Our mentorship journey: Cathie Barnett and Simon Chandler-Wilde

Catherine (Cathie) Barnett is a senior research fellow in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading who took part in Aurora London in 2016-17. Following advice from a role model she decided to ask for a mentor outside of her discipline and was matched with Simon Chandler-Wilde, dean of diversity and inclusion and professor of applied mathematics at the University of Reading. Here they reflect on their relationship as mentee and mentor

Firstly, tell us a little about yourself

Cathie: My original background was in both environmental and archaeological sciences and I worked in management of environmental impact assessments for an engineering company before coming to Reading. After completing my PhD I worked in a commercial archaeological unit as the Senior Geoarchaeologist then Principal Archaeological Scientist before returning to Reading in 2014 to take up this position. Not a traditional academic and research path by any means.

My current role is split between archaeological science research and project management of a large Iron Age Landscape project named Silchester Environs. I also line manage an excellent team of archaeologists and specialists who work on a series of Silchester excavation and post-excavation projects, and report in turn to the Principal Investigator Prof. Mike Fulford.

I’m married to a land manager for the Wildlife Trust and we have 3 boisterous little boys so the outdoors features heavily in my life. They are wonderful and exhausting, so I’m fortunate to have negotiated an unusual working pattern which allows me to balance home life with them and still deliver on a busy work schedule.

Simon: I’ve worked in a number of universities – Bradford, Coventry, Brunel, and I joined Reading in 2003. In my role as dean for diversity and inclusion I job share with my colleague Professor Ellie Highwood, the rest of the time I am an academic. My role as dean is a fairly new university role which we took up 2 years ago.

I’m married – my wife has a senior role at Buckinghamshire New University – and have two daughters; one has just finished university and is now a journalist, the other is in her last year at school.

How did your approach the process of mentorship?

Simon: Cathie and I hadn’t met before, we were paired up by Susan Thornton, our Leadership and Talent Development Manager and Aurora Champion, and then we got in contact by email and had a first meet up. Helpfully we were provided with a pro forma that Cathie completed and we discussed, where Cathie wrote down what she hoped to get out of Aurora and having a mentor. This was really helpful to set the scene initially, and to refer back to in order to focus subsequent discussions.

We met four or five times, about monthly, from about Christmas through to May, meeting about an hour each time. There was no huge structure to the meetings, except that the initial pro forma provided a continuing point of reference, and that we would agree at most of these meetings follow-on actions that Cathie would report back on. Also, I continued to ask what had happened on the Aurora front since the previous meeting, and what outcomes/impact that had had. But we also talked about other things, for example we found out that Cathie was going on holiday in Shropshire just a few miles away from where I go for holiday most years, so we discussed holiday activities too!

My approach to being a mentor is to be interested, encouraging and supportive, and to ask open questions, to get a sense of my mentee’s environment, career, aspirations and issues that she/he wants to tackle. I’m also wanting to explore my mentee’s understanding of the next steps ahead, and to ask questions to expand that understanding. As a more experienced mentor I can make my mentee aware of possibilities, and how stuff works, that they just haven’t been exposed to. And it’s really satisfying to seek to build confidence, for example to challenge and support my mentee to have new conversations with colleagues in her environment.

Cathie: One tip given by one of the role models on the first Aurora day was to aim for a senior mentor outside your own department. Good advice!

Simon has been very encouraging and supportive, I’ve enjoyed our meetings and having another in the diary focuses my mind. I have found it particularly useful to talk to someone so familiar with the university procedures and who could take an objective view of how I fit in the system. I particularly value that he asked and let me find my way to answers rather than leading with advice straight away, it’s a lesson I’m going to try and apply when talking to colleagues and students myself.

Simon, what inspired you to become a mentor?

Simon: Firstly I’ve had great mentors myself, people senior to me who have offered advice, encouraged me to stretch myself, and acted as sounding boards. Secondly, in the leadership and people management roles I have had, for example as head of department and head of school, but also at a lower level, e.g. as line manager for research staff working for me, I’ve enjoyed supporting staff in their development. This has included: personal development reviews, supporting applications for promotion, for research grants, and for new jobs. I think it’s a really important part of our role as any sort of people manager to support the staff we work with and help them to grow and develop (and move up to the next level), and it’s a part of the job that gives me great satisfaction.

Has the mentoring relationship continued?

Cathie: Yes it has, both informally, I know Simon will be there with a listening ear and good advice if and when I need him, and we have a more formal follow-up meeting in the diary. He has also kept me informed of further leadership training which he felt I might be interested in, and which I recently took advantage of.

What has been your biggest learning from the process?

Cathie: I’ve learnt a great deal in our discussions and of course through Aurora as a whole. One of my key aims for doing this was to grow in confidence and to gain more of a voice. By nature I’m rather reticent, awkward and apologetic in putting myself forward in areas such as progression and promotion or in challenging ideas with senior colleagues, although I suspect my colleagues don’t realise it. Speaking with my mentor has helped me be a little braver, I have had conversations in the last 6 months I would have shied away from before and have had some really positive outcomes including further leadership training and setting objectives for further progression within the university. I’ve also learnt that there are gaps in the current system which, when discussed openly, the University are keen to tackle and that there’s a great deal of support and encouragement available if you ask.

Simon: I’ve been an Aurora mentor more than once, and certainly I have played a more informal role as mentor on many other occasions. But I am continuing to learn through practice, and continuing to gain confidence as a mentor. Regarding confidence, it is becoming clearer to me – but really this is pretty obvious – that having done a lot of different things in a lot of roles, and having held senior positions where you are forced to understand how the university (and universities generally) work, I do have a lot that I can pass on, and I am well-equipped to know the right questions to ask to get Cathie (and other mentees) reflecting on what they are doing and what might be possible in the future.

Cathie, have you ever been a mentor yourself and would you consider being one in the future?

I have been, and am now a line manager and try to be an advocate and to encourage my colleagues to take up learning opportunities, to stretch themselves and become more personally visible, but I have not been a mentor to someone beyond my immediate team. I would like to offer that in the future, and have recently let my department know I would be happy to contribute by acting as one. I have a better idea now of what would be useful to mentees having gone through the process myself and having had such a positive experience.

Cathie, what was the best piece of advice you received from your mentor?

I’ve had lots of great discussions with Simon but one of the key things I’ve taken from him has been to take stock, to stand back to look at all I have already achieved and how that has already equipped me for leadership roles. On a practical level, that has led to me recording everyday activities more often and considering how these tasks provide direct evidence for my capability in specific research and leadership areas key to progression.

Simon, what piece of advice would you give other aspiring women leaders?

My advice is to stretch and challenge yourself; to develop confidence through stretching yourself and trying new leadership roles; and to remember that the people more senior to you are only slightly (if at all) different, were at your level rather recently, and are much less confident (and competent) than they may come across.

Talk and ask questions about how everything works and what is possible. Get into the habit of saying: “I could do that”.

Finally, good employers should develop their staff and provides routes and opportunities for promotion and development and taking on new roles – and certainly universities are large enough organisations that this should be possible – but do think also about moving employers as a route to progression, and as a means to reinvent yourself. My own last move – 15 miles down the road from Brunel in 2003 – had a huge impact on my career.

And finally, do you have an inspiring woman leader, and if so, who?

Cathie: My primary female role model is an absolute cliché, being my mother. She retrained from being a GP to become a consultant psychiatrist while I was a toddler specifically so that she could take on part time roles and juggle home life with a successful and meaningful career. It taught me that it can be very healthy for children to see the women in their lives following their chosen profession without being absent. I hope I’m achieving the same balance with my boys.

Simon: There are many women that I’ve encountered who have inspired and impressed me, and that I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside, or working for them as my boss.

Let me kick off – maybe a good place to start– with my wife , Dr Rebecca Chandler-Wilde, who is director of Enterprise at Buckinghamshire New University. I admire her judgement, not least in managing people and relationships, her enthusiasm and sense of fun at work and can-do attitude – this coupled with a large dose of realism – and her attitudes to work-life balance, not least her scorn for presenteeism.

I admire hugely my job share Prof Ellie Highwood, who is a leader in her Dean role and, in the rest of her time, is an eminent climate physicist and President of the Royal Meteorological Society. Moreover she does this working part-time (about four days a week), and so is a great role model for flexible working arrangements at the highest levels.

I’m also a great fan, having contributed to her Wikipedia page, of another former President of the Royal Meteorological Society, Professor Dame Julia Slingo FRS, who until recently was the Met Office Chief Scientist, leading a team of many hundreds of first-rate scientists, developing some of the best weather and climate models in the world.


Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research which highlighted women’s under-representation in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to address this.

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

8 ways to be a better role model

As bookings for role models are now open 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.

“Role models make a unique and integral contribution to the Aurora programme. The majority of LFHE’s role models are Aurora alumnae or senior women from higher education institutions and related bodies who are committed to enabling women in HEIs achieve their potential and gain maximum benefit from participating in Aurora. The time that role models are willing to volunteer demonstrates their commitment to addressing the under-representation of women in leadership positions in higher education. This volunteerism is itself an act of leadership.” –Vijaya Nath, director of leadership development and course director.

1. Provide a safe space for (sometimes) challenging conversations

“Imagine you’re hosting a meal with friends. You want people to talk to each other and have a good time”- Rebecca Nestor

Enjoyment is a key element of Aurora so make sure that everyone has an opportunity to voice their opinion. If someone doesn’t engage in one activity, encourage them to engage in the next. Or when the facilitators ask for feedback encourage each member of the table to speak up at one point. Do not feel afraid to ask participants from your institution or who you know to go to another table as it will enable them to meet new role models, and provide them with a safe space to speak without fear of judgement. During Power and Politics (Day 2) tables will be pre-allocated for role models and participants.

2. Ensure all opinions are valued

“Make sure all opinions are respected”- Rosemary Stamp

Last year there were over one thousand Aurora participants from both academic and professional services backgrounds so it is no surprise that opinions vary. Try to facilitate so that no one person, or opinion dominates. As future leaders Aurorans will be faced with numerous perspectives in their professional lives, some they may not agree with, that will have to be managed with diplomacy.

3. Listen carefully

All of our facilitators agree that being a good listener is a vital trait in a role model, encouraging conversations with questions rather than dominating them. This will help you ensure everyone is heard, that people on your table are encouraged to speak up and that you are able to pick up on any areas where you can help aid the learning of the table.

4. Share your own experiences and knowledge

“Feel open to sharing any relevant experience or advice that others at the table might not have- it is very much an added bonus” – Phyllida Hancock

Even if you have only very recently completed Aurora yourself, everyone’s experiences professionally are different. Think back to your own time at Aurora, you may have seen a different speaker who had a particularly relevant message or be able to draw on learnings from days that happen later in the programme to stimulate the discussion.

5. Take the opportunity to learn

“Use this opportunity to practice all the skills you learnt during the programme and step out of your comfort zone”- Jenny Garrett.

If you are not an Aurora alumnae then still take the opportunity to learn. The guest speakers throughout the programme bring valuable insights from both within and outside of the sector.

6. Read through the tasks

“The best role models have read the role model guidance” – Maeve Lankford

4-5 weeks prior to each event the Aurora team will send out joining instructions which will include insights into the tasks you can expect on the day, set out by each facilitator. This preparation enables you to think about the tasks, feel confident in the task, and start to think of ways your own experiences and learning can help enhance the learning of the participants on your table.

“The tasks vary depending on the session, for Identity, Impact and Voice it’s really about reassurance and helping participants feel at ease but during the later sessions it is increasingly important to help participants stick to the task”- Rebecca Nestor

Be prepared that every day is different so the task changes each time. It is therefore essential to read through the tasks prior to each event. 

7. Be confident

“Remember that we only need to be one step ahead of another person to be able to give them some support and encouragement.  We are not experts”- Maeve Lankford

Know that you have knowledge and experience that will be useful to the Aurora participants and take comfort in having examples and pre-work sent to you before the event. You don’t need to have all the answers, just encourage and facilitate the discussions and learning.

8. Enjoy the day

“Most importantly, enjoy helping others learn. We’re so grateful to our role models for giving their time, energy and wisdom and hope that they enjoy the days as much as the participants.” – Phyllida Hancock

If you are considering being an Aurora role model and have a question, please do get in touch.


The Facilitation Team

Vijaya Nath is the Director of Leadership Development at Leadership Foundation and Aurora course director. She leads a team who work on Leadership Development and related interventions and projects.

Phyllida Hancock has a background as an actress and singer who now runs training and development programmes specialising in leadership, team building and creativity. She is the facilitator of Identity, Impact and Voice

Rosemary Stamp specialises in strategic management, leadership, stakeholder engagement and competitive strategy as both an academic and a consultant. She is the facilitator of Power and Politics and programme director of the Top Management Programme.

Rebecca Nestor has worked in higher education since 1992, and was both head of equality and head of staff development at the University of Oxford. Since 2010 she has been the director of her own consultancy. Rebecca is the facilitator of Core Leadership Skills and a programme director for Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership.

Jenny Garrett is an executive coach and trainer, author of Rocking Your Role, speaker, mentor, and consultant with a passion for empowering female breadwinners. Jenny is the facilitator of Adaptive Leadership Skills.

Maeve Lankford, joined the Leadership Foundation in 2015 as Aurora Ambassador to promote Aurora in the UK and Ireland, having formerly been Aurora Champion for University College Cork.


Bookings for Aurora role models are now open.

The Aurora programme dates for 2017-18 are open for booking