Learning to lead: Experiences from Aurora

Note from Identity, Impact and Voice written by Dr Elaine Toomey, posted to her after the end of Aurora Dublin 2017.

Dr Elaine Toomey is a post-doctoral research fellow based at National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG). She took part in Aurora in Dublin during 2016-17. Here she reflects on her experience of the programme and her key learnings from each one of the four days and her action learning set day.

Fresh into my first ever postdoc (Health Research Board Interdisciplinary Capacity Enhancement (ICE) fellowship) in August 2016, I originally saw Aurora advertised through the university mailing list. I knew that a colleague had taken part in it the previous year and had found it valuable, so in my ‘apply for everything’, new postdoc mode, I decided to pop in an application. To my surprise, I was chosen along with about 20 other wonderful women from NUIG, including academic, administrative and research staff (but only one other postdoc!), to take part in Aurora and represent our university.

Before the first workshop, the vice president for Student Experience Dr Pat Morgan, who has been an Aurora role model, hosted an informal gathering (with some wonderfully festive mince pies) for the NUIG representatives. This was a chance to meet and get to know one another before heading to Dublin in December for the first workshop entitled ‘Identity, Impact and Voice’.

Identity, Impact and Voice.

This first day gave us a sense of what to expect from the coming weeks and also to help us clarify what we wanted to take from the programme. As well as an enthralling keynote from Lynn Scarff (director of the Science Gallery Dublin), the day facilitated us to begin reflecting on our leadership styles and our own identity – who are you, who do you want to be and how can you build the leadership you would like? With these questions in my mind, the key tips I took from this day that still stay with me were:

  • The importance of being relentless in the pursuit of opportunities, but not reckless (Lynn Scarff)
  • Looking at those who inspire you and their qualities that you would like to emulate, and having them ‘on your shoulder’ to influence how you work

Power and Politics

Power and Politics focused on personal goals and how to achieve these, through discussion and debate with other Aurorans. We received another engaging keynote, this time from Professor Anne Sinnott (the executive dean of DCU Business School) who spoke to us about the importance of understanding what motivates others and how to communicate effectively. This session also introduced our Action Learning Set.

The key take-homes for me from this session were:

  • The importance of ‘authenticity’ – identifying your beliefs and values and staying true to these.
  • Developing a three minute elevator pitch to influence how other people perceive you and the importance of your work from the outset.

Action Learning Set

My action learning set was with five other women from a mixture of Irish universities. The Action Learning set chose to meet at NUIG. For this, each of us chose a specific issue or goal relevant to our own careers and development. We confidentially discussed our issues within the group, and were challenged by the group through questioning to reflect on these issues, providing different perspectives and opinions.

For me, this session was particularly valuable as it allowed me to get to know five amazing women in very different areas to me, and for my issue highlighted the value of pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone to develop your career.

Core Leadership Skills

This day focussed on ‘storytelling’, and being aware of the influence of bias and stereotyping in work situations. Again, there were exceptional keynotes from NUIG’s own Professor Anne Byrne (head of Political Science and Sociology), Sara Doherty (director of Eve consultation) on the power of telling your story, and how to do this well.

Key learnings from this session were in relation to improving negotiation skills using the four following tips:

  • Assess – think about whether the benefits outweigh the costs of the proposal
  • Prepare – think about what motivates the other person, and what your own interests are
  • Ask – be open and upfront, share information with the other person and engage with them
  • Package – try to demonstrate what could be achieved as a whole set of things, and think about alternative proposals

Adaptive Leadership Skills

To conclude the programme the keynote was from game designer and developer Brenda Romero, who delivered a really engaging talk to wrap up the programme. Brenda had an interesting way of looking at imposter syndrome as ‘still learning syndrome’, so recognising that you always have more to learn, not to be afraid of failure, and knowing that what matters most is what you think of yourself.

My key take-home message from this session was around taking the ‘balcony view’, i.e. the value of viewing problems from above to see inter-relationships and patterns of change, and understanding that change doesn’t have to happen in my area, but that I can still have an impact via these connected pathways.

Finally

Aurora has helped me learn a lot about myself, my future career and leadership styles. While the programme learning was definitely not gender-specific, it was lovely to take part in something aiming to improve the impact of women in higher education. A consistent highlight of the programme for me was the keynotes from five amazing, successful and inspiring women. In particular, aside from anything gender-specific, I learned a lot from these women about good communication styles and the value of engaging your audience and stakeholders fully, which I want to continue to work on.

Another massive benefit of the programme has been the mentor it provided me with, who has been invaluable to date in terms of guidance and advice.

At the start of the programme, despite being selected, I didn’t really think I was a leader – that I was too junior, too early on in my career for the programme. However, by the end of it I learned that it’s never too soon to start learning how to lead well, and that everyone can display leadership – working within a team on a project, supervising students, or even through peer mentorship. It has helped me develop connections in institutions all over Ireland, and really importantly for someone new to NUIG, has introduced me to a great bunch of women and it’s great to be able to recognise more people across the campus. I also recently received an unusual letter from someone with identical handwriting to my own – until I opened it I had forgotten that during Identity, Impact and Voice we were asked to write our future selves a note about key things to remember, which would be posted to us at the end of the programme. Embarrassingly, I’ll post it here J It’s nice to know that past Elaine is in my corner!

This is an edited version of a post originally published on the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG) Health Psychology blog on 17 August 2017. The original version is available here.

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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

Reflections from Leadership Matters: supporting senior women in higher education

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.

Why Leadership Matters?

Just 18%  – or 36 – of the top 200 universities in the world have a female leader, according to the latest THE 2016-17 world university rankings, and men still overwhelmingly dominate the top leadership roles in 166 higher education institutions across the UK (Women Count: Leaders in Education 2016).

Higher education leaders work in a world where rapid cultural change is the norm rather than the exception. Understanding how our institutions are financed and governed, combined with the political savviness needed to navigate them, is essential, and the wider economic and social waves of change require a firmly grounded leadership purpose and resilience.

Women leaders have a huge amount to bring to the higher education sector and fully releasing that potential is, I believe, essential to the long-term health and sustainability of the sector.  But research shows that gender bias in organisations continues to “disrupt the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader”. (Harvard Business Review)

In the development process of Leadership Matters we listened to feedback from leaders across the sector, from our alumni and from the Aurora community. Crucially, the course had to be a safe space where women leaders could develop their own unique authentic leadership and navigate the cultural challenges they face.

As course director of Leadership Matters, the programme created two years ago to meet that need, I feel it is timely to take stock and share some thoughts about my approach and what I believe makes Leadership Matters so suited to senior women leaders.

Clear direction

Leadership Matters is a five-day programme that addresses both technical and personal leadership aims. Participants have a clear goal from the beginning, with each day serving a defined purpose. For example, day one demystifies the financial frameworks of higher education while day two focuses on governance and legal requirements. There is then an action learning set day for women to reflect on their learnings so far in a small peer group. Day four then tackles the cultural and political challenges that all leaders face, working to build participants’ confidence to navigate these in the context of a higher education institution. Finally, on day five, the focus is on participants identifying their true purpose as a leader, and confirming their own leadership identity and “narrative” or story.

As a whole, the programme provides a mix of technical and development skills, ensuring that participants leave feeling more confident in their own leadership, prepared to navigate their organisations’ culture, and equipped with real insights into their organisations’ financial and governance system.

A network of female leaders for continued learning

The programme supports learning groups that live powerfully, well beyond the limits of the programme itself, providing women with continued support as they work towards reaching the highest executive levels. At the heart of this are the Leadership Matters action learning sets, which provide women with the opportunity to build strong ties with a network of peers.

Learning from the experts

I’m proud to have brought together a multidisciplinary team of facilitators and speakers to work on Leadership Matters. Each is an expert in her own field, with deep experience in the academic world, and we all share an ambition to truly equip delegates for senior leadership.

  • Gill Ball OBE, former director of finance at the University of Birmingham
  • Christine Abbott, former university secretary & director of Operations at Birmingham City University
  • Sally Cray, an experienced Leadership and Organisational Development Specialist.

You can read more about myself and my fellow 3 facilitators here.

A personal learning environment

As the programme is designed for senior leaders who are striving to reach the very top tier of higher education, the cohort sizes reflect this. While the Aurora programme now attracts up to 250 women per cohort, Leadership Matters is designed to provide participants with a much more intimate training in cohorts of around 20 women.

Active, sustainable learning

Our job as facilitators is to find a balance between introducing some key concepts and models, allowing time to reflect, and encouraging delegates to experiment by applying the learning to their own personal and organisation context, which makes the learning sustainable well beyond the five days of the programme itself. As a result, Leadership Matters draws particularly on Kolb’s Learning Cycle, which emphasises an active learning style in which we learn from our experiences of life, and reflection is an integral part of such learning.

Leadership matters – now more than ever

“As a result of attending the programme I understand my own impact better and the action learning sets I’ve attended with other members have continued on past the programme itself, and have been invaluable.”  – Kirsteen Coupar, director of student support and employment at London Southbank University

I believe that Leadership Matters has shown itself to be an essential programme – for both women leaders and for the higher education sector as a whole. It is critical that the sector draws on all the talent and potential within its realm, to nurture and develop leaders with the vision and confidence to guide higher education through the turbulent economic and social change it is facing. Leadership Matters is helping to meet this urgent need, supporting women to strive for the highest possible levels of leadership so that they can play their part in steering their institutions to greater success.


Rachael Ross has a background in industrial relations and change management in the energy sector. She is now a leadership and diversity consultant and coach for senior leaders across all sectors. She is the course director for Leadership Matters.

Leadership Matters will be taking place in Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol in Autumn, Winter, and Spring respectively in the next academic year. For more information and to book a place please click here.