Updated: Oct 2
Are you a Black, Asian, and/or Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff member working in the Higher Education (HE) sector and want to improve your career prospects, but you are not entirely sure on how to proceed? Perhaps, you have a vision that you want materialised at your institution, but are uncertain how to navigate this to your employer from plan to prospect? These are the types of questions put forward in the call-out from Advance HE about the 'Diversifying Leadership' (DL), which is an institutionally-funded opportunity for selected staff members to attend four full-day sessions administrated by Advance HE. This CPD is to work in a committed space to curate your potential, share strategies, and support peer development as an attempt to retrain into a 'leadership' mindset in order to achieve your goals.
In December 2019, the University of Roehampton sent a call-out for staff interested in being funded for Advance HE's Diversifying Leadership training. As an Early Career Researcher (ECR) who is relatively new to Higher Education in the UK, I found this opportunity appealing because it required me to competitively pitch a rationale for wanting to participate in terms of presenting my leadership aspirations, as well its exclusiveness for BAME academics and professional staff in HE piqued my interest: what could a leadership course for BAME staff offer differently to a general leadership CPD programme?
What's the DL about?
The Diversifying Leadership programme is curated to target leadership development for BAME academic and professional staff in the UK who belong to the minority groups of culturally diverse staff employed in HE sectors across the UK. The course is convened by Associate Programme Director/Facilitator Jannett Morgan and Associate Facilitator/ALS Lead Leyla Okhai whose combined efforts structured an extremely well-balanced sequence of four all-day intensive modules spread across several months.
Naturally, the DL's exclusive agenda of hosting BAME staff for CPD of leadership skillsets can be met with some apprehension (at first) because the deliberate construction of targetting exclusiveness embraces the view that leadership opportunities are more challenging for BAME than for white colleagues currently working in HE. As British society is currently championing for 'equality' this venture to promote leadership opportunities for BAME staff over white colleagues might seem contrary to inclusive practices particularly when academia and career advancement in HE is by design quite an isolating experience, particularly for scholars of any ethnicity.
At this point, readers might feel somewhat divided about my views or tone of issues expressed above. I want to acknowledge that I am aware of the general under-representation of cultural voices in the HE sector, and the presence of racial micro-aggressions toward BAME communities in wider society. You are heard. That being said, it is my unique experience as an Indian descendant who is Trinidadian-born, Canadian-raised, Australian-educated, British-scholar, which enlightens me with a unique perspective of inequality across different societies. For me, it is not uncommon to struggle through any system which has been built to serve the needs of a larger society, in some situations these societal systems serve my interest and in others less so. As a literal product of the Commonwealth, I carry differently weighted interpretations of the world, just like others who base their opinions on their respective experiences. Personally, I came to DL hoping to gain a better understanding of the unspoken cultural practices in HE that might warrant BAME staff in the UK requiring more specialised support and guidance about leadership progression- why is this necessary? Is there something I ought to know?
So, it would be dishonest (given my experiences and background) to say I was not a skeptic about the DLA programme as I am with all race-derived training, and I believe I made that known on my first day on the course. I recall the welcome activity, where Jannett Morgan distributed post-it notes to people as they were settling in and kindly asked us to "write down a role-model who looks like you", to which I immediately asked, "why does the person have to look like me?" At that point, Jannett gave me a big smile (perhaps mentally noting me as a trouble-maker) and replied "we'll get to that". This brief exchange and single activity shaped the entire metaphor to help me understand the purpose of the question, and by extension the course, which ended my skepticism about DL.
To explain, dotted throughout the leadership discussions from guided readings, the module had several invited speakers (Dr Mark Ledwidge, Professor 'Funmi Olonisakin, Dr Winifred Eboh, and Griot Chinyere), essentially people who looked like us and who shared their personal journeys, which echoed the sentiments and experiences of many around the room. Everyone at some point experienced discrimination or unfairness, but the speakers championed that leaders work more efficiently within these systems of inequity. Over the delicious lunches (no cold sandwiches here thanks to administrators Keysha Samuels and Simone Callendar), colleagues got a chance to be vocal about their own experiences and this space for expression was uplifting for so many participants. It seems in the UK BAME staff in HE thrive better in committed spaces to reassure their presence in the sector. This triad of seeing leaders (who look like us), hearing leaders (guest speakers) and aspiring for leadership (shared stories) are the basic goals accomplished from participating in this programme. The truth is the world did not change when participants left DL sessions, but participants changed how they wanted the world to view them - and this (for me) is the first strength of any leader.
What can you learn about leadership?
One of the largest benefits of the DL programme being funded through HE institutions is the pledge of their commitment to your support. This means creating a relationship with your chosen 'sponsor' at your institution. Understanding the role and functions of a successful sponsor relationship is critical to advancing your leadership goals. The DL programme is a great conversation builder for creating such a relationship that can nurture your role within an institution and progress your career. Coming to grips with the differences between a mentor and a sponsor seems to be an essential element of effective networking.
Another critical leadership skill is that of the Action Learning Sets (ALS) facilitated by Leyla Okhai which puts participants into groups and teaches you about active listening, where participants are joined by a group moderator (for DL10 this was kindly undertaken by Kemi Oladapo and Bobby Upple). This reflective activity involved a participant sharing their leadership crucible and having others in the group listen to ask questions to augment thinking, rather than provide solutions to problems. Personally, I rather enjoyed this session because it taught me how to be a more effective listener. Too often, as a teacher in HE, I have become conditioned to listen to student issues and offer support with solutions over any other form of listening.
Despite the challenges of Covid-19, the DL-10 group was able to undertake the final session (Module 4) on Zoom and though unable to interact face to face, the session was well-prepared and quite engaging. This was an interesting opportunity to reflect on the changing nature of the world, and refresh that with changes to society there are new demands on leaders and Covid-19 is but one new avenue to renew thoughts on leadership and how and where we might be able to use the uniqueness of our skillset to seize the moments that enable us to shine.
So, is this for you?
It's quite unique in HE to be afforded some sliced away time to focus on developing your career and being afforded an opportunity to brainstorm (without prohibition or embarrassment) what you honestly want as a leader. For some, it was being able to discover what this might be, and for others, it was being able to say it out loud, which were both liberating functions of the DL programme.
The DL-10 experience will continue despite the programme coming to completion where members have opted to stay in touch and share this space facilitated by Advance HE Connect, where we are able to use this space to share our resources, promote networking opportunities and keep in touch about our growth and personal development. The DL experience is also certificated by Advance HE and evidence of Leadership CPD.
On a personal note, the provoking leadership challenges put forward in this module, coupled with both the relationship I have been able to form with my sponsor and the connections I have formed with like-minded colleagues from universities across the UK has been quite rewarding. To all future DL's - truth be told, it's so much more than leadership training, it's a DL family.