Case Studies

  1. How work-shadowing can give unique insights into the demands of a senior role. - Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon and Professor Paul White.
  2. How can The Futures mentoring programme help senior women prepare for positions of leadership? - Professor Vanessa Toulmin and Professor Mike Hounslow.

How work-shadowing can give unique insights into the demands of a senior role.

‘When I saw the call for applications from senior women across the university to take part in Futures Mentoring I thought what an amazing opportunity! Then I wondered, am I senior? Do you have to be a professor? Do you have to be over 50?’ As a Senior University Teacher in her 30s Elena wasn’t sure whether she would qualify to be a Futures mentee, but because she lives by the maxim ‘Don’t ask, don’t get’ she put in an application and kept her fingers crossed. She was delighted to be paired with Professor Paul White, Pro Vice Chancellor, Learning and Teaching.

"The opportunity to follow and observe someone very senior for a whole day is scary on the one hand, but it gives the opportunity to actually see them in action."

Over the last 3 years, Paul has been a big supporter of Futures, taking on a total of 6 mentees. ‘It has been quite a big time commitment for me, but I felt it was something that I learnt from as well as my mentees. It wasn’t just me doing pro bono work for others. I benefit from someone being a critical friend about my performance’ says Paul. ‘Not just my performance as a mentor, but my performance in tasks that my mentees see me undertake in my job, and the things they observe about my style. These observations lead me to be reflective about my own practice.’

The period at the start of a relationship when mentor and mentee are getting to know each other is an important opportunity to build rapport. ‘Some of my mentees I already knew – like Elena. Others I didn’t know at all’ says Paul. ‘My approach is always to go out for lunch and have an informal discussion about you they are, who I am, what their stage in family life might be. A sort of no-holds-barred talk about who you both are as individuals before moving towards setting goals and looking at what they want to get out of the programme. ‘Elena was very forthcoming about her goals. ‘I think it is best as a mentee to be brutally honest about what you want, ‘she admits. ‘I said to him, you are a role model. I want to be like you. I want to be able to make a difference. I want to be a professor. ‘

From working with Paul Elena realised that one way a mentor can be useful is to help you construct and articulate your own goals. ‘Sometimes you have an idea about what you want to do and where you want to go, but the mentor has been there and done it already. They have the benefit of experience so they can help you convert your career ambitions into specific goals.’

"I think it is best as a mentee to be brutally honest about what you want."

Paul has developed his own approach to Futures mentoring. As well as one to one meetings with his mentees to discuss their goals and ambitions, Paul sets up what he calls ‘Understudy Days’. Being someone with an active learning style, this suited Elena down to the ground. ‘I got there at 8.30 in the morning’ she recalls. ‘Paul was waiting for me. We sat at his desk and looked at his diary and every appointment he had. He provided me with a programme for the day and a set of papers, and off we went. He had checked in advance with colleagues to ensure that they were happy to have me along and there wasn’t a single meeting I couldn’t attend with him.’ Elena observed Paul in action at a range of settings from University Court to individual discussions, addressing a variety of topics from student bursaries to links with schools. ‘What was really powerful for me was the walking time between meetings, because we had the chance to discuss the most important aspects of the meetings and Paul’s approach to each one. It was so exciting to understand how he was thinking and to see the way he did things.’ Towards the end of the afternoon Elena and Paul returned to his office and Elena was invited to sit with Paul whilst he tackled his emails. ‘Even that was fascinating’ she says. He showed me how he responded to things that he was supporting, things about which he felt lukewarm and the things he wasn’t happy about. He explained how he varied his language and tone to convey his feelings.’

Paul recommends this whole day approach to other mentors. ‘Talking over coffee can be useful, but it doesn’t really give a full insight into my role.’ Is a full day’s work-shadowing hard to arrange? ‘Well it can be,’ he admits. ‘My mentees have been at very different career stages from Dean to Senior Lecturer. You have to find a day when there are things that are not confidential and suitable for them to be involved with – things that are interesting for them at their career level. On the positive side they are following me doing the work I would be doing anyway, so I don’t have to change my plans.’

Elena completed 3 understudy days with Paul and loved the whole experience. After each one she wrote up a short summary reflecting on her experiences and conclusions and shared this with Paul. Her reflections are wide-ranging. They include observations about the way Paul behaved in meetings, the expectations people have of senior leaders, the benefits of delegation and the challenges of effective decision-making. ‘My one to ones with Paul have always been enriching, but the opportunity to follow and observe someone very senior for a whole day is scary on the one hand, but it gives the opportunity to actually see them in action.’

"He showed me how he responded to things that he was supporting, things about which he felt lukewarm and the things he wasn’t happy about. He explained how he varied his language and tone to convey his feelings."

Does Elena find herself emulating Paul in her own behaviour at work? ‘Some of his behaviours I can’t use because they are just not my style’ she observes, ‘but I can say that observing my mentor has very strongly influenced my approach to my job. I am inspired by him. I know he is political – in his role he has to be. But there is something about the way he does his job that I really like.’ An example is Paul’s ability to involve people in decision-making, to consult and encourage debate in order to achieve consensus and help people buy into change. ‘To see someone who is successful and good at his job working like this has confirmed for me that this is a good technique and made me confident in working this way’ explains Elena. ‘I am not scared of people disagreeing with me. If they have a better idea of how to achieve something I am happy to try it. I think that helped me a lot.’

To other mentees Elena would advise making the most of the opportunity by fully engaging with the programme. ‘Take some time to reflect’ she suggests ‘Sit down and think about what you have learnt. Decide if you want to make any changes and, if you do, get on and make them.’ Paul agrees. ‘Take it seriously’ he urges. ‘Use the opportunity to learn about yourself and your institution. Keep an open mind and challenge your mentor. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I don’t like too much deference from my mentees!’

Paul and Elena are still in touch and still talk regularly. Elena will soon be accompanying Paul to a Higher Education Academy meeting in London, where she will be able to meet senior leaders from Universities around the UK. This type of support with networking is very much appreciated by Elena. ‘Paul has willingly and proactively has opened his networks to me by way of inviting me to events where I can meet people who can help me achieve my goals. He has supported me to be part of projects that help me move forward.’ Paul acknowledges that this is an important way he can help his mentees, especially in his role as a cross cutting PVC with a variety of networks that are not all discipline-specific. ‘How you open up your networks will vary from person to person. In Elena’s case I wanted to introduce her to people who could broaden her understanding of the university and the potential roles that she could have within it.’ Paul also introduced Elena to his other mentees – with the dual objective of facilitating peer support and sharing ideas about getting the most from your mentor.

"Use the opportunity to learn about yourself and your institution. Keep an open mind and challenge your mentor. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I don’t like too much deference from my mentees!"

Paul’s top tips for other mentors include: ‘Expect to learn about yourself and be open to this. It is a shared experience. Be flexible and don’t assume that your mentee’s career will go in a particular direction. What you should be doing is opening up new avenues for them to explore, or finding new areas in which your mentee can feel a sense of self-confidence. Finally, don’t take anything for granted. We at senior levels tend to forget that people a little lower in the organisation don’t understand the workings of things. You need to properly brief your mentee and check her understanding. ‘

Elena has also completed Sheffield Leader Level 4 - a valuable but very different experience to Futures. ‘The Sheffield Leader course is about getting to know other leaders, your peers, and forming networks with them. It is about being away from work and talking together about leadership styles and approaches in a facilitated environment. Futures is about watching someone, a senior role model. It is about observing your mentor in action, reflecting on what you see and learning from your mentor one to one. I was so lucky with my mentor. For me Futures was fabulous.

 Elena and Paul started meeting as mentor in mentee in February 2010 and worked together under the auspices of Futures for about 12 months.

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