Leadership Foundation Research Impact – Working for Wales


Professor Fiona Ross reflects on the impact that our stimulus paper on research funding in Wales has had on prompting the Welsh government to make positive steps towards supporting and encouraging research in the nation.

Last year Peter Halligan and Louise Bright (2015) published a paper on the Case for Growing STEMM Research Capacity in Wales. Theirs is a story of research funding for Science Technology Engineering Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) in Wales. It provides a powerful review and explanation for what appeared to be Wales’s poor comparative research performance and productivity compared to Scotland. We published it in our stimulus paper series and this blog reflects on its impact.

The Leadership Foundation’s stimulus paper series is designed to support thought leadership and to provide the sector with an opportunity to challenge established perceptions and discuss them from a new position. Independent from disciplinary lobbying, government policy making and mission group, over the years the Leadership Foundation has offered an alternative space for incubating ideas on leadership, challenging the status quo in leadership, publish and disseminate for greater impact through its network of member institutions. We thought this was the ideal vehicle for this research.

Halligan and Bright’s paper is a detailed and longitudinal policy analysis of comparative data on research funding in Wales. It is not for the faint hearted and does not leave a stone unturned! It lays out the drivers behind the Welsh Office, and subsequent Welsh Government’s focus on an input target of total research council income. It argues that policy reliance on securing Wales’s UK share of Research Council funding had contributed to a misleading and reputational damaging perception of the Welsh university research base. To derive a more complete picture of the STEMM shortfall in Wales, Halligan and Bright calculated the total number of STEMM academic researchers in the four UK nations. Using Wales’s population share of total UK academics engaged in research they found that the academic research workforce was some 0.5% below Wales’s population standard share. Despite this discrepancy, the evidence shows that relatively low levels of Research Council income have nevertheless been effectively translated into high impact research.

Halligan and Bright’s paper concludes that the critical problem lay not in the quality of the science being done in Wales, but rather with the inadequate size of the science base and the number of researchers in STEMM. So what has been the impact from the paper and what happened? The Welsh Government listened, the Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) acted swiftly though her Ser Cymru programme to deliver an ambitious strategy to increase research capacity in science to enhance economic growth.  To achieve this, the CSA brought together a number of initiatives involving COFUND funding from the EU Horizon 2020 and the European Regional Development Fund in association with Welsh Universities. This amounted to over £50M to support a capacity building programme to fund over 100 new fellowships in science. This is providing support for large scale doctoral training schemes, postdoctoral rising stars and promising research leaders and support for scientists (particularly women) returning to their fields after a long absence.

I am often asked about Leadership Foundation research outputs and what difference they make? The honest answer is it varies. Sometimes we hit on a winner, like Halligan and Bright. But impact does not happen by accident. It is a complex process. Here it took compelling evidence supporting the case for change, authors who were both authoritative and influential, a receptive policy context and respectful and longstanding relationships between government and academic institutions. Our analysis of LF impact shows the secret is about the quality of commissioning, and being able to anticipate the “burning platform” issues, working hard with authors to ensure quality and using the LF network to provide a conduit for dissemination and exchange of ideas. It has worked for Wales.

Professor Fiona Ross is Director of Research at the Leadership Foundation. Fiona leads research and thought leadership with a particular focus on generating learning for organisations on ‘what works’. Fiona has a background in community health and social policy and has worked as practitioner, teacher, research leader and senior manager over a 35 year career in higher education. She has had academic leadership roles at King’s College London, Kingston University and St George’s, University of London where most recently she was an executive dean. She has published widely on policy and care of older people, public engagement, collaborative practice and leadership of change. In addition to her role with the Leadership Foundation she has a part time professorial appointment at Kingston University and St George’s and does research and writes on collaborative governance and evaluating system wide interventions including Kingston University’s approach to narrowing the attainment gap for students from BME backgrounds. Fiona has recently been appointed Chair of the Board of Trustees of Princess Alice Hospice, which delivers end of life care in Surrey and South West London. She was awarded a CBE in the 2015 New Year’s Honours list for services to health care and higher education.


Welsh Government Delivering Science for Wales 2014-15.  Annual Report on the Strategy for Science in Wales p.2, p.6, p.7, p.16

Welsh Government Delivering Science for Wales 2015-16.  Annual Report on the Strategy for Science in Wales p.3, p.12

About the research authors

Professor Peter Halligan is the Chief Executive of the Learned Society of Wales

Dr Louise Bright is Deputy Director of Research and Business Engagement at the University of South Wales and the former Leadership Foundation Associate Director for Wales.

About our research
Our goal is to commission, develop and disseminate path finding research and resources which have originality, utility and impact to the sector. To view our latest research, click here

About Leadership Foundation Membership
We are a membership organisation of and for a sector that has some of the brightest minds in the UK. Our members are key to our strategy and form a community of higher education institutions with a clear commitment to and experience of developing leadership, governance and management capabilities at all levels. Academic and professional services staff from member institutions contribute to our programmes, projects and research and advice on benefits and services. To find out more about membership with us, click here

My Aurora journey – Dr Karen Masters


Dr Karen Masters, reader in astronomy and astrophysics at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, University of Portsmouth, reflects on the role perceptions play in shaping her identity as a woman and an Aurora alumna working in a STEM subject.

I joined the Aurora programme in 2014, my first year as a permanent academic at the University of Portsmouth. I had worked at Portsmouth as a fixed term researcher (a “postdoc”) since 2008, and following a string of fellowships, and a stressful and extended search for a permanent job (now typical of young academics in my field), I was offered an academic staff position in Portsmouth.

At the University of Portsmouth, the ten places offered annually for Aurora are oversubscribed and are, therefore, allocated on the basis of an application. In my application, I said that I believed the skills I’d learn would help me to “negotiate this change of status with my colleagues,” “develop my confidence” and help me learn how to be a more effective mentor for the next generation of young astrophysicists. I also expected to find networking opportunities, and through this experience improve my networking skills.

I attended Aurora at venues in London roughly once a month from November 2014 to March 2015. Aurora sessions are themed around specific topics, from “Identity, Impact and Voice,” to “Power and Politics,” “Core Leadership Skills” and “Adaptive Leadership.”  I was initially concerned about the time commitment – and a full day in London once a month did take its toll. But looking back, taking that time is such an important part of the process. It gave me a space to self-reflect, to consider what about the way I present myself and interact with others works, and what doesn’t. Simply being in a conference venue with 200+ other young ambitious (and female) academics was a life changing experience. The statement made by “taking over the men’s toilets” for the day (or at least some of them) was quite powerful – similarly that the only men in the room were support staff (clearing away coffee cups, or providing the stationary). At each session I tried to sit at a table of people I had not met before. Each table was also assigned a “role model” – a more senior woman working in higher education who helped guide us through the activities.

About halfway through my Aurora experience I decided to submit an application for promotion to Reader. In my application made just a few months prior I had mentioned an ambition to do this in the “next few years.”  Something about the Aurora experience made me realise there was no reason to wait.

I realised there was no real risk involved – a rejection would simply be feedback to try again the next year (and even the next), so why not go for it. My Heads of Department supported me, my application went in, and was awarded. As of 1st Sept 2015 I became a Reader, one step closer to Professor!

The other change I’ve noticed following attending Aurora is in how I watch people in meetings. I’m more aware of body language, and unspoken words. I’m not going to claim to be fluent in this language yet, but I’m noticing it, and at times I am able to deliberately change how I’m sitting  – power posing, or perhaps uncrossing my arms, leaning in, or out as appropriate. I find the perceptions people have of others fascinating, and I’m learning to play more with the different roles and perceptions people have of me.

I’m an astrophysicist, and immediately on reading that you’ve made some assumptions about the kind of person you think I am. Since you know I’m female I wonder what you’re assuming about my appearance…. You might like to joke about how I’m not used to every day things, that I’ve “got my head in the stars”. You might be led to assume I’m very smart – even a “genius” at maths. That one word “astrophysicist” is a job title, but also shorthand for a whole lot of assumptions.

I’m a mother. Another word which carries a lot of assumptions. I spend a lot of time at the weekends out with my young children, and while most of the time I’m simply enjoy their company, I can’t fail to notice the difference in how people interact with me when I’m with them and when I’m not. The most memorable occasion was a visit to a special exhibit on robots at the Science Museum in London. As an astrophysicists I’d be assumed to be interested, even knowledgeable. As a mother I was ignored.

I’m a feminist. Another loaded word. You might read from it that I “hate men,” but what I want you to understand by that is I firmly believe in equality between genders. I do not believe that men are innately better suited to leadership than women, or that women are naturally better carers. I think each individual has their own qualities, and that for our society to reach the best of it’s potential, all people should be supported to succeed. But I also believe that right now our society is loaded in favour of men. The qualities we recognise as leadership qualities are encouraged in little boys, and discouraged in little girls. That’s not equality. That’s why we need programmes like Aurora.

I am proud to be an Aurora alumna. I wear my purple pin with pride, and I encourage any women working in higher education (academics or support staff) to apply for the programme. You will get a lot out of the experience, even if it’s not exactly what you thought it would be when you go in.

Dr Karen Masters is a reader in astronomy and astrophysics at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, University of Portsmouth.  Dr Masters was the 2014 Women of the Future in Science, and also one of the BBC 100 Women of 2014. She tweets as @KarenLMasters. Dr Masters took part in year two of Aurora.

This article was originally published on the Apex Woman website.

My Aurora journey – Dr Evelien Bracke

Dr Evelien Brack

Dr Evelien Bracke, participant on the Leadership Foundation’s women-only Aurora programme, shares her inspiring story of learning how to speak up, be heard and step into power.

The story I am about to tell is a very personal one, and before Aurora, I would have never dared to share it. However, as I have benefited from hearing other women’s stories, I know it is important to share. And so here is mine.

I have long believed that if you just work hard enough, you can achieve anything. If I didn’t get where I wanted to, I just worked harder until I did. This world view worked when I was younger: I did well in school and was fortunate enough to have some great opportunities. After my undergraduate years in Belgium, I went to study in Ireland and was offered a funded PhD place. It was a tough seven-year process but I got there in the end, and submitted my thesis as freshly separated mum with an 18-month old baby.

Nothing prepared me for becoming a single mum in academia. Having followed my partner to the UK, I suddenly found myself at the bottom of the food chain. I needed all the money I could make to ensure my son – who was at the time suffering from mental health issues – was OK which lead me to take on low-paid part-time teaching jobs in different universities just to make ends meet.

I was unable to develop a social life in this new country where I knew hardly anyone and spent my time either at work or looking after my son. I went through four very tough, quite lonely years working in research and as senior colleagues looked down at and bullied me, I found myself unable to get a proper academic job. My former optimistic self-confidence plummeted and every day was a struggle for survival.

Out of this crisis, however, I created a project for which our students could go out to schools to teach Latin, and this turned out to be my life saver. It was successful, and grew each year. I received some research funding and was praised by the university, yet I continued to feel like the lowliest life form on earth, unworthy of existence itself. While my son was getting better and my enjoyment of my job increased having been made permanent (thanks to a truly amazing head of department), I still considered myself inferior to any other academic. My teaching project was getting bigger all the time; I found myself setting up other projects and having to talk to more people. I felt overawed.

When an email inviting staff to apply for the Aurora Programme came round in the university, something clicked. Somehow I knew this was for me.

I sent an honest application explaining my issues with self-confidence and how I was nervous taking my projects forward. I was accepted onto the programme. I was terrified.

The programme itself was challenging, and walking into the room for the first session, I almost walked straight out again. But hearing other women’s stories, talking to participants from different backgrounds in academia, doing the homework, and having to do serious introspection confronted me with a reality about myself which was different from the unworthy narrative I had constructed.

Suddenly I had to acknowledge that I am actually OK, I am allowed to have a voice, and there are constructive ways in which challenges in the workplace can be overcome. I became aware of challenges that women specifically face in a male-dominated working environment, and finally realised that the image I had created when I was younger was an illusion: humans are political animals – and with this awareness comes power.

A few weeks after the Aurora Programme, I started noticing that I was speaking up in meetings, which I had never dared to do before. I found myself putting my foot down on issues that mattered to me. It was as if a light had been switched on inside me, a light of empowerment.

I am learning to think critically about decision-making at all levels of the university and have decided that life is too short not to speak up. I have set up an organisation which supports the teaching of Classics in Wales, and am leading committee meetings and steering our agenda. I have joined an Athena Swan steering group and have plans to develop my teaching project. Most importantly, however, I have learned to be kinder to myself (it’s a work in progress) and step into my power, yet not in an aggressive but a compassionate, feminine way.

Aurora was an eye-opener, and I would thoroughly encourage anyone thinking of taking the next step in their career to apply.

Dr Evelien Bracke  is a senior lecturer in history and classics at Swansea University. Dr Bracke took part in year two of Aurora.

This article was originally published on the Apex Woman website.

My Aurora journey – Dee Burn

Dee Burn

Dee Burn, Director of Red Kite Marketing Insight, talks about her experience on Aurora  during her career as head of communications and external relations at the University of London.

The Aurora programme offered me – as a mid-career woman – a unique and welcome opportunity for career reflection and the inspiration to make a change. Since participating in its inaugural programme, I was inspired to set up my own company and I am enjoying the challenges that this new phase in my career is offering me.

I joined the inaugural Aurora programme back in 2013, having been nominated to participate along with three other colleagues from my university. I didn’t know a lot about the programme prior to joining, but the concept of a female-focused initiative to drive equality in the higher education sector was something that I felt strongly about.

Prior to Aurora, I had been working as a higher education administrator for 13 years – in both the US and the UK – in fundraising, marketing and communications roles. It was when I became a head of marketing and communications that I truly began to experience the challenges of being a woman in the sector. I quickly realised that the norm at senior staff committees, working groups and professional conferences was to have a male chair and for men to outnumber women. It was mostly the case that men held the more senior roles, and the majority of women that I met were in more junior posts. The scenario was repeated across decision-making bodies and in career development projects. Just a year before Aurora started, I participated in an excellent Future Leaders in HE programme, but the number of male participants was twice the number of female. I also witnessed numerous appointments of male candidates to senior posts, even when the number of female shortlisted candidates outnumbered their male counterparts. It so often felt it was a case of ‘the right man for the job’.

There have been more personally directed displays of sexism. I was asked at a committee meeting, where I was one of only two women among 12, to make the coffee by a senior male colleague at a self-service counter (thankfully an equally senior colleague, also male, offered to make the coffee himself to save me from what would have been an embarrassing situation and one that I was not yet equipped to handle). I also recently discovered that another colleague frequently referred to”me as ‘the blonde bombshell’ to other senior colleagues; he has subsequently retired.

I’m not saying that HE or my university are particularly sexist environments – they, like our society contain sexist individuals – but I strongly believe that a sector dedicated to sharing and creating knowledge for all should be at the forefront of championing a culture of equality within its own structures at least.

“In an ideal world, university managers would resolve the inequalities that invariably exist; statements and policies would change the situation. But it is not an ideal world, and much bias is unconscious.”

I’m not sure what my expectations for the Aurora programme were. I guess I expected more concrete training and guidance and less emphasis on reflection. Aurora offered a unique opportunity to attend a woman-only event, to meet and to hear from other women in the sector at various levels and in myriad roles, both academic and administrative.  The main benefits for me were to have the opportunity for a reflective day out of the office, to hear personal experiences from female leaders, to focus on creating and making a plan to achieve my career goals, and to network. Through the active learning component in particular, I met a fantastic group of women that I would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise, and I am still in contact with them almost two years later.

As a mid-career woman, the challenges of managing an increasingly complex set of responsibilities that span both strategic and detailed tasks, managing a team, regular attendance at senior management meetings, and finding your longer-term career path can seem an impossible task. Something must invariably give. The periods of self-reflection that Aurora encouraged me to have, showed me that what had given was my career. I had chosen to focus on delivering high quality work, often at personal sacrifice, rather than selecting the more strategic elements in support of my longer-term career goals. I had always grabbed the option of staying late into the evening to complete tasks that no one ever knew about, rather than go to one of the many evening networking events I received invitations to, or taking the chance to speak in front of hundreds about one of my projects at a university staff meeting. The results of my choice were increased responsibility but when I requested a review of my salary given five years of changes, my existing rate was deemed appropriate given my responsibility levels. And similarly, when I think of my colleagues, those that have moved onto the next rung are invariably men, most of my female counterparts have stayed at the mid-level.

It is challenges like these, about managing the transition from mid to senior level, that seem to be so difficult and yet so crucial to those of us hoping to make the same jump. And yet we hardly ever hear how these transitions are made. Aurora created an environment that allowed mid-level career women to ask senior career women about these times in their life and for these stories to be shared among many. It showed me that as a woman, I must challenge the accepted norm that men are in charge by promoting myself to a position of leadership. That I must believe in myself and inspire others to do so. Ultimately, it is only when it becomes normal to see intelligent, brilliant, inspiring female leaders alongside male leaders that we will be able to break down the prejudices that exist in the ivory towers, however conscious or otherwise.

The Aurora programme motivated me to make a change in my then current role, by leaving to start up my own company as a freelance marketing consultant specialising in the HE sector.  Since then, I have embraced the challenge of setting up a company, managing its finances and taxes, and I have secured a steady stream of clients through existing networks. I will need to begin self-promoting myself soon, which is not something I feel very comfortable doing, but this is a valuable Aurora learning and one I am committed to succeeding in this time around.

It has been a privilege to meet and hear from such an inspiring group of women – current and future leaders of higher education – and to continue to hear from other participants. I would strongly recommend taking part in the programme because the opportunity to network so widely, to share experiences and to have the time to focus on your own career plan is very rare indeed. And as women in a male-dominated society, we really do need to take every opportunity we can to even out the differences because change won’t come to us. And, in turn, universities should do more than simply tick the box by signing up to sending a handful of staff on the Aurora programme.

Dee Burn is the Director of Red Kite Marketing Insight, and formerly head of communications and external relations at the University of London. Dee took part in year one of Aurora in 2013.

This article was originally published on the Apex Woman website.

My Aurora journey – Dr Hannah Bartlett

Dr Hannah Bartlett image

Dr Hannah Bartlett, Senior Lecturer in Optometry at Aston University talks to APEX about her time on the Aurora programme, run by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

I am a clinical health scientist and teacher, and my aim is to reach professorial status through leadership in research, excellence in teaching, and being a positive role model.

I recognised that participating in the Aurora programme would allow me time out to focus on my career plan and strategies for development. The opportunity to enrol on the Aurora programme could not have come at a better time for me. I had recently returned to work following the birth of my second child. Prior to starting a family my focus was to secure an academic position and establish myself as a researcher and teacher. Upon my return to work I needed to re-evaluate and plan my progression route. A challenge was achieving this as a part-time academic, and building the internal and external relationships that are necessary to progress.

One of the requirements of enrolling on the Aurora programme is to partner with a mentor within your own institution. This gave me the confidence to ask a very senior colleague to mentor me, and this relationship has been invaluable. In addition, it was very useful to have the opportunity to network with, and learn about the experiences of other motivated individuals on the programme itself.

I started my career as an optometrist and this clinical role allowed me to develop my communication skills. However, I found that I sometimes lacked confidence when communicating with senior colleagues, for example in committee meetings. Attending the Aurora programme   provided the opportunity for me to consider and understand my own strengths, but also to recognise and identify ways of minimising my weaknesses. I became aware of the importance of taking time to make positive choices, which allow me to maximise my contribution to the university whilst also accruing experience that will support future promotion.

The Aurora programme has helped me develop the skills necessary to progress my own career, as well to support my colleagues. I am now involved in mentoring and have recently been asked to lead a new institution-wide initiative called ‘Aston Women’, which aims to support women in reaching their full potential. The leadership skills that I have developed also benefit my research by supporting my development of international collaborations.

Dr Hannah Bartlett is a senior lecturer in Optometry at Aston University. Dr Bartlett took part in year two of Aurora.

This article was originally published on the Apex Woman website.


Inspiring Women


By Tom Irvine

I’ve been inspired by two women this week. One of them is Janet Beer, the vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes. She gave a very frank and candid interview  recently where she described the challenges she faced as she built her career. I was struck by her ability to balance the demands of family and professional life – and the struggle that many women face when it comes to reconciling those demands. We hear a lot about glass ceilings and the macho culture that dominate our institutions – perhaps factors that – as Janet points out – do result in only 10% of VCs being female. I’ll come back to this if I may when I reflect upon the Leadership Foundation’s female-only *Aurora leadership programme for early career aspiring leaders.

The other woman who has inspired me is my wife Helena. We laughed at each other some years ago when we were both sitting on the settee, side-by-side, reading magazines. The telly was off, the bairns tucked up in bed, and we had a bottle of wine to share. We looked over at each other at the same time – just as you do. We laughed, shook our heads, and got back to our reading. I was reading the Sainsbury’s magazine looking at recipes and she was reading What Car checking out the brake horsepower of the new car she fancied. That pretty much sums us up.

But why am I inspired by Helena? Partly because she manages that balance of family and career and partly because of the way she does it. She has a tough job as a housing director – a job that I just couldn’t begin to comprehend. But equally we have each made very significant compromises to make that balance happen for each of us. But she does it with grace, patience and a sense of humour.

I once had a job in London that took me out of the house– from early to late five days a week while we lived in Yorkshire. That really hurt Helena’s career – but we had agreed it was ‘my turn’ to have the time to attend to mine. She took over the caring responsibilities. On the other hand we have moved home twice to follow her career and family needs. I was a management consultant when we made our move from Chester to Worcester so that she could take up her first directorship in Birmingham. That hurt my consultancy business for a couple of years, but it went with the territory. All the way through our marriage we have played this game of swings and roundabouts – where we took turns at scaling the greasy career pole, with the other doing more of the childcare and homemaking.

What’s all this got to do with a women-only leadership programme? We hear a lot about the many barriers to women as they try against the odds to build a career that has some balance to it. These cannot and should not be underestimated. The LF’s most popular research work (by a country mile) is Louise Morley’s stonkingly good Women and Higher Education Leadership: Absences and Aspirations. The new Aurora programme is seeking to do something practical about this.

I do have a fear though that some men are part of the problem here, and not just the collective ‘macho’ culture. I had to learn to be more fair-minded I must admit, and it wasn’t easy for many years. But I had a patient teacher. My hope is that as the years pass that couples will increasingly engage in that very difficult game of swings and roundabouts. Men may have to accept greater responsibility for parenting to help their partners make their career transitions. My hope is that the Aurora programme will help aspiring women leaders to ‘fix the men’ and to help create a fairer balance based on merit and not gender – or any other ‘difference’ for that matter. Buy your man a subscription to BBC Good Food and laugh while he reads it – it will do him the world of good!

Tom Irvine, leads the LF’s Consulting team

*The Aurora programme begins this autumn in London, and will also run in Bristol, Manchester & Glasgow.

Leadership in Saudi Arabia: women’s perspective

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By Rebecca Nestor

In June of this year I was privileged to work with a group of sixteen high-achieving women students at the University of Dammam, Saudi Arabia, on a new five-day programme to support their personal and leadership development. I adapted and customised a programme from one devised for male students delivered by Leadership Foundation associate Glyn Jones in 2012*. The programme aimed to provide a supportive group learning experience leaving participants with insight into their individual personality type and personal leadership style and understanding of high-performing teams, how organisations work, leadership principles, influencing, networking and organisational change. The programme was part of the University of Dammam’s contribution to the current government’s efforts on improving women’s access to the professions.

Dammam gave the Leadership Foundation a high-quality brief, including feedback on the 2012 programme and how they wanted to see the young women’s programme take shape. Just as importantly, they put me in touch with Dr Mona Al-Sheikh, who teaches medicine and is also in the University’s medical education unit. Dr Al-Sheikh proved to be a great partner in the development of the programme. We talked via Skype and exchanged emails while I was adapting Glyn’s design. She gave me some excellent background on the prospective participants, from which I learned that they had been selected not just by their tutors but also by their peers, using criteria including morality and helpfulness as well as their academic performance. And they were, I was told, very enthusiastic about the programme and excited about the opportunity it represented for them. Mona encouraged me to focus the programme on helping participants to understand their own potential and to work together – so plenty of activities, team-based exercises, and personal reflection, processes that she explained would be relatively unlikely to form a part of their normal university studies.

With no previous visits to Saudi Arabia to inform my planning, I wondered what the participants’ previous experience of leadership would have been. In a segregated society, what role models would these young women have seen and how relevant or appropriate would my leadership background feel to them? How could we talk about women’s leadership in ways that respected Saudi culture, Islamic values and my own principles?

The answer turned out to be threefold. First, I drew on my experience of women-only personal development programmes and made community-building a key part of the design. The group started with personal timelines, focusing on important events in their personal lives; they worked in pairs and small groups, returning to the small groups several times throughout the programme so as to build a supportive network; and they practised giving and receiving feedback to each other. As part of this community-building, I shared my own experiences of leadership at community level and to some extent opened up my own life to their scrutiny. One participant said at the end that she had shared things with others on the programme that she had never previously discussed outside her family. Secondly, we discussed and articulated our values explicitly during the programme, both in leadership stories and in the practical activities (see photos). This enabled a focus on the morality of leadership, and of Islamic leadership, which seemed to me to resonate powerfully with participants. And thirdly, my colleague Mona acted as a role model herself, discussed other women leaders, and brought in female leaders in days 4 and 5 of the programme so that participants could hear their stories through the frame of the ideas we had discussed in days 1-3.

I’ve learned a lot from the experience. My cultural antennae have been sharpened, which can only help my consultancy skills; I took some risks in design and delivery, and the programme benefited from it; and on a personal level, visiting Saudi Arabia (albeit only for a few days) was an amazing learning experience for me, and I loved getting to know the women in our programme and understanding a little about their lives. I had a couple of delightful social gatherings, including a trip to the mall, and was the subject of traditional Arabic generosity and hospitality.  I got some great advice on how to fix my hijab properly (though I fear making it stay in place is something that only comes with more practice than I had time for). The photo shows me in the abaya or long gown which was a present from Mona, and with my hijab in place thanks to help from the students.

Reflecting on the relevance of this experience for leaders in UK higher education, I’m struck by the power of drawing on one’s own personal experience, and how this helps engage with others with whom one might have thought one had little in common.

*The 2013 run of the Dammam programme for male students took place in Greenwich, London 26 – 30 August and was led by Glyn Jones. 

Rebecca Nestor is the Director of Learning For Good Ltd, and is an associate and regional co-ordinator of the Leadership Foundation