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How a women-only programme impacted my career

08 Jul 2019 | Suzanne O'Brien Suzanne O'Brien, Director of Student Experience and Student Recruitment, Canterbury Christ Church University, explains her path to becoming a facilitator on Aurora and her leadership journey.

For years I worked in Financial Services and loved it.  A qualified accountant and tax consultant may not sound like the most exciting career to many, but I really enjoyed it.  For the most part I worked with very talented and motivated colleagues, and cliched, but true – we worked hard and played hard!  The hours could be very long, and there was constant pressure to perform but there were perks – I travelled, thrived under pressure, and I was very well remunerated.

However, it wasn’t enough for me; I wanted to make a difference, to give back and to help others less fortunate to find their way.  Education was a logical fit.  Not only did I want to lead and support the next generation, but I also believe that education provides a wonderful opportunity for many of us to achieve a better life outcome than the circumstances of birth may suggest. Having decided to change career, I had an amazing piece of luck; I spotted a small ad in a local paper … for someone to teach accounting!  What started as a few hours a week as an “associate” lecturer at a local University, quickly progressed to a full-time role as a Senior Lecturer and then Programme Director.  Despite myself it seemed I had a career in HE and when I saw there were places available on Aurora, I didn’t hesitate to apply.  I had participated on countless away days, team building exercises, and various management programmes but none were in higher education (HE).  Also, despite frequently being the only woman in the room, I had never at any point in my career, considered a women-only programme.

Attending my first Aurora day was amazing.  I will never forget standing at the main entrance to the room a little daunted by the sheer volume of people, and yet equally, elated by a sense of starting a shared journey.  That sense of unity, of shared purpose, was the defining feature of Aurora.  We each create our own path, but many of us have experiences that resonate with each other.  By sharing these stories of us, we develop a sense of community and of solidarity. My experience of Aurora was so positive that my involvement continued beyond my cohort; I encouraged those I line-managed to apply, I mentored colleagues on the programme and I was honoured to be a guest speaker on several occasions.  And now my involvement is stepping up another gear.

Facilitating Core Leadership Skills is perfect for me as one of the exercises we did stayed with me long after I completed Aurora and gave me much to consider about myself and my values.  I believe that knowing who we are is fundamental to living a satisfying life.  In terms of leadership, knowing who I am gives me courage, resilience and strength to lead. Leadership fascinates me, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about it, but also discussing it with colleagues from sectors including private enterprise, financial services, social housing, not-for-profit and HE.  

This was mainly what motivated me to ask for a part-time role at the University – a step I didn’t take lightly.  While I haven’t lost any of my passion for education, I missed the “cut and thrust” of business, and I wanted a role where I could shape the wider agenda.  I found an outlet for that working on the Board of a local charity delivering career guidance and training to young people in Kent. That led to other opportunities and I am delighted that I now work with two fabulous organisations whose values and ethos completely chime with mine; Cross Keys Homes (largest provider of social housing in Peterborough) where I am Vice-Chair of the Board, and Chair of the Finance Committee, and The Fifth Trust (a Kent-based charity that supports adults with learning difficulties) where I Chair the Board.

I am so excited to be part of the Aurora team – it is truly a huge honour and I can’t wait to facilitate the Core Leadership Skills day for 2019/20.  I subscribe to “leading by example” and every Auroran should be proud of being part of a programme that supports future leaders in Higher Education.  For me, to be part of the leadership journey for so many is a tremendous honour.   I feel the weight of expectation and will do my utmost to deliver a fabulous day.  I believe that we can make a positive and ongoing difference to our own lives and to the lives of those who want it.  I look forward to meeting all our 2019/20 Aurorans to listen to their stories and understand their perspectives and to experience Core Leadership Skills with them; part of their leadership journey. 

Discover more about Aurora, Advance HE`s leadership development initiative for women and those who identify as a woman.

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