The art of being strategic

Doug Parkin, programme director, reflects on the Strategic Dialogue learning activity in module three of the Future Professional Directors Programme. This year the participants were joined by Professor Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton; David Relph, director at Bristol Health Partners; Justine Andrew, director, public sector at KPMG; and Helen Lloyd Wildman, chief operating officer NMITE (during FPD consultant at Royal Agricultural University) and formerly an army lieutenant colonel.

Our Future Professional Directors (FPD) programme, for aspiring leaders of professional services from all areas of an institution, is transformational by design. From the outset, we developed the programme to ensure learning would take place in a range of experiential activities and active inquiry processes.

A great example of this is the Strategic Dialogue, the centrepiece learning activity on the third and final module of the programme. This module is focused on strategy but, rather than take participants through the received wisdom on strategic planning, we focus instead on the art of ‘being strategic’.

Exploring strategic thinking

So, what does it mean to ‘be strategic’?

This question, at the heart of the Strategic Dialogue session, is explored through four different sector perspectives – higher education, health, commercial and the armed forces. The topic is brought to life by four excellent contributors, each a senior figure with strong experience in one of these worlds, who take ‘how to lead strategic engagement’ as the central theme of their presentations.

In the Future Professional Directors programme’s Strategic Dialogue, the contributors present their perspective and are then interviewed by the FPD small groups of participants. By the end of the session each participant group has created their own unique model for strategic engagement.

The bigger picture

For the participants, having the space and time to ‘lift their heads up’ from the day to day issues they face and take a broader look at how their role fits into the whole organisation – and their own responsibility for strategy development and engagement – is a crucially important part of the session says Justine Andrew.

One of the key learning goals is “getting folk to understand what strategic means and stressing that we shouldn’t be undertaking any tasks that do not contribute to the achievement of the corporate strategy,” remarks Helen Lloyd Wildman.

Nick Petford also emphasises the need in uncertain times to understand the importance of differentiating between long-term planning and strategy. Universities should develop a clear and concise single strategic document (in contrast to a myriad of sub strategies), supported by a business or operational plan designed for flexibility. The days when institutions could set a point on the horizon and expect to sail towards it without being quickly blown off course are gone for most of us.

He draws attention to the powerful link between institutional values and strategy: “there are different ways to think about strategy in a complex institution and institutional values are the fundamental building blocks of strategic thinking.”

The active nature of the session brings to life the dynamic nature of strategy and the fact that engaging people in strategic conversations is at least as important as strategy itself: this is indeed the art of ‘being strategic’ in an organisation.

Engaging professional service staff

These vital strategic conversations must be opened up early and widely. For Nick Petford, “professional service staff are key to the successful running of our universities and need to be engaged at all levels of the strategic planning process”.  Through early engagement, professional service leaders can build up a ‘coalition of the willing’ which pays dividends in the future.

Sharing knowledge

The essence of the Strategic Dialogue session is a powerful opportunity for participants to compare and contrast the challenge of strategic engagement by using the stimulus of four very different perspectives and the opportunity to probe the strategic mind-sets of successful senior leaders.

The spirit of learning around the session is energising, profound and mutually shared, which also offers deep learning opportunities for the presenters as well as the participants.

For the sector more broadly, the programme develops professional service leaders who are confident with strategic engagement and their own authentic mode of ‘being strategic’.


Future Professional Directors takes place over nine months and includes three residential modules, two action learning sets, an online environment to support continuous learning, and a 360-degree diagnostic.

Future Professional Directors is for professional service leaders from all areas of the University who have demonstrated strong leadership potential

Applications for Future Professional Directors are now open. The application deadline is Friday 23 February 2018.

Winning the inner game!

andy murray 2

Imagine being the best you could possibly be!
By Doug Parkin

A piece about you and your potential – based on a short masterclass delivered at the AMOSSHE Annual Conference, Imagine, Liverpool 2013.

How often have you seen the line “creating an environment where students and staff can achieve their full potential”? It’s a great aspiration, that’s for sure, but what does it really mean and can it ever be possible? Well, we are all born with an innate capacity to learn, a sort of learning instinct, a playful spirit of enquiry and curiosity about who we are and how the world works, and this should never be underestimated, but as we progress through life blocks and barriers arise which limit and obscure the potential that lies within us. We are bruised by often brutal experiences in both work and education and we start to limit ourselves and the service we offer others in ways that are both conscious and unconscious.

So, how can we start to win this inner game? Back in 1975 Timothy Gallwey in his wonderful book The Inner Game of Tennis put forward in the form of an equation the simple but fascinating proposition that

POTENTIAL – INTERFERENCE = PERFORMANCE

This proposition challenges us to change our focus and our thinking. Rather than trying to push performance or naval-gaze at potential, it invites us instead to focus on the interference that inhibits the former and blocks the latter. Remove the interference and the other two can flow together. This can be a personal quest, a valuable piece of self-discovery, but it can also be the basis for an approach to leadership: liberating leadership which aims to set potential free by focussing on interference and which uses empathy, compassion and passion to move towards a more fully engaged workplace and learning environment.  Continue reading