The art of being strategic

Doug Parkin, programme director, reflects on the Strategic Dialogue learning activity in module three of the Future Professional Directors Programme. This year the participants were joined by Professor Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton; David Relph, director at Bristol Health Partners; Justine Andrew, director, public sector at KPMG; and Helen Lloyd Wildman, chief operating officer NMITE (during FPD consultant at Royal Agricultural University) and formerly an army lieutenant colonel.

Our Future Professional Directors (FPD) programme, for aspiring leaders of professional services from all areas of an institution, is transformational by design. From the outset, we developed the programme to ensure learning would take place in a range of experiential activities and active inquiry processes.

A great example of this is the Strategic Dialogue, the centrepiece learning activity on the third and final module of the programme. This module is focused on strategy but, rather than take participants through the received wisdom on strategic planning, we focus instead on the art of ‘being strategic’.

Exploring strategic thinking

So, what does it mean to ‘be strategic’?

This question, at the heart of the Strategic Dialogue session, is explored through four different sector perspectives – higher education, health, commercial and the armed forces. The topic is brought to life by four excellent contributors, each a senior figure with strong experience in one of these worlds, who take ‘how to lead strategic engagement’ as the central theme of their presentations.

In the Future Professional Directors programme’s Strategic Dialogue, the contributors present their perspective and are then interviewed by the FPD small groups of participants. By the end of the session each participant group has created their own unique model for strategic engagement.

The bigger picture

For the participants, having the space and time to ‘lift their heads up’ from the day to day issues they face and take a broader look at how their role fits into the whole organisation – and their own responsibility for strategy development and engagement – is a crucially important part of the session says Justine Andrew.

One of the key learning goals is “getting folk to understand what strategic means and stressing that we shouldn’t be undertaking any tasks that do not contribute to the achievement of the corporate strategy,” remarks Helen Lloyd Wildman.

Nick Petford also emphasises the need in uncertain times to understand the importance of differentiating between long-term planning and strategy. Universities should develop a clear and concise single strategic document (in contrast to a myriad of sub strategies), supported by a business or operational plan designed for flexibility. The days when institutions could set a point on the horizon and expect to sail towards it without being quickly blown off course are gone for most of us.

He draws attention to the powerful link between institutional values and strategy: “there are different ways to think about strategy in a complex institution and institutional values are the fundamental building blocks of strategic thinking.”

The active nature of the session brings to life the dynamic nature of strategy and the fact that engaging people in strategic conversations is at least as important as strategy itself: this is indeed the art of ‘being strategic’ in an organisation.

Engaging professional service staff

These vital strategic conversations must be opened up early and widely. For Nick Petford, “professional service staff are key to the successful running of our universities and need to be engaged at all levels of the strategic planning process”.  Through early engagement, professional service leaders can build up a ‘coalition of the willing’ which pays dividends in the future.

Sharing knowledge

The essence of the Strategic Dialogue session is a powerful opportunity for participants to compare and contrast the challenge of strategic engagement by using the stimulus of four very different perspectives and the opportunity to probe the strategic mind-sets of successful senior leaders.

The spirit of learning around the session is energising, profound and mutually shared, which also offers deep learning opportunities for the presenters as well as the participants.

For the sector more broadly, the programme develops professional service leaders who are confident with strategic engagement and their own authentic mode of ‘being strategic’.

Future Professional Directors takes place over nine months and includes three residential modules, two action learning sets, an online environment to support continuous learning, and a 360-degree diagnostic.

Future Professional Directors is for professional service leaders from all areas of the University who have demonstrated strong leadership potential

Applications for Future Professional Directors are now open. The application deadline is Friday 23 February 2018.

The 7 leadership blog posts of 2017

As part of our 12 leadership days of Christmas campaign, we are pleased to release our 7 leadership blog posts of the year.

Take some time out this festive season to read some of your colleagues’ favourite blogs of the year and take the opportunity to start thinking about the next steps in your leadership development.

You can follow the campaign by using the hastag #LF12Days 

1. Top 12 things those new to higher education need to know

Rita Walters, marketing and communications coordinator, Leadership Foundation shares the insights from colleagues at the Leadership Foundation on what they believe are the key messages for those new to higher education.

2. Connected leadership: connecting people with purpose
Doug Parkin and Rebecca Nestor explore connected leadership and its applications to the Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership programme.

3. 8 ways to be a better role model

We asked our Aurora facilitation team: Vijaya Nath, Phyllida Hancock, Rosemary Stamp, Rebecca Nestor, Jenny Garrett and Maeve Lankford how to be a good role model. Based on their experience of facilitating Aurora these insights will help you make the most of your experience and be the best role model you can be.

4. Our mentorship journey: Karen Twomey and Val Cummins
Karen Twomey is a Researcher at Tyndall National Institute, Cork who took part in Aurora in Dublin in 2014-15. Karen chose, Val Cummins, Senior Lecturer at University College Cork to be her mentor for the duration of the programme and the relationship continues to this day. We asked Karen and Val to reflect on their relationship as a mentee and mentor.

5. Coaching: The advice I would give my younger self
Jean Chandler, programme director of Transition to Leadership, shares her thoughts on coaching as a skill set, approaches to leading others, and her own leadership lessons.

6. Reflections from Leadership Matters

Rachael Ross is the course director of Leadership Matters, the Leadership Foundation programme for senior women in higher education. Two years on from its inception, Rachael reflects on why the programme is needed and how it was developed.

7. Up for a challenge: self-directed group learning for leaders

If our role as educators of adults is to enhance their capacity for self-directed learning, how does that apply to leadership development training? Doug Parkin, director of the Leadership Foundation’s Future Professional Directors programme, reflects on his experience of designing transformational self-directed group learning activities for leaders.

Let us know your favourite via Twitter #LF12Days or in the comments below.

You can read more of the Leadership Foundation blogs here. 

The full list of programmes at the Leadership Foundation can be found here. 

Leadership and the multiplier effect- Andy Cope

Following on from the Leadership Foundation’s Leading and the Art of Being Brilliant, author, Andy Cope shares his thoughts on how being a happy leader is key to your team’s success.

Before you read on, I want to lighten the load on your weary managerial shoulders. Your job as a leader is NOT to inspire your people. Your job is to BE inspired.

But how, when we live in a world of permanent pressure and are bombarded with a gush of information that would have been staggering to comprehend even 10 years ago. This makes me sound crusty but when I first entered the workplace the inputs came from paper letters delivered to the office first thing. These were distributed to my pigeon hole for mid-morning and perhaps again in the afternoon if I was super-popular. I was taught to schedule my phone calls in a batch. Dealing with these tasks would take maybe an hour a day and I was then clear to do the stuff of ‘real work’.

Now this information is the real work. The background noise of 10 years ago has been replaced by the deafening cacophony of screaming emails and texts. Look around your workplace and you’ll see colleagues buzzed up on caffeine and sugar, masking their exhaustion as they count down to the weekend or their next holiday.

The conundrum is that happiness and energy are in short supply, yet they’re vital for business success. Academic research merely confirms what you intuitively know, namely that happy employees are good for business. Cherry-picking a few studies, McNair[1] suggests that energy and vitality inoculate you against mental ill-health; Den Hartog & Belschak[2] report links between happiness and personal initiative; and plenty of others report that happy employees are more entrepreneurial, creative, motivated, productive, energetic, stress-resilient…

If you throw in the fact that happy employees also create an emotional uplift in those around them (thus raising the productivity of their co-workers), then the argument gets ramped up to the next level.

In Connected, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler[3] describe something they call the ‘hyper-dyadic spread’, the tendency of emotions to transmit from person to person, beyond an individual’s direct ties. They make the point almost poetically, describing the complex web of social connections thus: ‘Ties do not extend outward in straight lines like spokes on a wheel. Instead these paths double back on themselves and spiral around like a tangled pile of spaghetti.’ They found evidence to suggest that your emotions have a ripple effect that reaches three degrees of people removed from you. The magic numbers are 15, 10 and 6. If you’ve got a smile and a positive attitude, everyone with whom you come into direct contact experiences an emotional uplift of 15 per cent.

That’s terrific news because you’re raising the emotional tone of your family, friends and work colleagues. But it doesn’t stop there. Those 15 per cent happier folk then pass on their happiness to everyone they encounter, raising their levels by 10 per cent. Remember, you haven’t actually met these 10%ers directly but they have caught your happiness. And to complete the ripple, these 10 per cent happier folk pass your happiness on to everyone they meet by an extra 6 per cent.

But hang on a second. They’re the stats for ‘normal’ people. You’re a leader and Shawn Achor suggests “the power to spark positive emotional contagion multiplies if you are in a leadership position.” (p. 208)[4]. George & Bettenhausen[5] conclude that a positive leader engenders positive moods in their team, coordinating tasks better and with less effort, and Kim Cameron weighs in with the notion of positivity being analogous to the ‘heliotropic effect’; “All living systems have an inclination towards the positive… plants lean towards the light…” (p xi).[6]

So, it transpires that YOU are the secret ingredient in the happiness cake, or the yeast in the organisational bloomer. Whichever metaphor you prefer, the point was made most simply in sentence #3 of this article.

My seminar seeks to give you some clues about how best to sustain and enhance your leadership multiplier effect.

Andy Cope describes himself as a qualified teacher, author, happiness expert and learning junkie. He has spent the last 10 years studying positive psychology, happiness and flourishing, culminating in a Loughborough University PhD thesis. Andy appreciates that his ‘Dr of Happiness’ label is terribly cheesy but it affords him an important media platform. In times of rising depression and an epidemic of ‘busyness’, Andy believes there has never been a more appropriate time to raise the happiness agenda.

He has worked with companies such as Microsoft, DHL, Pirelli, Hewlett Packard, Astra Zeneca and IKEA. He is also a best-selling author having written, ‘The Art of Being Brilliant’, ‘Be Brilliant Everyday’ and ‘The Art of Being a Brilliant Teenager’ (Capstone).

Open Programme Alumni Network Event: Leadership and the Art of Being Brilliant

For more information on the Leadership Foundation’s upcoming programmes. 


[1] McNair, D. M., Lorr, M. & Doppleman, L. F. (1971). Manual for the Profile of Mood States.  San Diego: Educational & Industrial Testing Service.

[2] Den Hartog, D. N. & Belschak, F. D. (2007). Personal Initiative, Commitment & Affect at Work. Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology 80, pp 601-622.

[3] Christakis, N. & Fowler, J. (2011). Connected: The Amazing Power of Social Networks & how they Shape our Lives. Harper Press

[4] Achor, S. (2011). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles that Fuel Success & Performance at Work. Virgin Books.

[5] George, J. M. & Bettenhausen, K. 1990. Understanding Pro-social Behaviour, Sales Performance, & Turnover: A Group-level Analysis in a Service Context. Journal of Applied Psychology 75, pp 698-709.

[6] Cameron, K. (2008). Positive Leadership; Strategies for Extraordinary Performance.  Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc. San Francisco.



by Tom Irvine

Bowie Opening Shot The Breakfast Club

I’m a closet Bowie fan and old enough to have worn 4-inch platform heels with super-wide flared trousers (what were they called?) that had four-inch waistbands with loads of buttons. Bottle green they were – uugh! Probably nothing to do with Bowie but it’s my blog and I can toddle off in random directions if I like!

I had a bit of a surreal Bowie experience at an event that the Leadership Foundation ran just before the summer – a bit random really. The event was a consultation event with about 40 organisational development, HR & staff development folk who had helped us shape our new range of services that we now call “Supporting Change”. The event was a ‘thank you’ to those who had given of their time to help us think this through during the development phase. Towards the end of the event we rearranged the room by moving the tables out of the way and creating a large circle of chairs so we could all see each other. The topic we were discussing was examples of ‘change’ from other sectors. The question was asked “How many of you have experience of supporting or leading change in other sectors?” The response was astonishing – almost everybody put their hand up! People were asked to talk about their experiences of change – and we heard from colleagues who had worked in financial services, retail, and many other private sector and public sector organisations.

My ‘Bowie’ moment came as we were sharing experiences. Here we were consulting about change and the words (above) of ch-ch (you know the rest – sing along!) came flooding back to me.

It was quite clear that colleagues were in their own ways seeking to find methods of supporting change in this most complex of change environments – higher education. And quite aware of what they are ‘going through’. (Don’t know who was doing the spitting, but I’ll have a word).

As the discussion went on colleagues began talking about the challenges they face when trying to support change in the own institutions. Some spoke passionately about how close they felt to the ‘change agenda’ but others felt under-valued and found it difficult to have their skills and experiences of supporting change ‘heard’ or recognised. We spoke about ways of using the expertise from another institution – recognising how difficult it is to be a ‘prophet in your own land’ – but also accepted the practical challenges this posed to the group.

I left the day feeling that we had touched upon a really important issue – how we support those in OD, HR and staff development roles to be agents of change in their own (and possibly other) institutions. What is clear to me is that many leaders in higher education – and I think this is perhaps even more true for academic leaders – have not been trained or developed to lead complex change. The Leadership Foundation has its part to play in making a difference. We have refreshed the Top Management Programme so that it has an even stronger focus on personal and organisational change and we have developed a range of new consultancy services that can be accessed from our web site (visit LF Consulting tab). We can even help train in-house change agents.

The Leadership Foundation has a deep understanding of what makes higher education tick. We have used this knowledge and utilised our expertise to develop consultancy interventions to support the community of professionals who are supporting change in their own institutions. I know there is still more to be done to continuously support the sector during this time of turbulent change. We aim to develop our bespoke offering through regular consultations with the higher education community. I can see this more clearly from my vantage point on my four-inch high platform shoes, but the trousers don’t fit me any more.

Tom Irvine is leads the LF’s Consulting team

The Dance of Strangers: leading research teams

by Tom Irvine

1tmobile_flashmob_1At the end of July I attended our bi-annual event for our programme directors where I got talking to the inspirational leader of our Research Team Leadership programme – Dr David Faraday. This evolving and changing programme continues to be astonishing – we have run this 2-day programme more than 50 times now, mainly as an in-house leadership programme for early career research leaders. The feedback from the Research Team Leaders is just amazing.

David and I got talking about the many challenges that leaders of research projects face in a world where inter-agency, inter-disciplinary and often inter-national research projects hope to thrive. We mused that research projects rarely fail for want of the necessary technical expertise, knowledge or application. The funding review processes are generally excellent at establishing that these elements are in place and the competition drives up the quality of the applications in these areas. However, there are many examples of projects which do fail, or are less successful than they should be.

David recalled two projects in which he was involved that under-delivered due to failures in management, leadership and/or communication. The first, a major EU grant which included 10 partners – 2 academic and 8 industrial – spread over 5 nations; one of the industrial partners was the lead organisation. The first problem was clarifying the leadership. Although the lead organisation was one of the industrial partners, the individual in charge changed more than once. But, even more problematic, it become clear early on in the project that the lead organisation was not really prepared to (or capable of) taking on that role and was expecting one of the academic institutions to do it. This wasn’t allowed under the funding rules, but the industrial partner had the purse strings and the institution was committed having recruited a team of three post docs for two years to work on the project. This resulted in a complex and very ineffective leadership structure for the project and real problems arose when it came to decision- making, especially when all the partners were involved. In the end, despite all of this, there was some high research output and most of the industrial partners were very happy. However, the delivery could have been much more impactful. Issues similar to this are frequently discussed on the Research Team Leadership programme, where academics describe how they are grappling with leading multi-partner/institution projects

The second case concerned a principal investigator. The nub of the problem here was – in David’s words – simply based on the PI’s inability to effectively lead and manage a very talented, but highly independent post doc. David said: “The post doc was young and enthusiastic, as was the PI. But the PI was inexperienced at the time, particularly in being able to keep their post doc focussed on the core task specified in the proposal. His boundary setting was good, but his ability to maintain those boundaries and have the ‘difficult conversations’ was poor – needless to say the PI learnt a lot!”

This particular issue comes up in one form or another on almost every Research Team Leadership we do. Often we find that researchers spread themselves too thinly as they have too many concurrent research commitments. Ultimately, the research output from these projects can be much less than planned for, even if the technical quality remains high.

If these cases resonate with you then you may find it useful to talk these issues through with David Faraday. He’s great at tailoring the RTL programme to the needs of an institution – and has run a whole series of programmes at institutions such as Cardiff and Birmingham.

Tom Irvine leads the Leadership Foundation’s consulting team, full details on all the Leadership Foundation’s research programmes can be found here: Research Programmes.