Skip to main content

Built on trust - the story of a five-year Aurora 'Action Learning Set' still going strong

17 Jan 2020 | Sue Sherman with seven others Eight Aurorans from the 2014 Aurora programme, Advance HE's leadership development initiative for women, share their experience and reflections of an 'Action Learning Set'.

The group and blog contributors:

Susan Sherman, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Keele University l Lisa Collins, Professor of Animal Science, School of Biology, Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds l Alison Edgley , Associate Professor, Social Science and Health, Health Sciences, The University of Nottingham l Nicola Gale, Reader in Health Sociology and Policy, School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham l Clare Jinks, Reader in Applied Health Research, School of Primary, Community and Social Care, Keele University l Abi Ledwith, School Business Manager, School of Education & Social Sciences, University of the West of Scotland l Zana Vathi, Reader in Social Sciences, Department of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Edge Hill University l Helen Williamson, Head of Information Governance and Data Protection Officer, Directorate of Governance and Sector Regulation, Sheffield Hallam University.


In 2014, the eight of us were in the first cohort of the Aurora Women in Leadership programme. The formal sessions we attended were thought-provoking and gave us space to reflect on our leadership style and strategies we might adopt; but for us, the best part of the programme was the Action Learning Set component.

On the day we were introduced to our set, the women at each table had been carefully selected so that we were in a similar geographical location but not from the same university and so that we included a mix of academic and professional services staff. We were given directions for how Action Learning Sets work: basically, you divide the time available to you between the number of participants. In the time-slot allocated to each person, they start by outlining an issue they wish to explore (e.g. work life balance, difficult colleague, whether to go for promotion etc) for just a few minutes. For the rest of the session, the others ask them questions with a view to assisting them in tackling the issue from a new angle (but without the questions or comments being directive or providing suggestions).

Our first meeting took place in Nottingham and it was clear from the outset that our group was going to gel. We lost one member early on, but then gained another whose own set hadn’t worked out. We have met regularly every six months ever since, travelling across the country, from Birmingham to Ayr, to meet each other. To give you a flavour of why it works for us (spoiler alert: ‘trust’ is mentioned a lot!), we each wrote about our experiences of the group and edited highlights are provided below.

The group and how meetings work

"The group is made up of predominantly academic staff at varying levels of career and two professional service staff. The particular pleasure of this action learning set is that this distinction is very rarely alluded to and everyone’s contribution and questions are relevant, respected and explored, regardless of areas of expertise. It is about supporting the individual." (Abi)

"I have been a member of a number of action learning sets in the last few years.  In every case, the principal factor that determines the success of the set has been trust.  Trust that what you share will not leave the room.  Trust that your set won’t judge you.  Trust that the process is a worthwhile use of your time.  And trust that you will be present when others share their own issues.  However, our [group] has been successful over several years now not just because there is trust within the set - which there is, but because over the years there is now also friendship."  (Lisa)

"What makes our set work, is that from the get go we followed the learning set guidelines.  This means we do not give advice, nor do we judge or dismiss the relative significance of an issue.  Instead, we listen deeply as each person shares.  Once a person has shared, we ask questions and playback what we notice.  We adopt a strengths-based approach, seeing one another as strong, able and committed even when we might feel we are in a hole or struggling with some aspect of our work.  We share the time equally between us.  We share honestly and over time we have grown to trust one another, so that sharing fears that we might not otherwise admit to, becomes possible." (Alison)

What topics do we cover?

"As a group we explore a wide range of issues, concerns, challenges, successes – both professionally and personally...some examples of issues explored include: workload, responsibility, line management, interaction and support from colleagues, relationships at home, life choices, promotion success or rejection, research outputs, work/life balance and many more." (Abi)

"Our sessions are driven by the participants’ current concerns and aspirations for the future. These vary for each individual but what has fascinated me is the intergenerational nature of exchanges. We have group members in very advanced career stages and others like myself who joined the group eighteen months after the start of their first lectureship, and two-and-a-half  years after PhD. I have learnt a lot about the ‘lifecourse’ of an academic in these sessions, as we also have different personal circumstances as well." (Zana)

"I’ve brought a whole range of challenges to the meeting… things like what direction or focus I want to take, how to deal with difficult situations, getting support for thinking how to manage my return from maternity leave." (Nicola)

Personal experiences of sessions

"The process wasn’t easy at first for me - I first had to try to conquer my social anxieties enough to be able to share anything at all, and often found myself feeling that my questions for others were silly or not useful and so didn’t ask them. This got easier with time, partly as we got to know each other more." (Lisa)

"I joined the group after the others had already met and I worried it would be difficult to fit in. I did not need to worry as the others were so welcoming and supportive. Each session has given me confidence to pursue a course of action and my leaderships skills have developed in many ways as a result." (Clare)

"I am sometimes uncertain whether I can add much to the discussion, but each question, however simple, helps to unpick the issue at hand. Different members of the group will pick up on particular elements and threads. We all hear the same issue in slightly different ways.It isn’t always easy to describe the issue that you want to explore in a session clearly and concisely, but the questions soon get you to the point. Saying out loud what has just been buzzing around inside your head can be really helpful and the group are good at reflecting back what they have heard." (Helen)

"When I first saw that our group had professional services staff included, I was a bit disappointed – what could they really offer in terms of insight to academics? Almost immediately it became apparent how misplaced this concern was. Some of the most valuable questions and insights have come from those colleagues and I quickly gained respect for the work they do and the pressures they face." (Sue)

"This possibility for authentic sharing is what makes the learning set so powerful. Where I may have an issue, that I would not feel able to share within my organisation for fear of being judged or misunderstood, my learning set feels safe. Here I am free to share in the full knowledge that no-one is invested in the perceptions I hold or any choices I may subsequently make." (Alison)

Benefits of the Action Learning Set

"I think that the perspective that it gave me was important. You can get so caught up in your own world as an academic, and so it was nice to just have time to reflect on your achievements as well as your challenges...I feel that I’ve made huge strides in my career and that I’m really happy with how it looks now. I’m certain that the wisdom and compassion of my fellow Aurorans has been an important part of that story." (Nicola)

"Perhaps the main benefit or impact on my career is the way I now view challenges. I occasionally find myself imagining sharing new challenges with the group and think through the questions they would raise and how I would answer them." (Lisa)

"I have found acknowledgement for my issues – personal and professional...which has helped me heal and grow. I have had the opportunity to give to others, to offer my opinion and to see others consider it, which has boosted my confidence....being accepted and treated equally in these sessions made me feel more of a part of the UK HE, not just a minority woman." (Zana)

"I have really benefited from having time and space to think about and verbalise challenges in my work and to think about how to move forward while holding onto the leadership values that are important to me." (Clare)

"I cannot overstate the value in our busy lives of just being given the time and space to reflect, to talk and for this group of wonderful women to listen." (Helen)

Final thoughts

"I don’t think we ever expected to be meeting beyond the end of the pilot Aurora group, let alone 5 years on – but I think the fact we do is testament to the need of all of us for a group of like-minded individuals, albeit from differing backgrounds and HEIs, offering unconditional support and observation by way of a circle of critical friends. We are unique in that regard and I don’t know any other area of my working life where such a forum exists and is so beneficial and in which so much trust is placed." (Abi)

"Over the past five years, we have become friends as well as colleagues and have developed a trust and understanding that can only come from talking about your hopes and fears to people who ‘get it’ but aren’t part of your daily life. Best of all, we have watched each other tackle challenges, have babies, get promoted, get visas, change jobs, change institutions and generally thrive, with the group always there in the background to encourage and cheer and help us prepare for whatever’s next." (Sue)

"Thank you Aurorans!"  (Zana)


Aurora is Advance HE`s leadership development initiative for women and those who identify as a woman. It is run as a unique partnership bringing together leadership experts and higher education institutions to take positive action to address the under-representation of women in leadership positions in the sector.

Led by a team of four leadership experts, participants will explore four key areas associated with leadership success: Identity, Impact and Voice; Power and Politics; Core Leadership Skills; Adaptive Leadership Skills.

Over the past six years 6000 women from over 175 institutions across the UK and Ireland have participated in Aurora.

Aurora seeks to support women and their institutions to fulfil their leadership potential through thought provoking activities, collaborative problem solving activities and motivating stories supported by inspirational women role models. Participation embeds strong networks of early career women across the sector to share best practice, insights and experiences. 

Aurora 2020-21

Aurora runs in a number of locations across the UK and Ireland and consists of six interlinked days. To find a cohort search "Aurora" in our calendar.

Would you like more information on Aurora?

Request an information pack containing links to the Aurora brochure, case studies, videos and links to each of the cohorts for Aurora. Request an information pack

Find out more about Advance HE's work in Gender Equality.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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