‘Off on a jolly’ was a comment that I had a lot as I protected the space in my diary for the trip to Toronto over the Summer – I defended it with ‘all in the name of work’. I looked at the agenda for the week and knew that this would be one busy week. The previous week of the TMP programme had exceeded all expectations and already I was learning more about myself, and developing a new network within the higher education (HE) community. A week in Canada would allow further work on my own approach to leadership, intertwined with the opportunity to experience first-hand other senior leadership teams and approaches. Coming from a further education background, I was especially excited to see that the visit included a variety of institutions – universities AND colleges, not to mention Sick Kids, a hospital based in the heart of Toronto.
Very quickly, we were immersed in the culture of Toronto and began to realise the value of the place – how the city’s diversity of culture seemed to result in a very open and accepting approach to a group of 21 HE leaders hoping to develop invaluable insights. The challenges of declining demographics felt familiar to those of us from the UK. The very different approach to immigration policy in Canada resulted in many of us feeling envious of the flourishing international recruitment across universities and colleges. This led us to start to appreciate the critical relationship between political will and change, as well as institutional strategy. While we were there, changes in regional political leadership presented, almost overnight, new and significantly different challenges and, hopefully, opportunities, to the vice chancellors and principals. It was clear how vital political connectivity was if institutions were to succeed both at a regional and national level, particularly in the Canadian context.
Despite these common factors influencing educational leadership in the Toronto region, institutional visits revealed incredibly diverse cultures and leadership approaches. We were privileged to have time in conversation with leadership teams regarding the influences having most impact upon their strategic direction. Interestingly, individual styles of leadership were thought to be as influential as any other internal and external factors. The culture and feel of an institution seemed to directly correlate to the styles deployed by the top leadership teams. Walking the campuses and seeing the culture for ourselves provided further evidence as to how senior management formed the very heart of an institutional philosophy. This made me think, was it the same back at base and, if so, what role do I have in such influences and what mark would I want to make?
As we progressed through contrasting institutions, the experience at Sick Kids allowed us to consider the value of applying business principles from outside the educational sector to improve user experience, and ultimately effectiveness. Their approach to creating improvement, utilising expertise from engineering, and dramatically enhancing efficiency, inspired many of us to consider, enviously, what value such interdisciplinary approaches could and can bring to an organisation.
Intertwined throughout these visits and meetings were opportunities to really consider how we as individuals would ‘land’ in such a place. How much does a place’s culture impact on our own effectiveness? Is the place one in which my leadership style would evolve and flourish and ultimately have a positive impact? I work in a unique establishment, which, during this TMP journey, is undergoing the transition to university title. This experience is having an impact on decisions being made in real time and the value of this investment is becoming increasingly evident.
At this point, there is a confession to make – not only were we working hard in Toronto, we did take the opportunity to play hard and certainly ‘travelled curiously’. Interestingly, journeying outside of the formality of the set agendas, meetings and conference rooms allowed us to really appreciate the impact of place and I began to consider this in relation to my own institution and how its success is interrelated to that of its immediate physical place. Additionally this journey was supporting us to develop professional friendships within the group as a whole and especially within our smaller impact groups. The value of these were becoming increasingly evident not only in terms of expertise, knowledge and experience, but also in terms of a new support network.
A group of co-travellers who understood the pressures of senior leadership and as we increasingly knew more about how each other respond and behave, we were able to hold a mirror to each other and help us consider how our behaviours may be perceived. While the value of place was a take home message, I suspect it is this network of co-travellers, which will most benefit me and my institution in years to come.