Skip to main content

Future Professional Directors – so much more than it says on the tin!

05 Feb 2019 | Doug Parkin Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management at Advance HE, reflects on his involvement as programme director of the Future Professional Directors (FPD) programme.

Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management at Advance HE, reflects on his involvement as programme director of the Future Professional Directors (FPD) programme and lays out the development experience for participants that he demonstrates is so much more than the sum of the programme’s parts. 

As many who work in universities and colleges know, coming up with a name for a course or programme can sometimes feel more challenging than putting together the course itself. When eventually a form of words is agreed the significance of the words chosen can somehow fade into the background as the business of running the course takes over. However, the significance of the three words, futureprofessional and directors is an excellent basis for reflecting on both the development experience on FPD and the challenge of developing senior leadership potential.


Forecasting the future is tough. It gets tougher still within the context of a complex and multi-faceted organisation. Future-focussed thinking requires a liberated mind-set and the space to engage with not just ‘what is’ but also ‘what might be’. This is the leadership dimension that directly or indirectly, is about shaping futures and changing lives. But time and space for this gets squeezed by the constant maintenance of management and the reactive nature of events, problems and team demands. The urgent displaces the important and before we know it our future planning is deficiency driven, fixing what’s wrong, rather than being generative and nurturing what’s right (Buller 2013) .

But who holds the future in organisations, and who should be involved in co-creating the next chapter in the team or organisation’s story? Advocates of Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987), a model for inspiring change that combines ‘the best of what is’ with a dream of ‘what might be’, regard change as something organic that offers an opportunity for people from all levels of the organisation to co-create through positive dialogue a vision of their future. This places collaborative working at the heart of the change process. Appreciative Inquiry is one of the models introduced on FPD that has excited the interest of participants, moving away from the idea that strategy is about an inspirational vision of the future that is created by the few and imposed upon the many.


A very thought-provoking piece published on the ACCA’s website asks the question, what does it mean to be professional (Iwona Tokc-Wilde, nd )? On the one hand professionalism it is about high levels of expertise and effectiveness in a particular field or discipline, on the other it “is a jigsaw with many pieces and technical expertise is only part of this jigsaw” and it “is exhibited in a person who knows when to speak and when to listen, when to challenge and when to submit, and when to lead and when to be a team player” (Penny Clarke, programme director of BSc Accounting at Manchester Business School, as quoted in the Tokc-Wilde article).  

In writing about The Rise of Third Space Professionals (2013), Celia Whitchurch takes this further in describing how ideas about professionalism in higher education are “moving beyond the concept of a professional being someone who has a fixed core of knowledge” and towards a professional being someone with “an awareness of how and to what extent boundaries might be pushed or redefined, where there is potential for new spaces to be created, and the associated costs and benefits”.  This refined engagement with ambiguity and uncertainty is part of the skill set and sensibility of the boundary spanning leader.

Boundary spanning leadership is one of the key ideas explored through an extended simulation learning activity on FPD. This creates an opportunity for participants to reflect upon their own leadership identity and values in the context of leading across the organisation with the support of real-time observation and feedback.

“Boundary spanning leadership is the ability to create direction, alignment, and commitment across boundaries in service of a higher vision or goal.”

(Ernst and Chrobot-Mason, 2011 )


The above quote talks about creating direction, alignment, and commitment, and in a very real sense that is the role of a director or head of service. However, it is in how we arrive at that direction that the elusive key to commitment and engagement lies. The Appreciative Inquiry approach to organisational development described above makes the point that a shared vision developed through dialogue brings with it ownership, commitment and mutual accountability. In a similar vein, Paul Gentle (2014 ) powerfully tells us that “no longer can prescribed management solutions be wheeled into service, except in the most predictable of critically urgent situations” and this points towards collaborative engagement as the basis for the art of leadership.  This art begins with vision, and the divergent and creative thinking that is so important to shaping this, and flows through to direction and alignment:

•    V – vision and purpose
•    E – energy and positivity
•    E – engagement and trust
•    D – direction and certainty
•    A – alignment and focus
(Parkin, 2016 )

The art of leadership as set out in the VEEDA model above moves through from the generative and emergent development of a shared vision through to the certainty of an agreed plan with direction and well-aligned resources. This could also be described as the transition from leadership to management, if that distinction is helpful.

The FPD programme is an amazing opportunity to explore and discover the art of leadership in all its forms. On the one hand, people are inspired by a dream not a plan, and so the leader needs to be both a champion and a collaborator who can orchestrate the co-creation of a vision. On the other hand, for a dream to succeed it must become a plan, and that requires precision, direction and determination.

FPD: future – professional – directors: deep, immersive, experiential learning. A leadership programme over eight-months, greater than the sum of its parts, and so much more than it says on the tin!

Use the following link to learn more about the Future Professional Directors programme

Buller, J. (2013). Positive Academic Leadership: how to stop putting out fires and start making a difference. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cooperrider, D. L. and Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. In Woodman, R. W. and Pasmore, W. A. Research in Organizational Change and Development. Vol. 1. Stamford, CT: JAI Press. pp. 129–169.

Iwona Tokc-Wilde (nd) – What it means to be professional. (accessed 04/02/2019)

Whitchurch, C. (2013). Reconstructing Identities in Higher Education: The rise of Third Space professionals. Abingdon: Routledge (SRHE).

Ernest, C. and Chrobot-Mason, D. (2011). Boundary Spanning Leadership: Six Practices for Solving Problems, Driving Innovation, and Transforming Organizations. McGraw Hill Education: USA.

Gentle, P. and Forman, D. (2014). Engaging Leaders: The Challenge of Inspiring Collective Commitment in Universities. Abingdon: Routledge.

Parkin, D. (2017). Leading Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The key guide to designing and delivering courses. Oxon and New York: Routledge.


Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter