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.

The 7 leadership blog posts of 2017

As part of our 12 leadership days of Christmas campaign, we are pleased to release our 7 leadership blog posts of the year.

Take some time out this festive season to read some of your colleagues’ favourite blogs of the year and take the opportunity to start thinking about the next steps in your leadership development.

You can follow the campaign by using the hastag #LF12Days 

1. Top 12 things those new to higher education need to know

Rita Walters, marketing and communications coordinator, Leadership Foundation shares the insights from colleagues at the Leadership Foundation on what they believe are the key messages for those new to higher education.

2. Connected leadership: connecting people with purpose
Doug Parkin and Rebecca Nestor explore connected leadership and its applications to the Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership programme.

3. 8 ways to be a better role model

We asked our Aurora facilitation team: Vijaya Nath, Phyllida Hancock, Rosemary Stamp, Rebecca Nestor, Jenny Garrett and Maeve Lankford how to be a good role model. Based on their experience of facilitating Aurora these insights will help you make the most of your experience and be the best role model you can be.

4. Our mentorship journey: Karen Twomey and Val Cummins
Karen Twomey is a Researcher at Tyndall National Institute, Cork who took part in Aurora in Dublin in 2014-15. Karen chose, Val Cummins, Senior Lecturer at University College Cork to be her mentor for the duration of the programme and the relationship continues to this day. We asked Karen and Val to reflect on their relationship as a mentee and mentor.

5. Coaching: The advice I would give my younger self
Jean Chandler, programme director of Transition to Leadership, shares her thoughts on coaching as a skill set, approaches to leading others, and her own leadership lessons.

6. Reflections from Leadership Matters

Rachael Ross is the course director of Leadership Matters, the Leadership Foundation programme for senior women in higher education. Two years on from its inception, Rachael reflects on why the programme is needed and how it was developed.

7. Up for a challenge: self-directed group learning for leaders

If our role as educators of adults is to enhance their capacity for self-directed learning, how does that apply to leadership development training? Doug Parkin, director of the Leadership Foundation’s Future Professional Directors programme, reflects on his experience of designing transformational self-directed group learning activities for leaders.

Let us know your favourite via Twitter #LF12Days or in the comments below.


You can read more of the Leadership Foundation blogs here. 

The full list of programmes at the Leadership Foundation can be found here. 

Sustainable change: moving from driven to organic approaches

Doug Parkin, programme director, reflects on the live case study that is one of the centrepiece learning activities on the Future Professional Directors Programme.  The case study contributed by the University of Hertfordshire in March this year captured the essence of co-inquiry as a process for engagement and change. 

With thanks to Gill Sadler, Head of Planning, Development and Change at the University of Hertfordshire for her input and support.

People don’t resist change, they resist being changed (something done to them)Peter M Senge.

Terms like ownership, having a voice, creating buy-in and personal investment will be familiar to many leaders who have considered what it means to create staff engagement with organisational change. Likewise, through their own experience or the wisdom of others, they will have reflected on the importance of high quality communication outlining the need for change, the purpose of change, the benefits of change and the process through which change will be achieved. Often these reflections are framed ‘in absentia’ where either the lack of engagement or the poverty of communication caused the change initiative to falter or fail. And these menu-like observations regarding the ingredients for leading successful and sustainable change, including engagement, communication and having a compelling vision, have become well established in the change literature. For example, in 1996 John Kotter identified undercommunicating as ‘Error #4’ in the thinking which gave rise to his well-known 8-Step Change Model:

“Without credible communication, and a lot of it, employee’s hearts and minds are never captured.”

However, this methodology of change can feel very driven. These steps or stages can come across as leadership imperatives that are ‘done to others’ within a system. The leader (or leadership group) develops a vision, communicates, creates buy-in, develops a sense of ownership, looks to highlight early signs of progress, and so on. It is, perhaps, questionable how well such ‘driven’ approaches work in collaborative environments with committed teams and empowered individuals, such as the modern university context. Do we need a more organic approach that is about co-creating change? Do we need engagement to be the very means by which change takes place rather than something leaders strive for within a more abstract process? And if change is to be about culture as well as systems and structures, then is a more organic, engagement-driven approach essential?

The Leadership Foundation’s Future Professional Directors (FPD) programme aims to support the development of leaders who can not only thrive in a culture of change but also work collaboratively with diverse communities of colleagues to develop collective commitment, shared purpose and new and enhanced ways of working together. Key ideas relating to this approach are:

  • Co-inquiry – The principle of working “‘with’ rather than ‘on’ people”
  • Collaborative engagement“The key to collaborative engagement… is to bring people together and ask good questions”
  • An appreciative spirit“We need to discover the root causes of success rather than the root causes of failure”
  • Being at ease with complexity – Containing “the anxiety of creative activity in the midst of… complexity”

The live case study

To explore these ideas actively and have a hands-on experience of this approach we have introduced a live case study as the centrepiece for the first three-day residential FPD module. An unfolding inquiry process is used to work with the university team contributing the case study.  It is a ‘live’ case study because it is real, still active in the institutional context concerned and has further stages to run, and levels of complexity to scale as a change initiative. This year, in March 2017, the live case study was generously contributed by the University of Hertfordshire based on their highly innovative Engagement Driven Approach to Process Improvement (EDA).  The case study was led by Gill Sadler, Head of Planning, Development and Change, with colleagues from the University of Hertfordshire’s Improvement and Change Team and other colleagues from across the university who had been active participants in and champions of the EDA.

In outline, the learning process for the live case study follows a reflective structure that combines both looking back and projecting forwards. The shorter ‘looking back’ phase, focussed on the story so far, is an opportunity for the group to explore things like the strategic context, drivers for change, different organisational perspectives and key decisions.  Most of the time is then spent on the ‘projecting forwards’ phase. The FPD participants work with the live case study team on three questions or themes identified by the team in advance that open up an active inquiry into the future of the project or initiative and particularly next steps. Working in teams, the final stage of the exercise involves the FPD participants presenting back to the live case study team their impressions, recommendations and challenges. Alongside the exercise, we invite participants to reflect on the idea of internal consultancy as part of the skills-set for enabling transformational and sustainable change using collaborative engagement. In one sense, the live case study could be regarded as a piece of collaborative consultancy.

An engagement driven approach

What was exceptional about the live case study this year was the close fit between the University of Hertfordshire’s change initiative and the process and principles we were using. Gill Sadler summarises the engagement driven approach as:

“An approach to process improvement within Higher Education that focuses on people, taking differing perspectives seriously, in an iterative process of improvement to enhance both individual and organisational capability. Key to its success is early and ongoing engagement with staff not as stakeholders but as full members of the improvement team.

The approach brings people together at the beginning of a project and encourages their involvement throughout. It focuses on facilitating discussion, raising awareness of processes, improving communications and building relationships.”

Within the live case study exercise, this close alignment between what we were exploring, an approach to change based on collaborative engagement, and the style of learning activity we were using to engage with it (also collaborative engagement) created a real sense of excitement. The learning itself became very deep, highly energised and multi-layered.  Everything became about engagement, from the questions the FPD participants asked and the way they asked them through to the detailed narratives the Hertfordshire team were able to share. There was, for example, something fascinating and liberating about the way Hertfordshire had defined engagement based on four levels:

  • Attraction – to interest
  • Involvement – to draw in
  • Connection – to bring together
  • Bond – to build relationships (Ibid.)

As the FPD participants discovered, through the examples shared, these levels were used as references in the selection of engagement practices for different change projects.

Considering the involvement of senior leaders, it was also valuable to reflect on the role of effective sponsorship for the success of an engagement driven initiative:

“We found that strong, visible and accessible sponsorship was essential for the success of an engagement driven project. By demonstrating active commitment to engagement, sponsors set the tone and mood of the review.” (Ibid.)

Mutual learning

A key premise for the live case study is mutual learning. It is a purposeful approach which should benefit the live case study team as much as it does the course participants. Reflecting on this after the event, Gill Sadler made the following observations regarding the Hertfordshire team’s experience of the exercise:

“The case study provided us with a safe environment away from the pressures and distractions of `business as usual’ to review the way in which we use our approach to change. By bringing to the event both members of the change team and colleagues affected by engagement driven change, we benefitted again from those different perspectives on which the approach is based.  We had a unique opportunity to reflect on our `elephants in the room’ – those tricky issues that we knew were there but which we had been unable or unwilling to address! The FPD participants provided innovative and diverse ideas on how we can move forward.  Free consultancy – what’s not to like!”

Learning points and take-aways

In terms of specific learning points, take-aways, new insights and realisations that the Hertfordshire team gained to apply to both current and future initiatives, Gill highlighted the following:

  • The case study emphasised what we already knew – the engagement driven approach takes time and commitment but is well worth the investment.
  • The approach needs all players to remain engaged through what may be a lengthy process; this sustained engagement must be supported and resourced.
  • The case study reminded us that the model is not suitable for all change situations. For example, where change must be delivered quickly or there are fixed parameters (such as legislative change or cost reductions), it is difficult to apply the model in full. However, elements and principles of the approach may still help to progress such change.
  • Early engagement with a committed sponsor is essential and the sponsor must remain visible, engaged and committed through the process.
  • Project boundaries must be clear with `red lines’ open and transparent but flexibility is essential if significant issues emerge which challenge the scope.
  • Participants will develop trust in the process if any issues can be raised and recorded. If those issues are in scope they must be considered, if they’re not, they will be captured and redirected or addressed at a later date. Trust grows if participants see their views and comments are not being ignored.
  • Senior managers need support in hearing what may be tough messages. People watch the way managers respond to these messages and see it as evidence of the culture of the organisation.
  • Communication is key – a range of channels must be made available for comment, including confidential ones. The wider change team must be kept informed, even when there may not be much progress to report.
  • The case study reminded us that an organisation must always be aware of the impact change has on service delivery. Few organisations have the luxury of isolating or suspending a service whilst change happens.

Using engagement organically as the very means by which change takes place is the key to the engagement driven approach or people-powered change. It is not only empowering, energising and interactive, it also draws people into strategic thinking, and uses them as a resource to re-imagine or co-create the future. It brings change leadership out from behind closed doors and makes it an active and involving part of organisational life, and it is also a key means of sharing leadership.


Doug Parkin is the programme director for the Future Professional Directors programme at the Leadership Foundation. He also runs a number of other bespoke and core programmes, in addition to international projects. 

Gill Sadler is the Head of Planning, Development and Change at the University of Hertfordshire. In 2016 she produced a report on a practice-based project funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the Higher Education Funding Council for England Innovation and Transformation Fund: Engagement driven approach to process improvement.

Applications for Future Professional Directors are now open
Application Deadline: 
Friday 23 February 2018
Module 1: 
Wednesday 21 – Friday 23 March 2018
Webinar: 
Friday 20 April 2018
360 Day: 
Tuesday 22 May 2018
Action Learning Set 1: 
Wednesday 23 May 2018
Module 2: 
Tuesday 3 – Wednesday 4 July 2018
Action Learning Set 2: 
Thursday 6 September 2018
Challenge Group Submission Deadline: 
Friday 12 October 2018
Module 3: 
Thursday 15 – Friday 16 November 2018

The Brexit Blogs: To see ourselves as others see us

LeadImageTW
The map/model is not the reality

Doug Parkin, programme director considers self-awareness as the foundation of leadership development.

Sometimes leadership and management development can feel like a checklist of overlapping skills. We look at things like communication skills, managing conflict, planning, negotiation, performance management, strategy development, political awareness, team dynamics, equality and diversity, change, and so on.  All useful headings, and under each there are valuable things to know, insights to gain and skills to acquire, practise and reflect upon.

But the simple truth is, in leadership who you are drives everything. Not in a confining way, a way that says, ‘you are this and this alone’, but actually a very sophisticated way that acknowledges firstly that to “Know thyself” (a variously attributed maxim from ancient Greece) is a life-long quest, and secondly that we are very adaptive creatures capable of re-inventing ourselves to varying degrees to meet the needs of different situations.

The real skill of leadership development is, therefore, to encourage, promote and support intense self-reflection. This applies particularly to what might be termed personal leadership development, which revolves around the critical question “what sort of leader do you want to be?” Self-knowledge and self-perception is, of course, a big part of self-awareness – nobody knows our personal history better than ourselves, for example – but without some external reference points the perspective this gives us can become quite narrow.  A mirror or two may be needed, in other words, to see sides of ourselves that are otherwise obscured or sometimes conveniently disregarded. And in one way or another those mirrors take the form of feedback.

 O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

Never most noted for his contribution to management consultancy, Robert Burns (1786) nevertheless captured in this line of poetry the essence of 360-degree feedback. I can feel literary scholars wincing as I write, so let’s move on…

Daniel Goleman (1996), in his well-known model of emotional intelligence, defines self-awareness as “Knowing one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and goals – and their impact on others”.  And emotionally intelligent leaders are people who seek feedback all the time – a variety of external checks and reference points – because they appreciate the mirror this holds up for them and the productive self-reflection that it triggers.

The challenge of effective leadership development is, in many ways, to telescope this process, and thereby create a rich variety of feedback perspectives in a relatively short time scale, and a safe, forgiving space in which to reflect upon them and consider what behaviours to adapt and personal leadership changes to commit to. More extended leadership programmes, incorporating interventions such as coaching and action learning, create review points for these commitments to be refreshed and reinforced. The following figure captures the opportunities for feedback and self-reflection that can occur on well-designed leadership development programmes:

Image one

In an illuminating chapter called ‘When do we get to do feedback?’ Professor Paul Gentle (2014) notes “How rare it is to give and receive extensive and specific feedback on our behaviours”.  Simulation activities and similar structured exercises on programmes create an opportunity for ‘feedback in the moment’. This is feedback that is immediate and which participants can respond to in real time, and it is also an opportunity for colleagues to consider and practise sharing feedback and the appreciative environment that invariably helps to make feedback land effectively. These are transferable leadership approaches that can be used for feedback in teams or projects.

360-degree feedback (or multi-source feedback) tools, particularly those premised on a model of transformational leadership such as the Real World HE TLQ used exclusively by the Leadership Foundation, are a powerful way of making feedback from a participant’s institutional work context part of their tailored development. This feedback is sensitive and confidential to the individual and so one-to-one support from an accredited coach is essential to integrate the learning and align it with other development themes within the programme overall.

Personality-based diagnostics or psychometrics of various kinds attempt to provide an objective view of personality type on an individual basis. This is an opportunity to consider what lies beneath our behaviours, choices, preferences and motivations on an individual level. It is an important part of self-awareness to consider the psychological drivers that reasonably consistently manifest themselves in who we are and how we prefer to live, work and operate in the world. Inevitably, though, the use of any such tool involves using categories and dimensions – spectrums on which we are more or less inclined to see ourselves. Whether it is four, sixteen, or a hundred-plus categories that the tool renders, it is still a simplification because every individual is gloriously unique, but there can nevertheless be great value in exploring the truth within such a diagnostic profile.  And ‘exploring the truth’ is an important mindset to have, because ultimately we are the best judges of our type, even though diagnostic tools can challenge us and help to provoke fresh self-insight (as well as providing us with a short-hand vocabulary for discussing and considering personality – our own and others’). So, whether one uses the four temperaments from ancient times (Hippocrates and Galen), or their more recent cousins found in the work of Carl Jung (Personality Types, 1921), Myers and Briggs (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ([MBTI], 1943), Merrill and Reid (Personal Styles, 1981),  Costa and McCrae (The Big Five, 1985) Margerison and McCann (Team Management System, 1995), or Bolton and Bolton (People Styles at Work, 1996), a learning environment needs to be created that enables the participant to mediate the data from their profile with their own self-awareness and, critically, other forms of experience and feedback. No one mirror can show every view.

There can be concern with some of these diagnostic profiles, such as MBTI, that the dimensions that operate within them create something of an ‘either-or’ approach to classifying people: e.g. introvert or extravert (although ambiversion has been put forward more recently to suggest a balance of the two).  Jung himself said, however, that “There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extravert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum” (1957), and this is why the notion of ‘preference’ (or tendency) is so important to the understanding and use of type. Preferences can be weak or strong, they can be hidden or apparent, they can be more or less balanced, but very few of us are trapped or confined by our preferences. As mentioned before, we are sophisticated beings and can learn to operate or excel within, outside or across our type-preferences, but it is nevertheless powerful and useful, particularly for leaders, to have a strong self-awareness of what those underlying preferences are or may be and to calibrate this with feedback from others on how they see and experience us.

Used alone or in isolation personality-based diagnostics can sometimes be of more limited value, and can for some feel like either labelling or a simplistic categorisation.  For this reason, the quality of facilitation or coaching around their use is extremely important, and as regards leadership development it is important to use them in combination with other forms of feedback and self-appraisal (see figure above), as we do at the Leadership Foundation on programmes such as Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership and Future Professional Directors. As illustrated in the lead image above, the map is not reality, it is to some degree a selective representation, and the nature of a management, communication or personality model is that it should create a tool for penetrating the complexity of the intrapersonal and the interpersonal in a useful way. The person who can most effectively ‘explore the truth’ around the model is the individual concerned – they determine ultimately their ‘best fit’ – and for this reason self-appraisal needs to be as strong, if not stronger than the evaluation by others, and this should be a balanced part of the process of developing and enhancing self-awareness for leaders. But the insights that flow from this can transform leadership like nothing else.  After all, you can’t be true to others until you are true to yourself.

Doug Parkin is a programme director for the Leadership Foundation and is responsible for a range of open programmes – including Future Professional Directors, Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership and Leading Transformation in Learning and Teaching (in collaboration with the Higher Education Academy). He also undertakes bespoke consultancy assignments for universities and works on some of our main international projects. Key interests include educational and research leadership, the leadership of professional services, strategy development, organisational change and leadership for sustainability.

Picture credits
Photograph of Lego Big Ben courtesy of London Mums Magazine
Photograph of Big Ben courtesy of Wikimedia Commons