An interview with Brenda Romero

Brenda Romero is a leading game designer and developer. We had the pleasure of welcoming Brenda to our Dublin Adaptive Learning Skills day as part of Aurora in May 2017

1. What does good leadership mean to you?

This is a really interestingly question. There are so many answers, many pieces of advice, and many tips that I have learned on the way. However, I keep returning to the idea of a team enjoying their journey towards a goal. They need good leadership. The leader is the person making sure that their team can do what they need to do. They know the goal. They are committed to it and excited about it. The journey is easy because obstructions have been removed and hopefully, someone is working on crisis intervention – rather than crisis management. If I can keep my team focused and motivated, we shall win. To do that, I believe I have to make sure they have everything they need, by removing anything which gets in their way.

2. At the start of your career what were the biggest barriers to progression you were faced with and what advice would you give to someone aspiring to a leadership role facing similar barriers?

Ironically, I think I was my own worst enemy. When I look back at my career, there are two key things I wish I had done differently. The first is that I should not have stayed with one, family-owned company for 20 years. This sounds fantastic, but, I would have been further ahead, if I had moved onward and upward. However, after only 10 years, I needed new teachers and new lessons so, in terms of advancement, not to mention an equity stake, my opportunities were quite limited.

Secondly, I wish I had been a better advocate for myself. I accepted things that I should not have accepted. I did not take chances. I wish I had. I feared failure. I was more concerned about what others thought rather than doing the right thing. In that way, I was my biggest barrier because I simply didn’t know any better, and I found out the right way by trial, error and introspection. Having mentors to look up to, to consult, would have been so beneficial.

3. What would be some of the milestones that you think “that’s a point where my leadership changed”?

Not everyone is going to like you: As a leader, you will make decisions that are not liked by everyone.

You may have to sack people, lay people off, or be tasked with taking something in an unpopular direction. Ultimately, I find the desire to please everyone simply has to go. I remember the first time I had to sack someone for an absolutely valid offence. There was a lot of gossip but ultimately, it comes down to these questions for me, “Did I do the right thing?” and “Was I respectful of others?” That, along with keeping an open mind, are the key things.

Failure is not the end of the world: We fail all the time. Most of our failings are not public, but I find this is something many of us fear. Generally, we fear losing something we have or not getting something we want. When I did fail publicly, it was painful agony followed almost immediately by blissful glory. Once I had failed, I didn’t feel so concerned about it. I felt more comfortable about taking chances. I don’t know exactly what I was afraid of. Humiliation? Embarrassment? The loss of respect from my peers? None of it happened.

4. What would you say if someone were to ask you, what makes you most resilient?

Sometimes, I genuinely do not know. I don’t really have “I give up” in me. I am blessed with the experiences of my late mother and I’m still gaining experiences from my mother in law. Both women were homemakers who found themselves quite unexpectedly alone. There is nothing in either of their cases that ever displayed an example of “I give up”. They kept going because they had to. There was no other choice. That lesson continues to be an incredibly powerful one, especially when the proverbial “going gets tough” occurs. I don’t know of women any stronger than these two. You keep going because you have to. Help may come, and you may ask for it, but ultimately, you keep going. There is a way through. If you don’t know the answer, someone else does.

5. How important do you think mentors, role models and networks are in supporting women’s leadership?

Incredibly important. When you asked me about barriers earlier, I said that I was the biggest obstacle to my own advancement. Why? Because I didn’t know any better. I didn’t have anyone around me who could teach me. I didn’t even know the questions to ask. Working with someone more experienced, my husband is on his 11th start up, I have learned so much. I don’t hesitate to reach out to experts and we do a bi-weekly expert talk in our company, on topics on which employees ask for advice.

6. How can initiatives like Aurora help women and their organisation achieve their potential?

One of the most important things about Aurora is that it creates a space where like-minded people with similar goals and journeys come together – in search of a common, supportive, solution.

That’s extremely powerful. Having attended events like this in the past, there’s something formidable about being around people who are all aspiring to something greater and who want to help each other reach their goal. Working one-to-one with a mentor is incredibly powerful. Events like this multiply that power by bringing everyone together.

7. Thinking about your career and experiences, what advice would you give your younger self?

I would hand myself a box labelled “confidence,” and make myself swear not to open it. I would tell myself that you might think it’s empty now, but I’m here in the future to tell you that it’s full. It filled up when I took chances and failed, publicly or privately. It filled up when I swapped the “known but not-so-good” for the “unknown, possibly worse” or “possibly better.” It filled up when I was able to respect myself instead of relying on the opinions of others. It filled up when I realised that doing the right thing doesn’t always feel good. It filled up when I stopped worrying and started making things happen. Asking for help, admitting that someone had a better idea, giving myself the freedom to be a fool, none of these things took anything away. That’s why I’d give myself that box and make myself swear not to open it.

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Brenda Romero is a leading game designer and developer. Based in Galway, Ireland, Brenda has established two successful game companies – Loot Drop and Romero Games. She now also runs a game design course at Limerick University.

In April 2017, Brenda won a lifetime achievement award from Bafta Games Awards.

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 identifies actions that could be taken to change this.

Dates, locations and booking for Aurora 2017-18 are available here.

 

Top 5 lessons for new leaders

In this blog, we share the top five lessons that previous participants on our blended programme for new leaders, Transition to Leadership (TTL) found valuable on their leadership journey.

1. It was crucial to have a safe space to take risks
In order to gain confidence in learning new leadership skills, it is crucial that new leaders have access to an environment where they are encouraged to take risks. No one likes to make mistakes, but mistakes can give us our greatest lessons and having a risk free environment to make them can be insightful.

2. There is not a definitive leadership style
On TTL, we explore a variety of different leadership styles from Commanding to Democratic* and participants noticed that each of them have something positive to offer in any leadership scenario. A good leader will be able to adapt different leadership styles in relation to circumstances or indeed the people they work with.

3. Respect individual differences
Difference within teams is far more useful than homogeneity. If new leaders can understand their colleagues’ different personality preferences, they can adapt their leadership style to steer their team more effectively.

4. Coaching is an undervalued skill
Coaching is essentially about asking the right questions rather than providing the right answers. New leaders will find this an important tool to help build their listening and questioning skills to effectively support the individuals in their team.

5. Clarity is essential when dealing with change
One of the most valuable lessons TTL taught those new to leadership was that whenever change is implemented, it requires clarity in communication and engagement. This isn’t an easy task, however it is important in those situations to find examples of best practice and relate it to their own change experience.

Are you looking for development for your new leaders?
There is still time for your new leaders to take part in Transition to Leadership. The programme takes place through Thursday 16 March 2017– Thursday 22 June 2017 over 3 face-to-face days and 16 hours of facilitated online activities.

If you would like to send colleagues onto the programme please visit our website: www.lfhe.ac.uk/ttl or alternatively you can contact Rita Walters, Marketing and Communications Coordinator, E: rita.walters@lfhe.ac.uk or T: 0203 468 4817.

*The leadership styles mentioned are from a model created by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee in their 2002 book, “Primal Leadership.”

Intense feedback

Dr Paul Gentle

I was fortunate enough to flip roles last month, and become a participant on a leadership development programme. In the first five minutes, our group of 20 was told in no uncertain terms to expect a week which would be “feedback-intensive”. The journey we were embarking on would take us to uncomfortable places.

Applying sound principles of instructional design, the programme took us through a rich range of experiences, starting with a simulation. We spent a day running a well-conceived manufacturing company at a turning-point in its strategic direction. Although we needed to take some substantive business decisions, the learning was entirely about our behaviours. How we established and developed working relationships, how we attended to values and culture in the part of the company we ran, and how effective others perceived our leadership to be – this was the stuff of the feedback the programme director had talked about.

The quality of this feedback was phenomenal. It was as far removed as it’s possible to be from a cursory slot of constructive criticism sandwiched between layers of appreciation.

First, we spent half an hour completing an iPad questionnaire ahead of an afternoon’s discussion on our team’s performance. Then we were set what was for me the most challenging task of the week – writing feedback sheets on each of the other six people in my team. Each one had to have three or four examples of behaviour or language in specific situations. What was more, in every case we had to describe the perceived impact for each example on ourselves or on others.

The next day was entirely spent processing this feedback in depth. It culminated in a twenty-minute feedback round for each individual, for which we were given a digital recorder for us to take away what our peers gave us. After hearing six pieces of individual feedback, our group facilitator drew on several pages of observation notes to give us her views on the leadership impact we’d made, with some very sharply-observed points (How had she even seen when I said that? I never even knew she was there!). This was powerful learning, and led to intense thinking on how we handle feedback on the Leadership Foundation’s programmes.

While writing this blog, I felt impelled to go to my digital recorder and remind myself, with some trepidation, of the feedback day. I switched it on, and was relieved, and transported back to the flow I experienced in the programme. I heard one of my colleagues telling me that the first thing I’d done was to “spark an energy to start”. I was ready to listen to what was to come.

Dr Paul Gentle is Director of Programmes

Answering the Whys

Hannah Phung

In preparation for one of our overseas programme, International Leadership Development Programme that takes place in Hong Kong and mainland China, I was drawn to the Education Guardian supplement Eastern horizons (15 January 2013).

The articles, and accompanying online live Q&A, raised many interesting questions on life for academics thinking about making the move to Southeast Asia. I saw even more in this than future work prospects. I asked myself what do I actually know about higher education in Southeast Asia and, this thought was followed by many whys? Why work in partnership; Why emigrate and Why Southeast Asia?

For so many UK universities diversifying – in research, TNE, student recruitment and contacts to name a few, these questions are constantly asked. This is why I reasoned that ILDP Hong Kong has been so popular since the programme began in 2011. It is an opportunity to visit higher education institutions and to ask questions unanswered in these news stories. In his article Professor John Spinks of Hong Kong University, says that the “Chinese government has provided funds for expanding the recruitment of international students and faculty as well as research grants” – this seems very positive but what are the conditions/reasoning behind this? How might this affect UK higher education?

The articles also highlight culture as one of the major area that UK universities really need to understand fully and make sense of when thinking of collaborating with Hong Kong or any Southeast Asian country.

I am a Chinese person born and brought up in Britain with parents who drummed the ‘You can always work harder’ mantra into my head, but the culture around me told me to balance work and play. I felt I understood both cultures well, but I was still shocked when I visited friends and family in Hong Kong and was told by Aunty Lau we could meet before she started work at 8am or after 8pm when she finished!

“That’s a 12 hour day you do Aunty Lau, how do you balance your work and family?”

“What do you mean by balance?”

“I mean have enough time for both work and family”

“Yes I do”

“errr… I’ll meet you after work; I am on holiday I suppose”

There is much you can learn from hearing others’ views and stories, and there will be so many more questions they raise. The best way to find out for yourself would be to take part in a programme such as ILDP Hong Kong, which this year is focusing on the subject of Building International Higher Education Partnerships, so that you can ask the questions you need to and get a taste of the difference for yourself.

Hannah Phung is the International Projects Manager, and her role includes the logistics and co-ordination of the ILDP Programmes.

Where are the leaders?

Dr Paul Gentle

While writing a book proposal a few months ago, I asked my first-year undergraduate son for some feedback on an idea I had for the title. I knew his response would be frank and direct; what I hadn’t expected was the thinking it would provoke in me.

When I gave him my suggestion, he looked nonplussed. “The challenge of inspiring collective commitment in our universities”, I said, already embarrassed that the words weren’t exactly rolling off the tongue.  At the time, I wasn’t sure if his implied disapproval was because the very length of the title took up half the characters in a tweet. Or maybe it was down to the sheer uphill struggle involved in inspiring anything in a university, from his perspective. One way or another, he remained more than usually silent for quite some time.

When asking participants on our programmes (such as Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership) to reflect on where leadership can be found in a university, I’ve often been encouraged by their responses. The starting point is frequently an assertion that leadership isn’t confined to what senior managers do – or middle managers, or indeed necessarily any managers. It simply isn’t automatically associated with positional power.

What really seems to count in many situations, people think, is a set of personal qualities associated with leadership presence. Those individuals who can tap into this successfully are able to invest energy and emotion in relationships, facilitate collaborative conversations and build teams with a clear sense of mutually-agreed direction. People with these qualities can be found everywhere in universities – in the student body, in research centres, in estates and maintenance staff, in teaching teams, in offices… regardless of pay grade.

The challenge for universities is to recognise that they are already ‘leaderful organisations’, and that if they could align personally influential individuals with their institutional direction of travel, they may indeed inspire collective commitment (Bolden et al.)

A few days after our initial exchange, my son called me into his room.

“I’ve got an idea for that book of yours”, he said.

“Oh yes?”

“Yeah – be straight up about it – ‘Who’s in charge around here?’”

Paul Gentle is Director of Prgrammes.

His book title is Engaging Leaders: The challenge of inspiring collective commitment in universities and the first draft will be with Routledge by the end of the summer.