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On the benefits of being connected

What are the hallmarks of being a connected leader?

Drawing on his experience of working with some of the top leaders from across the world, Paul Gentle offers a manifesto on the benefits of practising connected leadership and what this looks like when it’s done well.

What if you knew what senior people were thinking and doing in a perfect cross-section of the UK’s universities?”

What if you knew what senior people were thinking and doing in a perfect cross-section of the UK’s universities? And in a fistful of institutions in other countries too?

Some of the best-connected leaders in higher education are in this position. I know because I have the good fortune to work with them regularly.

They’ve worked hard at building and sustaining their networks. They’re skilled at keeping up the flow of ongoing dialogue. And they have at least as much to contribute as they have to gain from the conversations they engage in.

They’ve nurtured a mindset of giving, within themselves and in others who they influence. Best of all, they share and live out this mindset in their daily work inside their universities.

I’m thinking here of Vice-Chancellors and Executive team members who take risks in disclosing the same kinds of self-doubt and uncertainty we all face. Being open to discuss these does nothing to diminish the authority of this generation of senior leaders: it opens doors to possibility. It also casts a long, influential shadow throughout the institution, making it possible for others to express their own doubts.

Connected leaders demonstrate practices like these:

Discussing what does and doesn’t work about the meetings they lead

Being open about what doesn’t always work changes Board Room politics for good.”

In the most striking cases, this means examining what happens when the Executive team gets together, and then committing to improving this constantly. Being open about what doesn’t always work changes Board Room politics for good.

Sharing the goals for their own professional and personal development

Being leaders who are engaged constantly in their own learning casts a long shadow and helps others to think about how they could learn better.

Working with coaches and mentors to gain fresh perspectives on key issues

What presents itself as a burning platform may look like performance that needs tackling. However, experience has shown me that if a senior leader says they’re worried about what appears to be a management issue, there’s actually something going on beneath the surface that’s much more significant. Talking with a mentor or coach helps unearth what it is and brings it to light.

Encouraging people outside the institution to challenge them on how they see the university

This means being open to going on a journey with others; one which involves moments of discovery, pleasure and satisfaction, as well as feelings at the raw edge of the comfort zone. It leads to finding new ways to experiment, and builds long-lasting sustainable partnerships based on trust. It also generates friends and advocates for the university.

All of these practices make today’s most courageous leaders become more versatile in how they use language and relationships to tell their university’s stories. When leaders tell these stories, they show how they expect colleagues’ behaviours to align with the stated values of their institutions.

At their best, their conversations work in continuous loops. They lead to different formats and rules of engagement for meetings, new ways of asking questions and exploring possibilities. They involve reflection and calibration, day in and day out. That’s the advantage that comes from being connected.

By Paul Gentle

Paul is the Academic Director at Invisible Grail. A leadership expert, Paul has dedicated the last twelve years to creating and delivering leadership development programmes in higher education.

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