How effective are simulation experiences for leadership development?

One of the most effective techniques we use in our leadership development interventions is to provide leaders with a simulated environment. This challenges them to confront complex, highly interwoven performance management and operational issues. But how effective is this in practice? We spoke with Paul Hessey, Leadership Foundation associate, who leads on this activity on our Leading Departments programme for new heads of department.

How does a simulated environment work?
Based on a very realistic university scenario, this usually involves the programme participants working in groups of six along with three actors who take on the roles of stakeholders and the dean. The simulation is designed to present participants with realistic scenarios they might encounter in their day-to-day work as a head of department. This gives the facilitators the opportunity to help participants’ identify their weaknesses and strengths and enables us to offer guidance and best practice on how to approach difficult situations.

What are the three main benefits of using a simulated environment on a leadership development programme?

  1. Participants are reminded of some simple, robust and powerful theory of influence and learn the skills they need to put that theory into practice in a safe environment.
  2. Reflect and receive tailored feedback on strengths and development opportunities.
  3. Be part of a rich and diverse range of colleagues from both professional service and academic roles, and benefit from observing a wide range of approaches to influencing in action.

Have participants ever surprised you with how they reacted to this type of role playing style activity?
Our approach is more ‘real play’ than ‘role play’ because essentially the participants are experimenting with being themselves in the scenario, rather than taking on a character. In terms of being surprised by how participants react to these activities I am always taken aback by the way participants are committed to a mythical department. They really immerse themselves into the activity and come up with creative ideas and solutions. During a programme’s coaching sessions I found that many participants realised that they want and need to take a more strategic view of their role; in particular delegating more so they can take a step back to better develop and promote their own department through running events and engaging with a pool of stakeholders. These scenarios also increase their awareness of the importance of owning their professional profile and reputation.

What would you say to those who are sceptical about real playing on a leadership development programme?
Real play has an interactive approach which means participants can take a very practical look at how people communicate and influence, and then experiment with different approaches. Real play gives participants the chance to safely assess and practice an expanded range of influencing, management and leadership techniques to help them better engage their own diverse stakeholder base.

Higher education is a very unique sector. In your years of experience of working in different sectors, do you notice any similarities?
Many! People face the same challenges other sectors do in terms of politics and culture. However, in higher education people are perhaps more motivated by their desire to achieve their professional objectives rather than financial incentives. In higher education environments in particular, I’ve noticed that leaders may have less access to organisational benefits and consequences to motivate those around them. They are therefore often seeking to achieve action in their institutions by influencing others without any direct authority or power to demand action. Instead they must find a way to overcome resistance and challenge and encourage staff to buy-in and commit to the mission in a positive way. Many participants have said that they leave the Leading Departments programme feeling more equipped and confident to do exactly that.

Paul Hessey is the programme director for the Leading Departments programme, designed to develop the leadership skills of heads of department. The booking deadline is Friday 6 October, to find out more about Paul or to book onto the programme visit www.lfhe.ac.uk/leaddepts

He is also a facilitator on the Introduction to Head of Department programme for new and aspiring heads of department. The booking deadline is Friday 27 October, to find out more and book visit www.lfhe.ac.uk/ihod

Other Leadership Foundation programmes that use simulated learning environments include:

Top Management Programme: www.lfhe.ac.uk/tmp

Future Professional Directors: www.lfhe.ac.uk/fpd

Transition to Leadership: A chance encounter

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Helen Horsman, Research and Business Marketing Manager, University of Bradford attended the second year of our blended learning programme for new leaders, Transition to Leadership. In this interview she talks about her experience on the programme for those looking to develop themselves as an authentic leader.

1. What attracted you to Transition to Leadership?

It was a chance opportunity really, my manager couldn’t attend and asked me to go instead. It was perfect timing as I was just finishing my professional qualification and looking forward to using it in a more responsible role.

2. What were the 3 most valuable lesson you’ve learnt from the programme?

  • Coaching Being able to coach others is a very helpful tool for empowering others
  • Self-reflection Learning about your own styles of leadership and how they can help or hinder you and how this works with others. We all need to flex a bit, but usually have a comfort zone which is easy to slip back into. Being aware of your need to flex makes you a better leader.
  • Managing change Understanding resistance to change and the change process can help you work out how to best assist others to get through it, including yourself!

3. One element of the Transition to Leadership programme is to explore what it means to be an authentic leader. Can you share with us who you admire as an authentic leader?

I’m a huge believer in this. Nelson Mandela has, through the most terrible times, always been true to what he believes in and never veered from that path. It is tempting when becoming a leader to change who you are because of what you think other people want from you. A good leader doesn’t have to actively recruit followers, they just need to be knowledgeable, positive and passionate about what they believe in, listen to others views and change their mind when they believe it’s right, and people will follow.

4. If you were recommending this programme to your colleagues what would you tell them?

That it’s definitely worth doing for new and aspiring leaders, or established leaders who feel like they need a refresh. It will change your perspective on yourself and your staff.

5. Looking ahead, can you tell us what your 3 key leadership challenges for
2016-17?

I have quite a few changes coming up in my role where I will need to write new strategies and get people on board to deliver them. So my 3 main challenges will be to get buy-in from others, create advocates who will support and talk positively about what I’m proposing, and empower the people I need support from to deliver it.


The next run of Transition to Leadership will be in Glasgow and will be taking place through Tuesday 6 December 2016 – Tuesday 14 March 2017 over 3 face-to-face days and 16 hours of facilitated online activities. If you are interested in finding out more about our Transition to Leadership programme, please click here: www.lfhe.ac.uk/ttl 

Watch our Programme Faciltators talk about the benefits of Transition to Leadership in this 3 minute film: www.youtube.com/watch?v=vD8FaFHLHp4

Professor Bob Cryan, University of Huddersfield explores authentic leadership in his Stimulating Talk; ‘The naked vice-chancellor’ at our 10 year anniversary event in 2014. Watch his talk here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdQzmo4ckgA