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In Spring 2020, the Learning and Organisation Development team in HR launched a new suite of leadership and management programmes. The new courses have been designed to help support both current and aspiring managers and leaders throughout the staff community and have recently been shortlisted for Best L&D Initiative in the CIPD People Management Awards 2021.

A year later, and the programmes are incredibly popular. A mixture of self-directed learning, online workshops and facilitated discussion groups, the courses run twice a year with increased capacity to offer places to all eligible members of staff.

To cover a range of opportunities, the courses are split into The Aspiring Manager, The Edinburgh Manager, and The Edinburgh Leader. Regardless of which of the three options you choose, the courses encourage delegates to examine and reflect on themselves, their role, and their goals, to help them maximise their potential.

Talking it through

One of the biggest success stories of the programmes is the discussion groups. Facilitated by members of staff, who are often course alumni, they invite colleagues to bring an issue or problem and encourage a frank dialogue among the group as they collectively work to solve them.

Lesley Dicker is an HR Partner in the Learning and Organisation Development team and has been the driving force behind the programmes. She shares a bit more about why they chose to use this structure: “Discussion groups provide the opportunity to address real challenges and opportunities – often with tangible outcomes – whilst developing coaching and communication skills. Supporting course alumni to facilitate these has built their skills, widened their network and enabled them to prioritise time beyond their own involvement in the programmes.”

Although the programmes were launched close to the start of the pandemic, the ability to run these courses virtually has allowed for even more members of staff to take part. Lesley explains: “We have been delighted at the level of interest in the programmes and opportunities to facilitate discussion groups on these. This has been accelerated due to the pandemic with the programme capacity increasing by up to 780 per cent and the internal facilitators being key to us being able to support all the discussion groups across the programmes. This demonstrates the real sense of community that exists within the leadership and management population at the University, something we are delighted to be supporting.”

A problem shared…

For Mike Wallis, Team Lead for Research Services Support in Information Services Group, the community aspect of these discussion groups was a ‘lifeline’. He explains: “Being able to talk to other people in the same boat – but, crucially, who I didn’t work with – about issues that needed to be talked out was something I wasn’t aware I needed quite so much.”

Kirsty Adamson, Deputy Head of the Centre for Open Learning, completely agrees, and explains why, even if no solution was reached, being able to discuss issues with like-minded colleagues was so beneficial: “I presented one particular problem to which nobody had a solution that I hadn’t already tried. It was actually very re-affirming to know that I hadn’t missed an obvious solution and that the problem was not due to any fault of my own.

“The problem was therefore most certainly not of my making and I now feel much more comfortable with that,” She continues. “I came out of the session with a huge sense of relief! I now think of this particular issue as a fact that I can’t currently change, which has helped me to shift my attitude. Rather than continuing to focus on the problem, I’m accepting it and looking around it in new ways.”

Although there is a substantial amount of preparation involved, the courses are designed to give staff the tools to put what they’ve learnt into practice, long after the course has finished and encourage staff to stay in contact, creating a network of continued support. Kirsty elaborates: “The programme does require a significant investment of time. I use the word ‘investment’ very deliberately as the benefits are manifold. I’m still digesting and reflecting on many of the tools and techniques that I’ve learnt, and I know that I will be returning to the resources and my notes repeatedly over the coming weeks and months.”

Debbie Clark, Acting Undergraduate Admissions Officer in the College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine, also found many on the course with similar problems: “It was reassuring to know that most of us had common issues either past or present and it was particularly useful to hear other people’s perspectives or experiences and take from this what you needed to potentially resolve your own issues.

“It was just good to have a safe sounding board to share opinions and ideas and also have your own experiences and opinions well received, knowing that it’s potentially helping someone else – it was a real confidence booster.”

Familiar faces

For all discussion groups, the facilitators are members of staff from the University in management or leadership roles. Often they are course alumni themselves. Their understanding of the institution, as well as their experience as a delegate on the course and the comprehensive training and support provided by the Learning & Organisation Development team allows them to understand the most beneficial way to guide the discussions for their particular group.

For Debbie, this was key to getting the most out of the sessions: “It felt like you could be a bit more open and honest and it felt like they really understood each person’s difficult situation as they’d probably been in a similar situation themselves.”

More to learn

Neil K Kempsell, Technical Manager in Professional Services at Edinburgh College of Art, also facilitates the discussion groups. After working with two separate cohorts he agrees that there’s even more to learn from this perspective too: “I felt that by facilitating discussion groups I would learn a great deal more about the huge breadth, diversity and expertise that exists in other areas of The University.”

“I found the whole experience inspirational, therapeutic and very informative,” he continues. “It was difficult to keep the discussions on track and to time, but I always rise to a challenge, and simply meeting other staff across the University made the role so much more interesting, and a great deal easier than I expected.”

Even as a leader, the group environment is always one of mutual respect and support. Jonna Lindfors, HR and Finance Assistant in the Moray House School of Education and Sport, but soon-to-be Senior HR Assistant within the central HR Operations team, had been looking for opportunities in facilitating for her own professional development. It was an easy decision to apply for helping on the management programmes.

When facilitating her own cohort she was also struck by the honesty of the group: “I was positively surprised to see the atmosphere of trust and openness among the discussion group I lead, and quickly noticed how the members felt comfortable to discuss difficult topics with people they did not know before the course.”

Now, Jonna has developed more confidence to contribute to difficult conversations as part of her work: “Taking on a new challenge and learning to facilitate a group of people who have put their busy schedules aside just for the discussion group can make anyone feel nervous. Facilitating a discussion group has developed myself and my skills enormously – I have become much more confident, learnt to listen to others better and built many great relationships.”

Beyond the programme

After completing the Edinburgh Manager Programme, and finding the discussion groups particularly helpful, Emma Caldwell, Marketing & Communications Manager at the School of Philosophy, Psychology & Language Sciences, applied to become a facilitator for the next cohort. She describes the experience as ‘empowering’ to be able to help guide the delegates through the same process.

The communities formed on the course are encouraged to continue to meet and support each other, even after the programme is over. Both as a facilitator and delegate Emma has seen this put into practice: “The discussion groups are more than just about developing skills. It’s a great way to extend your network and meet colleagues from across the University.”

“This has been even more welcome when networking opportunities have been limited whilst working from home,” she continues. “It’s also a great way to learn about the different strategies and solutions others employ in their role which makes it a continual learning journey for all involved.”

More information on the format and benefits of Discussion Groups is available on the Learning and Organisation Development webpages.

Nominations are now open for the January 2022 intake of all three programmes. You can find out more on the HR website.

There are also opportunities to become discussion group facilitators on the next intake. If you are interested in this opportunity, add your details to the Facilitating Discussion Groups on 2021/22 Semester 1 Programme form.

Photography: GettyImages