I've had multiple mentors over the years, especially whilst running and scaling successful businesses, many of them are now some of my closest friends. Each offered me an optimistic yet challenging perspective on life and achieving success. When I started Advance HE's Diversifying Leadership Programme back in 2019, I was not sure what to expect.
However, I was sure that the programme would enable me to have space and time to understand the barriers faced by aspiring BAME leaders in higher education. To explore power and influence themes, demystifying leadership, cultural identity, and cultural capital, increasing your visibility and authentic leadership. To me, this was empowering, and I vowed to make the most of the opportunity.
A vital component of the programme was finding a sponsor. Admittedly coming into the programme I was unsure about the sponsor's role and the real value of one until I read the DL Sponsor Toolkit.
The toolkit defines a sponsor's role as a senior leader within your organisation; in my case, Oxford Brookes University, that commits to passing on knowledge and advice similarly to mentors. The sponsor uses their seniority and organisational capital to actively advocate and 'open doors' to promote their protégés' careers.
It also explains that establishing a positive and productive cross-cultural sponsor protégés relationship is so rewarding yet challenging.
One year on I can honestly say taking part in the programme was one of the best experiences and decisions I’ve made since working in higher education.
The simple fact of the matter is that my sponsor Professor Anne-Marie Kilday – AM for short – is without a doubt, the best sponsor I could have asked for. She has demonstrated an empathic understanding of the specific issues faced by BAME early-career leaders.
She has empowered me to confidently challenge those issues and change the narrative, thus creating my own story. She has championed my work and me personally internally at Oxford Brookes University and beyond.
I remember my first meeting with AM. It was evident from the get-go that we mutually felt a sense of value creation, openness and accountability and agreed to these principles being the very foundation of our sponsorship relationship.
We agreed to challenge each other and work collaboratively to tackle BAME leaders' under-representation in UK higher education, starting with myself and my position at Oxford Brookes University.
One of the first questions AM asked me was ‘What do you want to achieve? In my reply, I expressed that I was capable, qualified and understood my worth, that I wished to reach my full potential. That I wanted to be recognised and rewarded for my efforts. I wanted a senior position in the institution to create change and for my voice to be heard.
AM understood my aspirations and believed I could achieve this at Oxford Brookes and beyond. She created a 'safe space' to talk through my challenges and opportunities and actively opened doors to support my leadership ambitions.
For example, she invited me to present my work at the Senior Management Conference, involved me in developing the University's 2035 strategy with particular emphasis on Enterprise Education and regularly contributed and championed new and existing initiatives to enhance enterprise both in the curriculum and extra-curricular.
All of which are just to name a few examples but significantly paved the way for promotion from Enterprise Support Manager to Enterprise Support Director within one year of starting and completing the programme.
AM encouraged me to celebrate my achievements and to inspire others to develop their full potential. She often says that I too inspire her and make her proud. The truth is we have both come a long way from our first conversation. At the heart of our two-way relationship was creating change and fostering opportunities for BAME staff aspiring to be leaders in Higher education, starting with me.
During the programme, I became Chair for the University's BAME Staff Network, which directly works with the University's Race Equality Steering Group chaired by Anne-Marie to develop the institutional Race Equality Action Plan.
Together we've listened to and learned of BAME staff's experiences and developed short and long term objectives that aim to provide career progression opportunities, improved recruitment and selection processes, safe spaces for transparency on harassment and bullying, and well-being of BAME Staff.
We understand this is a journey but were moving in the right direction with a unified approach.
Sponsorship is a two-way street, the relationship, however, evolves organically. Because of this organic bond between sponsor and protégé, both parties become friends. It's inevitable.
The same things you look for in a sponsor probably also rank high on your list of qualities to look for in a friend. Great friendships, healthy ones are never one-sided, shared values, beliefs, interests, and other commonalities, but nobody sees the world entirely as you do; therefore, you must bring your own perspective to this two-way relationship.
That's what makes the relationship invaluable for both parties. While I have had the pleasure of learning from AM's extensive experience and leadership expertise, she's also acquired insight and knowledge from me. This relationship has been built on giving and taking and upon complete trust, an approach I wouldn’t change for the world.
My three pieces of advice for anyone considering or taking part in the Diversifying Leadership Programme are as follows:
Just do it! Give yourself this time to reflect on what you have already accomplished and define what you want to achieve.
Choose your sponsor wisely, ensure you share the same values and be clear about the value you both bring to the relationship.
Stay Positive and persevere till you see progress – as the late Rosa Parks says, “What really matters is not whether we have problems, but how we go through them. We must keep going on to make it through whatever we are facing”.
Lydiah Igweh is Director of Enterprise and Chair of the BAME Staff Network at Oxford Brookes University. Before working in Higher Education across various roles and institutions including Entrepreneurship Director at Brunel University, Lydiah ran her own marketing agency working with ambitious organisations and dynamic leaders. She thrives on helping people make their ideas happen and advancing Race Equality.
Professor Anne-Marie Kilday is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Student and Staff Experience at Oxford Brookes University and a Professor of Criminal History. She has worked in higher dducation since 1998 and has held a wide variety of roles. Anne-Marie is Chair of the Race Equality Steering Group at Oxford Brookes University.