Core stability – the journey towards work/life balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

About Aurora
Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research that shows that women are under-represented in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to change this. Since Aurora began in 2013 we have welcomed 3,477 women from 139 universities and sector bodies, with 1029 women attending in 2016-17 alone.

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

Participants include, but are not limited to:

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

Find out more and book

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

Find out more and book

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

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

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

The 7 leadership blog posts of 2017

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

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

You can follow the campaign by using the hastag #LF12Days 

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

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

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

3. 8 ways to be a better role model

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

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

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

6. Reflections from Leadership Matters

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

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

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

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


You can read more of the Leadership Foundation blogs here. 

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

Ghostbusters?

Narrative – a question of cultural identity

Doug Parkin, programme director, dives deeper into the idea of narrative leadership which is one of the four intelligences that make up the Connected Leadership model. This model articulates the core themes that underpin Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership, one of the Leadership Foundation’s most highly regarded executive programmes.

Being more efficient doesn’t sit well with who we are as an organisation.

There is a direct link between who we are and what we do.  When it comes to teams and organisations it is impossible to separate ‘being’ from ‘doing’.  And as the sadly comical line above shows, if we ask people to do something that does not fit with who they are, or perhaps more importantly how they see themselves, then there is likely to be either resistance or a loss of engagement.  This is the root and essence of cultural identity.

The cultural web

There are a number of markers of cultural identity in organisations.  A well-known model which captures these is the cultural web developed by Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes.  This illustrates and prompts us to consider “the behavioural, physical and symbolic manifestations of a culture”.  The six elements in this model, as shown below, “inform and are informed by the taken-for-granted assumptions, or paradigm, of an organisation”.  This means that they are both deliberate and accidental, conscious and unconscious, planned and unplanned, formal and informal.  A great deal of leadership energy, particularly at senior levels, goes into trying to shape and orchestrate the planned, formal and conscious side of culture, through mission statements, organisational values and things like service charters.  There are also those very deliberate, corporate stories that organisations tell: stories of pride about the players and episodes that made the organisation great; and stories of intent about the next exciting chapter in the organisation’s future.  But whilst focusing on the gloss (even veneer) of strategy and culture at this grand level, there are other things happening in the shadows, as important as they are unplanned, that may have a far greater impact on the organisation’s future direction and success.  And even those with the very best understanding of an organisation’s culture will only ever have some of these factors in plain sight.  Others will sit well below the surface of conscious attention.

In terms of their nature, some of these elements have a softer feel than others, such as symbols, routines and stories. However, stories actually pervade every aspect. There is a big difference, for example, between the lines of management drawn on an organisational chart and the stories told at water coolers regarding who holds the real influence. And it is the pervasiveness of stories that narrative leadership or narrative intelligence seeks to explore and understand. In many ways, narrative intelligence opens a window onto the shadow or ghost side of an organisation.

Exploring narrative

Exploring narrative is at once both a philosophical question and a practical one.  Philosophical because linked to identity there is a strong suggestion that stories in important ways define both who we are and what it means to be who we are (our condition):

“A man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.” –Jean-Paul Sartre

As you might imagine, there have been arguments both for and against what has been termed narrativity. Practical because the stronger or more finely tuned our narrative intelligence, the better able we will be as leaders to work with the grain of the organisation in the initiatives or change projects we introduce. As Edgar Schein powerfully observed, “it will be easy to make changes that are congruent with present assumptions, and very difficult to make changes that are not”. Schein is the thinker, researcher and influential writer credited by some as having coined the term ‘corporate culture’.

Narrative captures and excites us. Think of that moment in a large lecture hall when the professor breaks from his notes and says, “let me tell you about a research project I worked on in Tanzania…”  It is a hook which creates a sit-forward moment. A story is about to begin and we can’t resist it. Indeed, we do not want to resist it.  We want to be drawn along the twists and turns, the highs and lows, the back and forth of the story, and we want to discover how the events unfold and the characters develop. We also want to turn to each other and nod at the meaning and significance we can together recognise and which in various ways unites us. This is a crucial part of both learning and identity.

There is also a comfort in stories. In the same way that communities and societies repeat, gradually adapt and pass down their stories, it is equally true that teams and organisations do the same. We can all think of examples of those often-repeated stories that in some strange way captured the essence of a team we once belonged to, and it is interesting to reflect on what the significant stories may be in our current teams/organisations.

Narrative and leadership

The reality of narrative is that it has a life of its own.  It is not something leaders can fully control or influence. Indeed, sometimes when they try that becomes a story in itself.  “Do you remember that time the last Dean told us a story about the faculty arriving at a crossroads in a storm,” people will say… Regarding culture more generally, it is important to realise that formal leadership is only one part of what shapes it and causes it to evolve. Another key message from Schein is that “culture is the result of a complex learning process that is only partially influenced by leadership behaviour”.

So, how do we approach narrative as leaders?  How do we work with these ghosts and shadows? Do we approach it as a battleground, as a negotiated space, or as an ongoing, evolutionary process of group discovery? Whilst it may sometimes be the leader’s role to break and re-make organisational culture where it has become toxic or dysfunctional, to be the ghostbuster, the more likely reality is that the existing narratives need to grow, develop and continue as they engage with and partly shape new change initiatives. This, then, is an attentive, nurturing and supportive role.  If change is put forward as an unbending imperative, driven from above or by external forces, then leaders may find themselves subsequently observing how powerfully narratives can erode such monoliths. Another image that has been used to describe this is “the iceberg that sinks organizational change” (Torben Rick, 2015).

Engaging with your organisation’s true stories – ghosts are worth listening to

To engage with the true stories of an organisation and really begin to appreciate both their subtlety and their emotional charge, leaders need to find opportunities to participate in the informal, shadow side of the organisation. This can’t be done from behind closed doors or through complex briefing papers. The shadow side exists in informal spaces, in everyday conversations and interactions, and is characterised by joint sensemaking and relationship building. Another way to describe it might, indeed, be the real-side of the organisation. Some leaders find this a very natural way of engaging with teams and colleagues, and for them the term ‘real’ would certainly resonate. For others, a more conscious effort may be required, at least initially. And although unstructured and often ambiguous, leaders should not be apprehensive of this shadow side and should be wary of regarding it as somehow sinister. Writing on this, William Tate interestingly suggests a balance of both disagreeable and valuable qualities, but with, perhaps, an apprehensive view overall:

“The organisation’s shadow side — the often disagreeable, messy, crazy and opaque aspects of your organisation’s personality. Such facets are not always dark and bad.  Craziness and disorder, for example, may provide a creative spur, and grapevines can be a valuable source of information. But what these features have in common is that they are always slippery — easier to feel than to define.”

As Ebenezer Scrooge eventually learned, ghosts are worth listening to (A Christmas Carol), and as leaders in organisations we fail to listen to them at our peril. We remember, of course, that there are three ghosts in this story: The Ghost of Culture Past, the Ghost of Culture Present and the Ghost of Culture Yet to Come. And these spirits have three very different personalities, all of which are worth listening to if we wish to change ourselves, our environments and our organisations for the better:

CULTURE PAST:  “These were shadows of things that have been. That they are what they are, do not blame me!”

CULTURE PRESENT:  “I see a vacant seat by the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner…carefully preserved.  If these shadows remain unaltered by the future, the child will die.”

CULTURE YET TO COME (SCROOGE SPEAKING):  “Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”


Doug Parkin the programme director for the Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership programme at the Leadership Foundation. He also runs a number of bespoke and core programmes, in addition to international projects. 

Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership will take place twice during the academic year 2017-18

PSSL Winter

Application Deadline: 10 November 2017
Module 1: Wednesday 22 – Thursday 23 November
Module 2: Tuesday 30 – Wednesday 31 January
Location: Greater London

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

 

The Brexit Blogs: To see ourselves as others see us

LeadImageTW
The map/model is not the reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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