Becoming a More Engaging and Inclusive Leader
Wednesday, 30th August 2023
Continuous professional development and lifelong learning might seem to mean similar things at first glance, but they’re less alike than they appear.
Continuous professional development tends to involve building upon a particular set of skills or knowledge that professionals must have in order to work in a certain occupation. Regular CPD can be a condition of employment, a necessity for progressing one’s career, or an obligation for becoming certified by a professional group.
This level of ongoing training is important; it refreshes necessary workplace skills. However, some of this kind of training can be quite standardised. It’s narrow in scope because it has to be.
But there is another kind of professional development, far broader in scope, and over recent years I have seen the benefits of taking that next step. I call it self-learning: to grow as an individual and as a leader by going deeper than just a one or two-day course allows.
Before taking on the role as Principal and Chief Executive of Northern Regional College in August 2021, I was its Chief Operating Officer. Now, with two years’ experience and hindsight, I can see that I was highly focused on carrying out the previous role in an operational way.
But I had not dedicated time to thinking about my approach to the job, or about ways I could improve to become a more effective and inclusive leader.
Since then, I made a point to undertake leadership training and it has opened my eyes. I see now that, as I was moving along in the earlier stages of my career, I had overlooked opportunities to develop myself.
I’ll talk about how valuable it was in a moment, but I feel it’s important to say that reflecting on personal interactions with people as a leader can involve confronting some hard truths about oneself.
For example, I took the Timoney Leadership Institute’s Advanced Leadership Programme, and a session from the first day stands out in my memory.
Professor Sebastien Brion said the single biggest event for provoking unhappiness in a typical working day is spending time with the boss.
But I am the boss, I thought.
As I drove back from Kildare to Coleraine that day, I couldn’t get Professor Brion’s message out of my head. To me, it was a significant body blow to hear that people would think that.
Even as I was still reeling from the prospect that some people might not enjoy dealing with the boss, I also reached a more important conclusion: I saw the true value in the kind of learning that allows you to step back from the day-to-day responsibilities of a role.
This kind of learning made me realise I needed to be more engaging and inclusive as a leader.
It also gave me the awareness that I needed to be open to other people’s ideas, and that this would, in turn, allow me to learn from them. Professor Brion spoke about accepting and learning from failure, and he referred to having thoughtful disagreements and building strong, meaningful interpersonal relationships in a working environment.
I realise the importance of working with people who hold different views and encouraging them to share those views that will challenge my own.
We often think of leaders as being those individuals who speak most, but my journey showed me the importance of considering other people’s opinions and of listening more.
Some of the leadership courses I have taken in recent years have been useful for validating my own approach. In some cases, I found I was already applying many of the lessons I had been learning about.
Other times, this learning opens up your way of thinking. As part of the Timoney programme, peers discuss case studies of other organisations as a group in the classroom environment. Each one of us had to put ourselves in that scenario and consider what we would do.
It was interesting to see different dynamics and different viewpoints and to hear other people’s thoughts and their interpretation of what they would have done in that situation, whether it was handling poor employee behaviour or dealing with health and safety issues.
I was always keen to hear other people’s rationales for why they thought that way. It forced me to ask myself honestly if I was being closed to ideas. I learnt to value a diversity of views and to understand why people felt that way. In these classroom sessions, there were no right or wrong answers.
Another aspect of lifelong learning, as I have come to see it, is learning by doing. While some lessons can be taught through courses and books, I believe that learning by doing is essential.
When I was new in my current post, I made sure to spend time walking around campus talking to students and staff. In this, I was applying one of the lessons from the Timoney programme, which showed us that informal feedback is often more powerful than formal feedback.
There is a natural tendency for people to feel they need to tell a manager what they want to hear, rather than the more nuanced reality of a situation. As leaders, it can be easy to fall into this trap and assume everything is going well.
To get past that tendency, I have to engage with the people around me and encourage dialogue.
I have found that when a leader is more visible, when they engage with people and are willing to interact and listen, the feedback is more honest.
Through the Timoney programme, I learnt about active listening, which was one of the softer aspects of leadership that I didn’t anticipate. Up to that stage, I would have had a particular view clear in my head. When we broke into the sub-groups to discuss a scenario, it was so valuable to listen to what’s being said, digest it and consider that against my viewpoint.
Now, I think much more about empathy, social intelligence and interpersonal intelligence. I try to understand why people make decisions in a particular way. Could there be a valid fear of making a mistake, or of failing?
At the same time, I am also trying to pass on the lessons I have learnt to my colleagues. When people on my team come to me with ideas or suggestions, now I ask them what their staff are thinking and if they have shared feedback.
As a leader, it’s incumbent on me to set the tone where people have the space to bring ideas and even to make mistakes. Irrespective of whether someone makes the wrong decision, it’s about reflecting on that, learning from it, and moving forward; not punishing them for a mistake.
In the past, I realise I would have been very quick to jump in to make decisions, focused on what the end goal was, and knowing what needed to be done to get there; but this focuses power in the hands of the few, and I no longer see that as leadership.
It’s fair to say that my mindset has evolved. I give my staff trust. Over time, I have learnt that delegating, and expanding the pool of people who are involved in decision-making, ultimately empowers them.
This means acknowledging their knowledge and expertise. For example, I’m not a lecturer; so although I can manage the resources a department might need, those key operational decisions on curriculum provision are for the lecturers and managers to make. They are the experts, not me.
In far too many organisations, the culture doesn’t tolerate failure. But over time, that kind of environment can lead people to avoid taking risks, or to shirk responsibilities. That’s why I believe it is incumbent on leaders – or those who want to lead – to do so with empathy.
By fostering environments where colleagues can be honest with each other, share ideas, and learn from mistakes, they become better people and build better organisations.
If anyone has any questions, please feel free to email me at Mel.Higgins@nrc.ac.uk.