once were core members. In addition, given the changes in the relationship and power dimensions, certain colleagues may become more suspicious of our intentions and more distant, while others may try to better insulate themselves politically from perceived disruptive change and begin to display what might be termed as uncritical ‘cheerleading’ of our actions.

All of this can impact upon our effectiveness as leaders and ultimately there is a real threat that we begin to experience what has been termed as ‘executive isolation’ (Ashkenas, 2017), which is characterised by the erosion of our most trusted networks. Meanwhile as our workload and responsibilities increase, we may find ourselves continually surrounded or ‘crowded’ by people, as we get caught up in a seemingly endless round of meetings and events.

The end result is a feeling of frustration where increasing demands on a leader’s time leave little space to reflect, recharge or plan for the future. So, what can leaders who find themselves in such a precarious position do to address the negative effects of isolation? How can they reinvigorate their networks and who do they now turn to for advice and guidance on the manifold issues linked to organisational vision, strategy and mission setting on which, as senior leaders, they are now supposed to be expert?

From our research into the Top Management Programme it is clear that a progamme of this nature is invaluable in offering senior leaders an opportunity to come together and reflect upon the salient issues of the day for their universities and the higher education sector as a whole. What emerged most strongly when we spoke to TMP alumni was the power of the programme to erode some of the worst effects of executive isolation.

The vast majority of TMP alumni (over 50 participated in in-depth interviews, and a further 95 completed a survey linked to their experience of the programme) described how interacting with like-minded colleagues offered them a route towards replenishing their social capital networks and building awareness or, as one explained, “turbo charging your knowledge of the sector”. Also, clearly linked to the concept of leadership isolation was the fact that the TMP impact groups offered what one alumni referred to as a “safe space”.

Impact groups are the participant-driven element of TMP, participants meet regularly to discuss issues they face – particularly difficulties – and then test in action the ideas arising from that discussion. Finding this safe and secure place is vitally important for leaders in the higher education sector who often work in politically-charged environments. It was clear from comments made by alumni that having the opportunity to interact with like-minded leaders in the sector or “test stuff out with peers” as well as “step back and look at what happens in other universities in another environment” was considered essential.

Perhaps the best illustration of the value attached to the impact groups and networks they created was borne out by the fact that many groups continued to meet long after the formal TMP proceedings had been wrapped up. It was not uncommon to hear of alumni groups still keeping in contact for many years, meeting maybe as often as two or three times a year. As we listened to the testimonies of those we interviewed, we realised that such meetings were viewed as vitally important and many looked forward to these ‘get-togethers’ as offering a cathartic experience and a real opportunity to get away from  busy roles and reflect deeply with like-minded people.

Ultimately the last word on this is illustrated by the words of one alumni who remarked: “I guess sometimes you feel a bit isolated in a leadership role in your own institution and actually realising that everybody else has similar problems and you are not alone can be energising, but also then seeing different contexts and slightly different solutions that you can adapt back to your own institution.”

So, to conclude, we can clearly appreciate that leadership isolation can be a problem, but undertaking a programme like the TMP can be an effective way of addressing this as it can allow leaders to develop more effective networks as well as offering them some much needed structured time out to reflect and take stock of their aspirations.

Martin McCracken is a senior lecturer in organisational behaviour at Ulster University and also leads the research study evaluating the TMP ‘Leadership Journeys: Tracking the Impact and Challenge of the Top Management Programme’. Find out more about his research into management development, leadership and change.

Nominations are open for TMP 43, the deadline is Friday July 6. Find out more about the TMP Alumni group.

Does university organisational culture alienate women staff?

Men shaking hands while a woman is taking notesTo tie-in with April’s “Demystifying Finance” workshop, John Arnold, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Loughborough University, examines reports from women university staff on how they experience engaging (or not) with their organisation’s systems and cultures.

My colleagues Sarah Barnard, Fehmidah Munir, Sara Bosley and I are conducting the five-year “Onwards and Upwards” project on the leadership and career experiences of women in academic and professional services roles in UK and Republic of Ireland higher education. This work is funded by the Leadership Foundation, which is now part of Advance HE. Drawing on data from 2,240 women over the first two years of the project (most but not all of whom have participated in the Aurora leadership programme), we have noticed, as others have, that many women find engaging with their workplace systems and culture problematic.

For example, just one fifth of our respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they enjoyed the cut and thrust of organisational politics. Over half reported that they felt they had to behave in ways that did not come naturally to them if they wanted to “get on”. Two in five felt that they conformed to the organisational culture more than they would like to, whilst just 30% reported that they made a point of challenging organisational culture.

On the other hand, there were some signs of greater comfort and engagement too. Nearly two thirds said that when they had power they were comfortable using it. More than half reported that they knew a lot about how their employing organisation runs. This increased from 55% to 66% between years 1 and 2 of our project, but there is a large difference between professional services staff and academics. The former are much more likely to agree. What greater incentive could there be for academic women to learn how to demystify finance!

The Aurora programme seems to make a difference. About one third of Aurora “graduates” report that participating in the programme has helped them be more adept at turning organisational systems to their advantage. The same applies to openly challenging the systems or culture. (In both cases, almost no respondents said that Aurora reduced this). Nearly 60% of Aurorans said that the programme had helped them feel more comfortable in positions of authority.

Despite these impacts of Aurora, we believe it is vital not to place the main responsibility for change on individual women, nor to ”blame the victim” for feeling uncomfortable about engaging with organisational systems and culture. Some of our respondents attributed it to women’s lack of confidence, though many of these pointed out that this confidence issue was itself an outcome of the work environment, not an inherent property of women.

More generally though, our respondents pointed to challenges of gendered organisations (and society more generally), poor access to and/or poorly-run career development practices, and gaps between organisations’ policies and practices regarding equality.

We make 17 recommendations in our Year 2 report (follow this link for a summary). No fewer than 13 of these are aimed at institutions rather than individuals. They include: developing definitions and norms of leadership that allow for a range of styles and skills, closer attention to who gets what opportunities to develop into leadership and other desired roles, and an audit of the distribution of men and women engaging in high and low-prestige managerial and leadership roles within their jobs. And yes, training and perhaps short secondments or work shadowing to see how the organisation really runs (including the finance) with encouragement to academic women to participate would be another good step forward.

The Onwards and Upwards project will run until March 2020.

John Arnold is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the School of Business and Economics, Loughborough University, UK. He is a Fellow and Chartered Occupational Psychologist of the British Psychological Society. John’s research, teaching and consultancy involve all areas of careers and their management from both individual and organisational perspectives.  

How to live and breathe values-based leadership

Follow me graffiti

Authenticity is a cornerstone of leadership and demonstrating that is a key strand of values-based practice. Leadership Foundation associate Mark Trezona digs a little deeper into what this means in reality.

My lesson in leadership is really to live the values, to breathe the values, to talk about the values. And we might not all experience or share those values in the same way but I think it’s really important that we remember we are here to make a difference. And that difference is all about values.” Cara Aitchison Leadership Lecture 2016.

Values Based Leadership has become ubiquitous in leadership literature and rhetoric over the past few years, partly in response to increasing doubts about the integrity and efficacy of many of the charismatic, dynamic and seemingly transformational leaders that have been prominent.

With leadership experts and practitioners, employees and even entire nations questioning the qualities needed for exemplary leaders, society is demanding leaders who demonstrate a strong sense of values, morals and ethics, says Mary Kay Copeland in her 2014 paper: The Emerging Significance of Values Based Leadership: A Literature Review.

But what is values-driven leadership, and how can we live and breathe our values, as Cara Aitchison calls for?

Copeland identifies Values Based Leadership as the convergence of authentic, ethical and transformational leadership.

Values-based leaders draw on their own and their colleagues’ values for direction and motivation. It is natural for leaders to refer to their own values in creating a vision or making decisions. If they then connect with their colleagues’ values when seeking enactment of their strategies, people are more attuned with each other and what they collectively stand for and care about, as well as what their organisation stands for and the difference it aspires to make.

As a philosophy, Values Based Leadership assumes that an organisation based on shared values is likely to be more flexible and productive, and that values-based leaders will make better choices, build higher quality relationships with colleagues and feel more in tune with their ‘authentic integral self’.

Values in action: bringing a values-based approach to our leadership

If the people we work with are to believe in the sincerity and depth of our organisation’s values, we, as leaders, must lead by example and enact and embody those values – our own as much as our organisation’s.

But how might we do this? The Values In Action character strengths can help.

In 2004, Peterson and Seligman published Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, which describes the results of a three-year research effort that integrated the insights of over 50 top social scientists into universal personality traits.

As part of this research, Peterson led a substantial historic analysis reviewing the best thinking on virtue, strength and goodness. This mammoth task involved a literature review of previous attempts to classify virtue and an empirical approach driven by two questions:

  • Would the virtue catalogues of early thinkers converge?
  • Would certain virtues, regardless of tradition or culture, be widely valued?

Six similar themes – virtues – emerged across the traditions of Athenian philosophy, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These were:

Cognitive strengths such as creativity curiosity, judgement, love of learning and perspective in the acquisition and use of knowledge.

Emotional strengths such as bravery, perseverance, honesty and zest involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition.

Interpersonal strengths such as capacity to love and be loved, kindness and social intelligence.

Civic strengths such as teamwork, fairness and leadership underly healthy community life.

Strengths protecting against excess are forgiveness, modesty, prudence, and self-regulation.

Strengths of transcendence are appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humour and spirituality.

Twenty-four character strengths were then derived based on how well they met 10 specific strengths criteria, including whether the qualities were morally valued, manifest across situations, and whether there are examples of the strength across the widest spectrum of cultural and organisational contexts.

However, when Values In Action’s Chris Peterson was asked to share his most important finding from all the advancements in character strengths science, he responded simply: character is plural” (Peterson, personal communication, 2010).

What Petersen meant is that people are not simply kind or humble, brave or hopeful. Rather, people have many character strengths, and these strengths are expressed in combinations, each person having a unique profile of character strengths. This informs the rich tapestry of a person’s character. Each person’s expression of character strengths is unique – no two people with creativity as a top strength will express this value in an identical way. In this way, character is individualised and idiosyncratic.

A values framework for higher education

That said, the twenty-four character strengths give us a universal language to describe what is best in human beings. This is a ground-breaking discovery as, historically, there has never been a language of character that crosses cultures. This gives us a potent, meaningful and recognisable framework to think, talk about and act on our different values. It gives us a coherent way of viewing ourselves, and a guide for understanding and sharing who we are at heart.

With this shared lexicon, we can build and grow our collective understanding, interventions and strategies, and make conversations in which leaders, with the people we work with, can bring together a fusion of our individual authentic strengths and values.

In this way we can configure our collective values for different situations, relationships and organisational aspirations in ways that remain deep-seated in our truest and strongest selves – Values Based Leadership in action.

Mark Trezona is an associate and coach with the Leadership Foundation. He has more than twenty years’ experience as a learning and development specialist, with expertise in 21st century leadership, strategy and team development, learning, creativity, communications, and in strengths-based approaches for increasing resilience, engagement and happiness at work. 

Values Based Leadership was the topic of this year’s Annual Wales Conference. Gary Reed, assistant director membership, Wales, discusses what drives it in this blog post.

For more information about our bespoke programmes and how we can tailor them to your institution’s needs, contact Dot Daymond, interim assistant director operations (Consultancy and Bespoke programmes).

Learning by experience to build flexible, resilient leaders

Programme Directors Lisa Sofianos and Gary ReadAhead of the Strategic Leadership Programme later this academic year, programme directors Lisa Sofianos and Gary Reed reflect on why experiential learning is a key part of the programme.

Poor Einstein has been mercilessly mined for inspirational quotes for many years, but here’s one we can’t resist: “The only source of knowledge is experience”. We are unlike Einstein in many ways, but on this we share his commitment to the value of experiential learning in transforming abstract theory into practical knowledge. This is one of the tenets that informs and shapes the design of the Strategic Leadership Programme (SLP).

Another is that, on SLP, we know that we are working with people who are already effective in their roles running complex academic institutions. With this firmly in our minds, we see our job as facilitators is to offer provocations and reframing to help participants move their thinking somewhere new. For us, this is the real work of leadership development, with responsibilities on both sides to learn.

So far so good, but how does this translate into programme activity? 
SLP alumni tell us one of the elements they really value is the simulation exercise where participants take a role in the leadership team of a fictitious – but oddly familiar – university. Their task is to work together to complete some stretching challenges set by the “vice chancellor”. They present their solutions back to the “Executive Board” and are given specific and constructive feedback on their process.

The simulation allows participants to experiment with organisational dynamics in an environment that is safe and removed from the immediacy of their own organisational context. They can take risks, try out the new ideas they have encountered earlier in the programme, and not worry about the consequences, beyond what they can learn from them. This is not a role-play, rather participants are encouraged to step outside their tried and tested approaches and begin to find their own authentic expression of leadership.

Past participants say the real value of this exercise is in helping them to gain insights into:

  • How they operate in a group of leaders and their ideas about roles and responsibilities
  • How they lead and are affected by group dynamics
  • Their assumptions about organisations and their own institutions
  • How they react to pressure
  • How they prioritise and maintain focus
  • Their levels of creativity

The environment is fast-paced and complex, but it is safe and supportive, and most importantly, fun!

And that highlights another of our tenets. Serious learning in a fun, relaxed, and safe environment is an indispensable SLP ingredient.

We look forward to you joining us on the programme.


The Strategic Leadership Programme is for aspiring senior leaders and aims to build leaders who are flexible and resilient.

Find out more and apply:
Strategic Leadership Programme
Application Deadline: Friday 4 May 2018
Module 1: Wednesday 16 – Thursday 17 May 2018
Module 2: Tuesday 26 – Thursday 28 June
Location: Birmingham

Lisa Sofianos has recently co-authored a Leadership Foundation stimulus paper, Exploring the Impact of Coaching in Higher Education, which is available online for members of the Leadership Foundation. 

Why mentors and networks are so important

Maxine de Brunner was previously deputy assistant commissioner, Metropolitan Police. She will join us on the 13 March 2018 as a guest speaker at the Aurora Adaptive Leadership Skills day in Edinburgh. Ahead of her talk, Maxine reflects on the importance of mentorships and support networks for women to progress to top leadership positions.

Firstly, tell us a little about yourself
I spent thirty years in policing and retired as a deputy assistant commissioner in 2016. I have led many large teams as the director of intelligence and the London ‘prepare’ lead for counter-terrorism.

I spent the last two years as the transformation director. I am most proud of helping others develop as leaders, transforming an organisation and trooping the colour on horseback with the Queen. I have spent that last two years running my own business and working with two education charities.

What does good leadership mean to you?
Good leadership means being prepared to admit when you’re wrong, recognising that it is others who deliver for you and the investment you make in people will pay you back many times over. Great leadership is all about the teams you build and the guidance you give them. Supporting them when things go wrong and taking the responsibility for the difficulties while allowing your team the limelight when things go well. As a leader, it is not about you but your people.

For you as a woman, what has been your greatest insight in terms of your journey to leadership?
Understanding that great teams need balance, not just in terms of gender but all aspects of diversity. I have found that you have to be determined, focused, prepared to work very hard as well as be willing and able to negotiate and influence.

At the start of your career, what were the biggest barriers to progression you were faced with and what advice would you give to someone aspiring to a leadership role facing similar barriers?
The biggest barrier at the start of my journey was that there were no women at the top of my organisation and very few in the lower ranks. Women did not have equal pay, pension rights and did not receive the same officer safety training as male colleagues. They were viewed as necessary to look after children and deal with sexual assault cases. I think the most powerful thing women can do when facing barriers is to join together so that they can influence as a single body.

What would be some of the milestones that you think “that’s a point where my leadership changed”?
The main milestone for me was understanding that you could have children and still have a great career. I was given a project when I came back from maternity leave, but I thought (as is the law) that I should have my old job back. I found that I had to insist on this requirement and in the end, they gave in and allowed me to return to my job. I wanted to come back four days a week but did not have the courage to ask for this. My mentor brokered the subject on my behalf and helped me negotiate my first year back.

What would you say if someone were to ask you, what makes you most resilient?
Being reflective and prepared to debrief your own actions, decisions and consequences. I think when times are hard it helps to focus on positive outcomes and not internalise situations. They are not usually personal but about the business, but it is easy to forget that. It also helps to have self-belief and confidence that what you are doing is right. That confidence will come from outcomes, achievements and your network.

What is the biggest insight you’ve had from working with women in higher education on their leadership journey, the opportunities and the challenges?
I have found through my work in education that there are many women in teaching but many senior positions are still often filled by men. Women work incredibly hard in their roles, but senior women colleagues have also focused on themselves and taken time to invest in themselves, have a clear plan to achieve their goals. Leadership is not just about doing the tasks really well, it is also about having the confidence to look up into the future.

How important do you think mentors, role models and networks are in supporting women’s leadership?
The role of mentors and networks must never be underestimated. Being part of a strong group of women gives you the power to negotiate your futures. It is vital that women don’t give this away.

Just look at the recent BBC pay gap situation, a group of women joined together to talk as one body. That helps take the heat away from individuals, and where there are individual positions taken, they are fully supported by the group. It’s very powerful and I have no doubt they will achieve a fair outcome.

How can initiatives like Aurora help women and their organisation achieve their potential?
Aurora can help women understand the values of mentoring and group influence while giving practical tools and help on the journey. It can inspire many to believe in themselves.

Thinking about your career and experiences, what advice would you give your younger self?
I think if I was starting again I would have got involved in a network much earlier as being alone was much harder and many heads are much better than one when problems arise.

Finally, do you have an inspiring woman leader, and if so, who?
The most inspiring woman leader I have met is a lady called Barbara Wilding, she retired as the chief constable of South Wales Police. Barbara mentored me, employed me in a senior role when I thought it was impossible, encouraged me and sponsored me for senior courses and strategic command. She was a great leader herself and cared deeply about others. She was very careful not to pull the ladder up behind her but develop the leaders of tomorrow. I owe her a great deal. It was her influence that enabled me to be supported as a chief officer and whenever things went well or even not so well, she wrote to me with her thoughts. I still have her letters today.


About Aurora
Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Since Aurora began in 2013 we have welcomed 4,635 women from 139 universities and sector bodies, with 1,158 women attending in 2017-18 alone.

Dates, location and booking
We will shortly be releasing the Aurora dates for 2018-19. To register your interest please get in touch aurora@lfhe.ac.uk.

Onwards and Upwards longitudinal study
In March 2018, the Leadership Foundation released the year 2 Aurora Longitudinal Study as a Leadership Insight.