The Brexit Blogs: To see ourselves as others see us

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The map/model is not the reality

Doug Parkin, programme director considers self-awareness as the foundation of leadership development.

Sometimes leadership and management development can feel like a checklist of overlapping skills. We look at things like communication skills, managing conflict, planning, negotiation, performance management, strategy development, political awareness, team dynamics, equality and diversity, change, and so on.  All useful headings, and under each there are valuable things to know, insights to gain and skills to acquire, practise and reflect upon.

But the simple truth is, in leadership who you are drives everything. Not in a confining way, a way that says, ‘you are this and this alone’, but actually a very sophisticated way that acknowledges firstly that to “Know thyself” (a variously attributed maxim from ancient Greece) is a life-long quest, and secondly that we are very adaptive creatures capable of re-inventing ourselves to varying degrees to meet the needs of different situations.

The real skill of leadership development is, therefore, to encourage, promote and support intense self-reflection. This applies particularly to what might be termed personal leadership development, which revolves around the critical question “what sort of leader do you want to be?” Self-knowledge and self-perception is, of course, a big part of self-awareness – nobody knows our personal history better than ourselves, for example – but without some external reference points the perspective this gives us can become quite narrow.  A mirror or two may be needed, in other words, to see sides of ourselves that are otherwise obscured or sometimes conveniently disregarded. And in one way or another those mirrors take the form of feedback.

 O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

Never most noted for his contribution to management consultancy, Robert Burns (1786) nevertheless captured in this line of poetry the essence of 360-degree feedback. I can feel literary scholars wincing as I write, so let’s move on…

Daniel Goleman (1996), in his well-known model of emotional intelligence, defines self-awareness as “Knowing one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and goals – and their impact on others”.  And emotionally intelligent leaders are people who seek feedback all the time – a variety of external checks and reference points – because they appreciate the mirror this holds up for them and the productive self-reflection that it triggers.

The challenge of effective leadership development is, in many ways, to telescope this process, and thereby create a rich variety of feedback perspectives in a relatively short time scale, and a safe, forgiving space in which to reflect upon them and consider what behaviours to adapt and personal leadership changes to commit to. More extended leadership programmes, incorporating interventions such as coaching and action learning, create review points for these commitments to be refreshed and reinforced. The following figure captures the opportunities for feedback and self-reflection that can occur on well-designed leadership development programmes:

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In an illuminating chapter called ‘When do we get to do feedback?’ Professor Paul Gentle (2014) notes “How rare it is to give and receive extensive and specific feedback on our behaviours”.  Simulation activities and similar structured exercises on programmes create an opportunity for ‘feedback in the moment’. This is feedback that is immediate and which participants can respond to in real time, and it is also an opportunity for colleagues to consider and practise sharing feedback and the appreciative environment that invariably helps to make feedback land effectively. These are transferable leadership approaches that can be used for feedback in teams or projects.

360-degree feedback (or multi-source feedback) tools, particularly those premised on a model of transformational leadership such as the Real World HE TLQ used exclusively by the Leadership Foundation, are a powerful way of making feedback from a participant’s institutional work context part of their tailored development. This feedback is sensitive and confidential to the individual and so one-to-one support from an accredited coach is essential to integrate the learning and align it with other development themes within the programme overall.

Personality-based diagnostics or psychometrics of various kinds attempt to provide an objective view of personality type on an individual basis. This is an opportunity to consider what lies beneath our behaviours, choices, preferences and motivations on an individual level. It is an important part of self-awareness to consider the psychological drivers that reasonably consistently manifest themselves in who we are and how we prefer to live, work and operate in the world. Inevitably, though, the use of any such tool involves using categories and dimensions – spectrums on which we are more or less inclined to see ourselves. Whether it is four, sixteen, or a hundred-plus categories that the tool renders, it is still a simplification because every individual is gloriously unique, but there can nevertheless be great value in exploring the truth within such a diagnostic profile.  And ‘exploring the truth’ is an important mindset to have, because ultimately we are the best judges of our type, even though diagnostic tools can challenge us and help to provoke fresh self-insight (as well as providing us with a short-hand vocabulary for discussing and considering personality – our own and others’). So, whether one uses the four temperaments from ancient times (Hippocrates and Galen), or their more recent cousins found in the work of Carl Jung (Personality Types, 1921), Myers and Briggs (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ([MBTI], 1943), Merrill and Reid (Personal Styles, 1981),  Costa and McCrae (The Big Five, 1985) Margerison and McCann (Team Management System, 1995), or Bolton and Bolton (People Styles at Work, 1996), a learning environment needs to be created that enables the participant to mediate the data from their profile with their own self-awareness and, critically, other forms of experience and feedback. No one mirror can show every view.

There can be concern with some of these diagnostic profiles, such as MBTI, that the dimensions that operate within them create something of an ‘either-or’ approach to classifying people: e.g. introvert or extravert (although ambiversion has been put forward more recently to suggest a balance of the two).  Jung himself said, however, that “There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extravert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum” (1957), and this is why the notion of ‘preference’ (or tendency) is so important to the understanding and use of type. Preferences can be weak or strong, they can be hidden or apparent, they can be more or less balanced, but very few of us are trapped or confined by our preferences. As mentioned before, we are sophisticated beings and can learn to operate or excel within, outside or across our type-preferences, but it is nevertheless powerful and useful, particularly for leaders, to have a strong self-awareness of what those underlying preferences are or may be and to calibrate this with feedback from others on how they see and experience us.

Used alone or in isolation personality-based diagnostics can sometimes be of more limited value, and can for some feel like either labelling or a simplistic categorisation.  For this reason, the quality of facilitation or coaching around their use is extremely important, and as regards leadership development it is important to use them in combination with other forms of feedback and self-appraisal (see figure above), as we do at the Leadership Foundation on programmes such as Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership and Future Professional Directors. As illustrated in the lead image above, the map is not reality, it is to some degree a selective representation, and the nature of a management, communication or personality model is that it should create a tool for penetrating the complexity of the intrapersonal and the interpersonal in a useful way. The person who can most effectively ‘explore the truth’ around the model is the individual concerned – they determine ultimately their ‘best fit’ – and for this reason self-appraisal needs to be as strong, if not stronger than the evaluation by others, and this should be a balanced part of the process of developing and enhancing self-awareness for leaders. But the insights that flow from this can transform leadership like nothing else.  After all, you can’t be true to others until you are true to yourself.

Doug Parkin is a programme director for the Leadership Foundation and is responsible for a range of open programmes – including Future Professional Directors, Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership and Leading Transformation in Learning and Teaching (in collaboration with the Higher Education Academy). He also undertakes bespoke consultancy assignments for universities and works on some of our main international projects. Key interests include educational and research leadership, the leadership of professional services, strategy development, organisational change and leadership for sustainability.

Picture credits
Photograph of Lego Big Ben courtesy of London Mums Magazine
Photograph of Big Ben courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Georgia on my mind: A distinctive experience

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by Dr Paul Gentle

I was fortunate to be able to visit several higher education institutions in and around Atlanta, Georgia last week, in the generous company of a cohort of Top Management Programme 31 delegates. The programme was led by Dr Tom Kennie & Professor Robin Middlehurst. I was most struck by Georgia Gwinnett, a public undergraduate, teaching-only college whose mission is to be a 21st century access institution. It was newly-built and launched in 2006 with 118 inaugural students, now providing a liberal arts education to almost 10,000. The campus provides beautifully-designed buildings and sports and leisure facilities which are well-used by students. Given Georgia Gwinnett College’s mission to engage large numbers of students whose parents did not experience higher education themselves, tuition fees are far from prohibitive, and are limited to a full-time year equivalent of under $3,500 – just over £2,000.

Visiting on a Friday (often a quiet day on US campuses) gives a tangible sense of the engagement and inspiration demonstrated by Georgia Gwinnett’s students. It is immediately obvious that the college and its organisational culture is built on clear and focused educational principles:

  • Harnessing innovation in learning technology to support student success
  • Providing an integrated educational experience in which service learning and other extra-curricular activities play a key role and are actively managed by the College
  • Engagement by all faculty in teaching and mentoring as a hallmark of the institution

There is a deliberately-stated intention to act as a model for innovation in education and administration. All on-campus services and facilities that are not directly linked to delivering the curriculum are outsourced, and the college was designed in this way from the outset.

The founding president, Dan Kaufman, and current president Stas Preczewski, are both former senior officers from West Point Military Academy, and they have applied their experience and vision to creating and sustaining an institution which breeds success – the opening sentences of the prospectus declare ‘Failure is not an option.’

As one dean at Georgia Gwinnett put it, teaching staff are selected on the basis of ‘passion for teaching, and liking students’. Faculty are actively involved in student support, and are expected to be available for students with tutorial needs outside class hours. Every course handbook has the mobile number of the teacher printed clearly on the front cover, and this college-provided phone is meant to elicit a fast response. In addition to providing academic support for students in class and across the campus, there is also a 24-hour online tutoring service for every major undergraduate programme offered on campus.

Despite a short history, Georgia Gwinnett has build a strong reputation quickly, and is already ranked in the top 10% of colleges nationwide for academic challenge, student/faculty interaction outside of the classroom, and for active and collaborative learning. It has also achieved remarkable results for student retention, performing at least ten percentage points higher than the average for state colleges in the United States for first year retention. For a non-selective institution, this pays tribute to the supportive and challenging learning environment offered to students. It also reflects the practice of having maximum class group sizes of 25, and a compulsory attendance requirement.

The power behind the rapid growth of Georgia Gwinnett’s numbers lies in word of mouth: where live-transforming examples of student success affect families, this also impacts on communities, and ultimately, Gwinnett County and beyond. The most frequently reported aspect of student feedback is consistently about one aspect: the quality of the teaching staff. The key message which is now well established in the community is ‘Faculty here will help you make it through’.

Leadership

There is a clear purpose for Georgia Gwinnett, that of inspiring students to contribute to society. This links to the value of service, and is intended to ensure that the college contributes to the long-term civic growth and sustainability of Gwinnett County and its hinterland. Importantly, the current ethnic mix in the County corresponds to the predicted balance for the United States as a whole by 2040 . This is roughly 35% African-American, 35% white and 25% Latino. Georgia Gwinnett sees itself as an overt prototype of higher education for the 21st century, and is attracting considerable interest from its peers. Not only was it the first new four-year college founded in Georgia in more than 100 years; it was also the first four-year public college created in the United States in the 21st century.

Leadership is a key factor in the organisation of the college. It was set up deliberately without academic departments or departmental chairs, in order to avoid silo mentalities. Deans therefore manage within a model of distributed leadership, in which clusters of colleagues work together across academic programmes and thematic areas of responsibility overseen by associate deans.

In the week when I visited Georgia Gwinnett with a group of leaders from across the UK, the college had just succeeded in securing accreditation for its degree programmes for a further ten-year period, with feedback from the accrediting body which was entirely positive. One aspect which was found to be an outstanding example of leadership practice concerned strategy: Georgia Gwinnett’s strategic plan is a dynamic reality, constantly being updated and enacted. The accrediting body had never before seen this happen before in a higher education institution!

My thanks to Tom Kennie and Robin Middlehurst for setting up such a comprehensive programme of visits, and for all their inspiring work on TMP over the last 14 years

Paul Gentle is the Leadership Foundation’s Director of Programmes and from autumn 2013 will lead Top Management Programme 32 onwards. To find out more about TMP visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/TMP