Fortune Befriends the Bold

SP - flickr

Photograph: Nationaal Archief/Flickr: Sylvia Pankhurst protesting in London in 1932.

Vijaya Nath, director of leadership development at the Leadership Foundation, reflects on the work the higher education sector has ahead of it to close the gender leadership gap.

As we come to the end of Women’s History month I and colleagues have reflected on the now established annual campaign for equality and ask what more do we need to do to make the changes still needed in 2017?

On 8 March 1977 the United Nations (UN) general assembly invited member states to make this date the UN day for women’s rights (and world peace). Fast forward to 2017, forty years on from that date we are still fighting for 50:50 recognition and economic empowerment – a goal set to be realised by 2030. The UN tasked all member states to work across all sectors to a common goal –where gender inequality no longer exists. Reflecting on how this movement can be tracked back to events from 1909 in New York to 1913 in Russia and to 8 March 1914 in London, when Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charring Cross station on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square, I realise that this documented fight for equality has gone on for over one hundred years.

Like many, I have lived the past 40 years believing that our work and contribution as women would be recognised and given parity. I feel the frustration of another generation of girls, daughters, sisters, women, facing a world in which objects and emotions are still gendered. A world in which our gender is still seen as barriers to progression as opposed to being celebrated for the gifts it brings. In the words of Harriet Minter, writer on women in leadership, a world where ‘Speaking out is still an act of courage…’.

The glacial pace of change on women achieving equality continues to be met by marches and marching and recently to a number of symbolic and quiet protests. As I and hundreds of thousands more participated in Global marches like @Womensmarch, #BridgesNotWalls and as I think back on the recent honouring of suffragettes by the Democratic women who staged a quiet protest wearing white outfits to the newly elected President’s first formal address to congress #WomenWearWhite, I wonder how much longer we will have to march before we achieve equality? My colleagues in America ask when will a woman be the leader of ‘the free world?’

This month we saw the publication of Tom Schuller’s book that provokes a discussion focused on ‘The Paula Principle’ (converse to ‘The Peter Principle’ a term coined in the 60s to describe people rising to leadership roles – who are judged to be less than competent but who keep on rising until they are found out – many of us have witnessed this in our working life). Schuller reinforces the well-rehearsed and identified barriers to women progressing; straight discrimination on basis of gender; structural barriers such as affordability and access to child care; the lower self-belief and confidence that some women identify as barriers to progressing; women lacking ‘vertical’ networks including mentors and sponsors higher up organisations or systems. Schuller’s fifth factor that women may be exercising a ‘positive choice’ in not opting to choose leadership will be the area that prompts most discussion. The hypothesis that ‘working women tend to stick at a level below that of their full competence and qualification’ is one that requires us women to speak up whether we go for the top or not!

Throughout my career I have witnessed and have been privileged to be part of organisations where supporting women to achieve their potential has been a core value. I have seen the Royal College of Surgeons elect its first female President in its 214 year history, and we have seen the appointment of a woman as this nation’s top Police officer. Both Clare Marx and Cressida Dick have ‘shattered ceilings’. There are many other notable breakthroughs which reinforce that we can break with past traditions and create cultures in which women at all ages thrive and are able to bring the gifts that their gender brings to the culture and leadership of our organisations, institutions and the world. None, in my opinion, more valuable than the cultures in which we are educating the future generations of women and men. Universities are a way off achieving the 50:50 by the 2030 goal.  However the movement created and awareness raised through over 6000 women’s participation in our Aurora programme has produced a large ripple. These 6000 have each in turn impacted on at least a further 10 colleagues – enabling over 60,000 men and women to have conversations on making change happen and encouraging women in higher education to find their way to leadership should this be their goal. Featured in the Times Higher Education and The Guardian, the need for positive, progressive action like Aurora is a mission that we all must share, starting with these 6000.

Let us make 2017 a year in which we realise tangible outcomes from being bold.

On 8 March, International Women’s Day, colleagues and I encouraged and tried to influence wherever possible using the theme #BeBoldForChange to continue the march towards achieving equality. I hope that 8 March 2017 and Women’s History month in particular ushers in and invites boldness, risk taking and moving beyond marches. As Emily Dickinson wrote ‘Fortune befriends the bold’. Let us make 2017 a year in which we realise tangible outcomes from being bold. Please share your acts of Boldness in higher education with us by leaving comments on our blog pages and through the #LFAurora hashtag.

Vijaya Nath is the director of leadership development at the Leadership Foundation. She leads the Aurora programme, a women-only leadership development initiative created to proactively address the under-representation of women in leadership in higher education.

Dates for Aurora year 5 will be released shortly. If you would like to be the first to know please email the Aurora team, e:

Turbulence, growth and wicked issues

Andy Shenstone, director of consultancy and business development at the Leadership Foundation, looks at the key trends and challenges higher education leader’s face this year, and offers some advice for executive teams looking to steer a calmer path

Setting out long-term plans in the face of sector-wide turbulence is a challenge for every executive team with which we are working and it is clear that many of the assumptions underpinning institutional strategies have to be revisited, even if they were written as recently as twelve months ago.

The complex interaction between changing government policy, the new regulatory environment (and, for Scotland, the new governance environment and student number controls), Brexit, immigration policy, REF, TEF, pensions and national demographics, to name but a few meta factors, is demanding continuous and close assessment by executive teams.

A core assumption that has underpinned many institutional strategies was an ambition for absolute ‘growth’ in student numbers. Clearly some institutions will grow on these terms, (Bristol and Coventry are two notable examples) but the headwinds that must be overcome to achieve this are significant. In both the examples cited above growth has been allied to a much broader (and bolder) reconfiguration of the institution’s strategy. Aiming for growth without making such a fundamental reappraisal has repeatedly been shown as highly unlikely to succeed.

An effective strategy needs to speak to delivering a sustainable and resilient outcome that is aligned with the institution’s educational character, culture and risk appetite. This might mean managed growth in certain areas, a rebalancing of the portfolio or a significant new venture. But absolute growth and institutional sustainability should not be conflated. For some institutions, a managed reduction in scale and breadth in provision is both a legitimate and necessary course to take and should release resources to drive up quality and improve learning outcomes (London Metropolitan’s plans for moving to a single campus is one example).

This speaks to one of the sectors ‘wicked issues’ – the fundamental resilience of an institution’s portfolio. There is now a lot more attention being given to this by executives. Yet it remains an issue of such sensitivity that it is not always addressed with the objectivity it demands and some governing bodies remain under-equipped to provide the necessary assurance on this key topic. Probing sometimes long term, systemic instances of weak performance is crucial, as is establishing clear plans for their resolution.

This highlights the importance of being clear about where you are starting from and why the status quo is unacceptable.  A historic weakness in many universities, albeit one that is being gradually overcome, has been the use of timely information to establish a shared understanding of current and projected performance.

Our experience has been that too much emphasis has been placed on making use of analysis that explains what has already happened – when it’s evidently too late to do anything about the issues being examined. Leaders need information that assists them in making sense of a complex world and the direction of travel the institution is likely to take. Higher education is now placing much greater emphasis on developing capabilities that can deliver genuine insight into projected performance – and in a world where old assumptions are dying hard, this is very much needed.

It’s one thing to define the challenges but how is the Leadership Foundation supporting institutions in dealing with them?

As a dedicated higher education specialist agency, one of our distinctive qualities is the sheer breadth and depth of experience which means we understand both the fundamentals of higher education and ‘what works’ when it comes to devising real world solutions.

Allying this experience to an understanding of institutional context is pivotal. Size is but one factor, to be put alongside mission, the balance of research and teaching, the shape (and health) of the overall portfolio and underlying resilience. Superseding everything is the distinctive educational character of the institution, which speaks to its core purpose, values and ethos.

In shaping our interaction, we focus upon the value we must add and the outcomes we must deliver. What must a successful intervention look and feel like to the university’s executive?  How will they recognise it and what form must it take? What benefits they are seeking from our involvement?  What skills and capabilities do they require of our team?

In giving any form of advice we work through a process of co-design and solution development and the support we provide takes a wide variety of forms. In the last few months this has included facilitating executive and or governing body strategic planning events, acting as an external critical friend as new strategies are being created, conducting targeted market and competitor research through to wider evaluations of institutional operating models that explore issues as fundamental as shared services, and institutional merger.

Andy Shenstone has worked in higher education for more than 19 years with a personal focus on executive teams and governing bodies and strategically critical transformation initiatives. In addition to working in the UK, Andy’s international experience includes working for, and advising governments and universities in, Egypt, Myanmar, the Gulf States, China, Malaysia and the Caribbean.

For more information on our Consultancy work, visit:

Innovations in postgraduate education

Kim Ansell asks whether recent Hefce statistics about the rise in taught postgraduate student numbers will trigger some development and innovation in the postgraduate offering. 

Last week Hefce reported that the numbers of UK and other European Union students starting full-time and part-time postgraduate (PG) taught courses increased substantially in 2016-17. A 22% increase in full-time entrants to taught PG courses, and an 8.6 per cent increase in part-time entrants to postgraduate taught (PGT) courses.

While Hefce suggests that “The increases in entrants are likely to be attributable to the introduction of postgraduate loans”, it is possible that there other factors at play here and perhaps the introduction of loans is only part of the story. Putting money into the system will clearly make a difference, but we suspect that one should look further afield for a more holistic explanation, indeed an explanation for which universities themselves can take some of the credit.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the higher education sector is driving some of this change and responding to demand with foresight and creativity. There is a sense that PG education could be a game changer for UK higher education creating a strong economic value proposition in changing times.

A 2014 report Masters with a purpose by UUK and Hecsu reported that ‘Employers’ requirements for Masters-level qualifications are linked to their requirements for specific skills, abilities and knowledge. Employers emphasise the value of practical, work-related experience during Masters courses’.

It goes on to assert that in many areas, e.g. sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics, for PGT graduates, employment prospects are good – and better than for undergraduates, with generally higher rates of employment at six months after qualification.

The report also indicates that, those who have a Master’s degree combined with some sort of ‘hands on’ experience, stand out to employers. They see them as more employable and so it is in the interests of the university to understand how they can incorporate those skills into their Masters programmes and understand where their PG fit into the market.

There are other benefits for the university as well as the direct employability of their graduates, tapping into affordable research and development environments being an obvious one for some disciplines.

A number of innovative programmes have appeared in recent years, and it isn’t just student loans which is stimulating this. The rather overused but still very relevant issue of employability is the main one, as graduates look to demonstrate a competitive edge over their peers and move up the career ladder more quickly. Along with career imperatives, advances in technology have made Masters degrees more accessible as they are no longer geographically constrained in many cases.

The Aston University MSc in Professional Engineering and  UCL’s Professional Accountancy Msc, are just two examples of innovation and collaboration in this area.

Beyond the Masters landscape, The provision of professional doctorates in English HE (2016) published by Hefce, is unlikely to have reached the radar of most employers or professional associations, possibly not even all universities. Originally in engineering, education, business psychology and health, Professional Doctorates (PD) have been growing over the last five years and while still extremely modest in volume and in a limited number of disciplines, they are targeted at experienced professionals and practitioners working in a professional context. Professional training and/or development of practitioners is traditionally the domain of professional associations and yet PDs are now moving into new areas such as social sciences, science and technology and the arts.

There does not seem to have been a strong demand from employers at the time the Hefce study was done, with one exception: the NHS funds a PD in Clinical Psychology as an entry route and licence to practise.

The Hefce report recommends that professional sector bodies and institutions develop a more strategic basis for provision of PDs. I personally see great opportunities for such collaboration and encourage universities, professional associations and employers to join forces to take these initiatives forward while the PG education trend is on the up.

Some challenges to be addressed are:

  • PDs thus far have provided little evidence of impact on professional practice, something that professional bodies might be well placed to evidence and measure;
  • Development of PD provision is not a strategic priority for most HEIs, but a partnership approach could address such issues as reach, relevance, return on investment, efficient use of expertise and resource to deliver. The list goes on.

The combined experience of research, teaching, professional expertise and current practice could bring quality and reputation to new products in this arena, and to the stakeholders involved.

Of course there is still the issue of demand but if PDs really have the potential to make a significant contribution to professional practice then it must be in the interests of employers, professional associations and the higher education sector to make it work.

There is undoubtedly this level of collaboration, along with a frenzy of post budget ‘noise’, on Level 6 apprenticeship degrees. For example the Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship has been developed by a group of employers, in partnership with a number of universities as ‘providers’ and the Chartered Management Institute (CMI). Level 7 Degree Apprenticeships are clearly on the horizon but the prospect of a Level 8 Apprenticeship is probably still some way off, although clearly in the mix when considering the future of PG education.

I wonder how this will impact on PDs and their potential development or demise. Mature students undertaking PG study might opt for high level apprenticeship schemes that speak to the attractive employability criteria mentioned above. The alternative is that universities focus their PG provision on more academic pathways while developing apprenticeship schemes in partnership. A similar question has been asked in open forums about PGT and degree apprenticeships. Where universities have existing programmes with large employers, will new degree apprenticeships programmes ‘cannibalise’ places on these existing programmes?…

So, apprenticeship degrees might not encroach, as such, on PDs, but there will be a delicate strategic planning exercise to ensure that the pipeline of PG products which universities develop fits with the supply of postgraduate students that the university is able to access or attract.

Some of the questions they might need to ask themselves are:

  • Can we better support suitably qualified graduates or experienced professionals?
  • Which of our strategic partners could offer the best chance of success in product development, (however you choose to measure success)?
  • What does our employer network want?

The rise in PG taught student numbers in the UK is very welcome by all stakeholders and I applaud our universities for innovating in this territory but more must be done to harness this success and collaboration is key!

It is a complex landscape and for leaders thinking about the challenges discussed above, and in making these strategic moves/decisions, some assistance in analysing and evaluating the blockages, the enablers, the options and learning from good practice might be required.

Kim Ansell is managing consultant in the Consultancy team of the Leadership Foundation.  Additional research – Will Wade, research and policy analyst.

Leadership and management in Myanmar higher education

Alison Johns, Chief Executive, Leadership Foundation working with higher education leaders in Myanmar in March 2017

Andy Shenstone director of consultancy at the Leadership Foundation reports on the British Council led project supporting higher education leaders in Myanmar. Which is part of a fundamental change programme that affects the entirety of  higher education in the South East Asian nation.

Higher education in Myanmar, like many of the country’s public services, is planning major reform under the new government. It’s seen as a high priority in a nation that, in higher education terms, languishes in the bottom group of “countries with a high incidence of pre-modern un-development” (Marginson). In preparation for this higher education revolution, the Leadership Foundation was recently commissioned by the British Council in Myanmar to produce a comprehensive needs analysis for higher education leadership training.

The new government has recently published a five-year National Education Sector Plan (2016-2021) which sets out a transformational agenda, priorities and approaches to education reform, including higher education.

Developing a more autonomous sector is a key feature of the government’s vision for sectoral reform. It encompasses consolidation of higher education policy under a single ministry, establishing autonomous national HEIs and regional HEIs with a faculty system, industry links, joint research programmes and opening up opportunities for private investment.

These plans would result in Myanmar’s higher education system undergoing a transformation that will create a wide range of significant demands upon, and challenges for, leaders in universities and ministry officials.

This is where the Leadership Foundation comes in. Working closely with the British Council we recently completed a comprehensive leadership training needs analysis. This focusses on the need to build leadership capacity and capability in a context of change that is both system-wide and institutional. Evidence gathering involved in-country consultation with ministry officials and 67 university leaders and a comprehensive survey of leaders in a further 60 Myanmar universities.

Our work has:

  • Ascertained the prioritised training and development requirements of the university leaders and key officials, requirements that fully reflected the policy context and objectives for system-wide reform.
  • Devised recommendations for a programme of work that would significantly contribute towards meeting these needs.
  • Set out an action plan for implementing the recommendations.

The leadership challenges are many and varied. At a system-level, transformation requires funding, quality assurance, institutional accountability, information management, planning and reporting. At the institutional level, there must be quality systems to drive improvement in research, teaching and assessment along with institutional strategy development, KPIs and delivery including ‘business’ planning.

Staff in the institutions need training and development in teaching and research skills, while managers need support with leading and managing change; motivational skills; stakeholder management with potential international partners; analysis and critical thinking; effective decision making; and communications skills.

It may seem like a challenging task but, in Myanmar, strong values underpin a spirit of cautious optimism and appetite for external engagement. An underlying ethos of service, combined with personal resilience, energy and enthusiasm, and a strong intellectual drive, augur well for the future of higher education in the country. It promises to be an exciting time of transformation in which UK higher education can play a crucially supportive role.

Andy Shenstone is the director of consultancy and business development, the Leadership Foundation has led or participated in projects in over 30 countries in Asia, Africa, North and South America, Europe and the Middle East.


Top 5 lessons for new leaders

In this blog, we share the top five lessons that previous participants on our blended programme for new leaders, Transition to Leadership (TTL) found valuable on their leadership journey.

1. It was crucial to have a safe space to take risks
In order to gain confidence in learning new leadership skills, it is crucial that new leaders have access to an environment where they are encouraged to take risks. No one likes to make mistakes, but mistakes can give us our greatest lessons and having a risk free environment to make them can be insightful.

2. There is not a definitive leadership style
On TTL, we explore a variety of different leadership styles from Commanding to Democratic* and participants noticed that each of them have something positive to offer in any leadership scenario. A good leader will be able to adapt different leadership styles in relation to circumstances or indeed the people they work with.

3. Respect individual differences
Difference within teams is far more useful than homogeneity. If new leaders can understand their colleagues’ different personality preferences, they can adapt their leadership style to steer their team more effectively.

4. Coaching is an undervalued skill
Coaching is essentially about asking the right questions rather than providing the right answers. New leaders will find this an important tool to help build their listening and questioning skills to effectively support the individuals in their team.

5. Clarity is essential when dealing with change
One of the most valuable lessons TTL taught those new to leadership was that whenever change is implemented, it requires clarity in communication and engagement. This isn’t an easy task, however it is important in those situations to find examples of best practice and relate it to their own change experience.

Are you looking for development for your new leaders?
There is still time for your new leaders to take part in Transition to Leadership. The programme takes place through Thursday 16 March 2017– Thursday 22 June 2017 over 3 face-to-face days and 16 hours of facilitated online activities.

If you would like to send colleagues onto the programme please visit our website: or alternatively you can contact Rita Walters, Marketing and Communications Coordinator, E: or T: 0203 468 4817.

*The leadership styles mentioned are from a model created by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee in their 2002 book, “Primal Leadership.”

10 things we learned about the experiences of women working in higher education

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Examining the conclusions from a recent report by the Leadership Foundation, Louise Clifton reviews the 10 key things we’ve learned about about women’s leadership journeys.

Across the world, it will be 170 years until we achieve gender parity.

For higher education, women continue to be under-represented in senior leadership roles. To understand how to create a more equal, diverse, leadership, and how we can get there quicker, we need to know more about the experiences of women working in the sector right now.

Over the last 18 months we have been in contact with over 1500 women about their experiences of working in higher education – from work-life balance to leadership capabilities and opportunities for development. We reached 10 key conclusions that will help the sector understand the opportunities and challenges that women face, and to start to make progressive, positive, action.

Led by an expert research team at Loughborough University, here’s what we know so far:

Message 1 – Above and beyond

86% of women indicate that their job requires them to influence over others over whom they have no authority. Many women have an appetite for leadership and seek it out, but there is a danger that asking women to go ‘above and beyond’ will mean they continue to go, and feel, unrecognised.

Message 2 – We do have the skills

Many women are confident that they possess the relevant leadership skills but more could be done to support women to implement their skills in a political workplace, which in turn could help women overcome structural inhibitors.

Message 3 – The workplace

Promotion and development opportunities are believed to be opaque and poorly run. Real and perceived barriers are prevalent, and the sector needs to do more to communicate a transparent, fair, process for career advancement.

Message 4 – Keep giving us your support

Respondents told us that there are supportive managers, leaders and mentors working in higher education, and team-work and co-operation are often encouraged. Continuing to invest in these practices will help institutions navigate experienced and perceived negative workplace practices.

Message 5 – Diverse motives

It’s a mixed bag whether respondents seek skill development with the intention of progressing their career. Being an expert in one’s domain, to be of service to the organisation and a desire for job security ranked higher than seeking out top leadership positions.  (This doesn’t mean women are uninterested in leadership activities within their work roles, however)

Message 6 – Flexible flexibility

Survey data suggest that some women believe flexible working is taken as a sign that they are not serious about their career. Cultivating a sense that working non-traditional hours does not indicate someone is less committed will be key to unlocking potential for those with commitments outside of the traditional 9-5 work practices.

Message 7 – More career management, please

On the whole, women seek out opportunities to build their skills, increase their visibility and maintain their networks. However institutions could do more to encourage women to go beyond their ‘norm’ and really get under the skin of where they want their career to go, and to support them to get there.

Message 8 – Aurora is clearly helping

Although there is still a long way to go, Aurora, a women-only leadership development programme, has given women more confidence and they report that their leadership skillsets have increased. On the whole, Aurorans seek out and ‘do’ more leadership.

Message 9 – The divide

Women working in professional services are generally more positive than their academic colleagues about workplace culture and practices. They have a more positive sense that they are better prepared for leadership roles and report greater confidence in their knowledge of how their organisation runs.

Message 10 – what’s in ethnicity?

BAME respondents reported less positive views of the culture of their workplace. However, these groups consider themselves ambitious, highly work-centered and focused on skills development. There is huge potential here to nurture this ambition.

Why wait 170 years when we could be pushing harder for greater equality, diversity and inclusion?

Insights like these will be instrumental to bring about positive change, faster.

These 10 conclusions are drawn from the first year report of a five-year longitudinal study. The largest of its kind, this study will continue to track women’s experiences and journeys over the next four years, and will identify the impact of Aurora, the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership programme.

Read the summary report here:

And the long report with data analysis here:

To discover more about the study, visit:

Louise Clifton is the senior marketing coordinator at the Leadership Foundation. An Aurora alumna, she works closely with the research team at Loughborough University to communicate the findings from this five-year longitudinal study.