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

Our mentorship journey: Karen Twomey and Val Cummins

Karen Twomey is a Researcher at Tyndall National Institute, Cork who took part in Aurora in Dublin in 2014-15. Karen chose, Val Cummins, Senior Lecturer at University College Cork to be her mentor for the duration of the programme and the relationship continues to this day. We asked Karen and Val to reflect on their relationship as a mentee and mentor.

Firstly, tell us a little about yourself

Karen: My name is Karen Twomey, and I participated in the Aurora Course in 2014-2015. I’m a mother to one year old boy/girl twins and, I’m a researcher in autonomous chemical sensing systems at Tyndall National Institute, Cork, Ireland. My research activity encompasses sensors, mixed-signal instrumentation, and signal processing and data interpretation algorithms.

Val: My name is Val Cummins. I had the pleasure of being invited to work with Karen on her Aurora Programme. My background and track record is in leading research with impact, including fostering innovation for the sustainable development of the global ocean economy. The sea has been a focal point for most of my career; from the formative years as a zoologist working on the humble periwinkle, to managing a large research centre, directing a maritime and energy cluster, and most recently as an academic in UCC. My leadership in the Blue Economy was recognised by a number of awards, including an Eisenhower Fellowship in 2012. I am married to Ken and we have three, beautiful young daughters.

How did you approach the process of mentorship?

Karen: I went into the mentorship process not fully knowing what I wanted to get out of it. However, I did know that I wanted a mentor who was a great public speaker and who understood the R&D environment. Val was suggested to me as a suitable mentor by the UCC Aurora Champion. I contacted Val over email and after our initial meeting, we agreed to meet face-to-face once a month with contact in between over email or text message.

Val: When I was contacted directly by Karen, I was struck by her commitment to the Aurora programme, and it was a no-brainer for me to agree to a mentoring relationship. I was fascinated by her work and achievements to date. We arranged to meet regularly. Our initial meetings were well structured, with clear objectives and actions to pursue. At the same time, it was natural for us to be very informal, which helped us to get to know each other better.

What has been your biggest learning from the process?

Karen: I think the biggest learning for me has been the realisation of how powerful having an outside perspective can be. You can start to get tunnel vision, especially when working in the same workplace for 15 years.  Having the right mentor can show you your potential, can give you a push to try new things. For instance, with Val’s help and encouragement, I applied for a Science Foundation Ireland Industry fellowship, which allows an exchange between academia and industry. I’m now on a one year secondment from Tyndall and am working in a corporate R&D environment.

Val: My learning from the process is that you can never underestimate the importance of mutual support between women in the work place. It is not a linear process flowing from mentor to mentee. It works both ways. Karen’s focus and capability inspires me.

Val, what inspired you to become a mentor?

Val: I was inspired by Karen, in her approach to me, which encouraged me to believe that this would be a valuable process. I was also inspired by my experience with my own personal mentors, who have been generous to a fault with their time and advice which they have provided unconditionally.

I had my head in the sand for many years in relation to the need to advocate for equality in the workplace. Through personal experiences I have come to appreciate the importance of this issue. Mentorship provides an important mechanism for women to provide the support needed to encourage their counterparts to break through the many glass ceiling that prevail in working environments.

Karen, have you ever been a mentor yourself?

Karen: I haven’t previously been a mentor but I would like to pay it forward to other women pursuing a career in STEM by passing on what I have learnt from Val and from my own experiences as a research scientist.

Karen, what was the best piece of advice you received from Val?

Karen: The best piece of advice that I got from Val was to have a can-do attitude and to give new things a shot.

Val, what piece of advice would you give an aspiring woman leader?

Val: My advice is that what constitutes ‘success’ is personal to every individual. Capability, intellect, talent, and good luck are all factors that can help an aspiring leader to achieve successful outcomes. However, ultimately, success, or if you like, a sense of fulfilment and wellbeing, are contingent on relationships. Taking the time to relate to others, and to value your colleagues, is an imperative. It’s a cliché, but there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’.  Aspiring leaders need to understand how to build and maintain vibrant teams.

Finally, for you both: do you have an inspiring woman leader, and if so, who

Karen: I am very inspired by Professor Linda Doyle, who is Director of CONNECT/CTVR Research Centre in Dublin and Professor of Engineering and The Arts in Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. She is a wonderfully passionate speaker and is an expert in her field yet is completely unassuming.

Val: It is hard to single out any one individual, as there are many characteristics among many female leaders that are inspiring. For example, Ellen MacArthur, is an amazing example of someone with vision and an indefatigable determination to succeed. As a professional sailor, she broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005. Her autobiography, which I just re-read, is incredibly compelling. Since she retired from professional sailing, she founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to promote the Circular Economy, prompted, in part, by her acute awareness of debris in the ocean. In business, Sheryl Sandberg stands out, for her communication skills. I admire her for her honesty, and in her ability to use her influence to tackle the issue of gender equality in the workplace. Angela Merkel also deserves a mention, as a political leader committed to stability in a difficult time for the European project.

 


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.

Want to be more successful? Start with the end in mind

Maeve Lankford leads the Vision Workshop. 

Following on from the annual Aurora Conference 2017 Aurora ambassador, Maeve Lankford, shares insights from her workshop, Vision.

There is a saying that many of you will be aware of: “There is no wind favourable to the sailor with no destination in mind”. In order for us to achieve success in life, in our careers, in our relationships, it starts with us knowing what we want. As Stephen Covey puts it, “begin with the end in mind.”

So what are your plans for the next three years? If you aren’t sure then read this blog to develop clear ideas for yourself to take your first steps in successfully achieving what you want.

Identify your longings and discontents

As a leader, it is important to think about where you are in your leadership journey and where you see yourself going next. Ask yourself, how do I want to develop personally and professionally? Perhaps you have just completed Aurora and are thinking about your next steps, or maybe you are planning on doing a development programme in the future? Whether you are at the start or the end of a programme, you need to know where you are heading next!  That is the essential prerequisite to achieving a successful outcome.

The Universe provides us with two signals for growth: our longings and our discontents.  As a transformational coach, many of my clients start with building their vision and goals from identifying the things that they don’t like in their current situation – unsatisfactory commute; no work-life balance; no time for family, hobbies, or the bits of your job you love. Our discontents are often the things that give us clues as to how we’d prefer things to be.

And our longings – our dreams of career success; better sleep or less stress; acknowledgement of our contribution at work, at home or in our community; time and resources for hobbies or holidays, new interests – professional or personal – these too suggest the goals we aspire to.

Your vision and goals

Once you have started to identify your longings and discontents, you can start to define your vision and goals. I recommend you take a holistic approach to this. Look across the four domains of your life – health and well-being; career and creative expression; relationships; time and money freedom – and ask yourself the question – What would I love?

Allow yourself to really dream into that question, using your imagination as vividly as you did as a child. Will you allow yourself to imagine? Does it feel too childish for the grown up academic or professional you’ve become? Remember Einstein who said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Suspend your knowledge of your current conditions and circumstances and imagine the outcomes you would love.

Once you have the end in mind. Take some time to write it all down using the following style:

  1. Start with gratitude: I am so happy and grateful now that…
  2. Write your vision in the present tense. Imagine you are describing a scene from a movie where everything is already happening just as you want it. This is a way for us to bring ideas from our imagination into current experience.

For example, you might open each section as follows:

  • I am so happy and grateful now that I am a successful leader who is admired by my peers and my staff.
  • I am so happy and grateful now that I spend quality time with my family
  • I am so happy and grateful now that I am healthy, well rested, and exercising regularly
  1. Paint the picture. Be as specific as you possibly can because the image you create transmits energy.

When you read it back, you want to get an emotional response in yourself that says ‘Yes, I LOVE this life’.  If it doesn’t feel like that when you read or speak it back, change it: keep changing it until it gives you that enthusiastic emotional response.

Live and breathe it

You’ve set your course for the outcomes you want to achieve.  In the coming days and weeks revisit your written vision regularly, preferably building it into your daily routine, consistently reminding yourself that this is the path you are on. Ask yourself each day, ‘what action can I take today that takes me in the direction of my goals? And then take that action!   As you start to achieve progress, you may well wish to make changes to your vision and goals.  This is normal.  Keep making those changes and tweaks, adding new details and goals as you achieve what you’ve set out for yourself, always seeking that emotional charge – Yes!  I love this life

When things crop up that demand your time and attention, your resources or energy, and if you’re not sure what to prioritise, ask yourself the question: ”does this take me in the direction of my vision and goals or not?” Let this help you decide whether to do something or not. Having this level of clarity and decisiveness alone will catapult you towards your end results.

In the coming weeks, we’ll share two further blogs about how to build your momentum in achieving the goals and successes you want.  We’ve started with clarity about the end result.  Next, we’ll talk about the importance of committing to your goals, and in the final blog, we’ll discuss how to overcome fears and doubts along the way.

Read on: The power of the decision


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. 

Maeve has over 25 years’ experience of working in personal development and growth in higher education and beyond and is currently Director of her own training and coaching company.  Having held various roles in HR, Equality, Learning and Development and Welfare, her principal expertise lies in leadership and management development, group facilitation, action learning, executive coaching, personal development, resilience and well-being.   

Details of the Aurora Conference 2018 will be available shortly, and the Aurora programme dates for 2017-18 are open for booking

Bungee jumping my way to leadership

Payal Gaglani-Bhatt reflects on how her experience at Aurora in 2016-17 helped her find her voice.

It was a cold and grey morning in London as I made my way to the Aurora London 1 cohort in October 2016. I was cold but curious, hungry but excited, slightly sceptical but looking forward to meeting new people.

The day began like any other conference begins, but about halfway through the morning, we had to come up with a visual image of how we see ourselves with regards to leadership. For me this was a very powerful, thought provoking and reflective moment. I saw myself as a bungee jumper – tied to a harness, standing on the edge of a cliff, reluctant to take the next step.  This was a momentous image because it was exactly what my approach, attitude and stance was towards leadership. I was holding myself back, uncertain of my own ability, and reluctant to take the plunge!

That’s where Aurora has really made a big difference. It’s made me confident in my own abilities, it’s helped me channel my thoughts on “what’s possible” rather than what’s not, and encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and bungee jump…literally!

On that very first day, it became apparent that all of us Aurorans were in the same boat: personal insecurities, preferences for a healthy work-life balance and multiple priorities were the backbone of what made us who we are. More often than not, we wear more than one hat in our lives and are inclined to commit extensively to each of our roles – be it as a mother, a mentor, a manager, a volunteer, an author….that’s where I really began thinking more and more about wearing one hat in another context and vice versa.

The reflective practice made me analyse and critically look at the ways I behave, interact, make decisions, influence others around me and most importantly how I was using, or not using, my voice. I knew subconsciously that I often used my skills as a mother with my team and my professional performance management techniques to deal with my kids.

This began the process of vocalising my thoughts and recording the parallels between the two through reflective writing. I found my voice through a blog and after taking on board constructive feedback from colleagues, I had the courage to take the plunge and publish it. In March 2017, I launched School of Mumagement – it is my creative and constructive platform to rationalise what I do as a parent and apply successful parenting tips, techniques, and tactics at work and in management situations to unbelievable success…. naturally this needs tweaking to accommodate varying scenarios, but the theory remains valid.

So, how has finding my voice helped me in my career and what does that have to do with leadership or bungee jumping? Below are three main aspects that “finding my voice” has had an impact on. I believe these are the pillars to being a good leader:

1) Confidence – First is the confidence in my own skills and abilities: in wanting to try new things; in being experimental; in vocalising my beliefs, thoughts and opinions; in standing my ground.  I developed the confidence that my knowledge, skills and expertise were my harness and would always be with me… even as I jumped off.

2) Conviction – Second is the conviction in my passions and energies: in being comfortable in my own skin and personality, in my authenticity and individuality; in my inherent knowledge and self-worth. I found the conviction that I could do it and take the plunge, but more importantly, found the passion and enthusiasm to want to do it.

3) Control – Third is the control over my career trajectory: over my ambitions, my fears and my hesitancies.  I gained control not only on how and when I jumped but also on how I could enjoy the fall, the rise and the bounce and the most important of all, the WHOLE journey.

So my dear Aurorans, I hope you too have found your voice. I hope you have been challenged to step out of your comfort zone, to understand yourself and to reflect on your aspirations. More importantly though, I hope you have found the confidence, conviction and control to bungee jump your way to leadership with authenticity!


Payal Gaglani-Bhatt is Head of Events at SOAS, University of London. She completed the Aurora programme in London in 2017. Since completing the programme, Payal was inspired to create her own independent blog, School of Mumagement.

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.