The art of being strategic

Doug Parkin, programme director, reflects on the Strategic Dialogue learning activity in module three of the Future Professional Directors Programme. This year the participants were joined by Professor Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton; David Relph, director at Bristol Health Partners; Justine Andrew, director, public sector at KPMG; and Helen Lloyd Wildman, chief operating officer NMITE (during FPD consultant at Royal Agricultural University) and formerly an army lieutenant colonel.

Our Future Professional Directors (FPD) programme, for aspiring leaders of professional services from all areas of an institution, is transformational by design. From the outset, we developed the programme to ensure learning would take place in a range of experiential activities and active inquiry processes.

A great example of this is the Strategic Dialogue, the centrepiece learning activity on the third and final module of the programme. This module is focused on strategy but, rather than take participants through the received wisdom on strategic planning, we focus instead on the art of ‘being strategic’.

Exploring strategic thinking

So, what does it mean to ‘be strategic’?

This question, at the heart of the Strategic Dialogue session, is explored through four different sector perspectives – higher education, health, commercial and the armed forces. The topic is brought to life by four excellent contributors, each a senior figure with strong experience in one of these worlds, who take ‘how to lead strategic engagement’ as the central theme of their presentations.

In the Future Professional Directors programme’s Strategic Dialogue, the contributors present their perspective and are then interviewed by the FPD small groups of participants. By the end of the session each participant group has created their own unique model for strategic engagement.

The bigger picture

For the participants, having the space and time to ‘lift their heads up’ from the day to day issues they face and take a broader look at how their role fits into the whole organisation – and their own responsibility for strategy development and engagement – is a crucially important part of the session says Justine Andrew.

One of the key learning goals is “getting folk to understand what strategic means and stressing that we shouldn’t be undertaking any tasks that do not contribute to the achievement of the corporate strategy,” remarks Helen Lloyd Wildman.

Nick Petford also emphasises the need in uncertain times to understand the importance of differentiating between long-term planning and strategy. Universities should develop a clear and concise single strategic document (in contrast to a myriad of sub strategies), supported by a business or operational plan designed for flexibility. The days when institutions could set a point on the horizon and expect to sail towards it without being quickly blown off course are gone for most of us.

He draws attention to the powerful link between institutional values and strategy: “there are different ways to think about strategy in a complex institution and institutional values are the fundamental building blocks of strategic thinking.”

The active nature of the session brings to life the dynamic nature of strategy and the fact that engaging people in strategic conversations is at least as important as strategy itself: this is indeed the art of ‘being strategic’ in an organisation.

Engaging professional service staff

These vital strategic conversations must be opened up early and widely. For Nick Petford, “professional service staff are key to the successful running of our universities and need to be engaged at all levels of the strategic planning process”.  Through early engagement, professional service leaders can build up a ‘coalition of the willing’ which pays dividends in the future.

Sharing knowledge

The essence of the Strategic Dialogue session is a powerful opportunity for participants to compare and contrast the challenge of strategic engagement by using the stimulus of four very different perspectives and the opportunity to probe the strategic mind-sets of successful senior leaders.

The spirit of learning around the session is energising, profound and mutually shared, which also offers deep learning opportunities for the presenters as well as the participants.

For the sector more broadly, the programme develops professional service leaders who are confident with strategic engagement and their own authentic mode of ‘being strategic’.

Future Professional Directors takes place over nine months and includes three residential modules, two action learning sets, an online environment to support continuous learning, and a 360-degree diagnostic.

Future Professional Directors is for professional service leaders from all areas of the University who have demonstrated strong leadership potential

Applications for Future Professional Directors are now open. The application deadline is Friday 23 February 2018.

Transition to Leadership: A chance encounter



Helen Horsman, Research and Business Marketing Manager, University of Bradford attended the second year of our blended learning programme for new leaders, Transition to Leadership. In this interview she talks about her experience on the programme for those looking to develop themselves as an authentic leader.

1. What attracted you to Transition to Leadership?

It was a chance opportunity really, my manager couldn’t attend and asked me to go instead. It was perfect timing as I was just finishing my professional qualification and looking forward to using it in a more responsible role.

2. What were the 3 most valuable lesson you’ve learnt from the programme?

  • Coaching Being able to coach others is a very helpful tool for empowering others
  • Self-reflection Learning about your own styles of leadership and how they can help or hinder you and how this works with others. We all need to flex a bit, but usually have a comfort zone which is easy to slip back into. Being aware of your need to flex makes you a better leader.
  • Managing change Understanding resistance to change and the change process can help you work out how to best assist others to get through it, including yourself!

3. One element of the Transition to Leadership programme is to explore what it means to be an authentic leader. Can you share with us who you admire as an authentic leader?

I’m a huge believer in this. Nelson Mandela has, through the most terrible times, always been true to what he believes in and never veered from that path. It is tempting when becoming a leader to change who you are because of what you think other people want from you. A good leader doesn’t have to actively recruit followers, they just need to be knowledgeable, positive and passionate about what they believe in, listen to others views and change their mind when they believe it’s right, and people will follow.

4. If you were recommending this programme to your colleagues what would you tell them?

That it’s definitely worth doing for new and aspiring leaders, or established leaders who feel like they need a refresh. It will change your perspective on yourself and your staff.

5. Looking ahead, can you tell us what your 3 key leadership challenges for

I have quite a few changes coming up in my role where I will need to write new strategies and get people on board to deliver them. So my 3 main challenges will be to get buy-in from others, create advocates who will support and talk positively about what I’m proposing, and empower the people I need support from to deliver it.

The next run of Transition to Leadership will be in Manchester and will be taking place through Wednesday 6 December 2017 – Wednesday 11 April 2018 over 3 face-to-face days and 16 hours of facilitated online activities. If you are interested in finding out more about our Transition to Leadership programme, please click here: 

Watch our Programme Faciltators talk about the benefits of Transition to Leadership in this 3 minute film:

Professor Bob Cryan, University of Huddersfield explores authentic leadership in his Stimulating Talk; ‘The naked vice-chancellor’ at our 10 year anniversary event in 2014. Watch his talk here: