Research impact: the importance of effective research management

Tunnel Image

Striving to achieve impact from academic research may appear to be a wholly good thing, but how research leaders and managers interpret what impact means is vital to ensuring they can generate outstanding impact. Catherine O’Connell, lecturer, Liverpool Hope University, asks whether current formulaic interpretations of research impact have a limited, rather than enabling, effect on higher education institutions.

The introduction of research impact to the Research Excellence Framework 2014 prompted significant consternation in the academic community at the time. For some it was perceived as an erosion of academic freedom and increased government control of research agendas. However, a cautious optimism has been evident in some quarters on the potential to broaden the concept of research excellence in a constructive way. The Million+ group, in its response to the Stern Review consultation, indicated that the process would be ‘valuable even if no funding decisions were associated’. The importance of this policy formulation is emphasised by newer universities in recognising and supporting a broader range of applied and translational research, and increased attention paid to delivering on universities’ civic duties. Even more telling is the recently announced decision by Hefce to increase the weighting of impact from 20% in 2014 to 25% in 2021.

So, how do higher education leaders and managers make strategic decisions on how to identify, nurture and select impact examples from research? And how could the Leadership Foundation contribute?

Tunnel vision

Research conducted by Watermeyer & Hedgcoe mid-way through the last REF cycle (2009-2014) highlighted local responses to impact policy in research-intensive institutions. They observed a tendency to frame impact around the activities of individual (and commonly senior-level) academics which can affect the level of resources and support available for earlier career academics in impact-related activities. Watermeyer also identified a tendency among academics to interpret impact in relation to interactions with government, reflecting ‘a rather one-dimensional form of impact as emergent from interactions with a singular research beneficiary/user’. For example policymakers, who are only one specific type of beneficiary from academic research, overlooking industry, public, private and voluntary sectors, as well as the higher education sector itself.

Panoramic view

What is needed is a more critical debate around what impact means, how it can be supported and how broadening the definitions, mechanisms and support for impact planning can ultimately enhance research impact for public and institutional good. The Leadership Foundation has published research on a data mining exercise of impact from REF case studies on leadership, governance and management, which has informed the development of a toolkit. The toolkit aims to assist research leaders, managers and individual researchers to develop an embedded and strategic approach to research impact, covering a broad spectrum of impact areas to enable different staff groups and stakeholders to coordinate their approach to impact. One such tool (Tool 8, Anticipating the horizon of possible benefits) stimulates thinking about where impact might occur across a whole spectrum of categories – from Culture to Policy, and Technology to Environment – and uses prompt questions to discern the nature of such potential impact.

Analysis of the 46 impact case studies in my area of higher education -focused educational research demonstrated greater diversity of impact activities than anticipated by earlier research. There is only limited information in the public domain on those studies which achieved 3 and 4* but, of the case studies where grading can be determined, several reflected pedagogic research and impact strategies aimed at broader policy communities.

Why the narrow face?

To understand this better, I have interviewed academics who have suggested that instead of a broad interpretation of impact, a more formulaic response to impact was described in many cases which seemed to prioritise particular forms of research (based on prevailing hierarchies of research reputation) and effectively narrow the parameters of national REF impact policy:

My university wants impact supported only by 3 or 4 star research – I think that’s a mistake. 

Several interviewees, in senior academic positions, reflected on the advice they were inclined to pass on to early career researchers; effectively to advise against pursuing particular forms of research, such as research conducted with policy communities rather than policy makers. The disenchantment expressed was troubling and reflected largely negative experiences of local management of REF impact policy:

So we’ve got this mad game playing now where you start to decide what is and what isn’t impact in quite draconian ways…  so they’re already starting to be shaped up and crafted, and then anything else that’s outside those case studies, whether it has impact or not, it doesn’t really matter because they’re not important…

Impact leadership to enable

Impact brings a new element to research evaluation policy that gives conceptual and managerial space for interpretation. The Leadership Foundation 2014 report ‘Academic leadership: changing conceptions, identities and experiences in UK higher education’ emphasises the qualities of management and leadership sought by the academic community: of enabling environments which can nurture the next generation of researchers; fostering academic citizenship and reflecting different ways of making a contribution. Potentially, impact can value a broader range of research activities and give recognition to different types of research contribution. In the Research Leader’s Impact Toolkit, emphasis is placed upon the importance of understanding context, engagement and collaboration at an institutional and research team level.

However, the formulaic and normative interpretations of REF impact policy identified in several organisational contexts suggest that impact policy is having a limiting rather than enabling effect. There are clear challenges but also opportunities at organisational level in responding to this indicator constructively and in defining institutional policy responses which foster inclusion rather than exclusion within the academic community.

As highlighted in my study, in some organisations impact policy is being interpreted in ways that resonate with, and build upon, academics’ research practices in departmental and faculty contexts:

I actually became quite a fan. I thought it was something significant and important and it brought to light some of the research people were doing that was having really significant effect in people’s lives […]  That kind of research hasn’t necessarily been valued.

Having a critical debate to develop and define local impact policies and practices, from the strategic to the operational, can be an important first step in this journey – and resources like the Research Leader’s Impact Toolkit will be a valuable companion.

Catherine O’Connell is a Lecturer in Education Studies at the Centre for Education and Policy Analysis, Liverpool Hope University.

Find out more about our Research Leader’s Impact Toolkit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/RIT

Download Dr Elizabeth Morrow’s report on The Impact of Higher Education Leadership, Governance and Management Research: Mining the 2014 Research Excellence Framework Impact Case Studies: www.lfhe.ac.uk/Morrow5.2

Bringing something to the (coffee) table: the mutual benefits of sponsorship

Participants on the Diversifying Leadership Programme are assigned a career sponsor. In this post, programme director Jannett Morgan reflects an early sponsorship encounter.

When a senior leader invited me to “go for a coffee”, little did I know it would be the beginning of a fruitful and long-lasting sponsorship relationship. I met “Kevin” (not his real name) many years ago while on a career development programme for aspiring BME leaders. I was a young(ish) ambitious manager in a successful further education college and highly respected by my colleagues. Kevin was one of the keynote speakers, clearly someone with clout in the sector. And unbeknown to me, I was on Kevin’s radar, hence the coffee invitation.

We would meet up every once in awhile in the foyer of a local hotel. While our meetings were informal in nature, there was always an underlying business brief. I learned to appreciate Kevin’s directness and his desire to discover what made me tick. At first glance one might think a white male and black female had little in common, but our love of family, passion for teaching and belief in social justice revealed similar values. The fact I’m a Spurs fan and he supports that other North London team could have been a deal breaker but we’ve managed to work through this. So far.

As our relationship evolved, Kevin began inviting me to senior-level business meetings and (knowing I was someone who could deliver results) putting my name forward for work. He also invited me to leaving drinks and other social functions – a fascinating study of how leaders behave when off duty.

Sponsorship is not mentorship

Back then I’d not heard the term ‘sponsor’ applied in this way. Mentoring is one of, if not the most favoured development activities offered to BME and other minority ethnic staff groups. Certainly, mentoring from a senior member of staff can be effective in terms of boosting confidence and career upskilling –  a bit like having your own personal Master Yoda at work. So what’s the difference? Sponsorship can be more of a career game changer than mentorship because the sponsor uses his (or her – usually his) influence and power to open doors for you. For me, the spoils of sponsorship to date include visibility, more lucrative contracts and access to a much wider network of associates.

BME staff tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored. And yet, a study by the Center for Talent Innovation found employees from ethnic minorities who had sponsors were two-thirds more likely than their unsponsored peers to be satisfied with their career progression rate. Sponsorship doesn’t just benefit the protégé, either. What’s in it for the sponsor? Well, Kevin’s interest in me wasn’t based on altruism; the return on his ‘investment’ in me was my technical expertise, cultural capital and operational capacity. Most of all, he knew I was a loyal and trustworthy colleague.

For this reason, participants on the Diversifying Leadership Programme have the opportunity to work with a sponsor and develop a mutually rewarding ‘quid pro quo’ relationship. Like the one I continue to enjoy with Kevin.

Actually, Kevin and I are due another coffee very soon. Given Spurs are ahead in the table, I guess I’m buying.

The Leadership Foundation has published a Sponsor Toolkit for use by senior leaders in UK higher education who are sponsoring participants on the Diversifying Leadership. Diversifying Leadership offers targeted leadership development support to early career BME academics and professional services staff.  The Sponsor Toolkit is available at www.lfhe.ac.uk/DLSponsorToolkit

For details of the next run of the Diversifying Leadership Programme click here

Do university leaders really understand how they are creating value in their universities?

In advance of the Leadership Foundation’s announcement of the universities that will be taking part in the new Integrated Thinking and Report project, Kim Ansell, managing consultant, sets out why the time has never been so important for getting to grips with creating and communicating value. 

Setting out long-term plans in the face of sector-wide turbulence is a challenge for every executive team and it is clear that given very recent government policy commitments, many of the assumptions underpinning institutional strategies have to be revisited, even if they were written as recently as a year ago.

These strategies are often being pursued in isolation without a real understanding of the wider risks and potential to destroy rather than create value. At a time when universities are facing ever more scrutiny and public accountability some have started to embrace a new way of thinking and reporting based on the Integrated Reporting Framework. This framework goes further than simply describing an organisation’s financial performance and among other things describes its contribution to society, the environment and its own community and stakeholders.

One of the challenges that universities face is summed up in a recent article on Media FHE by Professor Nick Talbot, deputy vice-chancellor for research and impact at Exeter University, on how higher education can defend itself from critics.  He asserts that, “It is almost as if there were two higher education sectors – the ‘schooly’ bit and the ‘researchy’ bit, which exist as separate islands”.

Although written in the context of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), this remark makes the case perfectly for integrated thinking, and the Leadership Foundation believes that if universities can create a joined-up approach to thinking and reporting, aligned to clear business and value creation models, they will more successfully navigate the journey ahead and overcome barriers to sustainable strategic planning.

In particular, the need to be able to communicate to all stakeholders (from employees and governors to students and strategic partners) that the institution is creating value in the short, medium and long term is critical to leadership success.

With this in mind we are planning to unpack the concept of Integrated Reporting and facilitate the journey; to think about the full range of resources (or capitals), for example:

  • Intellectual Capital
  • Human Capital
  • Social and Relationship Capital
  • Financial Capital
  • Environmental Capital

Understanding the trade-off between such resources when making strategic decisions is something which could be more successful and provide more sustainable outcomes if done in the context of an informed and disciplined approach to integrated thinking.

University leaders need information that assists them in making sense of a complex world and the direction of travel their institution is likely to take. There have been a plethora of articles recently, referring to changing business and financial models in universities, public value and value for money. Equally there continues to be events, conferences and articles ‘talking’ about institutional strategy, but the Leadership Foundation aims to take the talking one step further: to test and evaluate what works and to provide some real examples of how universities can mobilise integrated thinking and reporting to drive value creation and to implement a sustainable and  successful strategy. With the support of an expert steering group, and building on previous work done by British Universities Finance Directors Group, we will consider what universities need to do

In this new work we aim to tackle sensitive issues with objectivity and equip institutions and their governing bodies with the skills, knowledge and insights to be able to evidence and report on holistic value creation and contribution, and provide necessary assurance on this key topic.

The time has never been better for universities to look to integrated thinking and integrated reporting to help them on their journey through these turbulent times in UK higher education.

For more on the Leadership Foundation’s Integrating Thinking and Reporting project visit www.lfhe.ac.uk/IntegratedThinking 

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

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

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.

Talent management – for the many or just the few?

Dr Wendy Hirsh, co-author of Talent Management: Learning Across Sectors, the Leadership Foundation’s latest research publication, challenges higher education to consider the development of staff in the same way they would the learning growth of students.

Working on talent management with many organisations, their managers and staff, I often encounter unease and even hostility to the possibility that some development opportunities might be offered to some people but not others. So is talent management for the many or the few or can it be both?

If we unpick this issue from the business perspective first, we see that the ideas of business needs and business risk are very central to what organisations in a range of sectors mean by the term talent management. Talent management is absolutely not about giving employees all the development they would like, but about prioritising business investment in development where it will make the most difference to business effectiveness – and decrease business risk. Therefore it must be central to an organisation’s strategy.

However, often in universities, the human resources and talent management strategy (if it exists) sits alongside the core priorities and can become disconnected. This blog draws from new case study research commissioned by the Leadership Foundation to learn about talent management as practiced in other sectors. A key issue for universities like other organisations is whether to focus development resource on the many or the few.  For example, does a university need to invest in senior leadership, mid-career academics and professionals or helping younger researchers gain the skills and exposure to get their feet on the funding ladder? The answer to this question will always be a mix, but it is unavoidable that the decision will be informed by budgets and capacity if nothing else.

The public sector in the UK has traditionally been very good at investing in those just starting out on their careers and those near the top. This can leave the “middle” neglected. The more successful businesses, for example leading technology and professional services firms recognise the importance of prioritising and developing the capacity of the “middle” by redesigning roles, changing work and skill mix and business practices. The message here is this kind of development is not just about courses but about giving well established staff access to new experiences, extending and expanding roles, such as being involved directly in leading change, albeit supported by  informal coaching, mentoring or perhaps learning sets to practice new approaches. We suggest universities might usefully re-examine the capability of their experienced teachers, researchers and professionals, assess the skills gap and unfulfilled potential and use institutional wide talent management strategies as an enabler for success in an increasingly competitive environment.

We also see some talent management priorities arising from labour market shortages in what companies often call ‘operationally critical’ jobs or workforce groups. For example, some universities find it difficult to fill technician roles when long-serving staff retire or find clinical-academics in areas like medicine when higher salaries can be earned outside the academy. These are national, not institutional problems. Pharmaceutical companies adjusted their training pipelines for technician roles many years ago to accommodate both graduate and vocational routes and to raise skill levels to respond to increasingly complex lab techniques and equipment. Such issues could be addressed by universities sectorally or regionally as well as individually.

The second set of business decisions about priorities is trickier. Will we develop everyone in a particular workforce group to the same skill level or will we sometimes select individuals for more stretching development activities? The trend here in other sectors is clearly to aim for a both/and answer to this question. For example, companies are re-investing in first line manager training for all such managers, because good management is so central to the performance, engagement, development and retention of the people they manage. However, on top of this universal development, a talent management approach may also be trying to spot first line managers who want to progress their careers and have the ability to do a bigger or more complex management job. Depending on the context, a university may be wanting to invest in people already thinking about becoming a Head of Department, or looking a bit earlier for individuals who simply want to grow and are interested in exploring their leadership potential. Such individuals may be offered more stretching developmental opportunities to help them progress their careers and also to test their career preferences. The Leadership Foundation’s Aurora programmes and Athena SWAN does something of this kind for women in academia. So taking a business view, different kinds of development investment may address both the many and the few.

Of course, if organisations try and spot potential for career progression, they need to be very careful to avoid managers just developing their favourites or perpetuating inequalities of gender, race and so on. This is why talent management does have to be inclusive and include relevant definitions of potential for different kinds of jobs or levels in the organisation, test and challenge the views of individual managers and integrate talent management with real time tracking of diversity and inclusion data.

Moving from the organisational to the individual perspective, the idea of a Personal Development Plan is long established. However, other sectors are trying to move this away from being just about courses and to make it individually tailored and genuinely personal – that is related to the strengths and needs of each person and their situation. So we would not expect PDPs to give the same development to everyone doing the same job. PDPs are also being modified to include career-related development as well as development to improve performance in the current job. Talent management explicitly includes talking to individuals about their career aspirations and interests. There is little point developing someone towards being a Head of Department if this is simply not something they want to do or if they show no sign of the people skills required to do it successfully.

In essence talent management brings together these two perspectives and has to be “everyone’s business” and not just human resources “baby”. It needs to focus development where it is needed by the business and where it matches the aspirations and abilities of individuals. When it works well it’s a win-win for the “many” in the organisation and also for the “few” at the level of the individual. But to go down this route, we have to get used to the idea that not everyone needs to learn the same things at the same time in the same way. The best universities aspire to attend to the individual needs and interests of their students – supporting those who needs extra help and challenging those who can go further. Why would they wish to do less for their staff?

Dr Wendy Hirsh is an employment researcher and consultant specialising in career development, talent management, succession planning and workforce planning. Talent Management: Learning Across Sectors, was co-written with Elaine Tyler, Research Fellow, Institute for Employment Studies.

Download the report here: www.lfhe.ac.uk/hirsh5.8