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WiAL Webinar: My Leadership Journey

The ASCILITE’s Women in Academic Leadership Initiative aims to provide mentoring opportunities for academics and brings together its members via a community approach to support each other to progress in academia. Thanks to a recent invitation to speak at an upcoming WiAL webinar, I have started to think about my journey as a leader and what I could usefully share with this group of inspiring and aspiring academic leaders.

My story, like so many of us who work at the intersection of education, technology and more, is not a straight line from degree to equally distributed career arc. My academic background in art and anthropology is not a natural stepping stone into non-profit leadership or project management even though to me it all makes sense (at least in retrospect). So when I share with people that I spent my PhD research in a cemetery and somehow less than ten years later I was the CEO of an edtech organisation there are definitely some curious glances.

To bring some kind of order to the messy madness I have decided to present a couple of snapshots, rather than try to present a coherent narrative. From the beginnings of my undergraduate studies in the 90s, to my PhD years and even much of my early career a lot of my (paid) work involved bookshops, cafes, cinemas and market research. In short, any job that you could do as a young, foreign worker in the UK whilst still attending lectures sufficiently to pass my studies.

Slide with the text: 90s Beginnings 
I moved to the UK in 1997, and went to art school. 

I trained as a sculptor in London, UK and spent a year at the Fine Art School in Athens, Greece, before started post-graduate studies in Anthropology at UCL, London, UK in 2003.

When I think about what is important to me in my leadership practice, I think about my values and how what I do and the approach I use align with and reflect those values. Alongside my values, there is what motivates and drives me. Leadership roles can often feel quite lonely and isolated, and the more senior you are the more others look to you for encouragement and vision. Which brings me to the third aspect: developing my own voice.

For me, that process didn’t happen in isolation. I had invaluable support from my long-term mentor as well as allies from the Board I was working with and other senior colleagues external to the organisation. They helped me build confidence, not just capability, and encouraged me to find things I am passionate about. They also helped me step into larger stages, to develop my presence for giving keynotes and writing opinion pieces.

Slide with the text: 2015 - 2019 My Voice. Together with my long term mentor and allies from the board and other senior colleagues I found my voice as a leader.

Looking back at that list of keynotes and articles brings back a lot of good memories for me. In those years prior to the pandemic my perspective had begun to expand, and I started to enjoy being part of a wider dialogue. I had found a good balance between having experience and still being new enough in my sector to see opportunity for change. I was excited to be doing what I was doing, and I made connections with people who really opened up my mind to new (to me) ways of thinking, writing and working.

These relationships provided a very valuable network of support and inspiration when the pandemic hit and I entered my first years of permanent crisis as a leader. All risk registers were RED, all of the time. Everyone I knew and worked with was constantly fire fighting. The world had been turned upside down, and education with it.

My voice as a leader during those years of crisis had to become one of clarity and decision. We had to get through it, and eventually, we did. Relationships were both strong in solidarity and fraught by lack of sleep, energy, rest and hope. Like many, the pandemic prompted me to re-evaluate things and having reached a point of organisational recovery I was proud of, my energy was spent and I decided to embark on a period of transition to a new chapter in my career.

2023 was focused on that process of transition, of letting go for a lot of relationships I had built over a period of 15 years, and starting to lay the foundation for my next chapter and a new way of working. What I discovered during that period is that being a leader is part of who I am rather than something I do, or a job title. It’s stayed with me, even though the only person I manage is myself and I run my own little enterprise rather than an organisation for thousands of members.

At this stage in my career I feel I have less to prove and more power. Now I am looking to leverage my expertise and experience to achieve the kind of work life balance that works best for me, to be creative and have fun and to follow where my curiosity may lead me.

Slide screenshot with the words: Next? What I've discovered this year is that being a leader is part of who I am rather than something I do, or a job title. At this stage in my career I feel I have less to prove and more power. Now I am looking to leverage my expertise and experience to achieve the kind of work life balance that works best for me, to be creative and have fun and to follow where my curiosity may lead me.
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