First day jitters…Back on 4 April 2019, I arrived in the Brompton Conference Room of London’s Millennium Hotel at Knightsbridge with butterflies fluttering in my stomach. I surprisingly gasped for air despite being in a spacious airy room. I wasn’t entirely sure about what to expect but kept calm through a conscious effort to conceal my cynicism. It was Module 1 of 4 on Advance HE’s ‘bespoke’ Diversifying Leadership (DL) Programme designed for BAME academic and non-academic HE staff. Scepticism, borne out of the negative past experience of leadership programmes undertaken with various employers, took the better of me.
As I settled into my seat in the room full of new faces in all shades of brown, I muttered under my breath, “…this had better be worth waking at 03:30am for the London 05:26am train.” Our programme, DL9 is chronologically named as it’s the ninth cohort since its inception. It was the first time my University put forward candidates for DL. For this reason, I realised the importance of casting aside any distracting scepticism and paying attention to everything (good/bad) that the programme had to offer. My feedback would be crucial towards promoting a better understanding of the programme’s requirements from an institutional context. It’s important to point out that my scepticism had nothing to do with my current employer; rather it came from accumulated angst, endless research about the lack of progression and barriers to career progression among BAME staff in general. As an English saying goes, “…a burnt child dreads fire!” After my first coffee and croissant, I was good to go! In my mind, surviving ‘Module 1’ would make the rest a doddle.
Sponsorship dilemma…Completing programme documentation wasn’t difficult because the story of my truncated leadership journey was easy to tell since it wasn’t about my current employer. I had only been with the University for less than three years, so it was too early to judge. I found it much easier focusing on past experiences of leadership in previous jobs, which was responsible for the sense of foreboding that engulfed me at the start of Module 1; and conviction that there was nothing DL9 could offer that I hadn’t seen/heard before. However, I observed that the programme documentation referred to delegates as protégés, who then had to identify a sponsor (not a mentor) as a requirement for enrollment. An entire toolkit was dedicated to sponsors, which improved their understanding around roles, expectations and relationships with protégés from a DL perspective. Being fairly new to the University, it wasn’t particularly easy identifying a sponsor especially as I didn’t know many senior ‘two-up’ colleagues that well. After a few hurdles and bumps, I settled for a professor, with whom I had a good working relationship. He would be expected to ‘talk about me behind closed doors’ - a condition essential for the sponsor role, which differentiates it from that of a mentor.
My sponsor is to use power and influence to ensure that I’m not only nominated but my effort noticed via attention-grabbing personal development tasks. This condition would have made it slightly awkward for anyone approached for such a role to accept it. It’s a questionable awkwardness because from what I subsequently learnt, sponsorship wasn’t an entirely new thing; except that it’s not commonly applied to BAME staff. I wrestled in my mind, with the choice of sponsor, whilst pondering through various questions e.g. whether they should be black, Asian, white, from a mixed background; and about rejection too. However, without the privilege of a diverse pool of BAME staff, due to their low numbers in North East academia, it was nothing to be fastidious about. It eventually became a case of narrowing choices down to a person who showed genuine interest in my work, possesses the willingness to support me and not already responsible for me in any known capacity.
What makes DL9 unique?...Without commitment, flexibility, appropriate programme leadership and facilitation, the best-designed programme will be unsuccessful. Jannett Morgan (Programme Director), Leyla Okhai (Co-Facilitator), Kemi Oladapo and Bobby Singh Upple (Associates) steered the DL9 ship with deep commitment, unflinching dedication, empathy and passion as it sailed through the remaining modules. I’m delighted to have been in DL9 because we all hit it off after Module 1, like we knew each other before! It was a safe space with multi-talented participants from all disciplines. We could be ourselves and discussed those issues we felt less able to share with work colleagues. At the end of the Module 1, I went over to Jannett and said, “I came here today feeling quite bloated with negativity and extremely sceptical; now I can’t wait for Module 2!” She responded laughing, “…thank you, that’s good to know; we sourced you out right from the beginning!”
A rich and loaded programme…The array of ‘tested’ guest speakers for the initial three modules brought added value to the programme content, which was already of a very high standard. Professor Gwen van der Velden (a successful sponsor) sharing first-hand experience, brought better clarity to why universities must raise more sponsors to take the fear out of the sponsor-protégé relationships. Robin Landman reawakened our interests towards embracing networking. The last module celebrated the vitality and positive energy of Griot Chinyere – a talented storyteller, who turned us into amazing storytellers equipped with the inner strength to turn our personal leadership crucibles into compelling stories of genuine success!
Conclusion…There was no dull ‘DL9’ moment despite the serious issues explored through Action Learning Sets in Module 3. The creative blending of activities, learning experiences and programme design were uncondescending. DL9 happens to be the first cohort to have set up a WhatsApp forum and bi-monthly meetings via Webex Online Conferencing by telephone, which are essential for ongoing peer support and crucial to our continuous development. Having completed the programme, I feel refreshed with positive energy; a sudden realisation that in HE, what makes a difference in BAMEs’ career progression isn’t just achievements or what we know but who knows us!
Kelechi Dibie is an ‘Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) Officer’ at Newcastle University’s Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences (HaSS). She utilises her expertise/experience as an EDI professional to influence, advocate and promote productive relationships among the Faculty’s staff and students.
Advance HE will run Diversifying Leadership 10 in January 2020. Earlybird discounts are available until 15 September 2019.