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 can The Futures mentoring programme help senior women prepare for positions of leadership?

“When I first told people that I was paired with Mike Hounslow, they thought it was hilarious” Vanessa recalled. “Some predicted it would be a car crash!” When you consider Vanessa’s childhood as part of the travelling community on the fairground, her background in the Arts and her current post as the University’s Head of Cultural Engagement, it is easy to see why people would have been sceptical. Did she really have anything in common with the Pro Vice Chancellor for Engineering? “We are both very straight talking, both interested in sport and we got on very well” explains Vanessa. “I had specifically asked for a mentor from outside the Arts Faculty, as I already had a great line manager who had given me fabulous career advice, and I had other colleagues I could go to for academic advice. I wanted to learn about the rest of the University. Eighty per cent of Sheffield University is Science and Engineering and I didn’t think I could represent my institution properly without better knowledge of these areas.” Vanessa was also curious to know more about the challenges of accessing senior management jobs and operating at this level. “Being a senior manager wasn’t a goal I had identified for myself, but others were suggesting it to me. I wanted to know, if I did choose this path, do I have to wait for a tap on the shoulder? What does the job entail? Do I have the ability and the temperament?”

"Do I Have To Wait For A Tap On The Shoulder?"

Mike had no reservations about taking on Vanessa as a mentee. “I already knew of her. When we first met she had spoken to some people who thought we would not get on – but I never thought that way. This kind of programme is about working across Faculties and across differences.”

When Vanessa joined the Futures programme in March 2010 she was spending much of her time outside the University on research and consultancy projects. As the Founder and Director of the UK’s only National Fairground Archive and the first Professor at Sheffield University to belong to Professional Services rather than an academic department, Vanessa acknowledges that her professional journey has been far from standard. “My career has not followed a straight forward path,” she observes. “I created my own path.” Having such a non-traditional background was bound to impact on Vanessa’s self-perception.

“The fascinating thing about Vanessa was that she entirely characterised herself as an outsider” recalls Mike. “It was quite a deep part of her make up on many levels – including professionally. It was really interesting to me to meet someone who thought in such an extreme way. I think I was able to persuade her that this wasn’t going be a productive way to think. If all her perceptions of herself were as an outsider, she was never going to able to be an insider and you can’t lead from the outside. To be a leader you have to join the inside in some way. “
Vanessa and Mike decided to meet monthly and soon found plenty to talk about. “The 1-1s were fantastic” says Vanessa. “They gave me the opportunity to talk privately to a senior manager, someone I respected in the university, who had no ulterior motive in the advice he gave me. I absolutely felt from the outset that the advice Mike gave me was based on his own belief of my capability. There was no other agenda. That is why I think that the pairings across Faculties really work.”

“I had specifically asked for a mentor from outside the Arts Faculty, as I already had a great line manager who had given me fabulous career advice, and I had other colleagues I could go to for academic advice. I wanted to learn about the rest of the University. Eighty per cent of Sheffield University is Science and Engineering and I didn’t think I could represent my institution properly without better knowledge of these areas.”

“The role of the mentor is to ask the big and difficult questions” says Mike “and then to listen to, rather than supply, the answer. “ His big question to Vanessa was: What do you want from your career?

“I normally think about everyone else and I am very good at asking for things for my staff, for my research, for my employer. But I never really thought much about myself” acknowledges Vanessa.

She came back to Mike a few weeks after their first meeting, full of energy, admitting that she had a lot of thinking to do and starting to identify and list her career aspirations. “I helped her to see herself as a serious academic, and as soon as she had that perspective she was away. From that point on it was a case of keeping her grounded! I was able to help her ‘unpack’ some of her answers and then think through how her aspirations might be achieved.”
In addition to their 1-1 meetings, Vanessa and Mike decided to carry out a joint project. “Mike’s big thing is that people don’t know what engineers do and how important they are. So I said, it’s not good enough to go round telling people that rule the world, you have to show people that you do.” Combining her skills in public engagement and his passion for his discipline they put on a public exhibition showcasing engineering talents and achievements and both found this to be an enriching experience. Mike learnt much about the how creative processes from the Arts could be harnessed to promote and market engineering to new audiences, and Vanessa tapped into a whole new academic network. “By providing complete access to his Faculty and his colleagues, he gave me a valuable understanding of the research that is being carried on there. I am so genuinely interested, and the contacts I made have proved invaluable for my later work. My greatest joy and privilege over the last year has been working with colleagues across the university who are magnificent academics.” Vanessa also observed Mike chair meetings such as Engineering Faculty Executive Board. “I was amazed at the breadth of things he had to deal with on a daily basis, from drainage upwards… I did like that aspect of the job. Like Mike, I am an extremely practical person.”

When asked whether it was difficult to find an hour a month to give to his mentee Mike is dismissive. “I don’t think I do anything that’s worth doing in less than an hour a month,” he says simply. “It helped that I didn’t see it as a lifelong relationship at that intensity. The relationship tapered after a while.” The pair was put together for 6 months but decided to meet for longer and they are still in contact. “I would not say that I am currently mentoring Vanessa, but I would acknowledge that I am still her mentor. We still see each other at University functions and make a note to catch up. Apparently it is always my turn to provide the coffee!”

“I was amazed at the breadth of things he had to deal with on a daily basis, from drainage upwards… I did like that aspect of the job. Like Mike, I am an extremely practical person.”

How does Mike think that his support had helped Vanessa? “I gave her confidence to be visible across the university – simply by being someone from a very different part of the university who clearly thought that what she had to say was intelligent and useful.“ The process also increased Vanessa’s self-awareness “I am someone who focusses on solutions rather than problems” she says. “Mike helped me to realise that about myself.”On the subject of what mentors can do for their mentees, Mike reflects on his own approach. “As a mentor I can’t just listen – I must challenge. It is just my nature. Vanessa clearly relished this approach. I think that says a lot about her, but also it says things about all people who are going to get a lot out of being mentored. They can accept the challenge as just that – not as criticism.”

Vanessa has much to say on the topic of benefits and has a concrete example. When faced with a huge career dilemma, she had a big decision to make and turned to Mike for confidential support. “He was the only person in the university I told” she remembers. “He didn’t try to influence me. He just listened and encouraged me to think things through. Once I had made the decision that my future lay at Sheffield University he suggested I go to talk to the Vice Chancellor about my ambitions for my research, my archive and myself. It would never have occurred to me to do this. Women don’t tend to ask for things for themselves. I certainly never asked for myself, until Mike taught me to. He gave me the ability to think - well actually there is nothing to lose.“

“I gave her confidence to be visible across the university – simply by being someone from a very different part of the university who clearly thought that what she had to say was intelligent and useful."

So what advice would Mike offer to other mentors? “Ask questions and challenge answers. Don’t assume that things are obvious to you are obvious to your mentee. What is to you a self-evident truth might be completely hidden to someone else. We see the world in very different ways.”

Vanessa’s advice to mentees is to “accept the help that is being offered to you. If you don’t accept it, don’t be surprised if it is withdrawn.“

When asked whether he learnt anything through being a mentor Mikes answer is emphatic. “I learnt an enormous amount. That’s why one should do it. The role insists that you listen and set aside your preconceived ideas, so it is fantastic training for your listening skills. It is a role where you don’t necessarily know any of the answers (or indeed all of the questions) – so listening is an essential, not a bonus. Also there was the whole issue of what constitutes academic success in different disciplines. It was really interesting to see the similarities and the differences across such a broad range of disciplines.”

In summary, what did Vanessa most gain from her participation in Futures? “What was most interesting about Futures was learning about a part of the university that I otherwise wouldn’t know anything about. Also the 1-1 aspect was the thing that was valuable to me - the ‘what about you?’ question. It was about my individual growth as a professional person. I don’t know, yet, whether I want to be a PVC, or precisely what type of leadership role I aspire to. But I do now believe that I am capable of a senior role when the right opportunity comes along.”

Professor Vanessa Toulmin is Director of National Fairground Archive and Head of Cultural Engagement University of Sheffield. Professor Mike Hounslow is Pro Vice Chancellor for Engineering. The Futures Mentoring Programme is an HR-led University-wide scheme for female academics who are interested in pursuing senior governance and leadership roles. Vanessa and Mike started meeting as mentor in mentee in March 2010 and worked together for about 12 months.

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