Growing at the top – developing self-awareness and confidence

A tree growing out of the top of a mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Time to think: leaders and the opportunity to reflect

Person taking a break from their work

Having some time out to think and reflect is extremely valuable for senior leaders within universities. In this blog post Marie McHugh, professor of organisational behaviour at Ulster University Business School shares some of the key findings to emerge from recent research into Advance HE’s Top Management Programme (TMP).

How often do you take time out to think through the best way to develop your work unit? When did you last think about how you approach decision making? What worked? What didn’t work? Why? These questions lie at the heart of thinking and reflection, providing us with a better understanding of past actions so that we are more likely to create a better future.

Alas, having the time to think and reflect is an alien concept for busy leaders and managers. Often we hear them complain that the pace and demands of their job role do not provide them with any opportunity to pause for thought, let alone reflect on the quality of the decisions that they have taken, how their behaviours and actions have impacted upon others, and / or whether they could have done things differently or better. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the turbo-charged, rapidly changing higher education sector where those who are engaged in senior management and leadership roles face daily work schedules characterised by back-to-back meetings, frequent interruptions, unexpected events and emergent fires that require immediate extinguishing!

Such apparent chaos is unlikely to create an environment where leaders and managers are best-placed to make good and well-informed decisions that enhance individual, team and organisational well-being and effectiveness. This, against a backdrop of calls for enhanced leadership and management and researchers such as Dopson et al. (2016) who argue that higher education institutions and their leaders need to adapt and become more outwardly focused, collaborate with different institutional partners, respond to changing funding mechanisms and generate economic impact – all within an increasingly politicised public sector.

Arguably, there has never been a greater need for leaders and managers within higher education to recognise the value of thinking and reflection, and to ensure that they take the time to engage in these activities. But this raises many questions – how do you create space for overly committed, time-pressed leaders to think, to reflect and respond to the immediate demands of the ‘here and now’? How do you enable them to recognise the value of allowing themselves to indulge in such seemingly frivolous activity?

Leadership development programmes provide one such opportunity. Vitally, as has been recognised by Jarvis et al. (2013), if they are designed and delivered appropriately, they can provide an environment for the exploration and the development of key relationships, offering a safe reflective space to promote learning.

Evidence for this is provided by our recent research into Advance HE’s Top Management Programme. Over the course of 50 in-depth interviews with a representative sample of alumni, with 12 sponsoring vice-chancellors, and a survey completed by a further 95 participants linked to their experience of the programme, we found that repeatedly, programme participants / sponsors, referred to the multiple benefits of having time out to think and reflect.

One of the key benefits that TMP alumni gained from their engagement in the programme, and particularly from the impact groups, was the opportunity to reflect deeply on their role, on their practice and on the nature of the higher education sector, long after their run of TMP has ended. The groups provide an opportunity for participants / alumni to meet regularly to discuss, think and reflect on their plans to bring about change within their organisations. Many groups continue to meet long after the TMP. Simply having the space and time away from the workplace for an extended period is highly valued, and it appears for some, that a recharging and revitalising process takes place. The leaders we interviewed were often at career forks or turning points. Consequently, having some time out to reflect and associate with others who were often experiencing, or had experienced, similar issues relatively recently, was deeply appreciated.

Many of the TMP alumni interviewed mentioned the opportunity to reflect, which the programme offers, as a significant personal gain. Sometimes it was to reflect and compare practices at their own institution with others; sometimes it was to reflect on their own behaviour and relationships with others, and sometimes it was to think about where in the organisation they could make the best possible contribution. Alumni frequently acknowledged that the daily grind did not provide any opportunity to think and reflect, but that the TMP provided them with the time to do so. In the words of the participants, “I found the fact that you go away for a dedicated amount of time really helpful in focussing the mind in getting you away from your day-to-day world” ; “I get about two hours a week when I’m not at meetings so [TMP] gives you that time and distance…it’s easier to see things, the wood for the trees if you are slightly further away”.

Engaging with peers from other organisations creates multiple opportunities to think and to reflect. This was acknowledged by TMP participants with one commenting, “the reflections that came from talking it through with my peers on the programme, I found that extremely valuable…the mix, mixing with people from other institutions and in that safe space, is crucial, having a safe space in which to expand and explore”.

For some alumni, the benefits of reflection were experienced at a more personal level, for example by them “…thinking about how, the way that I do things”. For others, reflection related to the institutional level, that is, the nature of change within their institution; or focused on the sector as a whole, for example, “…about knowledge and understanding of the context, the higher education context at a global level”.

While TMP participants cited having time out to think and reflect as a positive outcome from the programme for them as individuals, the real impact of this on their leadership practice and effectiveness was acknowledged by their colleagues, particularly those who had sponsored them. In the words of one sponsoring vice-chancellor, “I think the key thing that you see in people participating in the programme is just…. the ability to critically review the way they work and the way their teams operate…. It gives them a chance to step back and see things differently through another lens almost, and so it is bringing back fresh thinking and that willingness to question some of what they have always done because, I think all of us get very wedded to the way we work”.

At a time when we need leaders and managers to perform at the highest level, building in some time to engage in the practices of thinking and reflection is an essential part of the job. Reflection is likely to promote action rather than re-action, and decisions that lead to better outcomes for individuals, teams and organisations. Use the following questions as prompts:

  • How are you going to make time to think about the best way to develop your work unit?
  • How did you approach your last significant decision?
  • Was it a good decision?
  • Why?

Marie McHugh is professor of organisational behaviour at Ulster University Business School. She and her team are evaluating the TMP ‘Leadership Journeys: Tracking the Impact and Challenge of the Top Management Programme’. You can find out more about the study at our Leadership Summit on 29 June – book here. Read more on Marie’s research into leadership and change here. And we are accepting applications for the Top Management Programme cohort TMP 43, taking place in 2018-2019. Find out more.