Be The Change: designing impactful leadership development for PGRs

By Joanna Royle (Researcher Development Specialist for PGRs) with Chris Russell (My Consultants course lead) and Kevin Leomo (Postgraduate Leadership Programme participant and PGR Leader)

Icon-style large group of people. One person in middle highlighted by a magnifying glass.

It is graduation season: that wildly joyful time of year when we celebrate our postgraduate researchers who will go on to be leaders in scholarship, industry, policy, and society. Leadership is not, however, just something for the future. Nor is it something that happens only in board rooms and strategic committees. Our PGRs have the capacity to be leaders in the here and now, in their labs, classrooms, and networks. A candidate on the UofG PGR Leadership Programme put this far more beautifully than I can:

“A leader is born from contexts. We all have the capacity to be leaders and yet none of us will not be the best suited leader in every situation. And, importantly, leadership is not consciously activated. You cannot force anyone to follow you, and you do not have to consent to being a leader to occupy that space in someone else’s mind.”

Run in collaboration with My Consultants, the PGR Leadership Programme is one of the University of Glasgow’s most high-profile, and career-relevant, researcher development opportunities. Over the last two years we rethought what we wanted this programme to accomplish, aligning it with our commitment to being a values-driven institution, and recognising the worth of what researchers bring to their development spaces.

We have used feedback quotes from PGR participants throughout this post, to illustrate the impact of the programme.

Covid as a Catalyst: a time for redesign

Rather than buying in an off-the-shelf on-line version of the programme, Chris Russell (from My Consultants) and Joanna Royle (from UofG Researcher Development) took the pandemic as an opportunity to redesign the course to capitalise on the benefits of online working while retaining the social benefits of bringing researchers together.

The programme now triangulates traditional workshops with informal sessions for community building, team project work, and self-paced ‘growth challenges’. What used to be a 4-day intensive became a 3-month growth-focused, community-driven, journey. One morning each week a group of 25 researchers come together on Zoom to really explore what it means to be a leader in their own spaces and career. 

“It was intense, but having the structure was incredibly beneficial. They provided and opportunity for reflection which time doesn’t always allow for when you’re actually leading a project, and that space was very precious.”

Getting the programme off the ground and into virtual space was really helped by the fact Chris and Joanna have embedded values such as self-reflection and collaboration at the heart of the programme. Unlike most of our courses, there is an application process which selects researchers who can demonstrate alignment with these values, which we believe give this programme its power and impact:

“Perhaps the most rewarding part of the course was being partnered up with someone who I thought I had irreconcilable differences with, and then working with them rather beautifully. So that was awesome! Really put some of the lessons into practice and taught me not to rely so much on first impressions.”

Measure what you value

Prior to 2020 the Leadership Programme was accredited with the CMI (Chartered Management Institute). Getting certification at the end certainly attracted some participants, but we strongly felt that it was limiting the scope of the programme, focusing attention on the procedural elements of staff management and passing assessment, rather than meaningful personal development and transformation. We wanted the programme redesign to measure what we saw as valuable (personal development and building leadership), rather than valuing what is easy to measure (ability to describe HR management procedures) (Biesta, 2010, 2013, 2017).

We wanted our new course to offer tangible mechanisms for researchers to map their personal growth as leaders. We chose the Resilient Leaders Development ProgrammeTM, a platform created by the Resilient Leaders ElementsTM, team which guides users through a tailored series of personalised challenges that are bookended by self- and peer-assessment. It equips users to create their own leadership goals, logging their learning as they go. To integrate this self-managed learning into the programme the ‘taught’ workshops were built around the Resilient Leaders ElementsTM themes, and informal group sessions included light-touch feedback on progress. Of course, some researchers have more capacity (and inclination) than others to work on their development outside workshop time, but it is clear from the programme evaluation that the symbiosis between collaborative and individual content brings the lived experience of researcher into the programme:

“The RLDP system really helped me identify my strengths and weaknesses. It was also a good platform how to improve my leadership qualities. The open format helped me learn from other participants’ experiences too.”

“It was wonderful to have time set aside to think about my behaviours on a weekly basis – when does this ever happen normally? I’ll take this with me going forward.”

The second way this programme measures what it values is through the two group projects. Although developmental in focus (i.e. not graded), engagement with the group projects has generally avoided the usual pitfalls of uneven effort, and produced some outstanding ideas. The shared nature of the projects has been the most valuable part of the programme, for some participants. 

“This was definitely the nicest part of the programme. To be able to work as a team paying attention to how each one behaved as a leader. To be able to see different skills and qualities that sometimes go unnoticed and be able to value them.”

The relative balance of these individual and group sessions changes depending on the group dynamic year-on-year, but in combination they offer meaningful qualitative evidence of impact. They also enable Chris and Joanna to work closely with participants, actively supporting their growth rather than focusing on content delivery – to use a popular pedagogic quip, to be the Guide on the Side, not the Sage on the Stage (King, 1993). 

A Community of Practice 

The loss of academic community was among the most devastating challenges faced by PGRs during the pandemic. We explicitly chose a longitudinal design for this programme to reach into this space, offering participants the chance to connect regularly with others who shared their interest in practicing values-led leadership.

“I would highlight the coffee session’s ability to develop PGR community. From my perspective, I was initially sceptical about spending additional time on Zoom – however, I grew to really enjoy and value these times building friendships with a diverse range of PhD students”

Personal communities cannot be fabricated simply by putting people in the same place, and we were under no illusions that this online programme would be able to solve the loneliness experienced by so many researchers during lockdown. What can be consciously designed are Communities of Practice (Lave and Wenger 1991, Wenger 1998). A Community of Practice fosters mutual support and best practice across people with shared interests, which we sought to cultivate.

“My favourite aspect of the postgraduate leadership programme was that it provided a unique opportunity to develop working relationships with peers across all four colleges at Glasgow University. The gathering each week, although online, became the highlight of my weeks during the COVID-19 lockdown. While providing informative foundational content, the programme miraculously also afforded space for each of us to grow on our own personal trajectories despite diverse nationalities, personalities and disciplines”

As course leaders we have been pleased with the Communities of Practice fostered by the programme, but recognise that without ongoing shared practice, legitimate spaces to connect, and the effort of facilitation, communities are hard to sustain. 

Online courses make it harder to create a community […] During the course, yes. After, I do not think so. It is harder to create bonds. You see and talk with people online, but you just talk about the project and the programme. When you meet in person, you have the opportunity to actually know other people and really create a sense of community […] I guess a community is much more than just see one each other for three months once a week.

Designed for impact – has it worked?

We want the Leadership Programme to matter to the researchers who complete it. Both from a personal development angle and a practical angle, we want them to finish the programme able to see their own leadership as something for now, and as equipping them to be part of future change. 

Proof that our design could accomplish this impact came quickly as two participants from the first programme cycle – Kevin Leomo and Klaudia Jasionowska – brought their group project idea into reality following completion of the course. Kevin and Klaudia believed the core ideas from the Leadership Programme could be helpfully shared with a wider range of PGRs, who may not have the time to commit to a 3-month course or who are at an earlier stage in their doctoral research. They put the RLETM values of ‘clarity of direction’, ‘resilient decision making’, ‘awareness’, and ‘leadership presence’ that underpin the course into practice, designing a one-day Introduction to Leadership that is now embedded as a regular event in the wider UofG researcher development offer and highlights how leadership as a concept can be implemented in many situations on the PhD journey.

Looking more broadly to the impact of the programme, we are faced with the common problem that it is substantially easier to evidence the lower levels of Kirkpatrick’s famous training impact model (reaction and learning) than the higher ones (behaviour and impact). We can, of course, be delighted by the unusually low attrition and high satisfaction enjoyed by this programme: but that is falling into the ‘easy to measure’ trap that we want to avoid. 

And so rather than metricise the experience, we turn to participants own narratives about how the programme has changed them: 

“PGLP opened new doors for me by opening my mind to closing others. Importantly, my personal journey through this programme taught me the valuable lesson that you do not need to be in a formal leadership position to have a positive influence on your environment, and, in fact, sometimes you’re best positioned to lead from the periphery and away from the spotlight. The applied insights I gained through the programme enabled me to take an intentional inventory of my competing priorities and instilled in me the importance of self-care.”

“The main impact is that I now ensure I make time for reflection, to plan and consider. Not necessarily in terms of having a detailed road map for every project, but more to ensure I do build in time to think about my approach, how things are going, and whether I am working and leading in the most effective way.”

“I am actually talking to one of my best friends about leadership. It is a topic we had never talked about before, but it turns out we are both interested in it. Creating a mid-long term conversation about leadership with someone I know from so long ago is being helpful and inspirational.”

While never wanting to rest on our laurels (there are lots of further programme enhancements that can be made), comments like these give us confidence that by being fully intentional in our design, we have successfully created what we intended: an impactful, values-driven, programme which equips our researchers to step into their leadership potential, both now, and in their next career stage: 

“This has been a real eye opener and will impact upon my behaviour for the rest of my career.”

One response to “Be The Change: designing impactful leadership development for PGRs”

  1. […] Be The Change: designing impactful leadership development for PGRs […]


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