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University of Derby: Student Experience Leadership Challenge

We set out to strengthen our team culture and to nurture an ongoing commitment to share ideas and our individual expertise to achieve our ultimate purpose – to enhance the student experience. It was vital to get the tone right and we achieved this working with Invisible Grail. I’m proud of my team, their commitment to the programme and continuing the positive outcomes that came out of these two days.”

Professor Malcolm Todd
Former Deputy Vice-Chancellor/Provost (Academic and Student Experience)
University of Derby

Working in partnership in with the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and his team at the University of Derby, we ran a two-day programme to develop a vision for how to respond to and shape the future landscape of the Student Experience. We then focused on how the team could turn this vision into a reality.

University of Derby logo

To do this, the group were invited to define and experiment with how to project their narrative as a leadership team. Their narrative needed to be owned by every individual, and to achieve this it was important to start from a foundation of trust. Nurturing a collective sense of identity and mutual understanding was the framework upon which the programme was to work.

In designing this programme, we blended new techniques with experiential learning. This was a new approach for this team, and was made possible by working in partnership with the Deputy Vice-Chancellor to create something that stretched participants beyond their normal comfort zones.

What happened

The Extended Student Experience Executive Group (ESEEG) is an interdisciplinary, inter-professional team. Key to the success of this programme was to tap into individuals’ expertise and encourage them to share and create with one another a vision for their own work.

Through discussions with the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, we designed a two-day residential programme that would blend experiential learning, reflection and focused group activities to deliver these intended outcomes for the team:

  • Be successful in influencing and inspiring others in the University through role-modelling good team working, reflective practice and giving and receiving feedback
  • Lead through creating and communicating a shared narrative of common goals for the future of the Extended Student Experience Executive Group (ESEEG) and its implications for the Student Experience at the University
  • Understand the full range of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s portfolio of responsibilities
  • Embrace the opportunities of applying their own individual capabilities beyond the remit of their own immediate responsibility

What made this team so special to work with?

Their openness to working together in a potentially high-risk situation. Everyone rose to the challenge of hosting and facilitating conversations with key players external to their group. They were completely absorbed in what they needed to do, and this showed in the result: increased influence and profile across the University. What’s more, people took the trouble to tell me afterwards how differently they are now working: collaboratively across the team!”

Dr Paul Gentle
Programme Director

The first half of the programme focused on understanding and articulating the team culture and their values, both as individuals and collectively. Nurturing these deep connections would create a sustainable bond between participants that could be strengthened after the programme.

In order for the programme to have impact beyond the two days, it was important to connect it to real life situations with practical outcomes. To do so, a centrepiece activity of a thematic inquiry on a live issue was created. Participants were to prepare and facilitate a conversation with guest provocateurs, including a member of the Board, the Academic Registrar and the President of the Students’ Union.

This ensured that learning reflected straight back into the everyday lives of participants. It built confidence in elevating them into strategic conversations and enabled them to take ownership of a project that will have strategic impact.

Support and challenge groups were created to support peer coaching relationships; there were one-to-one feedback discussions for the three most senior leaders with the facilitator; a group leadership challenge and the use of scenarios to deepen individual and collective sense of leadership identity framed the thematic inquiry.

To support ongoing commitment to their vision and narrative, analysis of findings that had evolved throughout the two days, reflection, feedback and action planning were built in to the programme.

What’s been the outcome?

The day unlocked a real sense of commitment within the team to one another and to the vision they had created. It gave people the opportunity to step up and take more strategic ownership of their future and their role in shaping it.

Some of the participants are now leading a plan for their strategy that is based on outcomes from the programme. A new Terms of Reference of membership of the group is being created by participants, and they are now leading and setting the agenda for the group’s meetings.

One further outcome has evolved, more intangible than the others, that the tone of the group has shifted. Feedback from the group shows that they have an appetite to play a stronger role on strategic decision making.

As for the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, he has been able to see people flourish through taking on more responsibility and seen a desire from the group to have greater strategic impact. Two promotions have since taken place.

This programme was a departure from what had happened previously. This brought with it inherent risks, yet this leap of faith has unlocked expertise and enabled participants to apply themselves to shaping their own future.

Participant experiences

We spent two days together as a leadership team working on our collective strategic approach. We consider ourselves as individuals within the team, our own positionality is important in framing our team perspective, yet we have the same common end goal – student success.

The first day framed our collective endeavour striving for this outcome. Day two laid out a very clear leadership challenge which required us to work well together, at pace to respond to a challenge that was set for us by stakeholders external to our student experience executive group. 

Following the event the experience remains very much alive in the way that we approach different tasks and challenges at the University. We refer to approaches across our shared arenas of work rather than thinking in silos and we consider the shared endeavour as our success.

Fiona Shelton
Dean of Students and Head of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching

“We learnt about each other’s strengths and how best to utilise them, as well as understanding the impact our individual roles have on the collective goals of the team. The level of the event was pitched perfectly, ensuring that we were offered the time and opportunity to think strategically and start to put plans in motion on the day that have formulated how we are working as a collective going forward.

Jo Wheldon
Head of Student Employment and Enterprise

Find out more

If you would like to explore how we can work with your team please contact our Academic Director, Paul Gentle.