Getting to grips with talent management in higher education

Circus acrobats doing a balancing actThe concept of talent management seems to be striking a chord in higher education at the moment. Ahead of our Talent Management Symposium in June,  Dr Wendy Hirsh from the Institute of Employment Studies reflects on what she sees as the talent management issues emerging in higher education and some of the practical barriers that need to be tackled.

In 2017, in response to growing interest in talent management, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (now Advance HE) published a report entitled Talent management: learning across sectors, which has generated considerable interest. The publication of the report has created several opportunities for me to work with many HEIs over the past months at events, in smaller networks and with HR teams inside individual institutions.

In several events and workshops I have asked relevant professionals working in institutions to identify where in the workforce talent management is a real issue. These are some of the common themes emerging from such discussions.

A lack of successors or talent pools for leadership roles. This can apply to the executive team, but seems a more pressing issue at head of department and dean or head of school / faculty levels. The main issue is not really about potential but a set of structural and cultural problems with these jobs. Becoming a head of department is a big leap into the unknown in terms of leadership, brings with it a mass of routine administration and has an uncertain impact on the individual’s career thereafter. To put it politely, the historic head of department role seems to have passed its sell-by. Some institutions are starting to address this by reviewing administrative workload and offering more development support in preparing for these roles and in getting up to speed after appointment.

HEIs need productive and high profile professors, principal investigators and heads of research units, especially in subject areas of priority to the institution. Many sectors have a similar need for top professional talent, including science-based industries, professional services and the arts and creative sectors. Attracting and retaining top academics is a challenge, and Brexit is an added concern here. But their leadership approach is also of concern, as they need to role model the values of their institutions and play a positive part in leading and developing the early career academics who work with or for them. Concern about the early career development of researchers – and indeed teachers – often comes back to the quality and consistency of support received from their principal investigators (PIs) and professorial colleagues.

In the layers below institutional leaders and high profile academics, HEIs rely increasingly on the skills and good will of highly experienced academic and professional service staff. They are experiencing greater workload pressure and sometimes unsettling change in response to top-down strategies. One challenge often reported is of experienced academics who may become disengaged. Here talent management needs to adopt OD approaches in addressing anxieties, involving staff more actively in the change process and decisions affecting their work, and supporting skill and career development at all career stages.

Other sectors see increasing workforce diversity as a key strand of talent management, and this is certainly the case in higher education. Attention is certainly being paid to the appointment process, but initiatives to change the external brand of the sector in this regard or to offer differentiated development opportunities to under-represented groups are not yet widely embedded.

Many HEIs are strengthening their leadership development at a range of levels, which is to be welcomed. Many also want to adopt more systematic and rigorous succession planning for key roles, but there is still a lack of confidence about how to make this happen. In particular there are concerns about explaining this process to staff and how to broaden the talent pools of successors as part of the approach. Institutions have been re-articulating promotion criteria, but less often communicating the criteria to be used in succession planning or in identifying potential for promotion.

In getting to grips with talent management, there seem to be a few common hurdles which the sector needs to address. Talent management rests on workforce planning but there is often a big gap between strategic planning at institutional level and the rather short-term, reactive and budget focused planning at faculty or departmental/service level. Talent management rarely has clear governance in terms of collective decision-making at either institutional or faculty/school level. This still gets in the way of it being a systematic and transparent process. There is much talk of better career conversations but it is often unclear in HE who individuals can have these conversations with.
As the research showed, talent management is a mindset. HEIs need to make sure that the senior leaders and academics they are promoting or appointing right now understand the importance of spotting potential in people and then helping those people to grow.

How to tackle shared challenges, consider potential solutions and ensure that the focus on talent enables diversity in access and outcome enable will be the focus of the Talent Symposium on 19 June. Featuring case study inputs from inside and outside higher education, this event will be the first in a series exploring differing approaches to talent in higher education.

Dr Wendy Hirsh is one of the speakers at the Talent Symposium, along with Jacqui Marshall, deputy registrar & HR director, Exeter University, Sarah Churchman, head of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing, PwC and Debra Lang, director HR and organisational development, organisation development and change, DCMS. Book your place for the Talent Symposium.

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 manage conflict: steering the meeting

A professional couple having a discussion over coffee in a cafe

In the second part of our practical tips on conflict management, the Leading Roles team offer insight into how to handle difficult conversations in a meeting. 

After you have prepared for your meeting, the time has come to you to face your colleague.

A warm welcome
Offer warm greetings with a genuine smile and thank them for sparing the time to see you. Check this is the right time for them and be mindful of potential interruptions and distractions. Be considerate of their comfort and the environment / surroundings.

Offer a structure for the meeting
We like the 3Ps framework: “Purpose, Process, Payoff”, which might sound something like this: “We need to talk about what happened on Monday (purpose).  I really want to hear your opinion as to what happened, and I would like to share mine (process). Hopefully by the end of the conversation, we will have agreed what we can do to resolve the situation to both our satisfaction (payoff).”

Seek first to understand and then be understood
Gather as many facts as you can before sharing your opinions. The other party will probably be grateful for the chance to speak first and at length if it’s an issue they have been troubled by. You could prepare some short focused questions to help the other person give you the full picture from their point of view. Start with open questions and make brief notes (if they don’t mind) of aspects you wish to explore further. Use ‘funnelling’ to explore these topics. Probe gently to make sure you have the pertinent facts.

Remember TED as a tool for clarifying and seeking further information (Tell me…, Explain…, Describe…).

Fair air-time?
Are you doing too much talking? Check in and ask an open question and really listen to what they’re saying.  Be ready to summarise and ‘playback’ what you have heard to demonstrate your understanding.

Respect silence
It can often be very powerful to leave a long pause for thought, and it can be damaging to interrupt someone’s train of thought if the matter is of consequence to them.

Show what cards you can
Promote trust through your body language, for example by keeping your hands visible, relaxed and open. Clenched or hidden hands can send the wrong message and subconsciously provoke adverse reactions.

Listen to the other view
Ask for the other party’s proposed solutions to the situation before stating your own. Having considered both the benefits and consequences of your proposed solutions from both your points of view before the conversation, seek a chance to cover these off during the conversation, and check for consensus on this. If you need to offer feedback, the AID model (and its implied principle of being helpful to the other party) is a useful one: What Action have you seen or heard? What Impact did / will it have? What would you therefore like the other person to do in consequence (Desired behaviour)?

Finally, if you need to offer explanations of your rationale, structure the explanation around three points. Any more and they are more likely to be misremembered.

Be ‘future-focused’
Talk about events of the past, the present business of rectification, and a more positive future.

Thank them for their time
Acknowledge any effort you have seen them make towards a positive outcome, and for any honesty and candour you recognised.

Buy yourself time
If you need to reflect on an outcome, meet again to discuss it. Agree the next steps clearly and repeat or summarise any agreed actions before you part.

If you would like to know more about handling difficult conversations, join us on our Introduction to Head of Department programme. Find out more: www.lfhe.ac.uk/ihod

We have further resources on having difficult conversations on our Knowledge Bank. Take a look here: www.lfhe.ac.uk/knowledgebank

Leading Roles comprises of Sharon Paterson, Mike Rogers and Paul Hessey. Sharon is an associate director culture and engagement at MIMA and Teesside University. Mike is a coach, roleplayer and facilitator for several consultancies in the arena of effective communications and leadership development. Paul Hessey is a leadership, management and communication skills expert who has worked across a wide range of sectors including financial services, manufacturing and the NHS.

How to manage conflict: preparing for the meeting

Sharon Paterson, Mike Rogers and Paul Hessey from Leading Roles run an experiential session on having difficult conversations on our Introduction to Head of Department programme. In our first of two blogs on this subject, they share their practical tips on the preparation needed to ensure that difficult conversations are managed well and generate the best outcome for those involved.

Before the meeting ask yourself these questions:

  • Why have this conversation?
  • Who will it serve immediately and what will it bring you?
  • What might be the ultimate benefit (to both of you) of having this conversation?
  • Is the matter trivial or serious enough for both parties to invest time in?
  • What might be the ultimate consequence of not having this conversation?
  • If you’re not going to do it, what are you going to do instead?
  • What might be your “BATNA” (Best Alternative to No Agreement)?

When you consider the longer-term implications, decide whether a good outcome now would damage a relationship with this individual (or wider group) in the longer term. If you have not decided to avoid this potential conflict for legitimate reasons, explain to yourself why a ‘victory’ on this issue is essential for you, or how you might be prepared to compromise in the short term to get more from the relationship over time, or indeed whether there is a way to collaborate with this individual for an even better solution than the one you currently plan to offer.

How can you prepare yourself?
Think about how you can carry your desired mindset into the conversation and even how your physiology can affect your psychology. Try psychologist Amy Cuddy’s Power Posing techniques.

Consider Patsy Rodenburg’s status circle and focus on the following attributes:

  • Curious
  • Open-minded
  • Alert
  • Respectful
  • Listening actively and empathetically
  • Being mindful of body language and tone of voice

If you want to be assertive, courageous, compassionate, remind yourself of when you have done these things well – even if it was in unrelated circumstances – and summon the feelings associated with those times. Develop techniques that will help you to keep calm and manage your emotions. Slow silent counting and breathing deeply can sometimes help.

Being assertive
If you are planning to be assertive, the 5-part assertion tool can help you rehearse being assertive about what you really want or need to happen. This isn’t a script, but you can benefit by thinking about the following in your own terms:

  • What I like…
  • What I don’t like…
  • If you do…
  • If you don’t…
  • What I want / need is…

Are you ‘travelling light’?
You may be carrying ‘baggage’ into the conversation. Is it possible to leave it at the door – the past does not always need to feature in the present.

How can you bring both honesty and integrity to the conversation?
Be very clear about what you can and can’t promise, and about what power and responsibility you have to meet requests. With what status are you entering the conversation? Parent, adult or child? (Find out more about this idea by following this link). Question your assumptions and your knowledge of the context of events, consider why would a reasonable person be acting in this way.

Think about the situation from the other person’s perspective
If you were in their position, how could they be feeling and what might they be thinking about the issue?  (Literally asking these questions early in the conversation should give you a better understanding of both.)  What alternative approach might you offer as a suggestion, if you were ‘wearing their shoes’?

Think about the degree to which they seem to be holding onto their convictions, using what you have observed, rather than assume to be the case. If they have declared outright that the issue is one on which they will never compromise, you may need to re-assess your ability to influence them.

Location, location, location
Taking some control of the meeting environment might help. Your place or theirs or neutral ground? Where might be most advantageous to the situation?

Once you’re satisfied that you are prepared, the next step is to face your colleague. Read the second blog: how to manage conflict: steering the meeting

If you would like to know more about handling difficult conversations, join us on our Introduction to Head of Department programme. Find out more: www.lfhe.ac.uk/ihod

We have further resources on having difficult conversations on our Knowledge Bank. Take a look here: www.lfhe.ac.uk/knowledgebank

Portal to a more diverse future?

Photo montage of diverse faces

Higher education is waking up to the reality that diversifying governing boards will be imperative to the future success of universities. Ahead of the launch of the Board Vacancies portal, Jenny Tester, Project Associate for the Board Diversification Project at the Leadership Foundation discusses the diversity case for increasing the transparency of university board vacancies.

The Parker Review and the Davies Report have shone light on the lack of BME and female representation on boards in FTSE 100 companies. These reports, and the narrative surrounding them, challenge businesses, executive search firms and industries to take action to improve board diversity without the use of enforced quotas.

At a time when the cultural climate is one of action against discrimination, with high profile topics such as the gender pay gap and the #MeToo movement dominating the headlines, the opportunity for advancing diversity is unparalleled. In higher education, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) has set a target of 40% female representation on boards by 2020. Last month Scottish legislation was passed requiring public boards, which includes universities, to comprise 50% women by 2020.

According to the report Women Count (Jarboe, 2016) women make up 36% of boards and 19% of Chairs (up from 32% and 12% respectively). In order to meet Hefce’s target on gender alone, the pace of female appointments to board positions needs to increase significantly over the next year. Although much of the current focus on diversifying boards has centred on increasing BME and female representation, the case for diversity should be viewed through a much broader lens.

Diverse perspectives, expertise and experiences strengthens the effectiveness of governing boards, combating unconscious bias and groupthink, enabling governors to interrogate the HEI with the benefit of a breadth of knowledge and experience, and inspiring a future generation from diverse backgrounds to get involved. Ahead of the Leadership Foundation’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Retreat, Simon Fanshawe explored how diversity can be advanced through cultural considerations in this recent blog post.

Universities are being urged to reform widening participation – increasing student representation from different socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities and geographical regions. As the focus shifts to put the student at the centre of higher education, with tax-payer and student return-on-investment central to the debate, pressure will grow for governing bodies to mirror the diversity of the student body and communities they serve.

The challenge

Despite goodwill in higher education, and a recognition of the need for change, the reality of recruitment practices for board appointments often results in the appointment of ‘the usual suspects’, typically from a narrow demographic. A recent survey conducted by AHUA and the Leadership Foundation found over 50% of board vacancies are not publicly advertised, relying on the networks of the Chair and board members to identify suitable candidates. Although this can be an effective way of securing strong candidates who would have otherwise not considered a university board appointment, it does narrow the pool of candidates to those in the board’s immediate network and risks marginalising those beyond.

Potential candidates who have not built networks in higher education therefore lack the necessary visibility and are less likely to be made aware of opportunities. Couple this with the tendency to hire in the image of self, when only 19% of Chairs are female, and the result is a hiring norm which perpetuates rather than tackles inequality. Where vacancies are advertised, their placements range from newspapers which target a certain readership to higher education recruitment pages which lack the visibility to candidates outside the higher education sector. Higher education now needs to make tangible changes to achieve board diversity. As board recruitment processes can last months, in order to meet Hefce’s target we need to take action now or female representation will fall short by 2020.

Possible solutions

In order to attract a more diverse pool of candidates, there needs to be an increase in the transparency and accessibility of vacancies. For those considering a board level appointment in higher education, a central hub to locate vacancies will serve to increase the transparency of board appointment processes and send a message of inclusivity and accessibility to candidates from diverse backgrounds.

As part of a broader project aimed at diversifying boards in higher education, the Leadership Foundation, in collaboration with the Committee of University Chairs, is piloting a board vacancies portal aimed at providing a central repository of board vacancies across the sector. Not only will the portal provide a central space for those considering board appointments in higher education to locate vacancies, it will also draw new talent to the sector through a series of partnerships with networks and organisations seeking to support diversity. The portal is currently being trialled with a select number of opportunities, with a view to launching sector-wide in September 2018.

The portal is only one strand of the Board Diversification Project, funded by Hefce, Hefcw and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland, which includes practical, related initiatives to support greater diversity within higher education boards and those applying for board roles, whether in higher education or outside the sector.

Other strands include:

– Developing a Board Appointment Diversity Framework in partnership with the leading search firms in the sector. This follows from recommendations from the Leadership Foundation report ‘Increasing the diversity of senior leaders in higher education: the role of executive search firms’ authored by Professor Simonetta Manfredi in March 2017.

– Piloting two board readiness workshops following feedback from our Women Onto Boards alumni development survey showing 75% of respondents would be interested in further support in order to develop the right profile and skills.

– Conducting a scoping study to assess the feasibility, effectiveness and practicalities of developing a Board Apprenticeship Scheme in the higher education sector providing aspiring board members with a risk-free environment to gain the necessary knowledge and experience to pursue a board appointment.

The sector has significant opportunity, during times of upheaval and uncertainty, to make tangible changes to the diversity of its governing boards, and in so doing strengthening the quality of its governance for the future.

Jenny Tester is a project associate managing the Board Diversification Project at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. The project aims to increase gender and BME diversity on university boards through practical, related initiatives. Jenny was previously a senior consultant at an executive search firm, leading senior appointments in higher education.

Our mentorship journey Siobhan Atherley and Kerry Jordan-Daus

Siobhan Atherley is a senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ University who took part in Aurora London in 2017. Her mentor, Kerry Jordan-Daus is head of UK and International Partnerships and is on the Canterbury Christ Church Athena Swan Senior Implementation Team and the Faculty of Education Athena Swan champion. Here they take the time to reflect on their experiences and learnings as a mentor and mentee. Their relationship demonstrates conversations can provide clarity and motivation in facilitating learning and development.

Siobhan: Black

Kerry: Purple

Siobhan: I am a senior lecturer with many years experience working in higher education institutions with a range of multi professional health and social care undergraduate and post graduate students and learners. This also included working as a tutor in the Open University and as a non-medical general practice programme director in a Deanery.

I applied for Aurora as I thought it would be an opportunity to help me navigate my way in my professional career and become energised as I was feeling ‘stuck’ in my career. I felt a lack of momentum which I recognised as a hindrance in my motivation to move forward into leadership positions. For me leadership isn’t about being in charge but about being a visionary and enabling different perspectives to be shared, in bringing together talents and ideas from others. In order to shape ideas and influence change I felt that I needed to gain a leadership role but I felt stuck, and hoped that Aurora would help facilitate the personal development I needed. My successful application to Aurora gave me the learning space to reflect and challenge and start to examine how I would integrate my prior knowledge, new knowledge and future knowledge into my work as an academic.

Kerry: I am an experienced senior leader in the university’s Faculty of Education and a member of the university’s Senior Leadership Group. I am new to mentoring Aurorans but I do have significant experience of mentoring as part of my professional role as a teacher educator.

I have undertaken a number of professional development courses to support my own learning as a mentor and coach. Most recently I completed a Manager as Coach Staff Development programme through our university. I am a Department for Education designated coach and currently coach two school leaders. I find coaching to be professionally enriching. I am in a place in my own professional life where I feel I can share my own leadership journey, but I am also in a place where I want to continue to learn and grow as a leader so being a mentor and coach is also about my own learning.

I am a member of the university Athena Swan Senior Implementation Team and the Faculty of Education Athena Swan champion. I am currently completing a Doctorate in Education Leadership with a focus on gender and authentic leadership so mentoring Siobhan seemed like the right fit.

Siobhan: Due to ill-health my first mentor was unable to continue in the role. This was a great loss to me as I find her vision and articulation of the position of women in society including the workplace energising. I was grateful to her visual image and description of ‘sweeping rubbish away’ when I discussed how stuck I was feeling. It gave me permission to do just that and how important it is to move forward in a positive way. The absence of a mentor for a significant part of Aurora contributed to some of my frustrations but I was determined to get beyond this.

I realised how important the mentor was in the Aurora learning and professional development process and I chased for a replacement. Kerry was my second mentor and we met when the programme ended. The meetings took the shape of constructive coaching conversations facilitated by Kerry. With these coaching sessions, my ideas took shape, my energy increased, and I determined to change my views. I got out my broom!

At our first meeting, I admitted to Kerry that I was tired of feeling professionally stuck. For me this was a brave admission as being open might not be seen as a positive strength. I think self-awareness is important and I know many of us are wary of being honest.

Aurora set out an excellent session on a holistic presentation of ourselves. A common theme was that women are not forth coming in expressing their views in meetings for example and that confidence and assertiveness is an issue. Kerry my mentor was not judgemental and provides a space for honest reflection on thoughts and feelings and a solution focused approach to developing skills in for example assertiveness and confidence.

As busy academics, protected time for reflection is vital in maintaining flexibility and Aurora provided this space. Now, mentorship provides a support system and a vehicle for me to critically reflect on my scope of work both as an individual and as a team member. The first meeting was crucial in setting the scope and objectives for enabling me to help myself, feel more in control of where I would like to go, and how I would do this.

I believe passionately in the impact Action Learning Sets can have and although ours was less effective (we only met once perhaps owing to our geographical spread), I have continued to meet with one of the members of the group. I see this informal networking as a real benefit of Aurora.

Kerry: I met Siobhan at the end of her formal Aurora Programme. It was evident to me that she had really engaged with the messages and was determined not to ‘sit’ and wait but to put herself out there. But at that first meeting I heard her frustrations but I also heard her determination. Using the GROW Coaching Model enabled me to support Siobhan to see that there were options and that it was in her grasp to do something to secure the leadership role that she really aspired to. 

I really enjoyed the opportunity to put into practice some of the new techniques that I had been introduced to as part of my own coaching programme and I encouraged Siobhan to evaluate my mentoring/coaching approach.

Research into women in leadership (Blackmore and Sachs, 2007, Coleman 2011, Fitzgerald 2014,) highlight the diversity of women’s leadership life trajectory. Both Siobhan and I spent our first meeting talking about our lives. Work is important to both of us. It gives us a sense of identity. But our stories do not follow a neat pattern. Families, children, health all impact on our journeys. We talked about these experiences as empowering and not limiting. We found ourselves going back to history and reflected on those women who are ‘hidden from history’ (Rowbotham 1973) as our heroines.

Siobhan: It was energising discussing with Kerry the influential work undertaken by women writers and researchers in the past that we both had read, and how their reflections continue to be relevant today. For example we talked about Ann Oakley who explored women’s work both paid (the public sphere) and unpaid (in the home). I felt a sense of connection with my mentor discussing women’s literature as this aspect of women’s history in literature can be neglected and unknown. Certainly there is debate around the word ‘feminism’ and its current relevance. It would be useful to explore the juxtaposition between academic, current social and historical definitions of the private and public sphere of women and work in society, and apply to leadership in general.

Since I completed Aurora I have been appointed as cohort coordinator for the medically themed MSc pathway for clinical fellows in the Institute of Medical Science. I have also led a project to include a range of health and social care professionals in practice education and I am now part of a project exploring the facilitation of learning in the workplace for all learners across all levels and programmes. Finally, I have been invited to contribute to a proposed book exploring practice learning and I am planning to apply for Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. Within less than a year I have achieved some of the leadership space that I aspired to at the beginning of the process.

Kerry: Our mentor/mentee relationship is built upon honesty and trust. This continues to grow which is a natural part of the process of development. We have continued to meet, and the mentoring continues in an informal way. Perhaps it’s not mentoring anymore but I like to think I am providing ongoing professional support and a bit of space, which we all need and pretending otherwise feels dishonest. Both Siobhan and I are committed to our own learning and the relationship has enabled us to both continue to learn and grow as leaders. For me, it has also been about my learning as a coach and a mentor.

Siobhan: Putting together this blog has been another significant part of our developing mentee/mentor relationship – providing scaffolding to support reflection and reflexity.  Kerry and I continue to meet – I think this could continue for sometime!

Siobhan and Kerry’s blog post forms part of our mentor and mentee blogs. There are two more currently online: 


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 and locations for Aurora 2017-18 are available here.

This year we are encouraging Aurora mentees and their mentors to attend the Aurora Conference 2018 on Thursday 7 June. Book now. 

Why Leadership Matters

Christine Abbott is a facilitator of Leadership Matters, the Leadership Foundation’s programme for senior women in higher education. Christine has has spent almost all her career in higher education, most recently as university secretary & director of Operations at Birmingham City University. Here she considers how women can achieve senior roles in the sector and how Leadership Matters can support this.  

It is often said that success, in any walk of life, is less about what you know, than who you know. In our now extensively connected world this is increasingly true. Nevertheless good networks alone are rarely enough. Certainly successful leadership requires the ability to engage with people, to understand their motivations, and to recognise and develop their talents. But in addition, a sound bedrock of knowledge and experience are also needed. However the work environment is now so complex, and in such a state of continuing flux, that claiming to know enough to fully understand one’s organisation can seem a fanciful statement.

The tube map of universities

Navigating the current higher education sector, or even one’s own University, can sometimes feel more like travelling in the London underground than following the A to Z. A tourist in London might go down into the tube at Marble Arch, and pop back up at Westminster, and recognise the landmarks in both locations; but they may have little idea of the route between the two places, or what sits above ground as they travel through the tunnels. In our Universities this feeling of limited understanding can become a particular concern when colleagues move from one role to another, or from one department, faculty or service area to another. Moving between institutions or gaining promotion can exacerbate that consciousness of the blocks or blind spots in our understanding.

Why Leadership Matters

The aim of the Leadership Matters course is to fill in some of those gaps in understanding and knowledge, by looking at the frameworks – the strategic, financial, and governance frameworks – within which our institutions operate. Participants on previous cohorts have often been those who have gained promotion to middle or senior management positions, which bring them, perhaps for the first time, into a broader University arena, and feel there are gaps in their understanding of how the whole University entity fits together and functions.

The programme aims to help participants to get to grips with how their University operates, how it takes critical decisions, and the financial, legal, and reputational considerations that impact upon its decisions.

Module one, which is led by Gill Ball and myself, aims to ‘humanise’ some potentially dry topics, such as funding and finance, governance and decision making. Through practical small group work there will be plenty of opportunity for hands-on learning. Module one also includes a session led by a senior woman leader from the sector, on ‘navigating the organisation’. This session links the organisational perspective with the individual and personal, and provides the bridge into the Action Learning Sets and module two.

The second module, which is led by Rachael Ross and Sally Cray, focuses more closely on how to develop the personal impact necessary to be successful as a senior woman leader.

Impact of the programme

Leadership Matters is now being run for the eighth time, and from the outset the Leadership Foundation was keen for the programme to be women-only. The programme director, Rachael Ross, and the programme leaders have discussed a number of times the rationale for this, since as concerns module one, the topics discussed, and the approaches used, are gender neutral. Our conclusion, which has been reaffirmed after each of the cohorts that we have led to date, is that the women-only aspect of the programme enables a particularly rich and reflective quality to the discussions. This is most notably the case in the Action Learning Sets, and in module two of the programme, as colleagues draw upon their personal experiences of leadership and their leadership journey. As programme director Rachael Ross says: “We find that our senior delegates value a women-only programme. They are able to deepen their understanding of these key topics in an open, reflective way, challenge themselves to “claim” their unique leadership approach, and build a supportive network of women leaders right across higher education.”

It is the blend of the broad organisational perspective with the personal that makes this programme special.

At more junior levels in one’s career, the concern is primarily to be able to provide the answers to the questions you are asked. The more senior your role, the more important it becomes to know the questions to ask, how to ask them, and to whom those questions can and should be addressed. The Leadership Matters programme is designed to help female colleagues to identify both the questions, and the audience for those questions, and so to develop their confidence and effectiveness in their leadership roles.


Leadership Matters will 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.