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.


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.