Defining the Undefined: Adventures in Professional leadership


Leadership in professional and third space domains in higher education is a challenging space as it’s relatively undefined and rarely scaffolded, with no consistent roles or structures in place in the sector and no access to promotion. To address this, ASCILITE added a Professional Leadership stream to its Community Mentoring Program (CMP) for 2023, creating a space for leaders and aspiring leaders to learn from and support each other. This post shares the experiences of one of the intrepid first groups exploring this new CMP frontier via a series of reflective vignettes.

Cast:

Sarah Thorneycroft and Wendy Taleo (co-mentors)
Amelia Di Paolo, Annabel Orchard and Siew Ching Lee (mentees)

Amelia

Participating in the CMP WiPL (Women in Professional Leadership) mentoring program has been supportive to my career. Initially seeking guidance to transition from education management to higher sector leadership, I found invaluable support in establishing my thought leadership and understanding complex university management structures. Through this partnership, I honed my skills by contributing blog articles to The Edvisor, Teladvisor’s blog, under the mentorship of Wendy Taleo, a seasoned blogger. Engaging in discussions about leadership challenges with Wendy and Sarah Thorneycroft, and the group, provided me with profound insights and solutions to my career dilemmas.

On a personal level, this mentorship journey bolstered my confidence and problem-solving abilities. During the mentorship, I secured a Senior Learning Designer position at my current university, feeling supported by the program’s guidance on addressing selection criteria and crafting impactful executive summaries.

This experience reshaped my career aspirations, enhancing my perspective and career progression. I am immensely grateful for the support, and I plan to continue applying the knowledge and skills gained, ensuring a bright trajectory in my professional life. The CMP WiPL mentoring program not only supported my journey but also solidified my commitment to ongoing growth and leadership in the higher education sector.

Ching “self-discovery in a supportive and safe environment”

My journey on the CMP program has been breathtaking, confusing, and exciting at the same time. Sharing what my ideal self is with others – who I am in a professional setting, as well on a personal level of who I want to be and what I want to achieve in the next 20 years of my career. Many ideas and questions have came to mind prior to this program, I was very lost i.e., should I focus on women’s leadership utilising technology in higher education, being a full-time academic, how would I blend in all the skill sets that I have i.e., graphic design, teaching, learning and development, and newly added skill – counselling.

Under the mentorship of Sarah and Wendy, as well as other mentees, I feel comfortable working through my ideas in such a supportive and non-judgmental environment. I managed to develop my own e-portfolio which I have been procrastinating about for the last century, I also managed to blend my personal and professional statement for my CV. Most importantly, I identified what I would like to do professionally for the next 20 years – the initial stage, blending my current skillset (learning and development + human factors), a working concept identified for pursuing a PhD.

Annabel

I applied for the WiPL mentoring program with goals that seemed quite nebulous. In order to prepare for career progression, how do I:  
1. Define and articulate my professional values and goals? 
2. Discover what I don’t know, define the gaps and determine next steps? 
It turns out the format of our mentoring group of two mentors and three mentees was ideally suited to these goals. 

Initially we presented and discussed our professional goals and values, then crafted these into an alt-CV and professional statement. Working through this with the group helped me to discern where my values aligned and differed from others, and how to represent my experience and prepare for a career that I will find fulfilling. 

These and later conversations exposed me to the vocabulary around university leadership and management, and by following up on the bibliography shared by the group I have a more nuanced understanding and confidence to take part in conversations about strategic planning, operational planning, implementation plans. 

Wendy, Sarah, Siew Ching and Amelia, thank you for your wisdom and generosity – it has been an insight and a pleasure!

Wendy

Being a co-mentor has surfaced many questions:

How do we define the undefinable? What does leadership (gendered or not) look like in the professional space? What would an ‘academish’ university workforce look like? How do we access the skills we need without working in the position that would provide that knowledge? What do safe spaces look like? What does ‘leading from behind’ look like?

Mentoring this year has been a rich learning experience:

I’ve learnt to pause and encourage before commenting, the value of sharing, creating a safe space, rethinking digital identities and using the ‘yes, and’ approach a lot!

Sarah

As mentors we’ve been wrangling with what mentoring means in this context – how to create space for people to define their own goals and needs and carve a path through constraints. It’s a fundamentally heutagogical context to work in. Wendy and I are both quite comfortable in self-defined spaces, and have really synergistic strengths and experiences, which served us really well as co-mentors and helped shape an effective mentoring space. I think we found a nice balance in our approach, with enough flexibility to allow each mentee to define their own direction but enough structure to achieve tangible outcomes. 

A key thing for me that this program enabled was making the invisible visible – there’s so much hidden, assumed and tacit knowledge involved in leadership in higher education, and some really pervasive tropes and myths around who can be a leader and why and how. Having space to make some of that visible, to unpack and counter and to say the unsaid has been really valuable, not just for the mentees but for us as mentors too.


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