Recently I was part of a panel at UCL’s education conference talking about the future of higher education and the main challenges university’s are facing. It was an honour, if not somewhat daunting, to be part of this panel, particularly speaking in one of the largest lecture theatres I think I have ever been in – see photo this was only about two thirds of it! I stayed for some of the conference after my session and in a break a student approached me and introduced themselves, saying how much they had enjoyed the panel discussion, they had googled me and wanted to know more about how I had got to where I am now in my career. They then asked me for some tips as to how they could achieve success in their career and what advice I might have. I’ve got to be honest here, I am not posting this in a “yay me, look what I have done” kind of thing nor in a faux “and so that was nice” disingenuous humility about my role. I am posting this as her question genuinely made me think – taking it as a fairly reliable assumption that I have been able to achieve some success in my career as I am a VP and have done some things that I am proud of – what advice would I give to others? I think this is a good question to ask ourselves, whatever our positions or perceptions of our “success” are, and particularly as a leader, as I think that in answering this question, you need to reflect on the decisions and choices you have made and the opportunities you have had. Thinking back on my career, my personal life and the intersections, sheds some light on my values. My leadership mantra is “creating the conditions in which others can act” and one of the things I often reflect on is my leadership “shadow”, my legacy and how I can help others. So actually, answering this question is core to my values as a leader.
So here are a few things that I think have helped me in my career and I would love to know more about what has helped anyone reading this in theirs.
Listen without judgement and learn – I benefitted massively from leadership development at a relatively early stage in my career and this taught me the power of listening to others, whether in a leadership position or not. There is so much I have learnt from listen to others and thinking how it might relate to me. My father talked to me about acceptance and non judgement and I have really tried to do this in my own life. Leadership development helped me focus on my values and “north star” which is that I work to create the conditions in which others can act. That is not passive. Instead, I actively work to create environments that support everyone to flourish. I feel passionate about this.
Allyship – I know I benefitted from some very supportive managers, leaders and mentors during my career. They challenged me in a positive way to exceed my own expectations and supported my decisions. I don’t think I fully realised this at the time how significant this was. This is something that I actively try and do for others. You should also be your own ally – see the next point!
Stubbornness – I guess this could be more positively phrased as “self-belief”, although if I am honest I am just stubborn. When I was told that no one would be interested in my PhD research on seventeenth-century women’s writing (which turned out to absolutely not be the case), I decided to study part time, find work that would support me and do it anyway. I was fortunate, there was different access to income support and PhD fees were much less. No one I knew was self funding, I kept applying for funding and didn’t get it or much other support. However, I kept on and actually the skills I gained through working were extremely useful for my future career. I was completely focused and working 40+ hours a week meant I had to be super focused and rapidly learn time management skills.
Partnership – co-parenting – I think my attitudes to what this means have changed over time. When I had one child, it was much easier to share childcare, however, I noticed when I had more, the balance definitely shifted towards me taking on more, particularly as I worked part time. The pandemic then shifted things again as I then worked full time and my partner and I developed split shifts and everything. He does more at home now due to my current role. I’ve also questioned my assumptions – why do I assume that only my salary counts towards childcare when actually its a cost like any other that should be seen as the responsibility of both of us? Why do I assume that I need to leave “instructions” for my partner to look after his own children – how patronising is that for both of us?! I have noticed though that attitudes to this have definitely changed in the last 16 years I have been a parent, although society still has a long way to go.
Saying “yes” – A lot of time we are told to say no to things. I’m not very good at that to be honest although getting better. Perhaps it should be more a selective yes! I remember hearing Tim Smit from the Eden Project saying years ago that he randomly selected 1 in every 3 speaking invitations to go to which meant he want to loads of different things. I’ve always tried to take opportunities for networking and engaging with others. I started this during my Masters, volunteering to give a talk on my Masters, then continued this in my PhD going to all sorts of conferences and events. I think that there is something about trying to keep a focus on the “important but not urgent” box of things. Those activities, whatever they are, that give you joy and energy which in turn make you better at your job and just improve your life. The emails and the mundane stuff will always be there and there is usually never a good time to do some of the biggest things that make the most difference, so sometimes you just have to jump in and be curious.
Planning and not planning – In Myers-Briggs terms I’m a split between a planner and a non-planning person. Since having children and working part time etc I am probably more of a planner, although often I am a last minute planner. The randomness of life though has taught me to be more forward thinking and allocate time for things well in advance. I’m not very good on little or broken sleep and trying to do something like teaching prep or thinking in this state is not good! However, best laid plans and all that I think you have to accept that plans might change and be flexible. Whilst I like to plan what I am doing and when, I try to keep open to changes and new suggestions – see the point above. I used to spend so long planning my seminars and tutorials when teaching English that by the time I got there I hardly wanted to let the students speak as there was so much stuff I wanted to get across – this was not sustainable or good teaching! So I learnt to let go and that you have to trust the process. Yes plan but don’t let the plan define you, change is inevitable.
Accepting the personal and professional – being kind, compassionate and respectful – The balance between what we bring to work and what we leave at home is different for everyone. At times the boundaries have been more blurred than others, particularly during the pandemic. I am fortunate to work in a sector where there is often a lot of flexibility around roles and the flow of work. For me, I want to be kind, compassionate and respectful. I want to be treated like this and I want to treat others like this. This means that I accept there is an interplay between what is personal and what is professional. Being kind to myself means that sometimes I need to do more professional things at odd times. There are no set rules about this and I think accepting that this ebbs and flows, especially if you have children and as they grow, is something I have become more relaxed about over time.
This post is probably long enough! Thank you for reading if you have made it this far and thank you to the student who asked me such a great question.