Acts of Deliberate Listening: inviting in other voices

In the week just gone I completed the second residential session of the Leadership Foundation’s Strategic Leadership Programme – SLP3. Quite aside from the dubious delights of a semi-structured musical ‘performance’ from three of us (note the inverted commas folks) involving a piano, two guitars and judicious use of a capo, the programme has been an incredibly rich experience for me. The reward has come from a number of angles within the programme, not least the time and opportunity to reflect on ones own leadership style and the issues, internal and external that affect it. It’s also been a fantastic opportunity to meet others in similar positions across the HE sector and share stories, learning and experiences. It would seem that our cohort was constructed quite carefully – there was a lot of useful meeting ‘places’ on which the group has really thrived.

On the structured end of things, there have been two areas where I’ve found the learning to be really valuable. The two areas noted below have been valuable because of the presence of thinking, voices and perspectives other than my own – they’ve provided me with an opportunity to purposefully and consciously practice a kind of deliberate listening.

 360 Feedback

I asked a total of 18 co-workers to complete a survey about me; alongside my own responses to the same set of questions the answers were analysed, creating a very rich profile of both data and qualitative commentary. Several key themes came out of the profile, which was then talked through and discussed in overview in a coaching session. What was great was the opportunity to take time out to really consider what these opinions collectively told me about my practice as an academic leader/ manager working in HE. These are the voices that really count – they are the voices I work with every day and the people with whom I develop the student experience at Salford.

 Action Learning Sets

There are 3 action learning sets within our SLP3 cohort, each with 7-8 people. The sets have now been running for about 6 months and have met three times. We follow a strict pattern in our set that ensures each participant walks away with things they can do.

Over a twenty minute period, repeated for each of us, the following pattern is used…

  • 5 minutes for the individual to summarise the current state of the project/ problem on which they’re working. Everyone else just listens – no questions are raised.
  • 5 minutes for the individual to then play ‘fly on the wall’, whilst the rest of the set talk about what they think is going on and discuss what they think might be potential routes forward. The individual who has shared their project/problem does not talk or join in here, just listens.
  • 8 minutes for the group to ask questions of the individual presenting the problem/ project. These questions are designed to provoke thoughts aligned to the problem that have perhaps not been explored. Questioners are not allowed to offer advice, or provide solutions, but are simply opening up additional considerations – ‘Have you thought about what you are going to do with X’, or ‘Have you spoken with Y’, or ‘Are there other areas of expertise you can draw on to do Z’
  • In the final 2 minutes, the subject is then asked by the group what they are going to do next. This response needs to outline concrete steps to be taken – for example; Meet with X to highlight the following issues’.

As you can see, the version of action learning here is very focused. It’s led me in different and wholly profitable directions in the problem that I bought to the table, which has, as a result been progressed better and more rapidly then it would have other wise been.

In considering these two areas of structured listening, I think that actually, the most valuable thing I’ve found is in ‘listening’ to the recurrent themes or points of congruence between these activities. The relationships between the points of feedback and information provides another developmental angle on my personal practice. Pleasingly, this type of listening is always action orientated – I’m finding that, far from self reflective navel gazing, this structured means of bringing in other voices is pointed towards me doing stuff, and using these perspectives to (hopefully) do it better.

Now that the SLP3 course is done (at least the face to face residential bits of it) the group has expressed the desire to continue on our own – we’ve all recognised the value of the network that has been created. We’ve even fixed the first date; in October Salford will host the first informal meeting of our SLP3 cohort. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone.

(I’m unsure whether the delights of the SLP3 boyband will be revisited)

See you next week.


Author: samgrogan

I am many sided; Pro Vice-Chancellor Student Experience at Salford University, Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, driven Tough Mudder runner, and a lover of the outdoors. I live in the heart of the beautiful Peak District with my wife and our pets. On weekends, you'll find me out in the countryside with the dog, running or walking up a hill, or typically cooking for friends (I'm getting better, so they say) My role at Salford is one I cherish. I'm one of the fortunate few who wake up excited about the day ahead. It's really not work when it's this much fun. As part of the Vice-Chancellor's Executive Team I work alongside a gifted and dedicated team of creative educationalists passionate about being better tomorrow than we are today. As PVC SE at Salford I hold executive responsibility for both the assurance of quality and standards of our institutional academic portfolio, and its strategic direction and character. Intertwined with this facet of my role, I am responsible for strategic leadership and enhancement of the wider student experience and the development of a distinctive Salford learning environment. My overall purpose, driven by these two key parts of my role, is to develop a bold, playful learning landscape at Salford which delivers holistic sustainable success, preparing our students for life. I'm fascinated by how people learn, and how we might collectively make that experience result in a profound expansion of personal and professional horizons and an extension of possibilities for all parties involved. My greatest reward comes from seeing thresholds crossed, barriers broken, new habits formed and changes made. To this end, I'm also endlessly absorbed in considering how we might develop better, more useful ways of integrating the digital landscape and other technologies, emerging and present, into the act of learning. I think we're just beginning - a brave new world awaits... My background is in performance - Before undertaking my PhD and before spending the first half of my university career as a lecturer, programme leader and head of department, in my early career I acted, danced and made theatre across the world. This ten year experience continues to be fundamental in shaping the way I think about teaching and learning. At its best I see it as a facilitated journey of discovery, play, risk and adventure anchored in 'reflective doing'. Not 'knowing' in this context is often a signal that a useful path is being trodden - Thinking on its own is just rehearsal...

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