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.