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.

 

Reflections on Aurora

The Leadership Foundation’s former International Projects Manager, Hannah Phung shares her thoughts on year one of the Aurora programme.

One of the Aurora cohorts

An Aurora year one cohort

I’ve been on personal development programmes before including a Future Leaders’ programme and I benefited from each one, but from the outset, there was something different with Aurora. I don’t know if it is because of Ginnie’s vision for it or if the idea of 200 women in a room triggered something, but I definitely wanted to participate.

I enjoyed taking part in Aurora with a group of LF colleagues. The camaraderie of going through the process together meant we shared experiences and became closer as we opened up to each other. This openness and willingness to share was a major characteristic of Aurora. It meant some of the benefit came from the presentations and speakers but most came from the experiences, knowledge, advice, support, questions and willingness to listen. Total strangers, delegates I had only just met gave to me and I could give back as we shared our challenges. I’ve not experienced such openness on a programme before. It wasn’t just at the tables we sat at or my action learning group it was wherever I was in the Aurora environment. I really did not expect such openness and bonding between strangers, especially in the space of a few hours. A culture is created in Aurora that makes this happen.

The four Aurora days were great. There were things I had learnt before, which on learning again, reinforced and ignited ideas and actions. There were also things that were new; some I have used already and some I know that I will use in the future.

I remember a message, Aurora contributor, Sue Stockdale communicated at the very first Aurora day, Identity, Impact and Voice – “Seize opportunities, if you don’t try you don’t know.” I have said this to myself before and I have acted on it before. Maybe there is something that pushes you a little bit further when you hear it regularly and hear that other people have taken that advice with success.

I saw an amazing job advertised three days before the deadline…  I had to go for it.and I am delighted to say that I got it. I got it!

As I prepared for my new role I took on Jenny Garrett’s advice about ‘experiments and risks.’ I experiment more, making small moves to push myself and prove to myself that I got this role for a reason. I wanted to walk into my new role feeling confident.

One thing Aurora gave me which I had not had on any of my previous personal development programmes was a mentor. Knowing my Aurora mentor had signed up for the role and was specifically to support me gave me real impetus. I took control and initiated the meetings. These were some of the points that I raised: “I have a big challenge coming up and feel daunted by it.” “Something has been bugging me for a while and I don’t know how to approach it now.” “I want to be more confident when…”

The mentor meetings were hard work at times but I left each one feeling positive and energised. This really was the most useful part of Aurora for me, as it gave me time to think about the specifics and have the support of someone who was there to work with me to apply who I am and what I have learnt from Aurora and beyond, to my specific situations and aspirations.

Attending Aurora allowed me to step away from my desk and be selfish. A cornucopia of information and inspiration filled every Aurora day and related activity. Like a cross between the Charlie & the Chocolate Factory characters Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt I took and took; from speakers, from participants and from my mentor, and I hope I gave as generously as I had taken.

The reality is that I don’t know how much of Aurora contributed directly or even indirectly to my getting the job, but I do know I will be using lots of the things I have  learnt from it for many years to come.

Hannah Phung is Project Manager (Museography) Zayed National Museum at The British Museum, a role that she took up in June.

Aurora year two begins next week and will be taking place in London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Sheffield, use this link for more information: Aurora

Women and change in higher education: so what’s new?

By Dr Diane Bebbington
Graduation

Activity appears to be burgeoning both here and abroad aiming to challenge gender inequality in higher education. This is in spite of the fact that women now make up just over half of all undergraduates globally and university workforces are diversifying through knowledge globalisation and the cross-national transference of professionals engaged in academic research. It is remarkable that women are still so poorly represented in the most powerful, decision-making positions of institutions of higher education.

Last week, the universities of Durham and Newcastle hosted a conference Women and Change In Higher Education: Culture and Careers and in June a conference in Brussels – Gender Summit Europe 2014 will convene experts from all over the European Union from research, industry and policy to look at gender in research evidence. A key aim will be to look at how Horizon 2020, the current €80bn funding programme of the European Commission will, under article 15, ‘ensure the effective promotion of gender equality and the gender dimension in research and innovation content’.

So what’s being done? Women are well-represented at undergraduate level in medicine but few make it into professorial positions. By implementing the national Programme for Women Professors and the Pro Exzellenzia Programme, the University Medical Centre Hamburg, Germany, aims to support women’s career prospects through a variety of activities such as providing incentives for organisational change, allocating research time to women doctors and providing personal development through mentoring.

The Leadership Foundation’s Aurora programme is targeted at academic and professional women working in UK universities and seeks to enable them to engage with leadership development at an early stage in their careers. The programme, with four cohorts in Glasgow, Bristol, London and Manchester, has been hugely popular. 580 women have signed up from 100 higher education institutions, well up on the numbers expected and plans are now afoot to run Aurora in Northern Ireland.

Clearly momentum is gathering and two themes emerge from much of the debate. The first is the need to reach out to all women regardless of their differences and the other is to look far more critically at how inequality is perpetuated by the system. Data on women are still rarely disaggregated by race, disability or other ‘differences’. There is much talk about childcare but this often overlooks the experiences of women who are not mothers, but still shoulder the burden of work in the home. When it is reported that 17% of university leaders are women, to which women does this refer? By failing to analyse and publish data in finer detail, women who differ on account of race, disability, and other differences, are effectively being marginalised. Progress can only be made when all efforts to bring about change are truly inclusive.

The second theme is around organisational change. The tendency is to focus on women through developing their leadership potential rather than transforming the organisations in which they work. Rarely is the spotlight turned on those who occupy positions of privilege, yet ironically it is those in such spaces – the leaders of higher education – who are called upon to tackle inequalities. Paradoxically, we are asking a leadership that is relatively homogeneous to champion equality. How much change is likely to happen?

Dr Diane Bebbington is the Leadership Foundation’s diversity advisor.

Inspiring Women

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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.