Alumni Leadership Journeys: Transition to Leadership

by Matthew Bellringer, Head of Platform Development, IT Services,
University of Sussex

As I write this I have just completed the Transition to Leadership programme, a new course which aims to give people taking on a leadership role a wide range of skills to effect positive change. Its focus is very much on leadership as opposed to management – relatively rare at this level – and which I found very valuable. It started by developing self-knowledge, putting that in the context of leading a team, and then using that to deliver change. The course took place both in-person and online, making good use of a newly-developed Virtual Learning Environment.

When I started the course I was not entirely sure what to expect as this was my first management-level training. Other attendees were from a wide range of Higher Education backgrounds though all at a similar level in their organisations and many facing similar challenges. The course started by developing an understanding our own leadership styles and how to lead with authenticity. It then moved on to the different preferences in working style possible within a team and strategies for effectively dealing with that. The course ended with how to use that information to deliver and manage change, and an investigation of personal and organisational resilience.

Throughout the in-person and online sessions there were opportunities to develop practical skills in support of the main topics. I was particularly interested in the idea of a coaching management style and we had the chance to put this into practice with peers throughout the course. My group got on really well, providing genuine insight into current issues, and I hope we will stay in touch in future. It was particularly valuable to be on both sides of the coaching sessions and I will use the approach with my team regularly.

Another of the practical aspects of the course was a collaborative project to deliver support materials for managers who need to implement change. This took place both in person and online and made use of asynchronous communication tools provided in the virtual learning environment. It was very valuable to me to see these technologies used in the real world and have some experience of working with a geographically disparate team.

The course facilitators, Jean Chandler and Stuart Hunt, were both knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Their areas of expertise and teaching styles complemented each other well. We had some really fascinating classroom discussions and the whole thing very much felt like a collaborative learning experience. This was the very first time the course had been run and it’s testament to their expertise that it went so well. Based on the conversations about our feedback I expect future sessions to be even better.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this course to someone starting out in leadership in their higher education institution. It’s given me some useful theoretical background and forward-looking practical skills with which I feel well placed to contribute to positive change within my institution.

This article is also published in the Engage, the Leadership Foundation’s online magazine.

For more information about Transition to Leadership go to

No more heroes…? Leading engagement

Toy StoryDoug Parkin, programme director muses on whether our modern aversion to heroes means we are losing some ‘heroic’ qualities.

The “hero leader” has become an unpopular concept. The idea of a charismatic leader swooping in to solve an organisation’s problems, with a way of seeing things that no one else possesses, does not sit well with contemporary ideas of participation, empowerment and collaboration.

Current theories of leadership point us towards the servant leader, the quiet leader, the collaborative leader and the person who leads from behind. In complex organisational environments, in which success is multidimensional and a rich diversity of professional groups must work together, these participative approaches feel both attractive and appropriate.

In my work as a developer I have espoused and promoted them and will continue to do so for their merits are great in this age of accelerating change.  But does our modern aversion to heroes risk throwing out some important heroic qualities – the ability to appeal to the spirit, to generate interest and connectedness, and to create trust through courage?  Worse, are we making those qualities feel out of bounds?

Appealing to the spirit

Engagement is not merely an intellectual process and, when it is, it is likely to be short-lived.  People engage through their spirit as much as for intellectual or rational reasons, and the human spirit is both elusive and ineffable.  Some would say it should also be off-limits in a work context. But engaging the spirit is a heroic quality precisely because it is not “ordinary”.

The spirit is there wherever we find people engaged beyond mere contractual limits; it is either inspired by the work that we do and why we do it or is not. Inspired people are those who have invested their spirit in a cause, activity or undertaking. But it is difficult to be inspired when feeling hurt and, as most of us know, organisational change can cause a lot of pain and hurt, whether or not it is rational. And so, leading change is about both stopping the hurt and inspiring the heart.

Generating interest and connectedness

It is hard to be engaged by something that doesn’t interest you. Capturing people’s interest involves being interested in people, and that means caring enough to really listen to them.

John Lasseter the co-founder of Pixar says that “no amount of technology will make a bad story good”.  And Andrew Stanton, the lead writer for Pixar’s Toy Story trilogy and WALL-E, has the mantra “make me care” which he applies to storytelling.  We could equally apply it to leadership.  It is the “make me care” element that connects people to the organisation and the need for change.  And it is invariably human stories that make people care and inspires them to connect.  Stories that show a positive difference in the world that others want to write themselves into as the future unfolds – this is true vision.

But interest is not about manipulation.  Any successful negotiator knows that step one is to listen, step two is to find a connection and step three is to build a relationship around that connection. Leaders need to build narratives that are both sincere and sustainable.

Creating trust through courage

Trust walks in but rides away” is a great expression. Showing conviction is easy, maintaining conviction is hard, and holding on to conviction in the face of discouragement, adversity and pain requires courage – sometimes great courage.  But it is nevertheless this clarity and consistency that builds trust.  And, without trust, teams and organisations unravel: “trust is the emotional glue that binds followers and leaders together” (Bennis and Nanus, 1985).

One of the chief forms of courage that leaders can demonstrate – and this is another heroic quality – is honest communication. It is a challenge to engage with something that doesn’t make sense to you, or that requires a considerable act of faith and so connecting people with change involves, above all else, strong, clear and honest communication.

For engagement to occur, the project, initiative or transformation process has to make sense in terms that are meaningful to those involved.  They have to see the need, feel the urgency and believe in the vision. If there is a lack of communication and sense making, other voices will fill the void, perhaps with narratives that set a very different agenda to the one needed.  And so the communication, courageous in the first instance, also needs to be consistent and enduring. Trust will quickly “ride away” if the message about change keeps changing.

 “The land of the possible” is a happier place to be

Engagement – a spirited group of people with a shared purpose and/or interest – is about energy: the energy to connect, to commit and to contribute.  Each of us, individually and collectively, has a wide range of energy buttons waiting to be pressed and inspired, and while it is not necessarily the case that leaders can press them for us, they can certainly strive to create the conditions in which we start to press them for ourselves: through trust, through connectedness, through courageous communication and through stories and images that appeal to our spirit.

Above all else, what these heroic qualities enable leaders to achieve is moving people from the “land of the not possible” to the “land of the possible”.  This is not just important for organisational success and resilience in the face of change, but also because the “land of the possible” is simply a happier place to be.

Doug Parkin is a full-time programme director at the Leadership Foundation.

More Reading: The Heart of Change, Kotter & Cohen, 2002

Ensuring our leadership programmes succeed


Professor Paul Gentle, director of programmes at the Leadership Foundation responds to McKinsey’s Why leadership development programs fail  

An article in McKinsey Quarterly last year put forward four key reasons why leadership development programmes can fail. This has provoked interesting reflection at the Leadership Foundation and coincided with a year in which we have become particularly thoughtful about how our programmes meet the needs of leaders and managers in our higher education institutions. Here, I’ve turned the four key reasons for failure into four essentials which we take constantly into account when designing our programmes, whether for the open market or on a more tailored basis for specific institutions.

The first concerns the importance of context for participants on all our programmes. We don’t start with a blank sheet, and we certainly don’t work to a list of leadership competencies which we think need to be ‘taught’ on our programmes. Providing an environment of trust and collaboration in which thinking through one’s own leadership challenges in its real institutional setting is critical to the learning experiences we facilitate. In practice, this means stimulating thinking in participants through a combination of encounters with leaders from a range of organisations (both within and beyond the higher education sector) and peer discussion. Reflecting comparatively between institutions can be powerful in developing more profound understanding of one’s own context.

The second essential is about connecting to on-the-job learning. In line with androgogical good practice for student learning, the Leadership Foundation takes heed of the finding that only 10% of what is communicated in lectures is retained. The emphasis on our programmes is firmly on learning by doing, and linking planned actions by individual participants to their jobs is crucial. In many programmes, using an organisational project serves as a key vehicle for leadership learning. For example, on our new Executive Leaders programme, participants are expected to carry out an internal project which requires them to make contact and work with members of their institutional senior management team in order to gain practical insights into how they deliver on their strategic portfolios.

Thirdly, it’s important to address underlying assumptions affecting leaders’ behaviour. Whatever actions individuals may commit to in terms of changing what they do, there may well be factors which make them immune to actually changing (Kegan and Lahey, 2009). We encourage our participants to think about what they do in relation to the organisational culture of their institution, or the part of the institution which they can influence. Emphasising the greater significance of what leaders do, compared to what they say, is really important, and often overlooked in the volatile, pressured environment in which universities are operating. On the Strategic Leadership Programme, for instance, gaining deep understanding of the institutional culture, and how leaders contribute to this individually and collectively, is central to the programme design.

Finally, planning for impact is essential when designing programmes. We’re upfront about the fact that a programme cannot be a ‘silver bullet’ solution which will have a transformational effect in itself. Research shows that how individual participants and their institutions follow up on their learning from the programme links directly to the impact a programme will make. Ongoing dialogue is crucial, particularly with those who have an interest in the individual leader making changes happen. These might include direct reports and line managers who have provided feedback in a 360-degree appraisal process (often included in a Leadership Foundation programme). The Leadership Foundation has recognised the importance of keeping reflection and conversation alive in the months following the end of a programme, and the Programme Plus option is a good example of how this works. For a small fee, participants can choose to have ongoing phone conversations with one of our facilitators who will help to guide them in implementing actions and gathering evidence of their impact. Evidence shows that this is a powerful way of continuing to think about key learning points from a programme – and it can also lead to successful applications for Fellowship of the Leadership Foundation.

Designing in-house programmes for individual institutions involves putting all these essentials into practice, and works most effectively when it works in a spirit of partnership between the university or higher education college and the Leadership Foundation. We are uniquely well-placed to bring to bear our sector-wide knowledge and understanding of cultures and behaviours in the contemporary higher education context to meet the needs of institutions.

The ultimate aim of all our programmes is to make a difference to institutions, and the impact of each programme depends crucially on the learning experienced by individuals who take part. An open-minded disposition towards learning from and with others is likely to enhance benefits for the institution, particularly when the institution engages in dialogue about impact with those they have sponsored on programmes, both during and after the programme itself.

We are constantly refining our practices in all our programmes, and there is always work to do. Feedback from some participants on a recent open programme suggested that they perceived it as being too “facilitator-centric”; this led to further conversations with some respondents to learn more about what they would value in future, and we have now applied this to the design of the programme’s next run!

2015 promises to be another fast-paced and developmental year!

Professor Paul Gentle is director of programmes at the Leadership Foundation and his role includes managing and leading the Top Management Programme.

Leading across the organisation


Many of us crave stability, or at least a degree of it, in our working lives. This stability takes in organisational structures, lines of authority, colleague relationships, work patterns and cycles, and the goals we have to achieve.  We look for, or construct for ourselves, something regular, routine and with consistent reference points.  But there is a fine line between stability and stagnation, and when the wind of change blows there can be a strong inclination to build walls, become protective and create silos.

“When the wind of change blows, some build walls, others build windmills”
(Chinese proverb)

Within universities there are a lot of things we do to service established patterns, structures and cycles. The academic year itself drives various routines, assessing student work creates imperatives (things that have to be done), there are set requirements for research grant applications and timetables that go with them, and our committee structures have a life of their own in terms of servicing and bureaucracy.  But what happens when the scale of change is so profound that it starts to create a paradigm shift?  What happens when organisations start redefining success?  What happens when a new alignment is urgently required with the needs and expectations of users, customers and stakeholders (or even with society itself)?

“Just as we’ve seen the forces of technology and globalisation transform sectors such as media and communications or banking and finance over the last two decades, these forces may now transform higher education. The solid classical buildings of great universities may look permanent but the storms of change now threaten them”.
(An Avalanche is Coming – Barber, Donnelly and Rizvi, IPPR, March 2013)

For academic colleagues there is an increasing need to work across disciplines, whether in curriculum design, research or enterprise. Indeed, it could be said that the big questions of today like climate change, urbanisation, alleviating poverty, food security and global public health can only be effectively addressed through international partnerships of universities, research institutes and NGOs working together.  And within institutions the challenge for professional service leaders is increasingly to span boundaries and work across the organisation.  To enhance the student experience universities are increasingly looking for unified services that work in a joined-up way; to develop excellent new facilities we expect the human, technological and infrastructure considerations to be worked through in unison; and to achieve greater business efficiency there is a quest for synergies through shared services, goal alignment and partnering.

All of this presents significant challenges to university leaders, and not just those at the most senior levels. To work across the organisation requires leaders to take an inclusive approach, to liberate talent, to engage people collaboratively, to build collective commitment and to create a sense of both pride and mutual accountability.  To help develop leaders in these sophisticated, collaborative ways of operating we have created a model that looks at and contrasts the different ways of leading across the organisation.  This model is used on our Leading Across Professional Boundaries programme and was showcased during a workshop session at the AUA Conference, Revolution and Reinvention, in April. The model sets out four distinct approaches and defines them in terms of how organisational boundaries are viewed or conceptualised (this draws on the work of Chris Ernst and colleagues at the Centre for Creative Leadership on Boundary Spanning Leadership – 2011).  Continue reading

Reflections on Aurora

The Leadership Foundation’s former International Projects Manager, Hannah Phung shares her thoughts on year one of the Aurora programme.

One of the Aurora cohorts

An Aurora year one cohort

I’ve been on personal development programmes before including a Future Leaders’ programme and I benefited from each one, but from the outset, there was something different with Aurora. I don’t know if it is because of Ginnie’s vision for it or if the idea of 200 women in a room triggered something, but I definitely wanted to participate.

I enjoyed taking part in Aurora with a group of LF colleagues. The camaraderie of going through the process together meant we shared experiences and became closer as we opened up to each other. This openness and willingness to share was a major characteristic of Aurora. It meant some of the benefit came from the presentations and speakers but most came from the experiences, knowledge, advice, support, questions and willingness to listen. Total strangers, delegates I had only just met gave to me and I could give back as we shared our challenges. I’ve not experienced such openness on a programme before. It wasn’t just at the tables we sat at or my action learning group it was wherever I was in the Aurora environment. I really did not expect such openness and bonding between strangers, especially in the space of a few hours. A culture is created in Aurora that makes this happen.

The four Aurora days were great. There were things I had learnt before, which on learning again, reinforced and ignited ideas and actions. There were also things that were new; some I have used already and some I know that I will use in the future.

I remember a message, Aurora contributor, Sue Stockdale communicated at the very first Aurora day, Identity, Impact and Voice – “Seize opportunities, if you don’t try you don’t know.” I have said this to myself before and I have acted on it before. Maybe there is something that pushes you a little bit further when you hear it regularly and hear that other people have taken that advice with success.

I saw an amazing job advertised three days before the deadline…  I had to go for it.and I am delighted to say that I got it. I got it!

As I prepared for my new role I took on Jenny Garrett’s advice about ‘experiments and risks.’ I experiment more, making small moves to push myself and prove to myself that I got this role for a reason. I wanted to walk into my new role feeling confident.

One thing Aurora gave me which I had not had on any of my previous personal development programmes was a mentor. Knowing my Aurora mentor had signed up for the role and was specifically to support me gave me real impetus. I took control and initiated the meetings. These were some of the points that I raised: “I have a big challenge coming up and feel daunted by it.” “Something has been bugging me for a while and I don’t know how to approach it now.” “I want to be more confident when…”

The mentor meetings were hard work at times but I left each one feeling positive and energised. This really was the most useful part of Aurora for me, as it gave me time to think about the specifics and have the support of someone who was there to work with me to apply who I am and what I have learnt from Aurora and beyond, to my specific situations and aspirations.

Attending Aurora allowed me to step away from my desk and be selfish. A cornucopia of information and inspiration filled every Aurora day and related activity. Like a cross between the Charlie & the Chocolate Factory characters Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt I took and took; from speakers, from participants and from my mentor, and I hope I gave as generously as I had taken.

The reality is that I don’t know how much of Aurora contributed directly or even indirectly to my getting the job, but I do know I will be using lots of the things I have  learnt from it for many years to come.

Hannah Phung is Project Manager (Museography) Zayed National Museum at The British Museum, a role that she took up in June.

Aurora year two begins next week and will be taking place in London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Sheffield, use this link for more information: Aurora

Views on Listening: supported

Support image

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

A handy communications manual for scientists

Crackle and Fizz hi-res

Professor Carole Mundell, a role model on the LF’s Aurora programme, reviews Crackle and Fizz by Caroline van den Brul. Caroline is an LF associate.

The archetypal view of a scientist is one of a poor communicator, possibly in a white coat and certainly so obsessed by their work that they don’t care about ordinary worldly things. In contrast, the stereotype of the popular media is one of superficial reporting of gee-whizz discoveries that may or may not preserve the accuracy so important to the scientists who conducted the research. In practice none of these stereotypes are correct but the need for both parties to communicate cutting edge science to the public is central.

In Crackle and Fizz, Caroline van den Brul brings over 30 years of experience in scientific broadcasting and communication of complex scientific concepts; the central premise of the book is communication through telling a story. Deceptively simple, she provides practical exercises and examples to illustrate and encourage the reader to practise some of the communication concepts and frameworks described as underpinning all good communication. In breaking down and analysing the art of effective communication, the book reaches further than public dissemination of science; indeed, the principles are equally applicable to the next research paper, scientific colloquium or grant application and indeed, may be even more valuable there than in the usual public outreach sphere. The book provides striking examples of good communication – which is much more than explaining a concept in simple terms. Leading the reader through the underlying theory of building the story – from understanding your target audience, to finding a hook and putting across the punchline, van den Brul takes the reader through step-by-step, with plenty of illuminating examples along the way.

An entertaining example is David Miller’s superb analogy of the Higgs field/boson described in terms of a power political figure entering a room full of party activists. This example won the prize of a bottle of champagne donated by the Conservative science minister of the time, William Waldegrave, as the best explanation of ‘What is the Higgs boson and why do we want to find it?” and perfectly exemplifies the power of context and the importance of relating the one’s audience’s experiences and priorities in order to get ideas across optimally and with ease. Other essays shortlisted for the prize are all clear and compelling but it is not until one reads Miller’s example that the core of van den Brul’s thesis hits with palpable force.

The book is a highly entertaining read, but deserves a closer second and perhaps even a third reading as it contains a coherent set of strategies for thinking, crafting and ultimately delivering one’s information in a highly persuasive way and capturing the audience’s attention in a world full of competing distractions. Although, to the novice communicator, it may seem much to take in from one reading, for those serious about developing such skills, the book offers as a practical manual with targetted exercises to take the reader through each concept and allow them to practice them in their own setting. Even if the busy scientist does not have time to work through the whole book in one sitting, it is a useful reference or memory jog for how to think about putting one’s scientific story across as well as a useful glimpse into the mind of a science broadcaster.

Professor Carole Mundell is a professor of extragalactic astronomy, she works in the Astrophysics Research Institute  at Liverpool John Moores University where she holds a professorship (2007) with a presitigious Royal Society Wolfson Merit Award (2011). Carole also participates in undergraduate teaching for the BSc/MPhys joint degrees in physics and astronomy at the University of Liverpool.

Caroline Van Den Brul’s deep rooted understanding of the narrative process was honed through a distinguished career as a BBC science producer and editor. Since 2006 her communication and presentation workshops have helped scientists and other experts from the across the globe impress the pubic (and funding bodies) with the value their work. Caroline is an associate of the Leadership Foundation.

Crackle and Fizz: Essential Communications and Pitching Skills for Scientists is published by Imperial College Press and has a foreword from Professor Nancy Rothwell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester.