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University of Hong Kong: building a distributed leadership culture

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Over the last two years, Paul Gentle has been working with the Faculty of Science at the University of Hong Kong to help build an informal leadership team spanning academic departments and professional services.

During the first six months, 15 senior colleagues established themselves as a group of current and future leaders in the Faculty. They learned how to work collaboratively through tackling issues which are critical to implementing the Faculty’s new development plan. Working in this way will help overcome the risks of silo working which used to prevail in the Faculty.

The intention of the programme was to enable the Faculty to see itself in new ways; to construct narratives for its own future.

Here is the story of the first intensive part of the programme, run in October 2017.


The week began at the tail-end of a typhoon. Across the harbour, ferries were just starting to run again. The cloud layers slid back up the mountains on the Kowloon side.

At the western end of Hong Kong Island, rays of sunlight flecked the Centennial Campus, its buildings living up to their reputation as one of the world’s finest ensembles of university architecture. Fifteen key managers and future leaders from the Faculty of Science gathered in a room to hear from their Dean.

His message was clear: the people working together here for the next three days would shape the future for the academics and professional administrators they supported; these men and women would be collaborating so as to create a culture where trust, shared responsibility and widely-distributed leadership would help to prepare the University for a challenging new era among leading global universities.

They had already mapped out a Development Plan, and were now keen to work together to tackle Faculty-wide challenges.

During the intensive programme, they worked with newly-appointed academics on how to improve staff induction, and engaged with a group of Masters students on planning enhancements in learning and teaching.

Each person taking part in the programme had a short coaching conversation with Paul Gentle, the facilitator, and these will be followed by further sessions over the next six months.

Meanwhile, the Faculty leadership team has devised a set of principles for working together, and is now planning to meet regularly to tackle key leadership topics as the Development Plan unfolds.

As one colleague put it, ‘this is the first of its kind in the Faculty… a very good starting point [for] leadership development.

Here’s how other participants summed up their experience on the programme using six words of their choice:

What happened next

Notes from the Programme Director, Paul Gentle

By Autumn 2019, we’d worked in partnership with the Faculty of Science to support several more tiers of leaders in both professional services and in the academic departments.

My definite highlights would have to include a day spent working with about 20 workplace mentors, working at every conceivable level across the Faculty on how to build more inspiring, engaging relationships to help colleagues through key transitions at work. One participant spoke of a revelatory moment, saying ‘It’s like becoming a parent – you learn everything from your child!’ In my 30 years of working in higher education, being a mentor has been the most precious example of generosity in two-way learning that I’ve ever experienced.

Another defining moment was observing two parallel groups of upcoming leaders running simulated faculties in a fictional Hong Kong Greater Bay University. Imagine two very different styles of leadership taking their teams through a supposed on-campus nuclear accident – with two very different outcomes, and clear learning for all involved!

It has been a privilege throughout to work with Professor Matthew Evans and his outstanding teams of distributed leaders.

Find out more

If you’re interested in creating a similar project, or you would like to find out what we could do with you, please take a look at our bespoke programmes or contact Paul Gentle, Academic Director.

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