Why Leadership Matters

Christine Abbott is a facilitator of Leadership Matters, the Leadership Foundation’s programme for senior women in higher education. Christine has has spent almost all her career in higher education, most recently as university secretary & director of Operations at Birmingham City University. Here she considers how women can achieve senior roles in the sector and how Leadership Matters can support this.  

It is often said that success, in any walk of life, is less about what you know, than who you know. In our now extensively connected world this is increasingly true. Nevertheless good networks alone are rarely enough. Certainly successful leadership requires the ability to engage with people, to understand their motivations, and to recognise and develop their talents. But in addition, a sound bedrock of knowledge and experience are also needed. However the work environment is now so complex, and in such a state of continuing flux, that claiming to know enough to fully understand one’s organisation can seem a fanciful statement.

The tube map of universities

Navigating the current higher education sector, or even one’s own University, can sometimes feel more like travelling in the London underground than following the A to Z. A tourist in London might go down into the tube at Marble Arch, and pop back up at Westminster, and recognise the landmarks in both locations; but they may have little idea of the route between the two places, or what sits above ground as they travel through the tunnels. In our Universities this feeling of limited understanding can become a particular concern when colleagues move from one role to another, or from one department, faculty or service area to another. Moving between institutions or gaining promotion can exacerbate that consciousness of the blocks or blind spots in our understanding.

Why Leadership Matters

The aim of the Leadership Matters course is to fill in some of those gaps in understanding and knowledge, by looking at the frameworks – the strategic, financial, and governance frameworks – within which our institutions operate. Participants on previous cohorts have often been those who have gained promotion to middle or senior management positions, which bring them, perhaps for the first time, into a broader University arena, and feel there are gaps in their understanding of how the whole University entity fits together and functions.

The programme aims to help participants to get to grips with how their University operates, how it takes critical decisions, and the financial, legal, and reputational considerations that impact upon its decisions.

Module one, which is led by Gill Ball and myself, aims to ‘humanise’ some potentially dry topics, such as funding and finance, governance and decision making. Through practical small group work there will be plenty of opportunity for hands-on learning. Module one also includes a session led by a senior woman leader from the sector, on ‘navigating the organisation’. This session links the organisational perspective with the individual and personal, and provides the bridge into the Action Learning Sets and module two.

The second module, which is led by Rachael Ross and Sally Cray, focuses more closely on how to develop the personal impact necessary to be successful as a senior woman leader.

Impact of the programme

Leadership Matters is now being run for the eighth time, and from the outset the Leadership Foundation was keen for the programme to be women-only. The programme director, Rachael Ross, and the programme leaders have discussed a number of times the rationale for this, since as concerns module one, the topics discussed, and the approaches used, are gender neutral. Our conclusion, which has been reaffirmed after each of the cohorts that we have led to date, is that the women-only aspect of the programme enables a particularly rich and reflective quality to the discussions. This is most notably the case in the Action Learning Sets, and in module two of the programme, as colleagues draw upon their personal experiences of leadership and their leadership journey. As programme director Rachael Ross says: “We find that our senior delegates value a women-only programme. They are able to deepen their understanding of these key topics in an open, reflective way, challenge themselves to “claim” their unique leadership approach, and build a supportive network of women leaders right across higher education.”

It is the blend of the broad organisational perspective with the personal that makes this programme special.

At more junior levels in one’s career, the concern is primarily to be able to provide the answers to the questions you are asked. The more senior your role, the more important it becomes to know the questions to ask, how to ask them, and to whom those questions can and should be addressed. The Leadership Matters programme is designed to help female colleagues to identify both the questions, and the audience for those questions, and so to develop their confidence and effectiveness in their leadership roles.


Leadership Matters will be taking place in  Manchester and Bristol in Winter, and Spring respectively in the next academic year. For more information and to book a place please click here.

Core stability – the journey towards work/life balance

Professor Shân Wareing is pro vice-chancellor for Education and Student Experience at London South Bank University (LSBU) and a professor of Teaching in Higher Education. She recently spoke at Aurora in London and Edinburgh about her personal experience as a senior female leader during Power and Politics. Shân has also recently spoken at Leadership Matters and Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership. Here, she reflects on her work life balance which formed part of her talk at Aurora this year.

“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives”
(Anne Dillard, quoted in Scott 2003, p80)

Like most people, there are plenty of times I don’t feel I’ve got my work/life balance right, but perhaps strangely, it was worse when I was a lecturer completing my PhD than now when I have three children and more senior job. Along the way, these are some of the ideas and habits that have helped me.

Know your purpose
To work out what balance is right for you, and how to achieve it, you need to be clear about what you want to achieve in life, what your purpose is. In one of my first jobs, a senior colleague had a poster on his wall that said “No one on their death bed wishes they’d spent more time in the office!” and I thought “Hmm, but perhaps I’ll wish I’d achieved more!”  Imagining myself in old age, reflecting on what might cause me to feel pride or regret helped me identify what mattered to me. Being very clear about what is important to you helps you allocate your time and keep things in proportion. That sense of proportion is vital to regulate our emotional response to events at work, which in my experience exact a heavy toll on me if I feel I am living out of alignment with my sense of purpose.

Planning is key
If you know where you’re heading, you can make a plan. And a plan allows you to identify the best opportunities for you, to estimate if you can take on new work without having a melt down, and to prioritise and selectively ignore things.  This is important to protect you from being buffeted by every policy whim, incident, metric, new piece of research, sector panic, and so on. Having a plan helps you spot if you are drawn off your plan too much by fire fighting. I always assume that up to 10% of each day or week will be spent in emergency unplanned reactive activity, but if it starts to increase regularly beyond 10% I need to change my plans to focus more on eliminating the causes of the fire fighting.

The 80:20 Principle
I’ll always have too much work, and probably so will you! In the endless tail of work that is never totally cleared, I have an arbitrary self-imposed cut off point. To minimise the distress of never ticking off everything on my To Do list, the 80:20 principle helps.  If 80% of the benefit comes from 20% of my work and I am fairly sure I’ve done the important 20%, I can go home a bit earlier. Looking at my To Do list regularly from an 80:20 perspective is also important to avoid the feeling that I need to be busy to feel productive. Needing to be busy is the enemy of work/life balance!

Work with and for your team
When the work suddenly piles on, it is easy to feel too busy to talk to people, and I have to fight this instinct! In a management role, and many other roles, people are the job, not an inconvenient extra. The better my team relationships, the more adept my teams are at handling their everyday work and sorting out anything unexpected, which means fewer unpleasant surprises for me. I have found I have a better work/life balance as a manager by talking and listening to my teams. Also working though others is a chance to increase their capability so a win-win for everyone. I could work five hours extra every week but it’s worth a lot less to the university than if I can enable a team of staff to be 10% more productive. To be effective, delegation needs to be in the context of purpose and planning, not random or opportunistic. The better I plan and the higher functioning my teams, the less random rubbish happens, and the earlier we all go home.

Avoid emotional leakage
A lot of stress and unnecessary work comes from emotional leakage – anxiety, fear, hostility, resentment  triggered by projects and people. Work/life balance is not just about what you choose to spend time on, it’s also about how you feel about things. As far as humanly possible it helps not to sink emotion into stuff where it can’t have any positive effect.

Be in the habit of taking care of yourself.
I noticed in pregnancy that what I ate one day had an effect on my mood the next day (protein and vegetables, good; only chocolate all day, bad), and I decided this was probably an exaggerated version of what happens anyway, so I tidied up my eating habits a bit (aiming to avoid chocolate-only days). And I also notice exercise helps my will power.  When I exercise, I’m better able to make myself do stuff I don’t want to do.

Invest in your own growth
Seek out development opportunities that take you in the direction you’re heading.  However experienced and senior you become, you never stop needing to learn. ‘Sharpen the axe’, Stephen Covey calls it.  And to lighten cognitive load (ie fewer things to think about or make decisions about), it really helps to have habits and routines. Barak Obama is reported to have said “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Look for happiness
Another tip from maternity leave and days where it seemed like nothing got done is to remember to pat myself on the back for what I have achieved, not beat myself up for what I haven’t.  Dwelling on what is good about my professional and personal life isn’t about being smug or complacent – it is a necessary exercise in order to sustain optimism for vision and planning.

I still get bad days when it all gets too much, but not so much, and falling back on these principles helps. And for the very impatient readers out there who skimmed to the end, the super-efficient version is: (1) work out what matters to you and do that; and (2) count your blessings.


Further reading
Scott, Susan (2003) Fierce Conversations. London: Piatkus
Covey, Stephen (2004) The 7 habits of highly effective people. London: Simon and Schuster

About Aurora
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 identified actions that could be taken to change this. Since Aurora began in 2013 we have welcomed 3,477 women from 139 universities and sector bodies, with 1029 women attending in 2016-17 alone.

The Aurora Conference- Thursday 7 June 2018
We are delighted to be launching our fourth Aurora conference.

Participants include, but are not limited to:

    • Aurora participants (current and alumnae)
    • Aurora champions
    • Aurora role models
    • Aurora mentors
    • People working in/leading equality and diversity

Find out more and book

Demystifying Finance – Wednesday 18 April 2018
For women in higher education who want to improve their understanding of finance in higher education and develop financial management skills.

Find out more and book

Leadership Matters
Leadership Matters is our programme for senior women leaders in higher education and will be taking place in Manchester and Bristol in Winter and Spring respectively in 2018. For more information and to book a place please click here.

Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership
Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership is one of our most highly regarded programmes. It will take place once more this academic year:

PSSL Summer
Application Deadline: 8 June 2018
Programme Dates: Tuesday 19 – Friday 22 June
Location: Manchester

In conversation with Tessa Harrison, King’s College London

Tessa Harrison is the Director of Students and Education at King’s College London. Ahead of speaking during Module 2 of Leadership Matters in November, we asked Tessa about her leadership style, being resilient, and the impact having a coach has had for her.

Tessa has spent almost 30 years in the higher education sector. She was previously the Chair of the Association of University Administrators (AUA) and spent 6 years prior to this on its board, as well as 2 years on the board of the Leadership Foundation.

Her focus is on students and improving their experience, and she has been bringing a new perspective to her work since her son became a student in October 2016.

What’s important to you as a leader?

I think for me what’s most important is absolute clarity. Clarity about my own narrative, what I am trying to achieve for my organisation and why I am trying to achieve it.

I’ve learnt over the years that having a very strong personal narrative is really fundamental and I wish I had learnt it earlier. I have found that having a strong purpose is making things easier in terms of having the conversations I need to have, and providing inspiration and guidance for my team in what can be choppy times in the sector.

I also think appointing and being motivated by the very best people is essential.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I don’t think I can label it. I think my leadership style is about coaching, recognising that people you work with are talented and that everyone comes to work to do the best job they can.  My job is to create the environment where they can be the best they can be. My leadership style is to be very open, honest, and to be a good giver of feedback. I also like receiving feedback, and have learnt over the years that having honest, reflective conversations is the best way to create a trusting workspace and to drive high performance.

What comes naturally to you as a leader? And what do you feel you have to work on?

Openness, honesty, humility and a good sense of humour come naturally to me.

What I’m working on is the challenge that when you get to a senior level that you need to recognise you are not the expert anymore. I often have days when I ask myself “what have I contributed to moving the organisation forward or moving my directorate forward?” I think making that transition from your day job being about doing things to your day job being about being a leader and enabling other people to do things can be a really hard transition to make and I think it is one we don’t pay enough attention to.  I try to work on that every day.

To tackle this leadership challenge, I have my own coach who helps me articulate the moments when I am getting in the way of others. My coach provides a safe space where I can explore what I am doing and what I think I need to be doing differently. I also try and encourage the people who report to me to be very honest with me when I am not getting it right. You will frequently hear me say to my leadership team, “I need your help with this”. I hope that this approach also helps those I work with on their journey from subject specialist to senior leadership positions to also be open and honest.

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?

I have always been quite ambitious, not in a naked ambitious way but more internally focussed. I recognised very early on that I had to move institutions in order to progress and I have done that 5 times. I was very fortunate that my family situation made that possible, and I know that it’s not always possible for others.

The advice I would give someone aspiring to a leadership role is to get yourself a coach. Find a coach who is trained in preparing you for senior leadership and to support you through the transitions you make throughout your leadership career.  A coach can also help you define and refine the personal narrative I mentioned above.

How did you find a coach, and how would you recommend others do the same?

The coach I had was made available to me by the organisation I was about to leave. I then took the opportunity when I first started at King’s College London to train to be a coach and we’re in the process of trying to imbed a coaching culture here so that there is an internal register available for staff. But there are numerous ways of procuring a coach externally, via professional bodies like AUA for example.

Managers also need to recognise that their staff getting a coach does not mean they are not getting what they need from you as a manager- it’s a very different relationship. It’s transformational having that person with you and I strongly advise anyone on a leadership journey to get one.

Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, forms part of the Leadership Matters reading list- how important is vulnerability to you as a leader?

Absolutely critical. I think vulnerability and humility are fundamental to good leadership. In the last 6-12 months I’ve really drawn on vulnerability as part of my leadership style and narrative and I can see the effect it has. It is very disarming when someone admits, “I didn’t quite get that right” or “I don’t know what to do in this situation”. I feel strongly that we need to learn to be vulnerable with each other. I think too many organisations are run by people, often but not always men, who have never learnt to be vulnerable, and that is really concerning.  I derive strength from being a woman able to bring humility and vulnerability to discussion and decision making.

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

It was when I left an organisation without a job to go to. I’ve always been the breadwinner, and that was the most terrifying moment of my life. My network absolutely wrapped its arms around me at that time and I joined King’s as a result. In the interim I had 2-3 months space where I really had time to reflect on what I wanted my contribution to be. So although it was terrifying, and I empathise with others going through the same experience, those 2-3 months were absolutely transformational for me. I came to King’s with clarity: about my role and about what I wanted to do with it and I can see and feel the difference for both myself and the people around me.

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

The experience I had before joining King’s has made me more resilient. I survived and came out stronger than before. I derive confidence from being able to ask myself, “what’s the worst that can happen?” and to be able to remind myself that even worst case situations can be rescued.

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

The one piece of advice I would give myself and women in particular is learn how to have the conversation about the terms of your contract, particularly your pay. I’ve never been good at having that conversation but I make a point now, particularly when I hire women, to say “now is your time to tell me what you really want from your pay and conditions, because you won’t have another opportunity to have this conversation”. I make sure that conversation is a comfortable conversation.

My advice is know your value and learn how to lead that conversation about what you want and expect.

Read more: we asked Tessa to review Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg


Tessa Harrison will be the keynote speaker on Day 2 of Module 2 of Leadership Matters in Birmingham.

Leadership Matters Birmingham Autumn 
Module 1: 
Tuesday 17- Wednesday 18 October (residential)
Action Learning Set: Tuesday 7 November
Module 2: Wednesday 29 – Thursday 30 November (residential)

Book your space now.

Leadership Matters will also be taking place in Manchester and Bristol in Winter and Spring respectively in the next academic year. For more information and to book a place please click here.

Reflections from Leadership Matters: supporting senior women in higher education

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.

Why Leadership Matters?

Just 18%  – or 36 – of the top 200 universities in the world have a female leader, according to the latest THE 2016-17 world university rankings, and men still overwhelmingly dominate the top leadership roles in 166 higher education institutions across the UK (Women Count: Leaders in Education 2016).

Higher education leaders work in a world where rapid cultural change is the norm rather than the exception. Understanding how our institutions are financed and governed, combined with the political savviness needed to navigate them, is essential, and the wider economic and social waves of change require a firmly grounded leadership purpose and resilience.

Women leaders have a huge amount to bring to the higher education sector and fully releasing that potential is, I believe, essential to the long-term health and sustainability of the sector.  But research shows that gender bias in organisations continues to “disrupt the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader”. (Harvard Business Review)

In the development process of Leadership Matters we listened to feedback from leaders across the sector, from our alumni and from the Aurora community. Crucially, the course had to be a safe space where women leaders could develop their own unique authentic leadership and navigate the cultural challenges they face.

As course director of Leadership Matters, the programme created two years ago to meet that need, I feel it is timely to take stock and share some thoughts about my approach and what I believe makes Leadership Matters so suited to senior women leaders.

Clear direction

Leadership Matters is a five-day programme that addresses both technical and personal leadership aims. Participants have a clear goal from the beginning, with each day serving a defined purpose. For example, day one demystifies the financial frameworks of higher education while day two focuses on governance and legal requirements. There is then an action learning set day for women to reflect on their learnings so far in a small peer group. Day four then tackles the cultural and political challenges that all leaders face, working to build participants’ confidence to navigate these in the context of a higher education institution. Finally, on day five, the focus is on participants identifying their true purpose as a leader, and confirming their own leadership identity and “narrative” or story.

As a whole, the programme provides a mix of technical and development skills, ensuring that participants leave feeling more confident in their own leadership, prepared to navigate their organisations’ culture, and equipped with real insights into their organisations’ financial and governance system.

A network of female leaders for continued learning

The programme supports learning groups that live powerfully, well beyond the limits of the programme itself, providing women with continued support as they work towards reaching the highest executive levels. At the heart of this are the Leadership Matters action learning sets, which provide women with the opportunity to build strong ties with a network of peers.

Learning from the experts

I’m proud to have brought together a multidisciplinary team of facilitators and speakers to work on Leadership Matters. Each is an expert in her own field, with deep experience in the academic world, and we all share an ambition to truly equip delegates for senior leadership.

  • Gill Ball OBE, former director of finance at the University of Birmingham
  • Christine Abbott, former university secretary & director of Operations at Birmingham City University
  • Sally Cray, an experienced Leadership and Organisational Development Specialist.

You can read more about myself and my fellow 3 facilitators here.

A personal learning environment

As the programme is designed for senior leaders who are striving to reach the very top tier of higher education, the cohort sizes reflect this. While the Aurora programme now attracts up to 250 women per cohort, Leadership Matters is designed to provide participants with a much more intimate training in cohorts of around 20 women.

Active, sustainable learning

Our job as facilitators is to find a balance between introducing some key concepts and models, allowing time to reflect, and encouraging delegates to experiment by applying the learning to their own personal and organisation context, which makes the learning sustainable well beyond the five days of the programme itself. As a result, Leadership Matters draws particularly on Kolb’s Learning Cycle, which emphasises an active learning style in which we learn from our experiences of life, and reflection is an integral part of such learning.

Leadership matters – now more than ever

“As a result of attending the programme I understand my own impact better and the action learning sets I’ve attended with other members have continued on past the programme itself, and have been invaluable.”  – Kirsteen Coupar, director of student support and employment at London Southbank University

I believe that Leadership Matters has shown itself to be an essential programme – for both women leaders and for the higher education sector as a whole. It is critical that the sector draws on all the talent and potential within its realm, to nurture and develop leaders with the vision and confidence to guide higher education through the turbulent economic and social change it is facing. Leadership Matters is helping to meet this urgent need, supporting women to strive for the highest possible levels of leadership so that they can play their part in steering their institutions to greater success.


Rachael Ross has a background in industrial relations and change management in the energy sector. She is now a leadership and diversity consultant and coach for senior leaders across all sectors. She is the course director for Leadership Matters.

Leadership Matters will be taking place in Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol in Autumn, Winter, and Spring respectively in the next academic year. For more information and to book a place please click here.