Time to think: leaders and the opportunity to reflect

Person taking a break from their work

Having some time out to think and reflect is extremely valuable for senior leaders within universities. In this blog post Marie McHugh, professor of organisational behaviour at Ulster University Business School shares some of the key findings to emerge from recent research into Advance HE’s Top Management Programme (TMP).

How often do you take time out to think through the best way to develop your work unit? When did you last think about how you approach decision making? What worked? What didn’t work? Why? These questions lie at the heart of thinking and reflection, providing us with a better understanding of past actions so that we are more likely to create a better future.

Alas, having the time to think and reflect is an alien concept for busy leaders and managers. Often we hear them complain that the pace and demands of their job role do not provide them with any opportunity to pause for thought, let alone reflect on the quality of the decisions that they have taken, how their behaviours and actions have impacted upon others, and / or whether they could have done things differently or better. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the turbo-charged, rapidly changing higher education sector where those who are engaged in senior management and leadership roles face daily work schedules characterised by back-to-back meetings, frequent interruptions, unexpected events and emergent fires that require immediate extinguishing!

Such apparent chaos is unlikely to create an environment where leaders and managers are best-placed to make good and well-informed decisions that enhance individual, team and organisational well-being and effectiveness. This, against a backdrop of calls for enhanced leadership and management and researchers such as Dopson et al. (2016) who argue that higher education institutions and their leaders need to adapt and become more outwardly focused, collaborate with different institutional partners, respond to changing funding mechanisms and generate economic impact – all within an increasingly politicised public sector.

Arguably, there has never been a greater need for leaders and managers within higher education to recognise the value of thinking and reflection, and to ensure that they take the time to engage in these activities. But this raises many questions – how do you create space for overly committed, time-pressed leaders to think, to reflect and respond to the immediate demands of the ‘here and now’? How do you enable them to recognise the value of allowing themselves to indulge in such seemingly frivolous activity?

Leadership development programmes provide one such opportunity. Vitally, as has been recognised by Jarvis et al. (2013), if they are designed and delivered appropriately, they can provide an environment for the exploration and the development of key relationships, offering a safe reflective space to promote learning.

Evidence for this is provided by our recent research into Advance HE’s Top Management Programme. Over the course of 50 in-depth interviews with a representative sample of alumni, with 12 sponsoring vice-chancellors, and a survey completed by a further 95 participants linked to their experience of the programme, we found that repeatedly, programme participants / sponsors, referred to the multiple benefits of having time out to think and reflect.

One of the key benefits that TMP alumni gained from their engagement in the programme, and particularly from the impact groups, was the opportunity to reflect deeply on their role, on their practice and on the nature of the higher education sector, long after their run of TMP has ended. The groups provide an opportunity for participants / alumni to meet regularly to discuss, think and reflect on their plans to bring about change within their organisations. Many groups continue to meet long after the TMP. Simply having the space and time away from the workplace for an extended period is highly valued, and it appears for some, that a recharging and revitalising process takes place. The leaders we interviewed were often at career forks or turning points. Consequently, having some time out to reflect and associate with others who were often experiencing, or had experienced, similar issues relatively recently, was deeply appreciated.

Many of the TMP alumni interviewed mentioned the opportunity to reflect, which the programme offers, as a significant personal gain. Sometimes it was to reflect and compare practices at their own institution with others; sometimes it was to reflect on their own behaviour and relationships with others, and sometimes it was to think about where in the organisation they could make the best possible contribution. Alumni frequently acknowledged that the daily grind did not provide any opportunity to think and reflect, but that the TMP provided them with the time to do so. In the words of the participants, “I found the fact that you go away for a dedicated amount of time really helpful in focussing the mind in getting you away from your day-to-day world” ; “I get about two hours a week when I’m not at meetings so [TMP] gives you that time and distance…it’s easier to see things, the wood for the trees if you are slightly further away”.

Engaging with peers from other organisations creates multiple opportunities to think and to reflect. This was acknowledged by TMP participants with one commenting, “the reflections that came from talking it through with my peers on the programme, I found that extremely valuable…the mix, mixing with people from other institutions and in that safe space, is crucial, having a safe space in which to expand and explore”.

For some alumni, the benefits of reflection were experienced at a more personal level, for example by them “…thinking about how, the way that I do things”. For others, reflection related to the institutional level, that is, the nature of change within their institution; or focused on the sector as a whole, for example, “…about knowledge and understanding of the context, the higher education context at a global level”.

While TMP participants cited having time out to think and reflect as a positive outcome from the programme for them as individuals, the real impact of this on their leadership practice and effectiveness was acknowledged by their colleagues, particularly those who had sponsored them. In the words of one sponsoring vice-chancellor, “I think the key thing that you see in people participating in the programme is just…. the ability to critically review the way they work and the way their teams operate…. It gives them a chance to step back and see things differently through another lens almost, and so it is bringing back fresh thinking and that willingness to question some of what they have always done because, I think all of us get very wedded to the way we work”.

At a time when we need leaders and managers to perform at the highest level, building in some time to engage in the practices of thinking and reflection is an essential part of the job. Reflection is likely to promote action rather than re-action, and decisions that lead to better outcomes for individuals, teams and organisations. Use the following questions as prompts:

  • How are you going to make time to think about the best way to develop your work unit?
  • How did you approach your last significant decision?
  • Was it a good decision?
  • Why?

Marie McHugh is professor of organisational behaviour at Ulster University Business School. She and her team are evaluating the TMP ‘Leadership Journeys: Tracking the Impact and Challenge of the Top Management Programme’. You can find out more about the study at our Leadership Summit on 29 June – book here. Read more on Marie’s research into leadership and change here. And we are accepting applications for the Top Management Programme cohort TMP 43, taking place in 2018-2019. Find out more.

Leadership isolation: it’s lonely up here!

Leadership can be a lonely job

Many senior leaders in higher education experience isolation when they reach higher positions in their universities. In this blog, Martin McCracken shares some of the key findings to emerge from recent research into the Leadership Foundation’s Top Management Programme (TMP), linked to the issue of isolation.

Although knowledge, skill, drive and ambition are clearly vital to achieve the ambition of reaching a leadership position, we must also recognise that in modern organisations, regardless of sector or industry, establishing and cultivating a network of close trusted colleagues with whom we can work collaboratively will be critical. Therefore, we need to invest time and energy in nurturing the right kind of relationships which will support us at different stages of our career.

However, if and when we are in the most senior roles we may find ourselves in a new quandary: we would still like to tap into our internal networks, but realise that our new role and associated responsibilities compromise these established relationships with our most trusted friends and professional confidants. At the base level, we may now hold line management responsibility for some in this group, which may erode some of the old relationship certainties that were taken for granted.

Also, we will increasingly move in different circles due to our new leadership role, which can result in a scenario where we find ourselves missing out on valuable information originating from the network where we once were core members. In addition, given the changes in the relationship and power dimensions, certain colleagues may become more suspicious of our intentions and more distant, while others may try to better insulate themselves politically from perceived disruptive change and begin to display what might be termed as uncritical ‘cheerleading’ of our actions.

All of this can impact upon our effectiveness as leaders and ultimately there is a real threat that we begin to experience what has been termed as ‘executive isolation’ (Ashkenas, 2017), which is characterised by the erosion of our most trusted networks. Meanwhile as our workload and responsibilities increase, we may find ourselves continually surrounded or ‘crowded’ by people, as we get caught up in a seemingly endless round of meetings and events.

The end result is a feeling of frustration where increasing demands on a leader’s time leave little space to reflect, recharge or plan for the future. So, what can leaders who find themselves in such a precarious position do to address the negative effects of isolation? How can they reinvigorate their networks and who do they now turn to for advice and guidance on the manifold issues linked to organisational vision, strategy and mission setting on which, as senior leaders, they are now supposed to be expert?

From our research into the Top Management Programme it is clear that a progamme of this nature is invaluable in offering senior leaders an opportunity to come together and reflect upon the salient issues of the day for their universities and the higher education sector as a whole. What emerged most strongly when we spoke to TMP alumni was the power of the programme to erode some of the worst effects of executive isolation.

The vast majority of TMP alumni (over 50 participated in in-depth interviews, and a further 95 completed a survey linked to their experience of the programme) described how interacting with like-minded colleagues offered them a route towards replenishing their social capital networks and building awareness or, as one explained, “turbo charging your knowledge of the sector”. Also, clearly linked to the concept of leadership isolation was the fact that the TMP impact groups offered what one alumni referred to as a “safe space”.

Impact groups are the participant-driven element of TMP, participants meet regularly to discuss issues they face – particularly difficulties – and then test in action the ideas arising from that discussion. Finding this safe and secure place is vitally important for leaders in the higher education sector who often work in politically-charged environments. It was clear from comments made by alumni that having the opportunity to interact with like-minded leaders in the sector or “test stuff out with peers” as well as “step back and look at what happens in other universities in another environment” was considered essential.

Perhaps the best illustration of the value attached to the impact groups and networks they created was borne out by the fact that many groups continued to meet long after the formal TMP proceedings had been wrapped up. It was not uncommon to hear of alumni groups still keeping in contact for many years, meeting maybe as often as two or three times a year. As we listened to the testimonies of those we interviewed, we realised that such meetings were viewed as vitally important and many looked forward to these ‘get-togethers’ as offering a cathartic experience and a real opportunity to get away from  busy roles and reflect deeply with like-minded people.

Ultimately the last word on this is illustrated by the words of one alumni who remarked: “I guess sometimes you feel a bit isolated in a leadership role in your own institution and actually realising that everybody else has similar problems and you are not alone can be energising, but also then seeing different contexts and slightly different solutions that you can adapt back to your own institution.”

So, to conclude, we can clearly appreciate that leadership isolation can be a problem, but undertaking a programme like the TMP can be an effective way of addressing this as it can allow leaders to develop more effective networks as well as offering them some much needed structured time out to reflect and take stock of their aspirations.

Martin McCracken is a senior lecturer in organisational behaviour at Ulster University and also leads the research study evaluating the TMP ‘Leadership Journeys: Tracking the Impact and Challenge of the Top Management Programme’. Find out more about his research into management development, leadership and change.

Nominations are open for TMP 43, the deadline is Friday July 6. Find out more about the TMP Alumni group.

Charting a route to the higher ground

Illustration of a diverse group of workers

In the third of a series of blogs ahead of our second equality, diversity and inclusion retreat, Vijaya Nath, associate at Advance HE, shares her thoughts on strategies that will challenge senior leaders and governors to rethink approaches to diversifying their workforce.

In 2016 I contributed an essay to a King’s Fund series called ‘The NHS If‘. In it I wrote: “The late American publisher and entrepreneur Malcolm Forbes succinctly captured one of the most powerful benefits of a diverse workforce and leadership when he described diversity as ‘the art of thinking independently together’. Imagine the potential of a greater range of ideas generated by a greater range of diversity.”

In the last eighteen months that I have been working in higher education I have witnessed great achievement, but I know the sector would be even greater if it could truly harness the thinking and leadership potential of all of its constituents. The paucity of diverse leadership in the decision-making bodies leading HEIs demonstrates the scale of the issue.

The foundations of Western philosophy and thought are often attributed to the teachings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These great thinkers saw education as a means to achieving justice at an individual and societal level. How would they view the issues facing BAME academic and professional service staff in the UK’s higher education sector in 2018?

Most of those leading universities accept the well-rehearsed moral arguments that have been amplified in the last couple of years. Additionally, the compelling business reasons and better outcomes that harnessing diversity of thought would deliver requires those in leadership roles to give this issue a higher priority than hitherto assigned. But when will we move from rhetoric to action?

As I think of our upcoming retreat for senior leaders and governors in universities the end in mind is to enable considered action as opposed to ruminating over the real and perceived challenges of tackling bias and discrimination. The need for action is particularly acute in higher education, as these are institutions whose primary mission is to promote learning. A setting, that is, which educates world leaders and claims to hold the ‘higher ground’ should be a better role model.

The student population (without whom many of our universities would cease to exist) is the most diverse it has ever been in higher education in the UK, but this is not reflected in university leadership. My colleagues Simon Fanshawe and Roger Kline have outlined several barriers to BAME leaders progressing in universities and I would like to add another.

The most pressing factor, in my opinion (which I have witnessed first-hand as I moved from health to higher education in 2015) is culture, that is to say what we permit as leaders in the sector. When university leadership, their regulators and arms-length bodies representing different facets of higher education bear little resemblance to those they serve, it is indeed time to move to action.

Otherwise, the reputational risk and lack of trust in our university leadership will do little to make us the educators of choice as we move beyond Brexit and hope to become truly the most globally competitive higher education sector.

At the April 2018 Equality Diversity and Inclusion Immersion Retreat we will engage with the question of what works, by looking at a number of sectors which have been asked the same questions when it comes to delivering parity of esteem for BAME staff. Those attending the retreat will have the space to explore how strategies can be turned into actions and, most importantly, how these can be evolved locally, taking into account where an institution is on its journey to realising the potential of all of its constituents – academic and non-academic – in 2018.

We will be able to share with those attending the retreat early findings from a project being led by Professor Jan Fook, aimed at understanding the contributions that BAME academics and professional services staff make, and share in their own words what factors these staff feel have helped them achieve their potential. In addition we will be able to share a number of techniques for building a coalition of the willing, helping senior leaders to work with leaders at all levels in their institution to co-create a culture in which all have the ability to achieve their potential.

This will also involve supporting those leading the sector, who have made commitments to raise this issue as a priority in 2018 and to tackle the deep cultural challenges their institutions face to achieving progress. This time in 2019 we will be able to look back on a year where we pressed for action and tapped into all of the talent available; a year in which we made progress towards achieving inclusive cultures which more accurately represent the student populations that HEIs serve.

Those leading universities talk about achieving a vision where staff and students flourish and achieve their potential irrespective of their ethnicity. We believe this retreat will provide a challenging and supportive space to enable participants to make the changes worthy of a sector that not only nominally but truly inhabits the Higher Ground.

Vijaya Nath will be leading this Spring’s Equality, Diversity and Immersion Retreat on April 23-24 along with Simon Fanshawe former chair of the University of Sussex, and Roger Kline, research fellow at Middlesex University. 

Find out more about the event. Read the previous two blogs in this series: Simon Fanshawe asks, Diversity: are universities sincerely up for change? Roger Kline: If it’s not working…

Learning from other cultures to tackle inequality

Woman holding her fingers in a cross position over her mouthIn the lead up to International Women’s Day, Nicola Sayers reflects on the importance of cross-cultural perspectives for universities looking to better understand their own systemic inequalities and to make real changes. 

The idea of a ‘Women’s Day’ goes back to 1909, when the Socialist Party of America held a ‘National Women’s Day’ in New York. The international element soon followed, with Russia observing an ‘International Women’s Day’ in 1913; and by the 1970s International Women’s Day, 8th March, was an official fixture in the United Nations calendar. A longstanding history, then, but what, really, is the point of a ‘Women’s Day’?
One might with good reason to argue that, until genuine equality is achieved, every day should be a so-called ‘Women’s Day’, yet another day in which we should press for progress, and must remember the ongoing cultural, social and structural inequalities that women face. But if there is a point to singling out one day, it is surely as a chance to take stock, a chance both to celebrate progress that has been made (which, since 1909, is clearly substantive) and to call attention to the huge amount of work that still needs to be done.

Progress is not linear, of course. Some years chip away at the same old battles, others witness regression, and others yet prove that sizeable shifts can occur quite suddenly – like the coin pusher game in arcades, the pennies build up over time and then all drop quite suddenly. This last year, arguably, was one such year.

The many women’s marches, the viral spread of the #timesup and #metoo hashtags, not to mention race awareness movements such as #blacklivesmatter and #rhodesmustfall: this feels like a moment in which long-standing issues are being stirred up and, for the first time in some time, there is mass interest. None of these movements is without complexity, and around each, rightfully, important debates are being had. Does the visibility of Hollywood in #timesup helpfully raise awareness, or encourage progress only among the relatively privileged, detracting attention from the professions and classes in which harassment and barriers to opportunity are worst? Does #metoo shine a legitimate spotlight on predatory behaviours which might until now have been considered borderline acceptable, or does it risk judging in a media circus what is better judged in a court of law? And does #rhodesmustfall bring crucial awareness to the historical (and continuing) oppression that many of our institutions of higher education are founded on, or does it force surface action on matters that appease riled-up student bodies while glossing over the deeper, systemic discussions that need to take place?

But in all of this what is certain is that there is at present momentum around issues of gender and race that universities would do well to attend to. In this effort, in-depth research is an important correlate of media and social media interest in these issues, so that the push for progress is always backed up by real knowledge. The Leadership Foundation strives always to be conducting timely research on race and gender that will prove useful to leaders looking to make real change in higher education contexts.
One example of such research is a recent Leadership Insight report, Silent Witness: Why are women missing from Hong Kong academic leadership?

First and foremost, the report provides important information for anyone looking to make changes in the Hong Kong university system. It is fascinating, for instance, that there is an outright mismatch between what male leaders perceive as the barriers facing women (family issues and work-life balance) and what women academics themselves perceive as the primary barriers facing them (gender bias and lack of opportunity). It is relevant too, and worthy of further investigation, that while cultural factors – such as the widespread belief in East Asian culture that women should not be more successful than their husbands and should not stand out or be aggressive – did surface as significant, there was some disagreement as to just how significant these cultural factors really were.

But reports like this one are also of interest for UK universities as inter-cultural and global perspectives on women in higher education provide important food for comparative thought; in what ways and to what extent do women academics and higher education professionals face the same problems globally? What are the areas in which other contexts might serve as warnings to us? (For example, do leaders in the UK also over-emphasise the role of family and under-emphasise the role of gender bias in making sense of existing inequalities?). And are there yet other ways in which we might learn from other cultures?

Tackling gender inequality always requires a multi-pronged approach – capitalising on mass media interest, producing and acting on high-level research, and making active interventions both at local and systemic levels. One such intervention is the Leadership Foundation’s Aurora programme, a leadership programme, now in its fifth year, designed specifically for women. As well as being hugely helpful for participants, programmes like this help in turn to deepen understanding of the current realities as well as to bring to light areas for further research.

For example, results from the second year of the Aurora Longitudinal Study showed that many female academics and professionals feel that men taking on more domestic responsibility would gradually shift attitudes towards balancing work and family. An interesting avenue for further cross-cultural comparative research might therefore be to look to Sweden, where men and women generally share parental leave (parents only get all 480 days of available leave if one parent takes at least 60 of those days, thus encouraging fathers as well as mothers to take at least several months leave). How does this impact on gender imbalances in the workplace generally and in higher education contexts specifically?

More radically, one might even look at Sweden’s first ‘gender-neutral’ pre-school – where all mention of differences between the sexes (even in children’s books) are avoided, and where children are referred to using ‘hen’, a gender-neutral pronoun (‘hon’ is the Swedish for ‘she’, and ‘han’ is the Swedish for ‘he’) – as a way to reflect on how deeply gendered expectations are ingrained and what a world without such expectations might look like.

It sounds extreme, perhaps, but if 2017/18 has ushered in a new wave of interest in gender, race and inequality, universities are faced with a real opportunity to ride this wave, complementing it with research and practice that goes above and beyond tokenism and seeks to usher in deep and systemic change.

Dr Nicola Sayers is a former research manager at the Leadership Foundation. She is half-Swedish, half-British and has studied both in the UK and the US. Her recently completed doctorate explored the role of nostalgia in contemporary American literature and culture, but she also retains a strong interest in higher education research. She currently resides in Chicago.

Follow @LF4HE on Twitter and on International Women’s Day, March 8, join in with our #HeroinesinHE campaign to celebrate inspirational women in higher education.

LF Members can read the report: Silent Witness: Why are women missing from Hong Kong academic leadership? 

Is your governing body biased?

Is cognitive bias and the use of heuristics responsible for poor decision-making in higher education? Do members of the governing body have unconscious biases? These are some of the issues explored by new research published by the Leadership Foundation.

The authors of the report The Quality of Board Decision-Making Processes in Higher Education Institutions: UK and European Experiences examine the question of “heuristics and biases in board decision-making”, which raises some interesting questions.

Major board decisions typically involve complexity, and governors making judgements reflecting uncertainty. Limitations of time and processing power typically mean humans use simple rules of thumb – heuristics – to help guide their judgements. These are often helpful, but can sometimes lead to severe biases. This risk, together with cognitive bias – influencing individual preferences – is the subject of this newly published report.

When making decisions governors are unlikely to be aware of their own biases, and how these influence their judgements. Aside from action to reduce unconscious bias on equality and diversity, the report suggests no work has been done to raise awareness of others biases likely to be present in higher education governance. As a result, poor decisions may have resulted.

The risk of bias is increased when there a dominant decision-maker(s), complacent or intransigent attitudes, and group think. All of these, the report suggests, are commonly found in higher education governance.

Compared to the governing body or senate (or academic board), the power of heads of institutions (“personalised leadership”) and executives has increased. There is typically an imbalance in the frequency by which governors support and challenge the executive, and some governing bodies are too compliant in accepting of the view of the executive. Equally, the “voice of senate” should be heard. Overall, in most institutions a growing “management culture” is seen to have reduced the checks on the power of the executive.

The governance system, revolving around the relationships between a governing body, the senate, and the executive are critical if institutional governance is to be effective. The system involves “shared governance”. Recent studies on academic governance found, in too many cases, senates and governing bodies didn’t fully understand each other’s role and responsibilities. This is potentially a critical weakness. Faced with a more disruptive operating environment, resulting in increased risk and the need for faster decision-making, this raises the question of how the system of governance should evolve in the future?

Removing all biases to decision-making is difficult (and maybe impossible). The situation will be made worse if there is group think. Would changing the composition of the governing body address this issue? Is there a need to recruit from a more diverse base (in the widest sense) to enrich the membership of governing bodies beyond those groups who have traditionally been represented?

Similarly, as the boundaries between academic and corporate governance blur how does this affect the membership of the governing body? In addition to governors bringing intelligence, good judgement and commitment, is domain knowledge of higher education important? Does the Board need members, independent of the executive, with a background in higher education? If so, what proportion of governors should have higher education expertise, and what expertise? Do you need someone with expertise in, say, higher education policy or quality assurance or university management or administration?

What other issues require attention? Few would argue with the idea of providing sufficient time and (relevant!) information to allow governors to make informed decisions. But how easy is this in practice given the number of times governing bodies typically meet, and the size of most agendas when they do? Is a fundamental rethink to the model of governance required?

The idea that governing bodies should review past decisions, focusing not just on the decision made, but on the process, is to be promoted. This would establish a feedback-loop, enabling the governing body to reflect on the decision-making process and decisions made. However, a “full public disclosure” of the effectiveness reviews of governing bodies is likely to produce documents placed in the public domain that say very little.

Having raised the issue about the quality of Board decision-making, the authors of the report acknowledge that there is the need for more detailed research on how governing bodies make their decisions. Given a lack of sound and recent field research on the topic, this is arguably pressing. Not least there is a risk that cases of poor governance are highlighted in the media, while the many cases of effective governance remain hidden. Perhaps now is the time for the sector to undertake the necessary research and produce evidence to counter hear-say and ill-informed statements? If this happens, the authors of the current report will have served the sector well.

David Williams edits the governance section of the Leadership Foundation’s website. News alerts and notices of forthcoming events for governors and professional staff working in governance are regularly posted on the website. The website also contains an information repository, offering a range of resources to governors and those who support their work.

The Quality of Board Decision-Making Processes in Higher Education Institutions: UK and European Experiences is one of our Small Development Projects. Access the report hereThe 2018 Small Development Projects will be announced shortly. For more on all the Leadership Foundation’s Small Development Projects visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/SDP

For more information on our governance work visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/governance 

Lessons from Higher Education Insights

On her second day at the Leadership Foundation, Alice Hargreaves, senior marketing and communications coordinator attended our Higher Education Insights programme for leaders new to the sector. In the run up to the April 2018 cohort of the programme, she reflects on the impact the programme had on her as a participant. 

When I joined the Leadership Foundation last May I had only worked in a university briefly while overseas, so had little understanding of the context in which higher education sat here in the UK. As well as meeting new colleagues who I would be working alongside, Higher Education Insights provided me with the opportunity to better understand the complexities, nuances, and politics in the UK.

Start with why

In order to understand where the sector is now and where it is going it is of course vital to know where we have come from. One of the first sessions of the day summarised the history of higher education and how this history has shaped it in a way that is different in other parts of the world.

I like the analogy that Christine Abbott recently used in her blog post about this sector being much like a tube system where sometimes it is hard to know how we got to where we are and feel that this session really went some way towards answering this.

Learning from others

I’m a natural networker so found the opportunity to sit and work with a small table of new faces really exciting. I learnt about roles in the sector I didn’t even know existed and also learnt about private universities which I must admit I had been unaware of previously. I was sat with someone from Regent’s University and found the opportunity to ask direct questions about the differences in their student body and how they operated fascinating.

Having the opportunity to get to know the challenges colleagues are also new to the sector faced was a fantastic way of better understanding how a range of universities worked (including pre and post 1992 as well as private universities), and how different the experiences were for professional services staff vs academic staff. It struck me how open my table were to discussion and it spurred me on to apply to take part in Aurora.

The shape of the sector, right here, right now

I found the talk hosted by Nicky Old, director of communications and external relations at Universities UK a fantastic way to understand policy changes. Nicky explained who Universities UK were, who the sector is, and who the key decision makers are. In May 2017, we were just a month away from a general election, and the big issue facing UK universities was the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) as well as the ongoing repercussions following Brexit. Gaining information so relevant and of the time was invaluable. When the TEF results were released some six weeks later I could much better understand the context and how this might impact universities.

Now, having worked in the sector a bit longer I am able to see how things develop over time but this really put me into the here and now, or rather the then and there.

The many faces of higher education

Knowing much more about the Leadership Foundation and our programmes and events now than I did last May, Higher Education Insights truly is a unique opportunity to meet the many faces of the sector. As well as the range of participants it attracts the speakers had a huge range of perspectives and experiences. As well as voices from the Leadership Foundation and Universities UK I was lucky enough to hear from; a futurist from JISC, a dean from Canterbury Christchurch, a student engagement consultant from The Student Engagement Partnership and an ex NUS president.

The day really buoyed up my enthusiasm for my new role and it was reassuring to know I was not the only person so new to the sector. The day I think is equally as valuable for someone brand new to the sector, as someone who has simply been stuck underground in the tube system of higher education for two long and needs to reconnect and get up to date with the ever changing environment that we are faced with.

Higher Education Insights will take place on Tuesday 17 April 2018 in London. Nicky Old, director of communications and external relations, Universities UK and Ellie Russell, student engagement consultant, National Union of Students will return as contributors to this year’s programme. Find out more: www.lfhe.ac.uk/heinsights

Alice Hargreaves is a senior marketing and communications coordinator specialising in promoting our programmes for senior leaders and equality and diversity, including our acclaimed Aurora programme. 

Know thyself!

After three years and six iterations of the Leadership Foundation’s innovative blended learning programme, Transition to Leadership (TTL), programme director Stuart Hunt reflects on what he has learned and why he believes the programme is so well received by participants.

When we were working on the design of the TTL programme, we were very keen to make sure that it included two elements that are not often seen in open, introductory level programmes of this kind. We have three days face-to-face and about the same amount of time for online and on-the-job learning activities, and we wanted to make the most of this time. We did not want to lecture too much (and we don’t!), nor did we want the programme to involve a lot of reading (there’s plenty, but only limited to Must Read material), but we did want some clear structure with a real chance of participants holding onto some key ideas and actually putting these into practice.  The two elements described below are what emerged from our extended development phase to help achieve these ambitions.

Co-creation
The first approach was that we wanted the process to be one of co-creation. Sure, we provide theoretical grounding and effective models for participants to review and build on, but we also take advantage of the blended and extended nature of the programme to task participants with co-designing and co-presenting their own understandings and applications of leadership based around their own experiences.

This concept of the ‘flipped’ classroom, with participants leading presentations and fielding questions from colleagues lends itself well to the culture of learning in higher education, with typically independent-minded colleagues having the opportunity to explore, challenge, and occasionally provoke, as well as to provide mutual support and personal reflection. It also provides ample opportunity for colleagues to explore the second key theme, that is self-knowledge and with it the great boon of flexibility.

Self-knowledge
Throughout the programme, we ask participants to reflect on their own styles, their own preferences, what they admire in others, what they bring to leadership that is helpful and where they may need the support of colleagues. We do not encourage participants to aim to become that which they are not. We want them to know what they are really good at and what motivates them, and to consciously seek to demonstrate these attributes to colleagues with whom they work. It is only when we know ourselves that we are in any position to deliberately choose to modify our behaviour and to become really skilful leaders. And thus the programme is filled with diagnostics, self-assessments and structured self-reflection activities, plus face-to-face and online discussions to help people understand that others may have very different perspectives.

Enhanced understanding of self
So, the content of TTL is great and I think well balanced, and this is supported by good design, but the real benefit of our programme for participants is the co-creation of understanding based on the perspective of our lived realities, together with a genuinely enhanced understanding of ourselves. Together these approaches combine to enable participants to make choices, so that they can sometimes ‘flex’ from their places of strength in order to be better able to support the needs of others with whom they work.

The programme continues to evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of higher education leaders, however the core of the programme remains tried and tested as a foundation for new leaders. I am genuinely proud of this programme.

The next run of Transition to Leadership will being on Monday 19 March 2018 and run through until Tuesday 26 June 2018. Click here to find out more about what the programme has to offer. 

Stuart Hunt is an independent consultant and has been a key associate of the Leadership Foundation since its inception. He is currently co-director for the Transition to Leadership programme. Stuart is also currently supporting a major cultural change initiative across Ukrainian Higher Education.