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.

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

 

Talent management – for the many or just the few?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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