The Recipe for Perfect Leadership – Louise Fowler

Following on from speaking at the Aurora Adaptive Leadership Skills day in Cardiff in May 2017, Louise Fowler shares some key learnings from her 25 year + career in senior marketing roles.

So to save you the trouble of reading all the way to the bottom, I’m going to give you the punch-line right upfront: What’s the recipe for perfect leadership?  Well, you probably already know the answer:  there isn’t one.

But that doesn’t mean, of course, there aren’t things we can all do to improve our leadership skills and capabilities.  All leaders get it wrong, all of the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not leading, so what are they doing that inspires others to get behind them?

Someone once told me that leadership is being yourself only with more skill, and I think that’s a wonderful thought.

Human beings are innately expert at sniffing out insincerity.  The authentic leader hones and develops qualities they already have and builds on the things they are already good at.

I first found myself in a position of leadership over 25 years ago.   I was offered my dream job being appointed the youngest, and first female, Regional Director for British Airways in Africa, based in Johannesburg. It was scary, but also very rewarding.   Since then, I’ve held numerous leadership roles, mainly in the private sector working for consumer service businesses, but also in the public and not-for-profit sectors where I sit on several boards.

I’m no expert:  I make mistakes on a daily basis, but what I have learned in all the years of trying to lead well is that there is no recipe for successful leadership and what works for one situation may not help you in different circumstances. It also doesn’t matter whether you think you’re leading or not: that’s an assessment for other people to make, not you.

That said, there are some key qualities I think successful leaders draw on time and again and I’ve found there are some personal resources I have repeatedly come back to on my leadership journey:

Leaders need courage.   Courage is about not knowing what the “right” answer is, but being prepared to make a decision anyway.   Great leaders are prepared to make a decision when a decision is what’s needed and to deal with the consequences later if they’ve got it wrong, which quite often, they have.

But courage on its own is risky:  I’ve seen, even worked for, the odd “maverick” whose courage has out-stripped their other qualities and although it might be fun for a while it’s a risky way to operate, and can be destructive.  Leadership relies also on credibility.  This is a really important quality because it comprises two elements:  it’s about not only your capability and competence as a leader, but also about how others see you.

This, I think, is particularly important for those of us who may not conform to the more “traditional” view of a leader.  Although, thankfully, this image is changing, too often people still expect a leader to be an experienced gentleman of a certain age, probably wearing a suit.   If you are a woman, or a young person, or anyone who doesn’t fit that stereotype for any reason, there is a risk you are starting with a credibility gap.  Not your fault, and certainly not fair, but there are things you can do about it.

Remember what I said, though, about authentic leadership.  Trying to conform to what peoples’ mental images are is not the way to go:  trying to be something or someone you’re not is a recipe for stress and disaster. Being clear about what you’re good at, the strengths you bring to the party and the value you add is the best way to disarm any potential discrimination or prejudice based on others’ perceptions.  This is where the “skill” in being yourself comes in.

There are two other qualities great leaders have in my experience, and they fall firmly on the emotional, rather than the rational end of the spectrum.  They are curiosity, and care.

Curiosity is something we are all born with but learn at an early age to curb.   How many of us remember an adult answering our youthful question “Why?” with the rather impatient “because I said so!”? Leadership is born out of curiosity; about the world, about the art of the possible (and not-so possible) and about people.  Great leaders are driven by this and it’s in part what inspires us to get up and follow them.

The final quality is perhaps the most important:  Care.  Leadership is always founded on a deep-seated, sincere care, not just for the people in the organisation but for the organisation overall.   The leader who cares solely for status, power, position or themselves is quickly found out.   Too many “managers” go through the motions, working for organisations or causes that no longer light the fire in their belly.  These are not leaders.  True leaders can’t help but be driven by a care for what they’re working on and who they’re working with.  And that’s infectious.

So don’t go looking for a recipe or a prescription or even advice on how to be a great leader.  Don’t try to copy others, although you can learn from them, but be yourself.  Be courageous, credible, curious and full of care; be the best version of you that you can be and you will find yourself leading.   Enjoy it!

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Louise Fowler is a marketing and brand specialist and founded Davenport Strategy in 2012. Prior to this, Louise has held senior marketing roles at organisations as diverse as British Airways, Barclays and First Direct. Louise has worked in organisations within the private sector, the mutual sector and not-for-profit.

Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research which highlighted women’s under-representation in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to address this.
Dates, locations and booking for Aurora 2017-18 are available here.

 

An Interview with Lynda Hinxman

Lynda joined us in May 2017 as a guest speaker at the Aurora Core Leadership Skills day in London. We took some time to ask Lynda some questions about her career and progression into leadership.

What does leadership mean to you?

Leadership is the ability to create a clear vision and to create the environment in which people can thrive and work together to achieve the vision.

It is about building your own emotional capital in order to effectively engage with others, to motivate, empower and support.

At the start of your career, what were the biggest barriers to progression you were faced with and what one piece of advice would you give to someone aspiring to a leadership role facing similar barriers?

The single biggest barrier to progressing my early career was my lack of self-confidence. I worked in a male dominated profession and thought that I had to behave and think like a man in order to progress. I have learnt over time that it is vital to be yourself not only to allow others to get to know you and gain respect but for your own wellbeing.

How important have mentors been to you in your leadership journey?

I have had both formal and informal mentors throughout my career and find them invaluable. They have provided a safe place in which to share and reflect on feelings, thoughts and ideas. They have challenged, questioned and probed but most of all they have provided guidance – I’m not sure what the collective noun is for a group of Yodas…….but perhaps Yoda himself might say ‘a ponder of Yodas, it is!’

How important has it been for you in your career to have role models and mentors?

Role models engender inspiration and aspiration. In my experience, they have come with no hierarchy attached – my role models have ranged from my dad, male and female bosses, team members, friends to my daughter.

Do you have one golden piece of advice you would give to aspiring women leaders?

As Oscar Wilde said ‘Be yourself, everyone else is already taken’.

For me this means that you can flex your style and approach to connect best with others without losing the essence of you.

Finally, who is your inspiring woman leader?

Professor Christine Booth, former Pro Vice Chancellor of Sheffield Business School – As she was not only an inspiring business woman but fabulous at connecting with others at a professional and personal level.

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Lynda Hinxman is the assistant dean, employer engagement for Sheffield Business School at Sheffield Hallam University. Lynda is a Chartered Surveyor by profession, and prior to joining Sheffield Hallam University was a senior executive at Norwich Union Investment Management and has held senior surveying roles in the Costain Group and Shell UK.

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

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

 

An interview with Brenda Romero

Brenda Romero is a leading game designer and developer. We had the pleasure of welcoming Brenda to our Dublin Adaptive Learning Skills day as part of Aurora in May 2017

1. What does good leadership mean to you?

This is a really interestingly question. There are so many answers, many pieces of advice, and many tips that I have learned on the way. However, I keep returning to the idea of a team enjoying their journey towards a goal. They need good leadership. The leader is the person making sure that their team can do what they need to do. They know the goal. They are committed to it and excited about it. The journey is easy because obstructions have been removed and hopefully, someone is working on crisis intervention – rather than crisis management. If I can keep my team focused and motivated, we shall win. To do that, I believe I have to make sure they have everything they need, by removing anything which gets in their way.

2. At the start of your career what were the biggest barriers to progression you were faced with and what advice would you give to someone aspiring to a leadership role facing similar barriers?

Ironically, I think I was my own worst enemy. When I look back at my career, there are two key things I wish I had done differently. The first is that I should not have stayed with one, family-owned company for 20 years. This sounds fantastic, but, I would have been further ahead, if I had moved onward and upward. However, after only 10 years, I needed new teachers and new lessons so, in terms of advancement, not to mention an equity stake, my opportunities were quite limited.

Secondly, I wish I had been a better advocate for myself. I accepted things that I should not have accepted. I did not take chances. I wish I had. I feared failure. I was more concerned about what others thought rather than doing the right thing. In that way, I was my biggest barrier because I simply didn’t know any better, and I found out the right way by trial, error and introspection. Having mentors to look up to, to consult, would have been so beneficial.

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

Not everyone is going to like you: As a leader, you will make decisions that are not liked by everyone.

You may have to sack people, lay people off, or be tasked with taking something in an unpopular direction. Ultimately, I find the desire to please everyone simply has to go. I remember the first time I had to sack someone for an absolutely valid offence. There was a lot of gossip but ultimately, it comes down to these questions for me, “Did I do the right thing?” and “Was I respectful of others?” That, along with keeping an open mind, are the key things.

Failure is not the end of the world: We fail all the time. Most of our failings are not public, but I find this is something many of us fear. Generally, we fear losing something we have or not getting something we want. When I did fail publicly, it was painful agony followed almost immediately by blissful glory. Once I had failed, I didn’t feel so concerned about it. I felt more comfortable about taking chances. I don’t know exactly what I was afraid of. Humiliation? Embarrassment? The loss of respect from my peers? None of it happened.

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

Sometimes, I genuinely do not know. I don’t really have “I give up” in me. I am blessed with the experiences of my late mother and I’m still gaining experiences from my mother in law. Both women were homemakers who found themselves quite unexpectedly alone. There is nothing in either of their cases that ever displayed an example of “I give up”. They kept going because they had to. There was no other choice. That lesson continues to be an incredibly powerful one, especially when the proverbial “going gets tough” occurs. I don’t know of women any stronger than these two. You keep going because you have to. Help may come, and you may ask for it, but ultimately, you keep going. There is a way through. If you don’t know the answer, someone else does.

5. How important do you think mentors, role models and networks are in supporting women’s leadership?

Incredibly important. When you asked me about barriers earlier, I said that I was the biggest obstacle to my own advancement. Why? Because I didn’t know any better. I didn’t have anyone around me who could teach me. I didn’t even know the questions to ask. Working with someone more experienced, my husband is on his 11th start up, I have learned so much. I don’t hesitate to reach out to experts and we do a bi-weekly expert talk in our company, on topics on which employees ask for advice.

6. How can initiatives like Aurora help women and their organisation achieve their potential?

One of the most important things about Aurora is that it creates a space where like-minded people with similar goals and journeys come together – in search of a common, supportive, solution.

That’s extremely powerful. Having attended events like this in the past, there’s something formidable about being around people who are all aspiring to something greater and who want to help each other reach their goal. Working one-to-one with a mentor is incredibly powerful. Events like this multiply that power by bringing everyone together.

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

I would hand myself a box labelled “confidence,” and make myself swear not to open it. I would tell myself that you might think it’s empty now, but I’m here in the future to tell you that it’s full. It filled up when I took chances and failed, publicly or privately. It filled up when I swapped the “known but not-so-good” for the “unknown, possibly worse” or “possibly better.” It filled up when I was able to respect myself instead of relying on the opinions of others. It filled up when I realised that doing the right thing doesn’t always feel good. It filled up when I stopped worrying and started making things happen. Asking for help, admitting that someone had a better idea, giving myself the freedom to be a fool, none of these things took anything away. That’s why I’d give myself that box and make myself swear not to open it.

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Brenda Romero is a leading game designer and developer. Based in Galway, Ireland, Brenda has established two successful game companies – Loot Drop and Romero Games. She now also runs a game design course at Limerick University.

In April 2017, Brenda won a lifetime achievement award from Bafta Games Awards.

Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research that shows that women are under-represented in senior leadership positions and identifies actions that could be taken to change this.

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

 

Leadership Foundation Research Impact – Working for Wales

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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.


References

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

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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.