In conversation with Tessa Harrison, King’s College London

Tessa Harrison is the Director of Students and Education at King’s College London. Ahead of speaking during Module 2 of Leadership Matters in November, we asked Tessa about her leadership style, being resilient, and the impact having a coach has had for her.

Tessa has spent almost 30 years in the higher education sector. She was previously the Chair of the Association of University Administrators (AUA) and spent 6 years prior to this on its board, as well as 2 years on the board of the Leadership Foundation.

Her focus is on students and improving their experience, and she has been bringing a new perspective to her work since her son became a student in October 2016.

What’s important to you as a leader?

I think for me what’s most important is absolute clarity. Clarity about my own narrative, what I am trying to achieve for my organisation and why I am trying to achieve it.

I’ve learnt over the years that having a very strong personal narrative is really fundamental and I wish I had learnt it earlier. I have found that having a strong purpose is making things easier in terms of having the conversations I need to have, and providing inspiration and guidance for my team in what can be choppy times in the sector.

I also think appointing and being motivated by the very best people is essential.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I don’t think I can label it. I think my leadership style is about coaching, recognising that people you work with are talented and that everyone comes to work to do the best job they can.  My job is to create the environment where they can be the best they can be. My leadership style is to be very open, honest, and to be a good giver of feedback. I also like receiving feedback, and have learnt over the years that having honest, reflective conversations is the best way to create a trusting workspace and to drive high performance.

What comes naturally to you as a leader? And what do you feel you have to work on?

Openness, honesty, humility and a good sense of humour come naturally to me.

What I’m working on is the challenge that when you get to a senior level that you need to recognise you are not the expert anymore. I often have days when I ask myself “what have I contributed to moving the organisation forward or moving my directorate forward?” I think making that transition from your day job being about doing things to your day job being about being a leader and enabling other people to do things can be a really hard transition to make and I think it is one we don’t pay enough attention to.  I try to work on that every day.

To tackle this leadership challenge, I have my own coach who helps me articulate the moments when I am getting in the way of others. My coach provides a safe space where I can explore what I am doing and what I think I need to be doing differently. I also try and encourage the people who report to me to be very honest with me when I am not getting it right. You will frequently hear me say to my leadership team, “I need your help with this”. I hope that this approach also helps those I work with on their journey from subject specialist to senior leadership positions to also be open and honest.

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?

I have always been quite ambitious, not in a naked ambitious way but more internally focussed. I recognised very early on that I had to move institutions in order to progress and I have done that 5 times. I was very fortunate that my family situation made that possible, and I know that it’s not always possible for others.

The advice I would give someone aspiring to a leadership role is to get yourself a coach. Find a coach who is trained in preparing you for senior leadership and to support you through the transitions you make throughout your leadership career.  A coach can also help you define and refine the personal narrative I mentioned above.

How did you find a coach, and how would you recommend others do the same?

The coach I had was made available to me by the organisation I was about to leave. I then took the opportunity when I first started at King’s College London to train to be a coach and we’re in the process of trying to imbed a coaching culture here so that there is an internal register available for staff. But there are numerous ways of procuring a coach externally, via professional bodies like AUA for example.

Managers also need to recognise that their staff getting a coach does not mean they are not getting what they need from you as a manager- it’s a very different relationship. It’s transformational having that person with you and I strongly advise anyone on a leadership journey to get one.

Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, forms part of the Leadership Matters reading list- how important is vulnerability to you as a leader?

Absolutely critical. I think vulnerability and humility are fundamental to good leadership. In the last 6-12 months I’ve really drawn on vulnerability as part of my leadership style and narrative and I can see the effect it has. It is very disarming when someone admits, “I didn’t quite get that right” or “I don’t know what to do in this situation”. I feel strongly that we need to learn to be vulnerable with each other. I think too many organisations are run by people, often but not always men, who have never learnt to be vulnerable, and that is really concerning.  I derive strength from being a woman able to bring humility and vulnerability to discussion and decision making.

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

It was when I left an organisation without a job to go to. I’ve always been the breadwinner, and that was the most terrifying moment of my life. My network absolutely wrapped its arms around me at that time and I joined King’s as a result. In the interim I had 2-3 months space where I really had time to reflect on what I wanted my contribution to be. So although it was terrifying, and I empathise with others going through the same experience, those 2-3 months were absolutely transformational for me. I came to King’s with clarity: about my role and about what I wanted to do with it and I can see and feel the difference for both myself and the people around me.

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

The experience I had before joining King’s has made me more resilient. I survived and came out stronger than before. I derive confidence from being able to ask myself, “what’s the worst that can happen?” and to be able to remind myself that even worst case situations can be rescued.

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

The one piece of advice I would give myself and women in particular is learn how to have the conversation about the terms of your contract, particularly your pay. I’ve never been good at having that conversation but I make a point now, particularly when I hire women, to say “now is your time to tell me what you really want from your pay and conditions, because you won’t have another opportunity to have this conversation”. I make sure that conversation is a comfortable conversation.

My advice is know your value and learn how to lead that conversation about what you want and expect.

Read more: we asked Tessa to review Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg


Tessa Harrison will be the keynote speaker on Day 2 of Module 2 of Leadership Matters in Birmingham.

Leadership Matters Birmingham Autumn 
Module 1: 
Tuesday 17- Wednesday 18 October (residential)
Action Learning Set: Tuesday 7 November
Module 2: Wednesday 29 – Thursday 30 November (residential)

Book your space now.

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