EFMD – HUMANE Winter School focuses on the development of senior managers, aimed at creating awareness of the importance of integrating academic matters, finances, human resources, governance, leadership and communication strategy in the development of university strategy. The needed leadership skills and the ability to see the “big picture” in relation to the changing context and hence the needed change, are subjects that stand out in the workshop sessions. “This is not just yet another management course” as they claim their programme to be. I could not agree more! Especially when you start looking at the emphasis of the training on the importance of incorporating different perspectives and backgrounds in the quality assurance and achievements of an organisation. But, the magic takes the effort of all parties involved…

The first day and first moment that I met the people of the Humane Winter School immediately set the atmosphere. Aside from a formal introduction, Simon Fanshawe, a respected broadcaster and writer with an ambition to create effective change in organisations, kicked off the intense training week with a knowledgeable and witty elaboration on how cultural differences and different ways of communication manifest within a university setting. With vigour he made sure we understood the relation to the desired organisational change we envisioned and our very own responsibility as management towards that goal. How well the topic of this opening session was chosen, I only realised later on, once I discovered that the biggest strength of every strategy proposal is the input of a diverse workforce from all departments and levels a university is made off.

After Simon divided us into smaller groups we did some games with the purpose of getting to know each other, including one’s background. The participants of the training were highly diverse, both in terms of national systems and senior management positions people work in. This additional, but intentional, aspect made the training, aside from all interesting strategic and leadership topics, an even bigger success for my own, and I assume other’s, development.

The intense and interactive training schedule during the week consisted of highly interesting workshop sessions and practical work on real-time cases. Simultaneously we were assigned to a team of people with whom we had to prepare a case by the end of the week. The case  (a proposal on how to use the strengths of the university towards an international profile) made it immediately visible how difficult it was to bring these diverse perspectives and characters of all team members to the table. A whole group process unfolded before my eyes, by which I was truly intrigued.

Find common ground
The first time we came together as a team was a well-meant try out of every individual member to find a way to start working on the assignment. We were eager to start “producing” and just do it instead of talking about it. Quite soon we realised that we were nowhere near to actually start writing a consulting paper together. All team members had different senior management positions (obviously so organised) with great knowledge within their fields of expertise and all came from different countries with different practices within the university. All initial conversations ended in not understanding the other one’s view of what works and what does not within the specific (political) culture of their own university. It took us literally several days to find some common ground, where we could start working from. Then one day, there was a turning point. We realised that the context or so called background (the different systems or structures we came from) made the organisational change or advice every individual had in mind differ, but not the blocks the advice was built of! It finally came down to some shared values with regard to people management and some self-knowledge in terms of your own strengths and using it to help improve the outcome. The common ground seemed to be respect for and trust in each other’s expertise and experience within one’s own field of work to improve the outcome. A theme which was also vividly discussed a few days later by Hubert de Neve, Executive Vice-President HR, who addressed the need of shared values, both of the company and individual staff in favour of a sustainable workforce. He inspired us on Talent Management as in his belief to make sure you have the mission and vision of the institute translated into core values. He believes that without alignment with the personal values of a staff member, there will be no platform for sustainable talent management. The second essential ingredient for a long-term commitment of staff is the identification of personal contribution to the ambitions of the company.

Listen to each other with great interest, ask and learn!
When we finally realised what we had in common and what each person could bring to the so-called table, we were able to start listening carefully to what every person had to say on the topic, even when it seemed of chart. We realised there was a lot of initial misunderstanding between the members. We agreed on communicating from a more neutral position towards a more positive decision-making process. We started to ask each other many questions in order to finally define the blocks the proposal should consist of. Once we began to visualise the context the case university was dealing with, we were able to connect and translate everybody’s point of view to the case study.

Use all expertise and knowledge within the team
We agreed on using our differences for the better to achieve our mutual goal. When we started to combine all expertise and knowledge into one piece of advice we actually saw the magic happening. It was great to see how everyone became inspired to add value to the work that had to be done, but equally important, to see how we became better as a team. Each person was also adopting a specific role, well matched with his or her personality, such as shaper, coordinator, investigator etc. aside from one’s expertise. We realised we could never have delivered a report of such quality and extent, by neither one of us individually.

Great ambition emerges!
Aside from the fact that we were made aware that we were able to give some valuable advice based on using more than only your own field of expertise and experience, we also met some amazing people with great motivation and ambition to make a change in the higher education area by sharing their own unique view of the world around them. A set of living relationships working towards a shared goal arose from the surface. It made us realise that everyone’s expertise had a goal and a need for, and it would be a shame to not use every single skill and field of knowledge within any team to achieve the similarities in goals!

Guest post by Wendy Maat, Head of International Mobility, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam