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Leading the field of leadership development with Bristol University

Roffey Park 19th October 2009
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Bristol University was founded in 1876 as University College, Bristol and currently has over 17,000 students and over 2,500 teaching staff.

The university has long been a pioneer in the field of learning and was the first higher education institution in England to admit women on an equal basis to men. Today, the university recognises the new challenges facing the education sector and aims again to lead the field in tackling them.

The challenge

The university sector as a whole is facing numerous challenges. There is a need to equip leaders to work in different, more collaborative ways and rotating leadership positions now demand rounded skills from all.

Fiona Ford, Deputy Director and Head of Policy Development at Bristol University, explains: “Universities are becoming more complex; the traditional idea of the ivory tower far removed from the concerns of commercial life is truly outdated. We are a £350m per annum organisation with corresponding budgets, staff and students. In this managed environment, it is essential we have high quality leaders to compete effectively. We wanted to equip existing leaders with the skills to be the best, while also preparing more junior staff with the confidence and credibility to make the leap to leader.”

Making the challenge more difficult is the fact that academic professionals are particularly demanding when it comes to participating in training programmes. “We’re talking about absolute leaders in their chosen fields here who have forged a career in equipping others with skills and knowledge that they have learnt,” adds Fiona. “Therefore any scheme we introduced needed to be rigorous, academically sound and delivered by people that are equally eminent in their field.”

The solution

The University of Bristol issued a call to tender and Roffey Park was one of many who submitted a proposal. Roffey Park’s clear understanding of the brief and wealth of experience saw it selected to develop a leadership development programme.

“Roffey Park understood what we wanted to achieve and were best equipped to help us meet our objectives,” explains Fiona. “After the selection process, we worked closely with the Roffey Park team to develop a modular programme that would deliver on our unique needs.”

The leadership development programme kicked off with a launch event headed by the University’s vice-chancellor which outlined what the programme intended to achieve and how it would work. The first cohort consisted of 20 participants and took place over two years. It is made up of ten modular half-day sessions covering a comprehensive range of leadership skills from strategic leadership to delegation to managing teams and money. Broadly speaking, the first year covered theoretical aspects of leadership while the second year examined these from a practical perspective.

“The course was an immediate success, which was surprising as these types of exercises are often viewed with suspicion and scepticism by the academic community,” adds Fiona. “In fact, we had over 100 nominations for places in the first year which is particularly unusual for a university environment. Furthermore, attendance was also incredibly high – everyone completed the programme whereas other universities have often seen a significant drop out rate. I believe it has struck a chord because we spent time building trust among the academic community to guarantee relevancy and because its two year duration ensures we can cover a wider range of topics at a quality level.”

The results

The university carried out an in-depth evaluation of the first cohort’s experiences to get a better idea of how much impact the programme had had. The results provided a valuable insight into what the participants thought of the programme content and how it had impacted on the way they work.

“The feedback was universally positive and showed that for most participants, every element of the programme had been interesting and professionally useful. For example, we have had people tell us that the programme has given them the confidence and skills to apply for posts that they would have otherwise ignored,” comments Fiona. “Many participants stressed that it was the first occasion that they had the time and space to focus on developing their own leadership skills, as well as providing the opportunity to network and learn from other people within the organisation.”

Participants have emerged with a new set of skills that have given them the confidence and credibility to lead and manage in the context of a large academic organisation. From handling change to delegation, managing budgets to conflict resolution, each member of the first cohort feels that they can now add extra value to the university.

“The evaluation has clearly demonstrated that Roffey Park’s leadership development programme has been a success and this is due to the quality of the content, the experience of the programme directors and Roffey Park’s deep understanding of the challenges we face,” concludes Fiona. “We have already instigated the second cohort and I have no doubt that the programme will continue to play a key role in shaping our current and future leaders for many years to come.”