Goldsmiths University

Supporting distributed leadership

Empowering staff who were leading without formal authority during a reorganisation

Goldsmiths invited us to work with a pilot group of informal leaders who were stepping up to support colleagues during a period of change. The programme set out to support them to:

  • Understand that they were leading
  • Give them confidence to do this intentionally
  • Develop their ability to lead well
  • Acknowledge and appreciate the effort they were making
  • Help them establish a peer support network of distributed leaders

How to lead when you don’t have formal authority

Goldsmiths is a medium-sized London university specialising in the arts, design, computing, humanities and social sciences with approx 10,000 students and 1,200 employees, including 800 academic staff members.

The context
The impact of an evolving global marketplace for Higher Education, means many universities are facing profound challenges and find themselves forced to think hard about their USP, where they stand in the marketplace, and what they represent.

Goldsmiths has reorganised to become more cost effective while continuing to deliver a great service to students. Like all big change programmes, at times it has been a painful and bumpy process. And a lot of really dedicated people have worked hard to support transitions to new systems, alongside academic and administrative reshaping. Colleagues often stepping up to make sure things did not get missed.

What we did

We were asked to pilot a programme to help these informal leaders access more agency, whilst building capacity and resilience.

This group consisted of people who were moving things forward without being asked and without the authority of being a β€˜head’ of something, often in ambiguous contexts.

A programme for distributed leadership

The programme was designed to enable them to understand leadership as a collective endeavour rather than a top-down, command and control activity – as a behaviour not a job title. So that they could influence progress, even when they were not in charge.

In the process, we developed an approach that would allow Goldsmiths to unblock the frustrated capability in this community. This included:

  • Building coalitions and peer networks
  • Practising communication and coaching skills
  • Embedding the idea of leadership as a behaviour not a job title

The pilot
A cohort of 16 people from different departments and faculties were invited to reframe how they thought about leading and leadership.

We shared a practical toolkit of soft skills, and explored how to use these to influence more effectively.

We encouraged the cohort to practise these skills in their work and for example to:

  • form coalitions with people who shared similar problems,
  • use tools such as SPIN to be able to better work through problems, and support colleagues to make proposals for action,
  • to use the FONT tool to support difficult conversations.

Participants were surveyed before and after, which enabled us to evaluate the impact on individuals and the organisation, as well as the overall effectiveness of the programme.

Project Outcomes

Participants benefited personally in a number of ways:

  • An improved ability to handle difficult conversations, with an increased confidence to be vulnerable.
  • Unblocking growth in leadership capability.
  • The confidence and ability to work with diverse voices and opinions.
  • Feeling that the contribution they were making was valued.

Organisational benefits included:

  • Coalition building – different people and different teams discovered similar aims and worked together to create shared benefits.
  • People formed peer support networks, building a deeper stronger set of connections which provide a more open trusting ground for future endeavours.
  • A different way of leading was established – the idea of collective leadership where leadership is a set of behaviours anyone can do.

The programme demonstrated the potential for making change more effective by:

  • Applying alternative approaches to getting things done in a complex environment.
  • Engaging people’s willingness to get involved in strategic programmes.
  • Developing skills to influence in teams and groups.
  • Supporting individuals to take up agency and leadership.
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