Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Dared to lead

It's been a busy year, possibly my most busiest in my 10+ year career in the learning technology specialism - for obvious reasons, the COVID-19 pandemic.  On an increased scale and capacity - preparing, supporting and coaching academic and professional service staff in transitioning their teaching and working roles online in remote circumstances.  Below are some projects and pieces of work I have done that are worthy a mention:


However, as the 'law' of lifelong learning has no end and my own learning and investment in development must continue.  Kicking off the topic, supported by this recent quote from the The Kilted Coaches (trying not to blush 😉):



I continually invest in developing myself, not always in a professional capacity, but myself as a person - personal development.  I'm proud that I continue to maintain the law and label of lifelong learning.  So, updating on something I started planning in April 2019, where I said the following in my blog post 'DarkLight Phoenix - rising to the surface':
"I'm ambitious, that's true, however complacency has no presence in my work, improvement and self-development never end!  I've recently made a list of goals around treating myself as a senior professional.  I feel I reached this a few years ago, but now is the time to act on it.  To set this in motion I came up with a title for this goal "Plan, act, work, be a senior" with a strap line of "Got the attitude, knowledge, skills, willingness and status to be a senior".  Under this I placed objectives..."
Then I further shared some development back in February 2020 'Levelling up - identifying professional abilities, strengths and gaps'.  So I finally pressed the start button and am now working towards a self-funded Chartered Management Institute (CMI) Level 5 Diploma in Management and Leadership, of which I am now halfway through.  Steadily progressing through and getting back into the studying routine as I've had a hiatus since my MSc ended in 2016.  On my last unit I received the following feedback which was warming to read, good to hear I've still 'go it!':
"If I may offer some feedback.  It's never easy changing tutor as we each have a different view; but you have responded to my feedback fantastically well which is
credit to you, your character and determination.

...My pleasure.  Your character is something to be admired.  With self-awareness you should recognise not everyone has your application."

And later when I completed "...your application was stunning."

A main reason in undertaking this qualification is to learn new topics, as well as acquiring underpinning knowledge and skills to strengthen and support my previous experience, and certify it and reinforce my credibility.  As I've mostly learned on the job in this topic, a main downside to that is that you don't always learn essential theory to support and inform why you do what you do.  Though, it's not just about having another qualification, although I always appreciate to be rewarded with something tangible at the end.  I am sure this will open up many new doors for me as a result.  This Diploma also allows me to gain full CMI membership, making me eligible for Chartered Manager status.  I had full control over my unit choices and carefully decided on the following:

  • Principles of Management and Leadership in an Organisational Context
  • Developing, Managing and Leading Individuals and Teams to Achieve Success
  • Managing Stakeholder Relationships
  • Managing Projects to Achieve Results
  • Managing Change
  • Creating and Delivering Operational Plans
  • Managing Quality and Continuous Improvement
  • Principles of Innovation

Origins of a leader/manager

I'm loosely using leadership and management throughout, although there are clear differences in focus, mindset and duties.  Whilst challenging I understand the importance of both roles individually and am able to separate and apply them where appropriate - essentially both are required.  I wouldn't say that I am a natural leader with the in-built disposition but do where the situation requires it.  Though we are a species that like to look to a leader.  I've had a disjointed introduction to both leadership and management, having carried out and experienced associated tasks before understanding the actual roles themselves.  For example: digital leadership; thought leadership; entrepreneurship; strategy; managing change (namely PebblePad and H5P), managing a team; developing individuals; writing job descriptions; interviewing and selecting new team members; conducting appraisals; return to work; probation reviews and much more.  Thus far, this qualification is connecting all the dots to my previous experience and providing necessary foundations for me to build on further.

I obtained my first proper leadership and management experience during my first Learning Technologist role where I line managed and trained annual university intern placements and large groups of apprentices (Level 3 and 4 Diplomas in Digital Learning Design) on their roles and responsibilities.  Taught and assessed apprentices and managed and developed the learning company they were recruited to.  I managed the apprenticeship framework and line managed and supported assessors and also led the internal verification and quality assurance of these programmes - demonstrated through my Jisc presentation 'Designing digitally-enhanced curricula'.  It was during this time I did my first course in management; FututreLearn's Managing People: Engaging Your Workforce.  Additionally, I designed, delivered, assessed and managed the Level 4 Certificate in Technology in Learning Delivery programme.  Plus a 6+ month period managing the entire learning technology department to cover long term sick of the manager - with no additional contract or pay.  However, I have been displaying and demonstrating leadership qualities for many years, but one of the challenges is being noticed for such behaviours.  A personal reflection I had during one of the leadership units, is that "do we always need followers (followship) in order to effectively lead?  In my experience of line managing, planting seeds of inspiration and wisdom along with appropriate support, and the occasional prompts is usually enough to empower others to achieve agreed objectives."  I expressed leadership from the side and sometimes at the back.  Influencing and shaping thinking and improving performance both directly and indirectly.  Yes, you can lead from these angles and not always be at the front and centre.  Although not always recognised, acknowledged or given the appropriate credit where it should be.

In the past I have also been a final candidate for a digital learning and learning technology manager roles and was offered an eLearning manager position.  So I offer interesting and needed knowledge and skills.  In my current full-time and external roles, it appears I'm naturally growing out of the 'on the ground' stuff.  I'll always be in education and have the supportive nature, but I'm transcending into a more rounded consultant and effective leader and manager that utilises and maximises my vast expertise and astute abilities in digital/online learning design, capabilities and strategy development.  However, I'll always maintain my enthusiasm to muck in with everyone and be on the ground where possible.

I'm lucky that my current and past roles and projects act as a sandpit, i.e. allowing me to apply and test new approaches to build up confidence and competence.  A sandpit full of opportunities to get involved in and experience.  I've refined my abilities and scaled them gently through various internal and external work activities.

Questioning some leadership - a little incoherent rant

Leaders/managers usually have a clear path they'd like to journey on and may take on extra opportunities/activities to help them along the way.  But it's important to question regularly why are you doing this, who are you doing it for and what are you fighting for?  To keep the journey purposeful and specific to your career, not others careers.  It's also important to recognise when things don't feel right for you/others and taking necessary action to rectify or remove/re-direct yourself/others from the situation.  Its also ok for leaders to be open in saying what they don't know or can't do.  I realise a leader is a figure to be looked upon, but I've seen many 'leaders' masking their confidence in knowledge or skill in an effort to show they 'know it', 'not needing support in this area' or to be seen as they know it all - retaining the 'all singing and dancing leader' being everything to everyone.  But in reality that is not sustainable.  Also, there are those that constantly (over a period of time) exert a pseudo leadership energy onto others in the effort to make people believe in them or to be seen - I know this is required to some extent.  Though, to me the 'fake it till you make it' is not a good practice and isn't authentic enough to be a true leader and is something I cannot buy into, I need to trust them.  Leadership is not about overpowering and hindering people's contributions and demeaning and abusing your position of power.  It might get you far though depending if their seniors favour and encourage that kind of behaviour.  I also don't believe that antagonistic behaviour brings out the best results in people either.  Especially depending how open you are to criticism, whether kindly or abrupt.  I express myself as an open leader in stating my truths and experiences and welcome perspectives of others.  It doesn't mean I have to agree with them all...  I may not be blessed with the 'gift of the gab' (doesn't interest me anyway), but I sure know my knowledge/specialisms, what I stand for and the value of working and listening to people.

I feel that many think the top goal is only to be a leader/manager to control people or thrive on their status, of which I have experienced much abuse of power.  As a result, it's often the little things that get forgotten and that matter the most.  Like making sure quieter and reflective people have a voice, people feel included, valued and appreciated, people have fair opportunities to develop themselves etc.  There's a strong element in developing and supporting people, which is often an afterthought in the rat race to be superior to others.  I'm a natural people developer which comes from my strong underdog roots.  I'm still an underdog and always be and I'm proud of being one, I will always wave that flag to inspire others.  So this will always be at the forefront along with my other values.  Is the better leader/manager, to me, the one that brings people together, nurtures growth and progression and influencing from the middle, not just from the top-down?

I've seen many reach a leader/manager role early in their career and step down to senior roles later on.  May be that due to a goal fulfilled, a better work life balance or underestimating the requirements.  Being in a leadership/manager role there's less room for creativity and being hands on, due to the primary objective of leading/managing.  Again, I have observed this and been told directly by others that they miss this aspect.  Some people also climb too quickly which can leave them feeling like there's no where to progress to and have to stay where they are for a long time - resulting in lack of enthusiasm or innovation.  Some even become leaders/managers accidentally or perhaps stealthily purposeful, i.e. got the job by association of knowing certain people (nothing wrong with that in general), but when the person is not experienced, qualified nor have the demonstrated people skills.  It doesn't usually work or end well in long run, resulting in more unnecessary stress and costs recruiting replacements.  I agree that the true goal is not getting 'to the top', but the role that you are most happiest and comfortable in.  In the end, isn't that what we all end up trying to achieve?

Where are the people developing tomorrow's people?  As sad and unenthusiastic as this sounds, in my career I have never had an inspirational manager, i.e. a team/department manager.  But can say I have been inspired by leaders.  Of course I have had supportive managers but not ones that you can look up to and say I'd want to be like them - but perhaps we shouldn't encourage that anyway, but to find out our own comfortable styles.  Aspects are admirable such as true care and active listening, but I've not had the 'whole package' - maybe that never existed in first place.  I could say the same for teachers, I've not had an inspirational teacher (within a course/programme) - not that there isn't any, I've just not had that fortunate experience like so many have really.  Leaders, managers and teachers have a critical role to play in encouraging and empowering people and not stifle them - whether that be due to laziness or an effort rein them in.  I think being a leader/manager has been a purposeful life goal for me to fulfil - maybe the absence of role models as empowering me to be the person I'd like to be inspired by, be the beacon of empathy that lacks in so many people and roles.  It's not a trait I often see in leadership/management, but to me is the link to empowerment.

On the topic of not so good leaders/managers, over the Summer me and my close friend Stuart Greensmith White, School Business Manager, were having a chat about it and how this provokes imposter in workplace.  Anyway, he couldn't have put it any more clearly and bluntly...
People have their own agendas, their own egos, and those type of people put you down on purpose.  Sometimes they feel threatened, other times they're just absolute b******s.  Works same if you're viewed as 'not part of team' or whatever.  It's hard but you just have to keep the self-confidence.  Think of all the things you've done and can still do. 

That's one thing they do fail to teach on these courses, at least the ones I did. 

I always see the people like that as the ones to definitely not emulate.  Do the opposite.  It's not always the easiest way of course!

Something I do detest strongly is those that motivate, retain or obtain by making false promises.  I.e. stating succession/progression plans that never come to fruition.  I've been unfortunate to experience this twice.  Once a succession plan communicated over a couple of years.  Then during recruitment for a new role, sold ambitious plans which again related to future promotion.  Neither happened and is very cruel to say the least.  Oh well, look where it led me to.

As I did with my teaching qualification, this time being a qualified leader and manager, here I am again being independent and inspiring myself to be what I think is missing and needed and in my own unique way that I will share with others.  As I've said in many situations and once in an interview (not sure how well it was received), I want to do the leadership/management job, not just for the title like many are lustfully attracted by.  🤭 Budgets and resources aside, I feel that's why quality in lots of products and services are rapidly reducing and lacking, as there is little sincerity in doing a good job, but more energy on finding and cutting corners and justifying them without real reasons.

Lead wholeheartedly

When I show acts of kindness and courage I see many surprised reactions.  Like why is he being so approachable in this situation like its not how I should be.  I do dial up my assertiveness/fiery red when I need to though... 😉 I have a unique wholehearted leadership approach which many workplaces are not receptive to, more so the egotistic natured ones.  But inevitably I strongly feel it's what people need - personal relationships, as I'm sure many want to feel connected, wanted, valued and appreciated by colleagues, clients, stakeholders, teams and managers.  Unless you're purely their for financial or career enhancing reasons and then this won't matter as much.  I guess its the teacher within me that also reinforces this wholehearted approach.  I use my vulnerabilities as a source of wisdom and to inspire and encourage others.  Leading with my supporting and encouraging nature - I always leave my ego at the door which is often something recognised and praised for.  I've seen much positive evidence of my wholehearted approach, especially those that are deeply reticent with me/expertise needed and have done the opposite as a result, in time!  The wholehearted approach is a 'style' that complements my personality well as I am an empathetic leader (personal support/ideas/direction), but knowing when to stand/step up and when not to (managing/compliance).  Whether if that is for reserving energy or allowing others to develop.  As like pedagogy in teaching, we need develop our own unique leadership styles that are appropriate to our personalities.  Listening to ourselves, taking inspiration from grounding theories and good practices we observe and adapting to our own situations.

I still believe that successful leaders are those that lead with their heart and do things for the greater good.  Not just for themselves or to be 'king of their castle'.  That has a shelf life both practically and mentally.  There's still a lack of empathy, encouragement and good ol' mucking in to help people.  I'm glad that I lead with clear intentions to make positive changes to help people be the best they can be, by being empathetic, listening and keeping on learning - and encouraging others to do this, I'm a lifelong learner at heart.  To me, a good leader is not afraid to challenge themselves or others to bring about positive change.  As I said recently:
New Year, new challenge - literally

Moving into the new year, I will be participating on the Jisc Digital Leaders Programme 12 January to 4 February 2021, with huge thanks to my manager approving.  Excited to be inspired and progress my leadership in all things digital learning, teaching and working.  I'm particularly looking forward to the challenge of feeding back my learning and findings to senior management.  This will surely put my influential abilities to the test!  Topics include:

  • Week 1 - Mapping digital
  • Week 2 - Digital transformation
  • Week 3 - Understanding your organisation
  • Week 4 - Pulling it all together

Both the CMI qualification and Jisc Digital Leaders will help reaffirm conviction (professional judgement) and credibility in my specialism.  Not that a qualification or CPD course is required to justify or ground your abilities, but being present in either proves that you're there for a purpose, not just by luck/transaction (however, I believe that if you work in education then you should trust the purpose of qualifications).  That said, I don't rest on my laurels and always seek to question my own knowledge and assumptions.  It's also important to keep true to yourself...  You know you're still grounded and not blinded by stars when you don't take compliments for granted and awkwardly get shy.

As well as revisiting the sections 'Leading with a message' and 'The Winner TakesGives It All' in the earlier blog post.  To reflect on my progress and to assess my current stance, I now ask myself going in to the New Year.  What is my mission, what specific professional principles, values and practices do I draw upon and why, how valid and authentic are they to me/my work, what do they serve me/my work, where are these best applied and how will I enlighten others through my application of them?  As I told my friend Stuart in a conversation recently:  "It's asking what are you trying to get to?  Why are you doing what you're doing that will lead to what?"