In conversation with Tessa Harrison, King’s College London

Tessa Harrison is the Director of Students and Education at King’s College London. Ahead of speaking during Module 2 of Leadership Matters in November, we asked Tessa about her leadership style, being resilient, and the impact having a coach has had for her.

Tessa has spent almost 30 years in the higher education sector. She was previously the Chair of the Association of University Administrators (AUA) and spent 6 years prior to this on its board, as well as 2 years on the board of the Leadership Foundation.

Her focus is on students and improving their experience, and she has been bringing a new perspective to her work since her son became a student in October 2016.

What’s important to you as a leader?

I think for me what’s most important is absolute clarity. Clarity about my own narrative, what I am trying to achieve for my organisation and why I am trying to achieve it.

I’ve learnt over the years that having a very strong personal narrative is really fundamental and I wish I had learnt it earlier. I have found that having a strong purpose is making things easier in terms of having the conversations I need to have, and providing inspiration and guidance for my team in what can be choppy times in the sector.

I also think appointing and being motivated by the very best people is essential.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I don’t think I can label it. I think my leadership style is about coaching, recognising that people you work with are talented and that everyone comes to work to do the best job they can.  My job is to create the environment where they can be the best they can be. My leadership style is to be very open, honest, and to be a good giver of feedback. I also like receiving feedback, and have learnt over the years that having honest, reflective conversations is the best way to create a trusting workspace and to drive high performance.

What comes naturally to you as a leader? And what do you feel you have to work on?

Openness, honesty, humility and a good sense of humour come naturally to me.

What I’m working on is the challenge that when you get to a senior level that you need to recognise you are not the expert anymore. I often have days when I ask myself “what have I contributed to moving the organisation forward or moving my directorate forward?” I think making that transition from your day job being about doing things to your day job being about being a leader and enabling other people to do things can be a really hard transition to make and I think it is one we don’t pay enough attention to.  I try to work on that every day.

To tackle this leadership challenge, I have my own coach who helps me articulate the moments when I am getting in the way of others. My coach provides a safe space where I can explore what I am doing and what I think I need to be doing differently. I also try and encourage the people who report to me to be very honest with me when I am not getting it right. You will frequently hear me say to my leadership team, “I need your help with this”. I hope that this approach also helps those I work with on their journey from subject specialist to senior leadership positions to also be open and honest.

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?

I have always been quite ambitious, not in a naked ambitious way but more internally focussed. I recognised very early on that I had to move institutions in order to progress and I have done that 5 times. I was very fortunate that my family situation made that possible, and I know that it’s not always possible for others.

The advice I would give someone aspiring to a leadership role is to get yourself a coach. Find a coach who is trained in preparing you for senior leadership and to support you through the transitions you make throughout your leadership career.  A coach can also help you define and refine the personal narrative I mentioned above.

How did you find a coach, and how would you recommend others do the same?

The coach I had was made available to me by the organisation I was about to leave. I then took the opportunity when I first started at King’s College London to train to be a coach and we’re in the process of trying to imbed a coaching culture here so that there is an internal register available for staff. But there are numerous ways of procuring a coach externally, via professional bodies like AUA for example.

Managers also need to recognise that their staff getting a coach does not mean they are not getting what they need from you as a manager- it’s a very different relationship. It’s transformational having that person with you and I strongly advise anyone on a leadership journey to get one.

Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, forms part of the Leadership Matters reading list- how important is vulnerability to you as a leader?

Absolutely critical. I think vulnerability and humility are fundamental to good leadership. In the last 6-12 months I’ve really drawn on vulnerability as part of my leadership style and narrative and I can see the effect it has. It is very disarming when someone admits, “I didn’t quite get that right” or “I don’t know what to do in this situation”. I feel strongly that we need to learn to be vulnerable with each other. I think too many organisations are run by people, often but not always men, who have never learnt to be vulnerable, and that is really concerning.  I derive strength from being a woman able to bring humility and vulnerability to discussion and decision making.

What would be some of the milestones that you think “that’s a point where my leadership changed”?

It was when I left an organisation without a job to go to. I’ve always been the breadwinner, and that was the most terrifying moment of my life. My network absolutely wrapped its arms around me at that time and I joined King’s as a result. In the interim I had 2-3 months space where I really had time to reflect on what I wanted my contribution to be. So although it was terrifying, and I empathise with others going through the same experience, those 2-3 months were absolutely transformational for me. I came to King’s with clarity: about my role and about what I wanted to do with it and I can see and feel the difference for both myself and the people around me.

What would you say if someone were to ask you, what makes you most resilient?

The experience I had before joining King’s has made me more resilient. I survived and came out stronger than before. I derive confidence from being able to ask myself, “what’s the worst that can happen?” and to be able to remind myself that even worst case situations can be rescued.

Thinking about your career and experiences, what advice would you give your younger self?

The one piece of advice I would give myself and women in particular is learn how to have the conversation about the terms of your contract, particularly your pay. I’ve never been good at having that conversation but I make a point now, particularly when I hire women, to say “now is your time to tell me what you really want from your pay and conditions, because you won’t have another opportunity to have this conversation”. I make sure that conversation is a comfortable conversation.

My advice is know your value and learn how to lead that conversation about what you want and expect.

Read more: we asked Tessa to review Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg


Tessa Harrison will be the keynote speaker on Day 2 of Module 2 of Leadership Matters in Birmingham.

Leadership Matters Birmingham Autumn 
Module 1: 
Tuesday 17- Wednesday 18 October (residential)
Action Learning Set: Tuesday 7 November
Module 2: Wednesday 29 – Thursday 30 November (residential)

Book your space now.

Leadership Matters will also be taking place in Manchester and Bristol in Winter and Spring respectively in the next academic year. For more information and to book a place please click here.

Our mentorship journey: Cathie Barnett and Simon Chandler-Wilde

Catherine (Cathie) Barnett is a senior research fellow in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading who took part in Aurora London in 2016-17. Following advice from a role model she decided to ask for a mentor outside of her discipline and was matched with Simon Chandler-Wilde, dean of diversity and inclusion and professor of applied mathematics at the University of Reading. Here they reflect on their relationship as mentee and mentor

Firstly, tell us a little about yourself

Cathie: My original background was in both environmental and archaeological sciences and I worked in management of environmental impact assessments for an engineering company before coming to Reading. After completing my PhD I worked in a commercial archaeological unit as the Senior Geoarchaeologist then Principal Archaeological Scientist before returning to Reading in 2014 to take up this position. Not a traditional academic and research path by any means.

My current role is split between archaeological science research and project management of a large Iron Age Landscape project named Silchester Environs. I also line manage an excellent team of archaeologists and specialists who work on a series of Silchester excavation and post-excavation projects, and report in turn to the Principal Investigator Prof. Mike Fulford.

I’m married to a land manager for the Wildlife Trust and we have 3 boisterous little boys so the outdoors features heavily in my life. They are wonderful and exhausting, so I’m fortunate to have negotiated an unusual working pattern which allows me to balance home life with them and still deliver on a busy work schedule.

Simon: I’ve worked in a number of universities – Bradford, Coventry, Brunel, and I joined Reading in 2003. In my role as dean for diversity and inclusion I job share with my colleague Professor Ellie Highwood, the rest of the time I am an academic. My role as dean is a fairly new university role which we took up 2 years ago.

I’m married – my wife has a senior role at Buckinghamshire New University – and have two daughters; one has just finished university and is now a journalist, the other is in her last year at school.

How did your approach the process of mentorship?

Simon: Cathie and I hadn’t met before, we were paired up by Susan Thornton, our Leadership and Talent Development Manager and Aurora Champion, and then we got in contact by email and had a first meet up. Helpfully we were provided with a pro forma that Cathie completed and we discussed, where Cathie wrote down what she hoped to get out of Aurora and having a mentor. This was really helpful to set the scene initially, and to refer back to in order to focus subsequent discussions.

We met four or five times, about monthly, from about Christmas through to May, meeting about an hour each time. There was no huge structure to the meetings, except that the initial pro forma provided a continuing point of reference, and that we would agree at most of these meetings follow-on actions that Cathie would report back on. Also, I continued to ask what had happened on the Aurora front since the previous meeting, and what outcomes/impact that had had. But we also talked about other things, for example we found out that Cathie was going on holiday in Shropshire just a few miles away from where I go for holiday most years, so we discussed holiday activities too!

My approach to being a mentor is to be interested, encouraging and supportive, and to ask open questions, to get a sense of my mentee’s environment, career, aspirations and issues that she/he wants to tackle. I’m also wanting to explore my mentee’s understanding of the next steps ahead, and to ask questions to expand that understanding. As a more experienced mentor I can make my mentee aware of possibilities, and how stuff works, that they just haven’t been exposed to. And it’s really satisfying to seek to build confidence, for example to challenge and support my mentee to have new conversations with colleagues in her environment.

Cathie: One tip given by one of the role models on the first Aurora day was to aim for a senior mentor outside your own department. Good advice!

Simon has been very encouraging and supportive, I’ve enjoyed our meetings and having another in the diary focuses my mind. I have found it particularly useful to talk to someone so familiar with the university procedures and who could take an objective view of how I fit in the system. I particularly value that he asked and let me find my way to answers rather than leading with advice straight away, it’s a lesson I’m going to try and apply when talking to colleagues and students myself.

Simon, what inspired you to become a mentor?

Simon: Firstly I’ve had great mentors myself, people senior to me who have offered advice, encouraged me to stretch myself, and acted as sounding boards. Secondly, in the leadership and people management roles I have had, for example as head of department and head of school, but also at a lower level, e.g. as line manager for research staff working for me, I’ve enjoyed supporting staff in their development. This has included: personal development reviews, supporting applications for promotion, for research grants, and for new jobs. I think it’s a really important part of our role as any sort of people manager to support the staff we work with and help them to grow and develop (and move up to the next level), and it’s a part of the job that gives me great satisfaction.

Has the mentoring relationship continued?

Cathie: Yes it has, both informally, I know Simon will be there with a listening ear and good advice if and when I need him, and we have a more formal follow-up meeting in the diary. He has also kept me informed of further leadership training which he felt I might be interested in, and which I recently took advantage of.

What has been your biggest learning from the process?

Cathie: I’ve learnt a great deal in our discussions and of course through Aurora as a whole. One of my key aims for doing this was to grow in confidence and to gain more of a voice. By nature I’m rather reticent, awkward and apologetic in putting myself forward in areas such as progression and promotion or in challenging ideas with senior colleagues, although I suspect my colleagues don’t realise it. Speaking with my mentor has helped me be a little braver, I have had conversations in the last 6 months I would have shied away from before and have had some really positive outcomes including further leadership training and setting objectives for further progression within the university. I’ve also learnt that there are gaps in the current system which, when discussed openly, the University are keen to tackle and that there’s a great deal of support and encouragement available if you ask.

Simon: I’ve been an Aurora mentor more than once, and certainly I have played a more informal role as mentor on many other occasions. But I am continuing to learn through practice, and continuing to gain confidence as a mentor. Regarding confidence, it is becoming clearer to me – but really this is pretty obvious – that having done a lot of different things in a lot of roles, and having held senior positions where you are forced to understand how the university (and universities generally) work, I do have a lot that I can pass on, and I am well-equipped to know the right questions to ask to get Cathie (and other mentees) reflecting on what they are doing and what might be possible in the future.

Cathie, have you ever been a mentor yourself and would you consider being one in the future?

I have been, and am now a line manager and try to be an advocate and to encourage my colleagues to take up learning opportunities, to stretch themselves and become more personally visible, but I have not been a mentor to someone beyond my immediate team. I would like to offer that in the future, and have recently let my department know I would be happy to contribute by acting as one. I have a better idea now of what would be useful to mentees having gone through the process myself and having had such a positive experience.

Cathie, what was the best piece of advice you received from your mentor?

I’ve had lots of great discussions with Simon but one of the key things I’ve taken from him has been to take stock, to stand back to look at all I have already achieved and how that has already equipped me for leadership roles. On a practical level, that has led to me recording everyday activities more often and considering how these tasks provide direct evidence for my capability in specific research and leadership areas key to progression.

Simon, what piece of advice would you give other aspiring women leaders?

My advice is to stretch and challenge yourself; to develop confidence through stretching yourself and trying new leadership roles; and to remember that the people more senior to you are only slightly (if at all) different, were at your level rather recently, and are much less confident (and competent) than they may come across.

Talk and ask questions about how everything works and what is possible. Get into the habit of saying: “I could do that”.

Finally, good employers should develop their staff and provides routes and opportunities for promotion and development and taking on new roles – and certainly universities are large enough organisations that this should be possible – but do think also about moving employers as a route to progression, and as a means to reinvent yourself. My own last move – 15 miles down the road from Brunel in 2003 – had a huge impact on my career.

And finally, do you have an inspiring woman leader, and if so, who?

Cathie: My primary female role model is an absolute cliché, being my mother. She retrained from being a GP to become a consultant psychiatrist while I was a toddler specifically so that she could take on part time roles and juggle home life with a successful and meaningful career. It taught me that it can be very healthy for children to see the women in their lives following their chosen profession without being absent. I hope I’m achieving the same balance with my boys.

Simon: There are many women that I’ve encountered who have inspired and impressed me, and that I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside, or working for them as my boss.

Let me kick off – maybe a good place to start– with my wife , Dr Rebecca Chandler-Wilde, who is director of Enterprise at Buckinghamshire New University. I admire her judgement, not least in managing people and relationships, her enthusiasm and sense of fun at work and can-do attitude – this coupled with a large dose of realism – and her attitudes to work-life balance, not least her scorn for presenteeism.

I admire hugely my job share Prof Ellie Highwood, who is a leader in her Dean role and, in the rest of her time, is an eminent climate physicist and President of the Royal Meteorological Society. Moreover she does this working part-time (about four days a week), and so is a great role model for flexible working arrangements at the highest levels.

I’m also a great fan, having contributed to her Wikipedia page, of another former President of the Royal Meteorological Society, Professor Dame Julia Slingo FRS, who until recently was the Met Office Chief Scientist, leading a team of many hundreds of first-rate scientists, developing some of the best weather and climate models in the world.


Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research which highlighted women’s under-representation in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to address this.

Dates, locations and booking for Aurora 2017-18 are available here.

How effective are simulation experiences for leadership development?

One of the most effective techniques we use in our leadership development interventions is to provide leaders with a simulated environment. This challenges them to confront complex, highly interwoven performance management and operational issues. But how effective is this in practice? We spoke with Paul Hessey, Leadership Foundation associate, who leads on this activity on our Leading Departments programme for new heads of department.

How does a simulated environment work?
Based on a very realistic university scenario, this usually involves the programme participants working in groups of six along with three actors who take on the roles of stakeholders and the dean. The simulation is designed to present participants with realistic scenarios they might encounter in their day-to-day work as a head of department. This gives the facilitators the opportunity to help participants’ identify their weaknesses and strengths and enables us to offer guidance and best practice on how to approach difficult situations.

What are the three main benefits of using a simulated environment on a leadership development programme?

  1. Participants are reminded of some simple, robust and powerful theory of influence and learn the skills they need to put that theory into practice in a safe environment.
  2. Reflect and receive tailored feedback on strengths and development opportunities.
  3. Be part of a rich and diverse range of colleagues from both professional service and academic roles, and benefit from observing a wide range of approaches to influencing in action.

Have participants ever surprised you with how they reacted to this type of role playing style activity?
Our approach is more ‘real play’ than ‘role play’ because essentially the participants are experimenting with being themselves in the scenario, rather than taking on a character. In terms of being surprised by how participants react to these activities I am always taken aback by the way participants are committed to a mythical department. They really immerse themselves into the activity and come up with creative ideas and solutions. During a programme’s coaching sessions I found that many participants realised that they want and need to take a more strategic view of their role; in particular delegating more so they can take a step back to better develop and promote their own department through running events and engaging with a pool of stakeholders. These scenarios also increase their awareness of the importance of owning their professional profile and reputation.

What would you say to those who are sceptical about real playing on a leadership development programme?
Real play has an interactive approach which means participants can take a very practical look at how people communicate and influence, and then experiment with different approaches. Real play gives participants the chance to safely assess and practice an expanded range of influencing, management and leadership techniques to help them better engage their own diverse stakeholder base.

Higher education is a very unique sector. In your years of experience of working in different sectors, do you notice any similarities?
Many! People face the same challenges other sectors do in terms of politics and culture. However, in higher education people are perhaps more motivated by their desire to achieve their professional objectives rather than financial incentives. In higher education environments in particular, I’ve noticed that leaders may have less access to organisational benefits and consequences to motivate those around them. They are therefore often seeking to achieve action in their institutions by influencing others without any direct authority or power to demand action. Instead they must find a way to overcome resistance and challenge and encourage staff to buy-in and commit to the mission in a positive way. Many participants have said that they leave the Leading Departments programme feeling more equipped and confident to do exactly that.

Paul Hessey is the programme director for the Leading Departments programme, designed to develop the leadership skills of heads of department. The booking deadline is Friday 6 October, to find out more about Paul or to book onto the programme visit www.lfhe.ac.uk/leaddepts

He is also a facilitator on the Introduction to Head of Department programme for new and aspiring heads of department. The booking deadline is Friday 27 October, to find out more and book visit www.lfhe.ac.uk/ihod

Other Leadership Foundation programmes that use simulated learning environments include:

Top Management Programme: www.lfhe.ac.uk/tmp

Future Professional Directors: www.lfhe.ac.uk/fpd

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

The power of the decision

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

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

What happens in the absence of a decision?

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

The power of the decision

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

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

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

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

Articulating the decision:

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

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

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

Taking action based on the decision

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

Finding support in uncommon places

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Ghostbusters?

Narrative – a question of cultural identity

Doug Parkin, programme director, dives deeper into the idea of narrative leadership which is one of the four intelligences that make up the Connected Leadership model. This model articulates the core themes that underpin Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership, one of the Leadership Foundation’s most highly regarded executive programmes.

Being more efficient doesn’t sit well with who we are as an organisation.

There is a direct link between who we are and what we do.  When it comes to teams and organisations it is impossible to separate ‘being’ from ‘doing’.  And as the sadly comical line above shows, if we ask people to do something that does not fit with who they are, or perhaps more importantly how they see themselves, then there is likely to be either resistance or a loss of engagement.  This is the root and essence of cultural identity.

The cultural web

There are a number of markers of cultural identity in organisations.  A well-known model which captures these is the cultural web developed by Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes.  This illustrates and prompts us to consider “the behavioural, physical and symbolic manifestations of a culture”.  The six elements in this model, as shown below, “inform and are informed by the taken-for-granted assumptions, or paradigm, of an organisation”.  This means that they are both deliberate and accidental, conscious and unconscious, planned and unplanned, formal and informal.  A great deal of leadership energy, particularly at senior levels, goes into trying to shape and orchestrate the planned, formal and conscious side of culture, through mission statements, organisational values and things like service charters.  There are also those very deliberate, corporate stories that organisations tell: stories of pride about the players and episodes that made the organisation great; and stories of intent about the next exciting chapter in the organisation’s future.  But whilst focusing on the gloss (even veneer) of strategy and culture at this grand level, there are other things happening in the shadows, as important as they are unplanned, that may have a far greater impact on the organisation’s future direction and success.  And even those with the very best understanding of an organisation’s culture will only ever have some of these factors in plain sight.  Others will sit well below the surface of conscious attention.

In terms of their nature, some of these elements have a softer feel than others, such as symbols, routines and stories. However, stories actually pervade every aspect. There is a big difference, for example, between the lines of management drawn on an organisational chart and the stories told at water coolers regarding who holds the real influence. And it is the pervasiveness of stories that narrative leadership or narrative intelligence seeks to explore and understand. In many ways, narrative intelligence opens a window onto the shadow or ghost side of an organisation.

Exploring narrative

Exploring narrative is at once both a philosophical question and a practical one.  Philosophical because linked to identity there is a strong suggestion that stories in important ways define both who we are and what it means to be who we are (our condition):

“A man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.” –Jean-Paul Sartre

As you might imagine, there have been arguments both for and against what has been termed narrativity. Practical because the stronger or more finely tuned our narrative intelligence, the better able we will be as leaders to work with the grain of the organisation in the initiatives or change projects we introduce. As Edgar Schein powerfully observed, “it will be easy to make changes that are congruent with present assumptions, and very difficult to make changes that are not”. Schein is the thinker, researcher and influential writer credited by some as having coined the term ‘corporate culture’.

Narrative captures and excites us. Think of that moment in a large lecture hall when the professor breaks from his notes and says, “let me tell you about a research project I worked on in Tanzania…”  It is a hook which creates a sit-forward moment. A story is about to begin and we can’t resist it. Indeed, we do not want to resist it.  We want to be drawn along the twists and turns, the highs and lows, the back and forth of the story, and we want to discover how the events unfold and the characters develop. We also want to turn to each other and nod at the meaning and significance we can together recognise and which in various ways unites us. This is a crucial part of both learning and identity.

There is also a comfort in stories. In the same way that communities and societies repeat, gradually adapt and pass down their stories, it is equally true that teams and organisations do the same. We can all think of examples of those often-repeated stories that in some strange way captured the essence of a team we once belonged to, and it is interesting to reflect on what the significant stories may be in our current teams/organisations.

Narrative and leadership

The reality of narrative is that it has a life of its own.  It is not something leaders can fully control or influence. Indeed, sometimes when they try that becomes a story in itself.  “Do you remember that time the last Dean told us a story about the faculty arriving at a crossroads in a storm,” people will say… Regarding culture more generally, it is important to realise that formal leadership is only one part of what shapes it and causes it to evolve. Another key message from Schein is that “culture is the result of a complex learning process that is only partially influenced by leadership behaviour”.

So, how do we approach narrative as leaders?  How do we work with these ghosts and shadows? Do we approach it as a battleground, as a negotiated space, or as an ongoing, evolutionary process of group discovery? Whilst it may sometimes be the leader’s role to break and re-make organisational culture where it has become toxic or dysfunctional, to be the ghostbuster, the more likely reality is that the existing narratives need to grow, develop and continue as they engage with and partly shape new change initiatives. This, then, is an attentive, nurturing and supportive role.  If change is put forward as an unbending imperative, driven from above or by external forces, then leaders may find themselves subsequently observing how powerfully narratives can erode such monoliths. Another image that has been used to describe this is “the iceberg that sinks organizational change” (Torben Rick, 2015).

Engaging with your organisation’s true stories – ghosts are worth listening to

To engage with the true stories of an organisation and really begin to appreciate both their subtlety and their emotional charge, leaders need to find opportunities to participate in the informal, shadow side of the organisation. This can’t be done from behind closed doors or through complex briefing papers. The shadow side exists in informal spaces, in everyday conversations and interactions, and is characterised by joint sensemaking and relationship building. Another way to describe it might, indeed, be the real-side of the organisation. Some leaders find this a very natural way of engaging with teams and colleagues, and for them the term ‘real’ would certainly resonate. For others, a more conscious effort may be required, at least initially. And although unstructured and often ambiguous, leaders should not be apprehensive of this shadow side and should be wary of regarding it as somehow sinister. Writing on this, William Tate interestingly suggests a balance of both disagreeable and valuable qualities, but with, perhaps, an apprehensive view overall:

“The organisation’s shadow side — the often disagreeable, messy, crazy and opaque aspects of your organisation’s personality. Such facets are not always dark and bad.  Craziness and disorder, for example, may provide a creative spur, and grapevines can be a valuable source of information. But what these features have in common is that they are always slippery — easier to feel than to define.”

As Ebenezer Scrooge eventually learned, ghosts are worth listening to (A Christmas Carol), and as leaders in organisations we fail to listen to them at our peril. We remember, of course, that there are three ghosts in this story: The Ghost of Culture Past, the Ghost of Culture Present and the Ghost of Culture Yet to Come. And these spirits have three very different personalities, all of which are worth listening to if we wish to change ourselves, our environments and our organisations for the better:

CULTURE PAST:  “These were shadows of things that have been. That they are what they are, do not blame me!”

CULTURE PRESENT:  “I see a vacant seat by the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner…carefully preserved.  If these shadows remain unaltered by the future, the child will die.”

CULTURE YET TO COME (SCROOGE SPEAKING):  “Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”


Doug Parkin the programme director for the Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership programme at the Leadership Foundation. He also runs a number of bespoke and core programmes, in addition to international projects. 

The next Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership takes place in Greater London in November.

PSSL 28
Application Deadline: 10 November
Module 1: Wednesday 22 – Thursday 23 November
Module 2: Tuesday 30 – Wednesday 31 January
Location: Greater London

 

Learning to lead: Experiences from Aurora

Note from Identity, Impact and Voice written by Dr Elaine Toomey, posted to her after the end of Aurora Dublin 2017.

Dr Elaine Toomey is a post-doctoral research fellow based at National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG). She took part in Aurora in Dublin during 2016-17. Here she reflects on her experience of the programme and her key learnings from each one of the four days and her action learning set day.

Fresh into my first ever postdoc (Health Research Board Interdisciplinary Capacity Enhancement (ICE) fellowship) in August 2016, I originally saw Aurora advertised through the university mailing list. I knew that a colleague had taken part in it the previous year and had found it valuable, so in my ‘apply for everything’, new postdoc mode, I decided to pop in an application. To my surprise, I was chosen along with about 20 other wonderful women from NUIG, including academic, administrative and research staff (but only one other postdoc!), to take part in Aurora and represent our university.

Before the first workshop, the vice president for Student Experience Dr Pat Morgan, who has been an Aurora role model, hosted an informal gathering (with some wonderfully festive mince pies) for the NUIG representatives. This was a chance to meet and get to know one another before heading to Dublin in December for the first workshop entitled ‘Identity, Impact and Voice’.

Identity, Impact and Voice.

This first day gave us a sense of what to expect from the coming weeks and also to help us clarify what we wanted to take from the programme. As well as an enthralling keynote from Lynn Scarff (director of the Science Gallery Dublin), the day facilitated us to begin reflecting on our leadership styles and our own identity – who are you, who do you want to be and how can you build the leadership you would like? With these questions in my mind, the key tips I took from this day that still stay with me were:

  • The importance of being relentless in the pursuit of opportunities, but not reckless (Lynn Scarff)
  • Looking at those who inspire you and their qualities that you would like to emulate, and having them ‘on your shoulder’ to influence how you work

Power and Politics

Power and Politics focused on personal goals and how to achieve these, through discussion and debate with other Aurorans. We received another engaging keynote, this time from Professor Anne Sinnott (the executive dean of DCU Business School) who spoke to us about the importance of understanding what motivates others and how to communicate effectively. This session also introduced our Action Learning Set.

The key take-homes for me from this session were:

  • The importance of ‘authenticity’ – identifying your beliefs and values and staying true to these.
  • Developing a three minute elevator pitch to influence how other people perceive you and the importance of your work from the outset.

Action Learning Set

My action learning set was with five other women from a mixture of Irish universities. The Action Learning set chose to meet at NUIG. For this, each of us chose a specific issue or goal relevant to our own careers and development. We confidentially discussed our issues within the group, and were challenged by the group through questioning to reflect on these issues, providing different perspectives and opinions.

For me, this session was particularly valuable as it allowed me to get to know five amazing women in very different areas to me, and for my issue highlighted the value of pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone to develop your career.

Core Leadership Skills

This day focussed on ‘storytelling’, and being aware of the influence of bias and stereotyping in work situations. Again, there were exceptional keynotes from NUIG’s own Professor Anne Byrne (head of Political Science and Sociology), Sara Doherty (director of Eve consultation) on the power of telling your story, and how to do this well.

Key learnings from this session were in relation to improving negotiation skills using the four following tips:

  • Assess – think about whether the benefits outweigh the costs of the proposal
  • Prepare – think about what motivates the other person, and what your own interests are
  • Ask – be open and upfront, share information with the other person and engage with them
  • Package – try to demonstrate what could be achieved as a whole set of things, and think about alternative proposals

Adaptive Leadership Skills

To conclude the programme the keynote was from game designer and developer Brenda Romero, who delivered a really engaging talk to wrap up the programme. Brenda had an interesting way of looking at imposter syndrome as ‘still learning syndrome’, so recognising that you always have more to learn, not to be afraid of failure, and knowing that what matters most is what you think of yourself.

My key take-home message from this session was around taking the ‘balcony view’, i.e. the value of viewing problems from above to see inter-relationships and patterns of change, and understanding that change doesn’t have to happen in my area, but that I can still have an impact via these connected pathways.

Finally

Aurora has helped me learn a lot about myself, my future career and leadership styles. While the programme learning was definitely not gender-specific, it was lovely to take part in something aiming to improve the impact of women in higher education. A consistent highlight of the programme for me was the keynotes from five amazing, successful and inspiring women. In particular, aside from anything gender-specific, I learned a lot from these women about good communication styles and the value of engaging your audience and stakeholders fully, which I want to continue to work on.

Another massive benefit of the programme has been the mentor it provided me with, who has been invaluable to date in terms of guidance and advice.

At the start of the programme, despite being selected, I didn’t really think I was a leader – that I was too junior, too early on in my career for the programme. However, by the end of it I learned that it’s never too soon to start learning how to lead well, and that everyone can display leadership – working within a team on a project, supervising students, or even through peer mentorship. It has helped me develop connections in institutions all over Ireland, and really importantly for someone new to NUIG, has introduced me to a great bunch of women and it’s great to be able to recognise more people across the campus. I also recently received an unusual letter from someone with identical handwriting to my own – until I opened it I had forgotten that during Identity, Impact and Voice we were asked to write our future selves a note about key things to remember, which would be posted to us at the end of the programme. Embarrassingly, I’ll post it here J It’s nice to know that past Elaine is in my corner!

This is an edited version of a post originally published on the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG) Health Psychology blog on 17 August 2017. The original version is available here.

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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 identifies actions that could be taken to change this. 

Dates, locations and booking for Aurora 2017-18 are available here