Why Leadership Matters

Christine Abbott is a facilitator of Leadership Matters, the Leadership Foundation’s programme for senior women in higher education. Christine has has spent almost all her career in higher education, most recently as university secretary & director of Operations at Birmingham City University. Here she considers how women can achieve senior roles in the sector and how Leadership Matters can support this.  

It is often said that success, in any walk of life, is less about what you know, than who you know. In our now extensively connected world this is increasingly true. Nevertheless good networks alone are rarely enough. Certainly successful leadership requires the ability to engage with people, to understand their motivations, and to recognise and develop their talents. But in addition, a sound bedrock of knowledge and experience are also needed. However the work environment is now so complex, and in such a state of continuing flux, that claiming to know enough to fully understand one’s organisation can seem a fanciful statement.

The tube map of universities

Navigating the current higher education sector, or even one’s own University, can sometimes feel more like travelling in the London underground than following the A to Z. A tourist in London might go down into the tube at Marble Arch, and pop back up at Westminster, and recognise the landmarks in both locations; but they may have little idea of the route between the two places, or what sits above ground as they travel through the tunnels. In our Universities this feeling of limited understanding can become a particular concern when colleagues move from one role to another, or from one department, faculty or service area to another. Moving between institutions or gaining promotion can exacerbate that consciousness of the blocks or blind spots in our understanding.

Why Leadership Matters

The aim of the Leadership Matters course is to fill in some of those gaps in understanding and knowledge, by looking at the frameworks – the strategic, financial, and governance frameworks – within which our institutions operate. Participants on previous cohorts have often been those who have gained promotion to middle or senior management positions, which bring them, perhaps for the first time, into a broader University arena, and feel there are gaps in their understanding of how the whole University entity fits together and functions.

The programme aims to help participants to get to grips with how their University operates, how it takes critical decisions, and the financial, legal, and reputational considerations that impact upon its decisions.

Module one, which is led by Gill Ball and myself, aims to ‘humanise’ some potentially dry topics, such as funding and finance, governance and decision making. Through practical small group work there will be plenty of opportunity for hands-on learning. Module one also includes a session led by a senior woman leader from the sector, on ‘navigating the organisation’. This session links the organisational perspective with the individual and personal, and provides the bridge into the Action Learning Sets and module two.

The second module, which is led by Rachael Ross and Sally Cray, focuses more closely on how to develop the personal impact necessary to be successful as a senior woman leader.

Impact of the programme

Leadership Matters is now being run for the eighth time, and from the outset the Leadership Foundation was keen for the programme to be women-only. The programme director, Rachael Ross, and the programme leaders have discussed a number of times the rationale for this, since as concerns module one, the topics discussed, and the approaches used, are gender neutral. Our conclusion, which has been reaffirmed after each of the cohorts that we have led to date, is that the women-only aspect of the programme enables a particularly rich and reflective quality to the discussions. This is most notably the case in the Action Learning Sets, and in module two of the programme, as colleagues draw upon their personal experiences of leadership and their leadership journey. As programme director Rachael Ross says: “We find that our senior delegates value a women-only programme. They are able to deepen their understanding of these key topics in an open, reflective way, challenge themselves to “claim” their unique leadership approach, and build a supportive network of women leaders right across higher education.”

It is the blend of the broad organisational perspective with the personal that makes this programme special.

At more junior levels in one’s career, the concern is primarily to be able to provide the answers to the questions you are asked. The more senior your role, the more important it becomes to know the questions to ask, how to ask them, and to whom those questions can and should be addressed. The Leadership Matters programme is designed to help female colleagues to identify both the questions, and the audience for those questions, and so to develop their confidence and effectiveness in their leadership roles.


Leadership Matters will 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.

Core stability – the journey towards work/life balance

Professor Shân Wareing is pro vice-chancellor for Education and Student Experience at London South Bank University (LSBU) and a professor of Teaching in Higher Education. She recently spoke at Aurora in London and Edinburgh about her personal experience as a senior female leader during Power and Politics. Shân has also recently spoken at Leadership Matters and Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership. Here, she reflects on her work life balance which formed part of her talk at Aurora this year.

“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives”
(Anne Dillard, quoted in Scott 2003, p80)

Like most people, there are plenty of times I don’t feel I’ve got my work/life balance right, but perhaps strangely, it was worse when I was a lecturer completing my PhD than now when I have three children and more senior job. Along the way, these are some of the ideas and habits that have helped me.

Know your purpose
To work out what balance is right for you, and how to achieve it, you need to be clear about what you want to achieve in life, what your purpose is. In one of my first jobs, a senior colleague had a poster on his wall that said “No one on their death bed wishes they’d spent more time in the office!” and I thought “Hmm, but perhaps I’ll wish I’d achieved more!”  Imagining myself in old age, reflecting on what might cause me to feel pride or regret helped me identify what mattered to me. Being very clear about what is important to you helps you allocate your time and keep things in proportion. That sense of proportion is vital to regulate our emotional response to events at work, which in my experience exact a heavy toll on me if I feel I am living out of alignment with my sense of purpose.

Planning is key
If you know where you’re heading, you can make a plan. And a plan allows you to identify the best opportunities for you, to estimate if you can take on new work without having a melt down, and to prioritise and selectively ignore things.  This is important to protect you from being buffeted by every policy whim, incident, metric, new piece of research, sector panic, and so on. Having a plan helps you spot if you are drawn off your plan too much by fire fighting. I always assume that up to 10% of each day or week will be spent in emergency unplanned reactive activity, but if it starts to increase regularly beyond 10% I need to change my plans to focus more on eliminating the causes of the fire fighting.

The 80:20 Principle
I’ll always have too much work, and probably so will you! In the endless tail of work that is never totally cleared, I have an arbitrary self-imposed cut off point. To minimise the distress of never ticking off everything on my To Do list, the 80:20 principle helps.  If 80% of the benefit comes from 20% of my work and I am fairly sure I’ve done the important 20%, I can go home a bit earlier. Looking at my To Do list regularly from an 80:20 perspective is also important to avoid the feeling that I need to be busy to feel productive. Needing to be busy is the enemy of work/life balance!

Work with and for your team
When the work suddenly piles on, it is easy to feel too busy to talk to people, and I have to fight this instinct! In a management role, and many other roles, people are the job, not an inconvenient extra. The better my team relationships, the more adept my teams are at handling their everyday work and sorting out anything unexpected, which means fewer unpleasant surprises for me. I have found I have a better work/life balance as a manager by talking and listening to my teams. Also working though others is a chance to increase their capability so a win-win for everyone. I could work five hours extra every week but it’s worth a lot less to the university than if I can enable a team of staff to be 10% more productive. To be effective, delegation needs to be in the context of purpose and planning, not random or opportunistic. The better I plan and the higher functioning my teams, the less random rubbish happens, and the earlier we all go home.

Avoid emotional leakage
A lot of stress and unnecessary work comes from emotional leakage – anxiety, fear, hostility, resentment  triggered by projects and people. Work/life balance is not just about what you choose to spend time on, it’s also about how you feel about things. As far as humanly possible it helps not to sink emotion into stuff where it can’t have any positive effect.

Be in the habit of taking care of yourself.
I noticed in pregnancy that what I ate one day had an effect on my mood the next day (protein and vegetables, good; only chocolate all day, bad), and I decided this was probably an exaggerated version of what happens anyway, so I tidied up my eating habits a bit (aiming to avoid chocolate-only days). And I also notice exercise helps my will power.  When I exercise, I’m better able to make myself do stuff I don’t want to do.

Invest in your own growth
Seek out development opportunities that take you in the direction you’re heading.  However experienced and senior you become, you never stop needing to learn. ‘Sharpen the axe’, Stephen Covey calls it.  And to lighten cognitive load (ie fewer things to think about or make decisions about), it really helps to have habits and routines. Barak Obama is reported to have said “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Look for happiness
Another tip from maternity leave and days where it seemed like nothing got done is to remember to pat myself on the back for what I have achieved, not beat myself up for what I haven’t.  Dwelling on what is good about my professional and personal life isn’t about being smug or complacent – it is a necessary exercise in order to sustain optimism for vision and planning.

I still get bad days when it all gets too much, but not so much, and falling back on these principles helps. And for the very impatient readers out there who skimmed to the end, the super-efficient version is: (1) work out what matters to you and do that; and (2) count your blessings.


Further reading
Scott, Susan (2003) Fierce Conversations. London: Piatkus
Covey, Stephen (2004) The 7 habits of highly effective people. London: Simon and Schuster

About Aurora
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 identified actions that could be taken to change this. Since Aurora began in 2013 we have welcomed 3,477 women from 139 universities and sector bodies, with 1029 women attending in 2016-17 alone.

The Aurora Conference- Thursday 7 June 2018
We are delighted to be launching our fourth Aurora conference.

Participants include, but are not limited to:

    • Aurora participants (current and alumnae)
    • Aurora champions
    • Aurora role models
    • Aurora mentors
    • People working in/leading equality and diversity

Find out more and book

Demystifying Finance – Wednesday 18 April 2018
For women in higher education who want to improve their understanding of finance in higher education and develop financial management skills.

Find out more and book

Leadership Matters
Leadership Matters is our programme for senior women leaders in higher education and will be taking place in Manchester and Bristol in Winter and Spring respectively in 2018. For more information and to book a place please click here.

Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership
Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership is one of our most highly regarded programmes. It will take place once more this academic year:

PSSL Summer
Application Deadline: 8 June 2018
Programme Dates: Tuesday 19 – Friday 22 June
Location: Manchester

Leslie Shoemaker: inspired by Aurora

Leslie Shoemaker is a lecturer at Dublin Institute of Technology. She took part in Aurora Dublin in 2016-17. Since completing Aurora, Leslie has set up the ESTeEM (Equality in Science and Technology by Engaged Engineering Mentoring) programme at her campus and is now the programme’s coordinator. Here Leslie reflects on how she was able to use elements from Aurora, such as mentorship, to inspire ESTeEM’s format.

When the application process opened for Aurora I knew immediately this was not only something I wanted to do but something I had to do. I was stuck in a rut at work for a variety of reasons. Although I had managed large projects and events in the past I felt like I was lacking in formal training in leadership and management so didn’t have the confidence to know whether I was doing it right. I have picked up leadership skills over the years but I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on why I needed these skills and how I had acquired them. My leadership decisions had an effect on other individuals as well as the projects I was working on, I didn’t want to create an adverse impact due to my lack of knowledge about leadership.

When writing my application, I realised that although I wanted these leadership skills for myself, I could also try and become an ‘everyday’ role model for my female students. The module I teach is for first year students on the soft skills needed in Computer Science, Engineering and Science subjects. It would not be uncommon to have small numbers of female students, if any at all, in what can be very male dominated classes. I began to see how Aurora was an opportunity to bring my knowledge back to these young women and make a positive impact in their lives. I just needed to work out how I could do this effectively.

I was delighted when I found out my Aurora application had been successful.

The Aurora sessions and reading materials provided me with an opportunity to step back and reflect while also learning new leadership tips, tools, and skills. I began to understand how ‘normal’ my thoughts, feelings and experiences were. But regardless of how much I was getting out of these sessions for myself, I couldn’t shake the niggling feeling there was more I could do for my female students.

In March 2017 when I was a little over halfway through the programme, I had a brain wave: adapt the Aurora model to a target audience of female students studying Engineering on the site where I work (the Dublin Institute of Technology has two Engineering campuses). During Aurora each participant is given a mentor. My idea was to recruit female Engineers who are working in industry to mentor young women who are studying engineering. The mentoring would happen over a series of five lunches each academic year and the mentor would ideally stay with the student for the duration of her academic career in this college. After a couple of phone calls and meetings not only was my immediate boss behind me but I had two major international engineering companies, Arup and Schneider Electric, sign up to the project. The ESTeEM programme, Equality in Science and Technology by Engaged Engineering Mentoring, was born.

On 9 October 2017 we had our launch and our first lunch. Currently I have 35 young women participating in the initiative and they range from first year students right through to post graduate students. In addition, there are fourteen female mentors from Schneider Electric and Arup who are graciously giving their time, knowledge and experience to this programme. The buzz in the room during this first lunch was amazing. Both the mentors and the students were clearly excited during the event and the feedback from everyone has been overwhelmingly positive.

Despite this great start I recognise I still have some battles to fight such as helping some of the current female engineering students see why a programme like this is of relevance (I have had about a 60% uptake on the programme from the students who are studying engineering on this campus) and I would like to expand the ESTeEM programme to the other engineering campus. With thanks to Aurora I have a better idea of how to approach the challenges I face but know that I will get there.

I also understand that I will make mistakes along the way but I know this is part of my leadership development. The standards I was holding myself to in order to ‘prove’ my worth because I am a woman working in a male dominated area are not as rigid these days, which is a nice change for me (and very possibly others who I work with). I am thankful I was provided with the opportunity to take time out to learn more about myself and leadership but I am hopeful that ESTeEM will make a difference in the same way for my students Aurora has for me.

So fellow Auroran’s embrace the opportunities that come your way or the ones that you create and feel able to take risks, even if it means feeling really uncomfortable because that will pass in time. We are often our own worst critics, let’s show ourselves some self-compassion.


If you would like to find out more about ESTeEM you can contact Leslie here.

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.