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.


Views on Listening: reassurance

Doreen Dix at 90 with her seven children.

Doreen Dix at 90 with her seven children.

Shirley Wardell is a Leadership Foundation associate, and she works on the Research Team and Future Leader’s programmes. This is the fourth in a series of blog posts on listening, in which Shirley will be sharing insights from the results of a survey on the participants of the 50 Research Team Leadership programmes that have taken place throughout higher education over the past 8 years. Shirley has been a ‘Thinking Environment ®’ coach and consultant since 1997.

Reassurance: To comfort someone to stop them worrying.

My Granny told me a story about her hair falling out with worry. She had seven children and very little money and her stress levels were sky high. She went to see her family doctor and he said; ‘Mrs Dix, if worrying about it is going to pay some of the bills, would you go home and do some worrying for me too please.’ My Granny laughed and made a pact with herself to worry less. It wasn’t easy for her but her doctor had made it easier for her because he listened to her. He heard her say all the things that concerned her; she heard herself and knew that worrying was a little bit ridiculous and she was ready to agree with him when he told her that.

How can we stop our team members worrying, worrying that causes stress hormones to flow, stress hormones that make us more defensive, less creative and more withdrawn. Worrying thoughts intrude on the intellectual challenges of the day. Just when we need to open up we seem to shut down to defend ourselves. The survival instincts kick in and make us want to run, fight or hide, just when we need to relax, open up and take a risk. In these moments petty unfairness feels like a matter of life and death. When this is happening people need to be reassured. Simon Sinek, the management theorist ofl ‘Start with Why’ fame says that good leaders make you feel safe.

We can say: “Things will probably be ok.” “Your life is not at risk, it just feels that way.” Those words may help, but they will land better if the person worrying has had time to think it through first. There is a likelihood that the people you work with will talk themselves out of the justifiable, but unproductive worrying that they are doing. They are likely to identify the assumptions they are making and choose to assume something more practical, logical and hopeful and then your reassuring words will just affirm what they think. That would be brilliant.

Participants on the Research Team Leader course say that when they are listened to they feel reassured. It is probably worth trying that before we say anything that get’s in the way of them unraveling their mental knots. If we can listen with faith in their intelligence and an optimistic outlook Nancy Kline’s Time to Think observations suggest they will reassure themselves in your presence. Even though they did all the hard work themselves, you can still enjoy the fact that your non-judgemental presence was a catalyst for the constructive thoughts they had. Go listen and lead!

The previous blog posts from the Views on Listening series can be read here: Views on Listening

The John Lewis model

Dr Mark Pegg ponders whether the John Lewis model could work for universities.

John Lewis Winged Figure

On the night of 18 September 1940, the John Lewis store in Oxford Street was hit by a large incendiary bomb and totally burned out. With the London Blitz at its height, the staff were nothing if not resilient: they set up trestle tables, traded on the street and reopened one wing within 21 days. Post war, they rebuilt on the same site. The Winged Figure sculpture by Barbara Hepworth symbolises their reinvention, renewal and recovery. This month, John Lewis celebrates 150 years in Oxford Street.

So what is it about this long lived and perennially successful retail organisation that is proving so attractive to universities today? How does a business model that places staff at the heart of everything achieve such great customer focus? How have they built such a durable model in a sector notorious for transience? What is their secret ingredient, their formula for success? How did they overcome adversity and stay true to their values? Can it be applied in the higher education system?

Let’s define what the model is. The John Lewis business model gives each member of full time staff – called the partners – part-ownership, a share of its annual profits, and a say in how it is run. They have a personal and financial investment in the business, heightening their customer service instincts, stimulating productivity and giving them a share in the profits. All 76,500 of John Lewis’s permanent staff are partners and ultimately are the shared owners of 35 JL department stores and 272 Waitrose supermarkets.

If they intended to do it, and had the will and desire to see it through, UK universities would find it radical and difficult in practice, but not impossible in theory to change their constitutions to align with the JL model. The profit motive would be an issue for many staff, but the barriers might not be quite so high for the trading arms of university business, for new partnerships and, of course, for new entrants to higher education provided they could raise the initial capital.

Making the change may not seem quite so challenging if you know that John Lewis did not start out this way. They decided to make the change from a conventional family owned business. John Spedan Lewis, whose father founded the business in 1864, signed away his ownership rights in 1929 to establish a “better form of business” engaging future generations of staff in his “experiment in industrial democracy”, and enshrined in the JL constitution.

Would a university really want to move from a ‘mutual not for profit’ framework to a ‘profit share model’? Could the existing independent, autonomous model where the service to customers (the students) forms only a part of what universities do transform itself into the JL model? Many universities have already committed to change their model to generate surpluses so that they can reinvest, creating distinctive revenue and capital accounts for the sake of their future financial sustainability. This would only be a further logical step along this road.

The JL model shows that it can be long lived, that it can work to scale, it can be flexible and it can respect staff in a way that enables them to deliver quality and customer service. A CASS Business School study shows staff ‘who have a stake in the company they work for are more committed to delivering quality and more flexible in the face of the needs of business.’

If it is such a good model why has it not been replicated by others? Actually, universities would be adopting a widely used model. It is just that they are not so well known. Companies similar to the JL model comprise an annual £35bn turnover in the UK and include Blackwell bookshops, jam maker Wilkin & Sons and polymer manufacturer Scott Bader.

The recent meltdown at the Cooperative Society has led to scepticism that the model may not be so robust. This is perhaps more ‘a lapse from’ rather than ‘a flaw in’ the model. “People say the co-owned model finds it difficult to move with the times but we have,” says JL CEO Andy Street, “just as one example of a mutual is finding life difficult, we are proving those naysayers wrong. We have learned and adapted over the years to new environments. We are able to adapt and surprise people and demonstrate our relevance.”

Is the JL model worth serious consideration for UK universities? It may be the barriers are less real and more about the psychological model of what a university should look like. The social contract with staff is already changing and the JL model with staff as partners could be on the table in a way it would not have been even five years ago. The homogenous constitutional model used so extensively and successfully in the UK in the past, today resides alongside many new business models.

Is there another John Spedan Lewis out there for your university?

Mark Pegg is the chief executive of the Leadership Foundation.

Views on Listening: empathy


Shirley Wardell is a Leadership Foundation associate, and she works on the Research Team and Future Leader’s programmes. This is the third in a series of blog posts on listening, in which Shirley will be sharing insights from the results of a survey on the participants of the 50 Research Team Leadership programmes that have taken place throughout higher education over the past 8 years. Shirley has been a ‘Thinking Environment ®’ coach and consultant since 1997.

Human beings can imagine what it is like to be in another person’s shoes. Have you ever felt your toes pointing when you are watching dancing or cried watching a film? That is empathy at work: empathy doing its connecting magic. For that moment you are more interested in what is happening for the person that you are observing than you are interested in yourself. The ‘mirror neurons’ that enable us to do that have been observed by neuroscientists and enable us to enjoy stories and to learn by watching.

The participants on our Research Team Leadership courses tell us that when someone listens to them really well they feel the listener’s empathy. describes empathy as: ‘intellectual identification with, or vicarious feelings thoughts or attitudes of another.’ We allow another person to affect us, and that way we are in a relationship. Empathy is the basic building block of healthy relationships – leaders need healthy working relationships.

There is a profound learning opportunity available when you decide to listen and empathise. You are making a decision and an effort to put down your view of the world in order to understand someone else’s view better. You are making your mind flexible, broad and open. When you listen and empathise your mind is in a position to receive a world-view that may conflict with your own.

The appreciation of empathy links Gandhi, Carl Rogers and Roman Krzniac. Carl Rogers describes empathy as a process rather than a state, which I quite like because it suggests something that you go through and experience, rather than something that you are. In training and developing leaders, demonstrating leadership skills such as: coaching styles and difficult conversations, allows observers to have some understanding of the techniques before learning and implementing them.

Roman Krzniac and Gandhi see empathy as something that enables beneficial change. Making change happen is a constant reality for leaders in higher education, so it seems worthwhile to deliberately develop our empathy. There is evidence that empathy can be taught to 98% of people. Roman Krzniac suggests we do the following to build our empathy:

  1. Listen empathically – listen in a way that deepens our understanding of another perspective, rather than reinforces our own perspective.
  2. Get curious about strangers – we are surrounded by thoughts and feelings that we know little about.
  3. Take experiential adventures – find out what it is like to be homeless or to live on a pound a day.
  4. Become a revolutionary – change the fabric of society because we care about others.
  5. Be an armchair traveller – watch documentaries, read books.

As a leader we can’t always choose who we’d like to empathise with or even when we might be able to offer empathy. CS Lewis said: ‘Everyone feels benevolent if nothing annoying is happening to them at the moment.’ Gandhi’s suggestion is the challenge I’d like to extend to leaders, he asks us to be ambitious about whose shoes we would step into.

If I challenge myself by thinking about when I struggle to empathise, it would be when people moan and complain without planning to do anything about what is bothering them. What I can’t see is why those people feel so disempowered to change the things that concern them. If I can’t understand I am probably ill-equipped to be of any help to them and I don’t think I’d be able to lead them very well.

Here is my version of Gandhi’s empathy challenge: ‘What would it mean to stretch your abilities to empathise over the next month?’

Read Shirley’s previous posts on listening here: 1. Listening 2. Appreciated and you can follow Shirley @EvolveLeadteam

My top 10 tips: the leadership qualities of a vice-chancellor

by Dr Mark Pegg

With a deadline coming up, the Times Higher Education called and asked if I could quickly provide a selection of one liners – some quotable sentences to support a piece they were writing on the leadership qualities of vice-chancellors. (Read the THE article here) In crafting my response, I drew on memorable snippets from my own regular conversations with VCs.

The Leadership Foundation’s main aim is to develop leaders – not only VCs, but I do meet them regularly and they are always willing to share. It is such an interesting job and for most they will only get one shot at it and naturally want to be the best they can be.

Many said that they sought advice from mentors before taking over and have thought a great deal about their approach to leading their university or higher education college. We discuss their path to leadership, how they see the important leadership challenges today and look to the future. I think that it is important that the Leadership Foundation learns from them so that we can feed this wisdom into our programmes and other development interventions.

I got to 9 points and then remembered a 10th because a round 10 always seems more memorable. The 10th made it to the back page of Times Higher – you know you have made it when you are quoted in The Poppletonian. These are all things that VCs have said to me.

Many characteristics are those of a good leader anywhere – strategically aware, resilient in the face of criticism, courageous and compassionate – and there is no one size fits all, universities have so many different and distinctive things to do – but there are some common themes:

1. Wake up every morning knowing how lucky you are to have one of the best jobs in the world.
2. Be wise not just clever – brilliance is good, experience and commonsense are also important,
3. Prepare to wrestle with paradoxes – to drive change for the new, but conserve the best of the old
4. Know your own mind, but able to listen and take advice from others
5. Aim to see the value in things not just the price
6. Reflect and reflect again, but also know when to act
7. Be resilient and very patient but be able to up the pace when needed
8. Know what the University is for as well as what it is good at
9. Think global but care about local
10. Have a sense of humour – develop one fast if you don’t – you are going to need it.

Dr Mark Pegg is the vice-chancellor of the Leadership Foundation.

Women and change in higher education: so what’s new?

By Dr Diane Bebbington

Activity appears to be burgeoning both here and abroad aiming to challenge gender inequality in higher education. This is in spite of the fact that women now make up just over half of all undergraduates globally and university workforces are diversifying through knowledge globalisation and the cross-national transference of professionals engaged in academic research. It is remarkable that women are still so poorly represented in the most powerful, decision-making positions of institutions of higher education.

Last week, the universities of Durham and Newcastle hosted a conference Women and Change In Higher Education: Culture and Careers and in June a conference in Brussels – Gender Summit Europe 2014 will convene experts from all over the European Union from research, industry and policy to look at gender in research evidence. A key aim will be to look at how Horizon 2020, the current €80bn funding programme of the European Commission will, under article 15, ‘ensure the effective promotion of gender equality and the gender dimension in research and innovation content’.

So what’s being done? Women are well-represented at undergraduate level in medicine but few make it into professorial positions. By implementing the national Programme for Women Professors and the Pro Exzellenzia Programme, the University Medical Centre Hamburg, Germany, aims to support women’s career prospects through a variety of activities such as providing incentives for organisational change, allocating research time to women doctors and providing personal development through mentoring.

The Leadership Foundation’s Aurora programme is targeted at academic and professional women working in UK universities and seeks to enable them to engage with leadership development at an early stage in their careers. The programme, with four cohorts in Glasgow, Bristol, London and Manchester, has been hugely popular. 580 women have signed up from 100 higher education institutions, well up on the numbers expected and plans are now afoot to run Aurora in Northern Ireland.

Clearly momentum is gathering and two themes emerge from much of the debate. The first is the need to reach out to all women regardless of their differences and the other is to look far more critically at how inequality is perpetuated by the system. Data on women are still rarely disaggregated by race, disability or other ‘differences’. There is much talk about childcare but this often overlooks the experiences of women who are not mothers, but still shoulder the burden of work in the home. When it is reported that 17% of university leaders are women, to which women does this refer? By failing to analyse and publish data in finer detail, women who differ on account of race, disability, and other differences, are effectively being marginalised. Progress can only be made when all efforts to bring about change are truly inclusive.

The second theme is around organisational change. The tendency is to focus on women through developing their leadership potential rather than transforming the organisations in which they work. Rarely is the spotlight turned on those who occupy positions of privilege, yet ironically it is those in such spaces – the leaders of higher education – who are called upon to tackle inequalities. Paradoxically, we are asking a leadership that is relatively homogeneous to champion equality. How much change is likely to happen?

Dr Diane Bebbington is the Leadership Foundation’s diversity advisor.