How effective are simulation experiences for leadership development?

One of the most effective techniques we use in our leadership development interventions is to provide leaders with a simulated environment. This challenges them to confront complex, highly interwoven performance management and operational issues. But how effective is this in practice? We spoke with Paul Hessey, Leadership Foundation associate, who leads on this activity on our Leading Departments programme for new heads of department.

How does a simulated environment work?
Based on a very realistic university scenario, this usually involves the programme participants working in groups of six along with three actors who take on the roles of stakeholders and the dean. The simulation is designed to present participants with realistic scenarios they might encounter in their day-to-day work as a head of department. This gives the facilitators the opportunity to help participants’ identify their weaknesses and strengths and enables us to offer guidance and best practice on how to approach difficult situations.

What are the three main benefits of using a simulated environment on a leadership development programme?

  1. Participants are reminded of some simple, robust and powerful theory of influence and learn the skills they need to put that theory into practice in a safe environment.
  2. Reflect and receive tailored feedback on strengths and development opportunities.
  3. Be part of a rich and diverse range of colleagues from both professional service and academic roles, and benefit from observing a wide range of approaches to influencing in action.

Have participants ever surprised you with how they reacted to this type of role playing style activity?
Our approach is more ‘real play’ than ‘role play’ because essentially the participants are experimenting with being themselves in the scenario, rather than taking on a character. In terms of being surprised by how participants react to these activities I am always taken aback by the way participants are committed to a mythical department. They really immerse themselves into the activity and come up with creative ideas and solutions. During a programme’s coaching sessions I found that many participants realised that they want and need to take a more strategic view of their role; in particular delegating more so they can take a step back to better develop and promote their own department through running events and engaging with a pool of stakeholders. These scenarios also increase their awareness of the importance of owning their professional profile and reputation.

What would you say to those who are sceptical about real playing on a leadership development programme?
Real play has an interactive approach which means participants can take a very practical look at how people communicate and influence, and then experiment with different approaches. Real play gives participants the chance to safely assess and practice an expanded range of influencing, management and leadership techniques to help them better engage their own diverse stakeholder base.

Higher education is a very unique sector. In your years of experience of working in different sectors, do you notice any similarities?
Many! People face the same challenges other sectors do in terms of politics and culture. However, in higher education people are perhaps more motivated by their desire to achieve their professional objectives rather than financial incentives. In higher education environments in particular, I’ve noticed that leaders may have less access to organisational benefits and consequences to motivate those around them. They are therefore often seeking to achieve action in their institutions by influencing others without any direct authority or power to demand action. Instead they must find a way to overcome resistance and challenge and encourage staff to buy-in and commit to the mission in a positive way. Many participants have said that they leave the Leading Departments programme feeling more equipped and confident to do exactly that.

Paul Hessey is the programme director for the Leading Departments programme, designed to develop the leadership skills of heads of department. The booking deadline is Friday 6 October, to find out more about Paul or to book onto the programme visit www.lfhe.ac.uk/leaddepts

He is also a facilitator on the Introduction to Head of Department programme for new and aspiring heads of department. The booking deadline is Friday 27 October, to find out more and book visit www.lfhe.ac.uk/ihod

Other Leadership Foundation programmes that use simulated learning environments include:

Top Management Programme: www.lfhe.ac.uk/tmp

Future Professional Directors: www.lfhe.ac.uk/fpd

Has the governing body given attention to the institution’s policies and actions in relation to students’ mental health?

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David Williams the Leadership Foundation’s governance web editor, highlights one area where governing bodies may need to give increased attention following the recent report from HEPI, on the students’ mental health.

Governing bodies have overall responsibility for the strategic direction and sustainability of higher education institutions (HEIs). Governors are concerned about all matters fundamentally affecting the institution and its sustainability. Typically, amongst the many matters that a governing body will exercise oversight is student recruitment, retention and achievement. An emerging concern will the potential to impact significantly on student retention is mental health.

A new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), ‘The invisible problem? Improving student mental health’, suggests that increasing numbers of HE students are experiencing mental health problems. The report highlights that the matter has significant implications not just for the student, but also the institution. Students experiencing mental health issues are at greater risk of not completing their studies, and the institution facing a loss of tuition fee income. Given the rising incidence of mental health issues, the report suggests governing bodies could consider giving one governor a specific remit to track their institution’s progress in improving mental health support.

The majority of higher education students in the UK enter full-time undergraduate education aged 18 or 19. While these students are classed as adults and able to vote in public elections, less attention is paid to the major transitions they face when entering higher education for the first time.

The HEPI report points out that unlike many other countries the UK has a ‘boarding school model’ of higher education. This means students normally live away from home for the first time.

At precisely the point when they face significant academic and personal changes, including the need to come to terms with new forms of learning and build new friendships, students are separated from their support networks. The increasingly demanding nature of the graduate labour market and rising student debt levels add further pressure on students to do well at university.

Student distress is particularly centered on feelings of stress, anxiety and unhappiness. The report highlights the need for students to develop emotional resilience and learn how to become more compassionate to themselves and others. Cognitive ability on its own is insufficient to ensure student survival and achievement.

Although the data is incomplete and increased levels of disclosure and awareness may account in part for the rising demand falling on university counselling services, the HEPI report suggests there is clear evidence that mental health issues are becoming more common amongst higher education students. The assessment is supported by the responses from HEIs to recent freedom of information requests made by The Guardian newspaper.

The HEPI report questions the level of current support for mental health being provided by some HEIs. Expenditure to support students shows marked variation.

The report cites examples of institutional good practice, but equally suggests that governing bodies need to seek assurance that the institution has a formal mental health policy and associated action plan. A pre-condition for assessing such policies and plans is ensuring the scale of the problem at the institution is understood together with the current level of support offered. Data about the scale of students’ mental health problems tends to be patchy.

If they haven’t already addressed the issue, a governing body should examine the provision provided by their institution to support students with mental health difficulties. Above all, governing bodies need to ensure mental health issues affecting students are understood and appropriately addressed.

David Williams has been by the Leadership Foundation’s governance web editor since 2013. He has worked with the governing bodies and senior leadership teams of different higher education institutions for over 20 years.

Editor’s notes

  1. For a full set of briefing guides on governance edited by David, please go to www.lfhe.ac.uk/govbriefings
  2. Read the latest news on governance, including the latest newspiece by David on students’ mental health and the role of governing bodies, click here
  3. Other blogs on governance include:
    Book Review: What can governance in higher education learn from other sectors?Book review: Nonprofit Governance
    How can universities enhance the strategic development of the academic portfolio?Poland’s rapid response to change in higher education makes it a hidden gem

The Brexit blogs: owning the grieving process

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Cindy Vallance on the mood and leadership responsibilities after the referendum

Early on the morning that we learned the UK had voted to leave the European Union, I found myself reeling with the news. The first person I spoke to that day was the man who handed me a free newspaper to read on the train. He asked me, “What was the result?” When I told him, struggling to hold back my tears, his response was, “this changes everything.”

On my train journey, I was surrounded by a group of young teens on their way to school. Brexit was their only topic of conversation. Around me, commuters were glued to their mobile devices, plugged into news channels and early morning broadcasts, looking for answers in a world that had seemingly turned upside down.

I was on my way to a leadership programme session with a group of senior staff at one of the Leadership Foundation’s member universities. Travelling to the event, I asked myself, how can I possibly focus on the planned agenda and what will the group want? Will they even come to the session or will I find myself alone in the room?

I was unsure whether to be happy or disappointed when, one by one, the group members entered and sat down. There was a part of me that simply wanted to be left alone with my own thoughts, to grieve. Yes – to grieve. A strong word, a word we do not use lightly. However, when I asked the group how they wanted to spend our time together, one of the first comments a participant shared was “I feel as though I am grieving over something I have lost.”

Somehow, this acknowledgement helped set the stage in a positive way for the discussion that followed. Naming that feeling, naming grief and putting it boldly on the table, meant that we could all be honest and share our responses to the news in a very real way, opening the door for us to also work through other emotions.

Many will be familiar with this sequence of words: grief, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. It is from the grief cycle model developed in the 1960s by psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross[1] to describe the process that terminally ill patients progress through when informed of their illness. Since that time many adaptations have been made to the original model and applied to the process that people go through when experiencing organisational change. Here’s just one example of a commonly used ‘Change Curve’[2]:

Change Curve

A positive outcome from that session on the day of the Brexit news was the common conviction expressed by those in the room that one of their leadership responsibilities is quite simply to be there for their staff and students as they work through their own emotions. Naming our feelings and allowing others to do so is a step we must take to work through what is, and will continue to be, a deeply emotional issue.

Cindy, is the Leadership Foundation’s Assistant Director, Membership. She liaises with higher education institutions in London and across the South and East of England developing relationships with our members, coordinating events and leadership development initiatives that support and complement individual institutions’ strategies and the higher education agenda.

[1] Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying. Macmillan

[2] The Change Curve,  is in our  Knowledge Bank resource,  a Leadership Foundation membership benefit.

Other sources of information

Kubler-Ross’s original book was On Death and Dying – here is the link to the more accessible version of the work: On Grief and Grieving.

A view from higher education using the same model: Seven stages of grief on the way to acceptance

 

 

Views on Listening: supported

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As she prepares to host the autumn 2014 runs of Research Team Leadership and Leading Research Leaders, LF associate, Shirley Wardell returns with the latest in her Listening series of blogposts. In ‘supported’ she explains how research leaders can offer true support through better listening.

When you listen to people they feel supported, this is what participants on the Research Team Leadership programme tell us. Support is something that stops things from collapsing or crumbling; support is a critical function of a leader. I am sure leaders in institutions are hoping to do more than stop people from collapsing when they offer support. I imagine they are hoping to help people reach their full potential; to do the really hard stuff; and to work really well with others.

On Research Team Leadership we use John Adair’s Functional Leadership as a practical framework that helps leaders be clear about ‘what’ they need to do. The Functional Leadership model outlines 11 functions a team leader needs to perform over the three areas of the task, the team and the individual. Support is one of the functions described in this model. A leader needs to provide support for the task, support to the team and to the individual. John Adair’s framework establishes ‘what’ to do and then we turn to Nancy Kline’s framework getting the participants to think about ‘how’ to do it.

We ask the research leaders how they might support their teams. We ask them to think deeply about how they can achieve the goal of supporting their teams by arranging for them to listen to each other profoundly. Nancy Kline’s suggestion ‘if in doubt, ask’ seems like a good maxim when deciding how to support anyone. We can take a few educated guesses what they might need, but when we ask and listen profoundly the nuances of needs appear.

Here is a glimpse of what research team leaders tell us are good ways to support their teams:

1. Take time to listen to the research team and to make sure this happens
2. Be aware of the needs of individual researchers
3. Create a supportive atmosphere
4. Be responsive
5. Support them to support themselves
6. Facilitate team activity
7. Resolve conflicts

All of the activities above would require some skilled listening. Programme director David Faraday and I have woven our learning from nearly 60 runs of Research Team Leadership training into Leading Research Leaders (the first run takes place on Thursday 27 and Friday 28 November in Birmingham and the second run is scheduled for May 2015.) In this new programme for research-active academics we will expand upon how listening can be learned as a skill to develop thinking, collaboration and to support research leaders.

Research Team Leadership, the vehicle that has brought us all this insight, has run exclusively as an in-house programme at universities throughout the UK for the past four years. In November we reintroduce it as an open/national programme providing participants with the chance to network with peers outside of their university. The autumn run is on Thursday 13 and Friday 14 November, also in Birmingham. Individual research team leaders can attend and add their thoughts to the wealth of data we have gathered and analysed and benefit from the results of the talented research team leaders who have attended the programme over the years.

Shirley Wardell’s earlier blog posts are here. Listening