Tears averted: working with top teams

people - Top Team picTI Tom Irvine announces details of the LF’s new working with executive teams project.

Here’s what two team members said some years ago during one-to-one interviews I carried out during a top team facilitation of a very senior civil service team (all 7 team members in the Top 200 of the civil service):

“I am writing everything down that John (the team leader) says and I am going to use it to garrotte him.”

“I will park my tanks on his grass and see what he has to say about it.”

The joys of working with top teams!

That particular team had a number of firsts for me. It was the first (only, actually) team for which I banged the boardroom table with my fist and made the tea cups bounce and rattle. I was sitting at the head of the boardroom table and two of the alpha males in the team were on their feet leaning over the table pointing fingers at each other. We were having a discussion about ‘conflict’ in the team. Just as the tea cups stopped rattling all team members looked over at me with some surprise. I surprised myself actually – that awful moment where there is no going back. I reminded the team that I was only contracted to work with them up until that lunchtime and that if they didn’t stop behaving like prize fighters then I would walk away and leave them to it.

It was also the first time that one of the team members – during my initial introductory whole-team briefing meeting – interrupted me just after I had said “Well good morning everybody. My name is Tom Irvine and I am going to be working with you to …” His words will stay with me forever:

“Tom, can I just stop you there. Did you know that the last consultant who worked with us left during the first morning in tears? And so did some of my colleagues round the table.”

I replied that I did realise that. His follow up was intended as a killer blow:

“So what are you going to do that is different?”

Needless to say that it was a very (very) challenging team to work with. I spent nine days in total working with the team leader as a coach, working through issues with the whole team, and conducting one-to-one interviews with each team member.

About four days in, following the first set of one-to-one interviews, we had a second whole-team review session. We were at the same boardroom table and I started by saying something like “good morning everybody …”  The guy who had previously interrupted me with the “consultant left in tears” nugget interrupted me again. My first thought was to ask for a new set of brown corduroys to be brought from the locker. He then went on to say:

“Tom, I’d just like to say at the outset that I am prepared to change my behaviour in this team if others are.”

Relief! Progress! They would pay my invoice after all!

I’m now working with executive teams in universities as part of my role at the Leadership Foundation. I’m not expecting to be faced with tanks on lawns and black books full of garrotting plans when working with VCs and their teams. The VCs that I am working with are very positive people who want to do their best to support their teams. The issue with executive teams is always their ability to connect strategy with implementation, and how to engage that next layer with the delivery of the strategy.

We have teamed up with the Real World Group to develop an higher education-specific top team diagnostic that will help the executive team review its effectiveness. We are using this as either a “Top Team 180” (where we get feedback from the executive team members themselves, external stakeholder groups, as well as upward feedback from direct reports) or as a “Top Team 360” where we also add in feedback from the university’s governing body. Early feedback about the process is very positive. It is a pilot process at this stage, and if your university executive team wants to get involved then get in touch. I promise to leave your tea cups intact!
Tom Irvine is the Leadership Foundation’s director of consultancy, contact him at tom.irvine [at] lfhe.ac.uk

10 ways to engage students in online learning and teaching

Dr Paul Gentle shares good practice in getting the most from involving students in change projects.

One of the most rewarding aspects of working on Changing the Learning Landscape lies in the opportunities for learning about inspiring and effective practice.

The Leading in the Learning Landscape Network is a good example of this. Our most recent network event, on 27 February, brought together colleagues from 14 institutions which are diversely passionate in their commitment to driving forward strategic change in online learning and teaching.

There were two powerful triggers for engaging sets of conversations on the day, and both shared common attributes of engaging students in the change process, and of being strongly supported by senior management teams in their respective institutions (the University of Roehampton and Sheffield Hallam University).

One fruitful outcome of group conversations across the day was sharing a set of pointers to good practice in how to engage students in significant change in learning and teaching.

These are:

1. Use wikis or Google docs to enable students to play an active part in strategy development (and feed back to students on which of their ideas have been acted on)
2. Work to build in student engagement into teaching practices by academic teams
3. Bear in mind that students don’t know “everything” about technologies or their potential application; but they can help academics to consider how to incorporate technological innovations within programmes
4. Paying attention to ‘hygiene factors’ is important in planning student engagement activities (including timing, availability of food, refreshments and other small incentives)
5. Seek students’ views on what good looks like (‘What needs to go right for you?’)
6. Incorporate feedback to students on the quality of their contributions to the change process; make sure this has developmental benefits for students
7. Don’t try to engage students in whole-institution change conversations: keep it meaningful by relating to their experience at programme or department level
8. Make sure it matters to students; articulate what’s in it for them
9. Get diverse views by engaging in different ways, using different media
10. Assume students are reasonable, and don’t expect all staff of an institution to change at the same pace and in consistent ways.

We do hope very much that as many as possible of the 60 institutions which have engaged with CLL in 2013-14 will join the network in future. The next network, on Framing and Enhancing Impact in CLL Projects, will be 25 May 2014 in Liverpool. To book a place contact: Bal Sandhu

Dr Paul Gentle is the Leadership Foundation’s director of programmes and programme lead on Changing the Learning Landscape