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Case Study: School of Life and Medical Sciences, University College London (UCL)
RKB Coaching Consultancy developed and ran a Future Leaders Programme to build leadership capabilities among UCL’s academic staff. It proved such a ‘happy and positive experience’ for participants and excellent value for money for the university, that the project is now in its fourth year.
One of the world’s top universities, UCL was founded in 1826 with a progressive mission to expand higher education to those who had been excluded, becoming the first to admit women on equal terms to men. The School of Life and Medical Science (SLMS) is the largest of the three schools that form UCL: comprising four faculties, it has a diverse student body of more than 9,500 and accounts for more than 60% of UCL's research and academic staff.
Building leadership capabilities
To attract continued funding for its research work and secure its future success, UCL has to maximise the potential of its academic staff, building cohorts of candidates for internal promotion from a wide range of backgrounds. Academic leadership is a principle theme within UCL’s 20-year strategy and is regarded as a critical test of the University.
Within SLMS, the Academic Careers Office (ACO) provides training, support and mentorship schemes for clinicians and researchers, to help cultivate the brightest and best talent. The ACO is the brainchild of Professor Geraint Rees who oversees its work, alongside his role as Dean of UCL’s Faculty of Life Sciences. As an enthusiastic advocate of academic career development, Professor Rees works with Professor Graham Hart, his fellow Dean at the Faculty of Population Health Sciences to build leadership competence within SLMS. Their goal is to increase diversity among the senior team and give talented individuals more opportunities to progress.
Professor Rees reflects: “There is perhaps a perception among scientists that leaders emerge in some kind of Darwinian struggle. We wanted to encourage staff to believe that leadership can be taught and nurtured in the same way as other important skills like communication.”
In 2013, Professors Rees and Hart asked RKB Coaching Consultancy to devise and implement a leadership development programme for SLMS academics and research staff who had the potential to take on more senior roles.
The Future Leaders Programme – outline
An introductory launch event is followed by eight one-day workshops which cover different aspects of leadership, from emotional intelligence to building resilience. While examining the latest thinking on the subject, RKB’s approach builds on people’s experiences so they can apply the theory to their own working environment. For example, participants practise a technique called action learning where one person shares a work related dilemma or challenge and colleagues ask probing questions to shed new light on the issue and help them resolve it.
Together with the monthly workshops, each person receives three one-to-one coaching sessions with one of RKB’s experienced team. This gives each individual an opportunity to reflect on personal, professional and leadership issues and consider how they can progress in their career. In addition, participants are required to complete a leadership assignment which benefits UCL and enables them to put into practice the theory and skills they have learnt.
Professor Rees recalls that some participants in the first cohort were initially unconvinced: “This is traditionally a cost-saving environment so it is quite unusual to proactively identify people for training opportunities and many had not had management training before. Although some had clearly been waiting for this kind of opportunity, there was also degree of healthy scepticism to overcome.”
Of course, academics are trained to challenge and ask difficult questions but Professor Rees credits RKB’s Rajwant Bains and Anjali Arya for gaining the respect of the participants at an early stage. “It’s helpful that they had experience of the public sector because that established their credibility with this audience,” he says. “At the same time, their style is great – the delivery is very clear, friendly and encouraging but there is steel behind it. They were good at managing the group dynamics so the atmosphere was productive but they were always in control.”
“I attended the first and final sessions,” he remembers “and the transformation was astonishing. I was struck by how well everyone had bonded and the enthusiasm of participants – there was a real joie de vivre in the group and their respect and affection for Anjali and Rajwant was clear.”
He reports that the response from participants was overwhelmingly positive. “For example, they were interested in the insights into leadership styles and felt they had acquired tools that would help them in their careers. It’s telling that people were eager to continue coaching and have been on the look-out for further opportunities for development, while many still meet others from their cohort to discuss work challenges using the action learning technique. There is sometimes a tendency for people who work in niche areas to think that their work challenges are specific to them and I welcome anything that counteracts that feeling and encourages people to work together.”
Creating an enduring legacy
Since the Future Leaders Programme began in 2013, it has gone from strength-to-strength. Eight cohorts – 128 people – have completed the course and in 2015, the programme was extended to academic staff from across UCL. The 2016 cohorts will include members of UCL’s Professional Services staff, alongside their academic colleagues.
“We started in one corner of SLMS and broadened the programme as it has proved its worth,” explains Professor Rees. “It’s probably too early to talk about the long term impact but we have already noticed that participants in the first cohort have been applying for leadership roles and increasing their prominence within the University. More broadly, the Future Leaders Programme has also helped to embed leadership attributes within SLMS and promote closer integration within UCL.”
The leadership assignments were particularly significant in this respect, he suggests. “I am planning to take some ideas forward, such as an investigation into the integrity of laboratory research but more importantly, the exercise encouraged people from different faculties and disciplines to co-operate in pursuit of common goals. And it helped academic staff to appreciate the vital role played by their non-academic colleagues. This cross-fertilisation of ideas supports UCL’s philosophy of collegiality and helps us address the challenges we face in the wider world.”
Professor Rees remains enthusiastic about the continuation of the Future Leaders Programme and concludes: “After working with RKB, I have become an enormous fan and I’d recommend them to others without reservation.”
Reference: 1 QS World University Rankings 2016/17, QS Top Universities, September 2016
Case Study: Royal Holloway, University of London
RKB Coaching Consultancy’s leadership development programme was so well-received that the College has commissioned an extended version in 2015/16
One of the UK’s leading universities, Royal Holloway, University of London attracts more than 8,600 students from around the world to its Surrey campus and employs over 2,300 staff. Royal Holloway has established a strong reputation across its 19 academic departments, achieving an 89% satisfaction rating in the 2014 National Student Survey.
In response to increased competition for both students and funding within the higher education sector, Royal Holloway launched a seven-year strategic plan called Discover Our Future in 2013, setting out goals for 2020 such as increasing the student intake and building on its strong track record in academic research. One important theme in the plan was to “develop a high quality diverse and professional workforce” and identifying new leaders from Royal Holloway's existing staff.
To help it fulfil this objective, Royal Holloway contacted RKB Consultancy in December 2013 and asked it to design a leadership development programme which could be implemented across the organisation.
RKB’s proposal was submitted in January 2014 and it was commissioned following a mini-selection process, as HR Director Cheryl Newsome explained: “RKB Consultancy’s style of facilitation and approach with academics, as well as their willingness to tailor the programme to meet the College’s requirements, within the available budget, provided a good fit for us.”
RKB’s leadership programme
15 participants were selected for the programme from across Royal Holloway's academic and professional services staff, all at Head of Department or senior manager level. They were joined by the HR Director who was eager to experience the programme at first hand and ensure it was meeting expectations.
Starting with a launch event in October 2014, the programme consisted of eight one-day workshops which were held off-site each month until May 2015. Interspersed with the workshops were two executive coaching sessions for each participant where they could discuss their careers and work challenges on a 1:1 basis with Rajwant Bains or Anjali Arya.
The workshops addressed different aspects of leadership, from understanding organisational culture and reputation management to influencing and building relationships but key to the programme’s success was its emphasis on applying this theoretical knowledge to Royal Holloway. One way that RKB achieved this was to include a session of Action Learning every month to encourage reflection and develop problem-solving skills. During these sessions, one member of the group was asked to summarise a workplace problem they were facing. The others would then help them reflect on the situation and find their own solution by asking challenging but constructive questions. The presenter was expected to develop action points to work on before the next meeting and the whole group was then asked to discuss what they had learned. As well as encouraging participants to test their learning in a practical context, Action Learning was valuable because it encouraged cross-departmental co-operation and helped people from the academic departments understand the challenges faced by those in professional services.
Another important element of the programme was for everyone to complete a project which would raise their profile and demonstrate how they had applied their learning to a business-critical challenge. The projects ranged from introducing a CRM system to creating a database of maintenance information for Royal Holloway's Royal Holloway Victorian Founders’ Building. Each person had to report back on their project and a few presented the results at a final Review Workshop.
The client’s view
Cheryl Newsome observed: “There was a shift in attitude from some who at the start of the programme were sceptical as to the benefits but later completely reversed their position. Some participants visibly gained confidence in their role as leaders and shifted from being hesitant in their presentations to be confident in their approach. They also gained the confidence to tackle performance issues they may not have previously done.”
Speaking as a participant, she added: “I gained some useful management tools and perspectives for addressing complex issues. I was able to refresh my knowledge and found the coaching sessions particularly useful. In addition, networking with the participants was a good opportunity to meet colleagues that I may not otherwise have met.”
While it is too early to measure the full impact of RKB’s work, Cheryl is in little doubt that the programme has been a success: “It has been extremely well received,” she said “A number of participants are continuing with action learning and have built relationships that are supporting them in their everyday work. The academic Heads of Department who participated in the programme have also gained the confidence to act collaboratively to challenge some of the College’s decision-making processes.”
Royal Holloway were so impressed that they have asked RKB to run a second leadership development programme, beginning in October 2015. Following feedback from the original cohort, the next programme will include an additional workshop focusing on performance management, as well as a third 1:1 coaching session for each person.
Cheryl Newsome concluded: “I would recommend RKB Consultancy due to their breadth of knowledge and experience and flexibility of style. They are able to engage with both professional services and academic managers and to challenge in a non-threatening way.”