Research Leader case studies

Four research leaders reflect below on a range of leadership development activities, from coaching to the Leadership Foundation's Senior Strategic Leadership Programme.

Professor Nina Laurie

Nina Laurie, an interdisciplinary network director at Newcastle University, reflects on the benefits of coaching.

"I wanted coaching support because of my role as an interdisciplinary network director. Not long into the process, however, I realised that coaching could provide a much broader and more strategic role in my career development. We did talk about how I could deal with the everyday problems I was facing and tools I could use to help in the development of a strategic vision for the network. Most of this was about affirming what I had, with the help of my colleagues in the network, already worked out. Far more important for me longer term I believe has been the reflexive space that the coaching provided for me to ‘think about me', what I bring to the job and what I want from it.

Despite a high level of self awareness, pretty good people skills and a strong belief in the value of building teams, my job at Newcastle University frequently exhausted and deeply frustrated me. Through the coaching I came to realise that much of the vision for leadership that I adhere to requires working between institutional spaces, between schools, disciplines, faculties, cultures of work, etc. Sometimes roles come along or can be created where those skills are required and valued. At such points to be both within and without the system is a pathway that can and indeed should be forged in order to start something new or bring about and consolidate change. At other times the institutional moment does not chime with such visions of leadership. An important skill is to know how to read the moment and to take the appropriate steps to move on whatever than might mean at any given point.

Coaching made me realise that I am in this job for the long haul and not every opportunity is only for today."

Professor Pete Lee

Pete Lee, Head of Computing Science at Newcastle University, reflects on coaching and how it helped him to prepare for moving into a head of school role for the first time. 

"Having come from a 'traditional' scientific academic background and career, as for many academic staff I had little opportunity (or time!) to train in aspects of management. Typically, you just 'fall' into management roles. As the prospect of becoming a head of school came ever nearer, and through the PDR process, the need to do some appropriate coaching was identified, which I was fortunate to complete before becoming a head.

The tailored, one-on-one coaching sessions were extremely valuable to me, covering aspects of the role that otherwise I would just have fallen into unprepared. Understanding more about people's personalities, what drives and motivates them, how to deal with different characteristics, what 'strategy' really means and time management (that training course you never have time to take on), were all things I benefited from being coached in. These are the kinds of things that you realise you don't know much only after you've done the coaching sessions. Time management was a particularly effective session for me - my 'to-do' list is still long but I rarely wake up at nights now worrying that I've forgotten something important!

I hope this all has led to me being a better, and more effective manager. I feel sure it has but you'll have to ask my colleagues about that."

Dr Janice McLaughlin

Janice McLaughlin, Executive Director of Policy, Ethics, and Life Sciences (PEALS) Research Centre at Newcastle University, reflects on a range of leadership development activities.

"I participated in the University's Leadership Development Centre as I moved into leadership and management roles within the PEALS Research Centre, first as Director of Research, then alongside as Deputy Executive Director and now Executive Director. Being a member of this programme during this time has been invaluable and has provided not just a space in which to moan but more productively, to actively learn from others facing similar and more difficult challenges. Coming from the social sciences, I was somewhat dubious of the various personality profiles undertaken but have to say that the messages coming out from the results have been consistent, relevant and things I have acted upon.

Through the leadership programme I gained access to a management coach. This has been a vital experience for me, coming at an important period of being placed in new contexts, negotiations and strategic opportunities. The one-to-one sessions were always productive, based on the issues I faced and designed to develop solutions I could take forward and did. While the coaching has concluded, I often go back to the notes made there when dealing with new situations and issues and I recognise that I work with greater reflexivity about the impact of my behaviour and of others now. I am very grateful for that! I undertook a 360 degree feedback exercise with my management coach, and while challenging (which it needs to be if it is to be of use), going through the process with my management coach added to the value it had. I had trust in him to discuss my approach with others, and feedback comments and suggestions to me.

The training provided has been invaluable, not least because of the message it sent that the University values my work and is willing to invest significant resources into my career development."

Professor Phil Powrie

Phil Powrie, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences at the University of Surrey, reflects on two different types of leadership development. 

"The first leadership development activity was the Leadership Foundation's Senior Strategic Leadership Programme, where I rubbed shoulders with colleagues aiming to be pro-vice-chancellors or vice-chancellors. Apart from the obvious networking benefits, the module took us through a broad range of practical issues such as financial management but also, more in the coaching style, working as part of teams: one exercise, for example, entailed guiding a blindfolded colleague around an obstacle course using only light touch at the elbow rather than words. This may sound only marginally better than the stereotypical team-building exercises in 'I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here' style but in fact it teaches you more about yourself and your capacity to 'lead quietly' than any amount of theoretical reading.

Much more fundamental to my development, however, was personal coaching, where I needed to define objectives and talk through methods of achieving them. The most informative exercise, which I did in both the Senior Strategic Leadership Programme and as part of the personal coaching, was without doubt the 360 degree questionnaire, where colleagues commented anonymously on how they viewed my strengths and weaknesses. While the results were sometimes uncomfortable, I am convinced that this is one of the fastest and most reliable ways of understanding how others see you and therefore understanding how you need to modify ingrained behaviours so as to reach your objectives more efficiently. And the same can be said about the one-to-one personal coaching, which brought clarity into my thinking about difficult situations as a leader, forcing me to reflect on how small nuances in the way you behave and talk can affect outcomes, both positively and negatively."