Learning to lead: Experiences from the Aurora Women’s Leadership Development Programme


By Dr Elaine Toomey

A lovely sunny May day in Dublin heralded the final workshop of the Aurora Women’s Leadership Development Programme, and my last outing as part of this fantastic experience. Fresh into my first ever postdoc (Health Research Board Interdisciplinary Capacity Enhancement (ICE) fellowship) in August 2016, I originally saw the programme advertised through the university mailing list. I knew that Dr Molly Byrne, the director of our Health Behaviour Change Research Group had taken part in it the previous year and had found it valuable, so very much in my ‘apply for everything’, new postdoc mode, I decided to pop in an application. Luckily for me, I was successful and chosen along with about 20 other wonderful women from NUI Galway, including academic, administrative and research staff (but only one other postdoc! J), to take part in the course and represent our university.

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Aurora lanyard and pin

The Aurora programme is a female-only leadership development programme provided by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education in the UK, developed in response to research indicating that the numbers of women in influential and senior positions in higher education is lower than it was 10 years ago. The programme consist of five specific workshop days spread over six months, which for the Irish annual contingents are mostly held in Dublin. Workshops typically involve pre-reading, facilitated sessions and excellent keynote speakers from a variety of backgrounds. A mentoring programme, using mentors from one’s own institution, is also offered to participants.

Before the first workshop, the Vice-President for Student Experience Dr Pat Morgan hosted an informal gathering (with some wonderfully festive mince pies) for the NUIG representatives. This was a lovely chance to meet and get to know one another before heading to Dublin in December for the first workshop entitled ‘Identity, Impact and Voice’. This first day gave us a sense of what to expect from the coming weeks and also to help us clarify what we wanted to take from the programme. As well as an enthralling keynote from Lynn Scarff (Director of the Science Gallery Dublin), the day facilitated us to begin reflecting on our leadership styles and our own identity – who are you, who do you want to be and how can you build the leadership you would like? With these questions in my mind, the key tips I took from this day that still stay with me were:

  • The importance of being relentless in the pursuit of opportunities, but not reckless – advice from Lynn Scarff; and
  • Who to have ‘on your shoulder’ – looking at those who inspire you and their qualities that you would like to emulate, and having them ‘on your shoulder’ to influence how you work

Workshop 2 was called ‘Power and Politics’, where the main focus was on looking at personal goals and then how to achieve these, through discussion and debate with other Aurorans. We received another engaging keynote, this time from Prof Anne Sinnott (the executive dean of DCU Business School) who spoke to us about the importance of understanding what motivates others and how to communicate effectively. This session also introduced us to the other people in our ‘Action Learning Set’ groups, smaller groups with whom we would later work. Again the key take-homes for me from this session were:

  • The importance of ‘authenticity’ – identifying your beliefs and values and staying true to these
  • Developing a three minute elevator pitch to influence how other people perceive you and the importance of your work from the outset (I still haven’t perfected this but hopefully I’m getting closer! Time me next time you meet me J)

The next meeting in March was just with the other members from our ‘Action Learning Set’ groups, so for me this involved five other women from a mixture of Irish universities. Given Galway’s lovely reputation, myself and the other NUIG Aurorean managed to convince the group (with not much difficulty!) to meet in NUIG. For this, each of us chose a specific issue or goal relevant to our own careers and development. We confidentially discussed our issues within the group, and were challenged by the group through questioning to reflect on these issues, providing different perspectives and opinions. For me, this session was particularly valuable as it allowed me to get to know five lovely and amazing women in very different areas to me, and for my issue highlighted the value of pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone to develop your career.

Workshop 4 looked at Core Leadership Skills this time focusing on ‘storytelling’, and being aware of the influence of bias and stereotyping in work situations. Again, there were exceptional keynotes from NUIG’s own Prof Anne Byrne (head of Political Science and Sociology), Sara Doherty (Director of Eve consultation) on the power of telling your story, and how to do this well. A key learning for me from this session was in relation to improving Negotiation Skills using the four following tips:

  • Assess – think about whether the benefits outweigh the costs of the proposal
  • Prepare – think about what motivates the other person, and what your own interests are
  • Ask – be open and upfront, share information with the other person and engage with them
  • Package – try to demonstrate what could be achieved as a whole set of things, and think about alternative proposals

Finally, the Aurora programme concluded with a workshop entitled ‘Adaptive Leadership’. This time the keynote was from game designer and developer Brenda Romero, who delivered a really engaging talk to wrap up the programme. Brenda had an interesting way of looking at imposter syndrome as ‘still learning syndrome’, so recognising that you always have more to learn, not to be afraid of failure, and knowing that what matters most is what you think of yourself. As well as this, my key take-home message from this session was around taking the ‘balcony view’, i.e. the value of viewing problems from above to see inter-relationships and patterns of change, and understanding that change doesn’t have to happen in my area, but that I can still have an impact via these connected pathways.

All in all, the Aurora programme has helped me learn a lot about myself, my future career and leadership styles. While the programme learning was definitely not gender-specific, it was lovely to take part in something aiming to improve the impact of women in higher education. A consistent highlight of the programme for me was the keynotes from five amazing, successful and inspiring women. In particular, aside from anything gender-specific, I learned a lot from these women about good communication styles and the value of engaging your audience and stakeholders fully, which I want to continue to work on. Another massive benefit of the programme has been the mentor it provided me with, who has been invaluable to date in terms of guidance and advice.

At the start of the programme, despite being selected, I didn’t really think I was a leader – that I was too junior, too early on in my career for the programme. However, by the end of it I learned that it’s never too soon to start learning how to lead well, and that everyone can display leadership – working within a team on a project, supervising students, or even through peer mentorship. It has helped me develop connections in institutions all over Ireland, and really importantly for someone new to NUIG, has introduced me to a great bunch of women and it’s lovely to be able to recognise more people across the campus. I also recently received an unusual letter from someone with identical handwriting to my own – until I opened it I had forgotten that during Workshop 1 we were asked to write our future selves a note about key things to remember, which would be posted to us at the end of the programme. Embarrassingly, I’ll post it here J It’s nice to know that past Elaine is in my corner!


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Note from workshop one written by me, posted to me after the end of the full programme

Thanks for reading! Applications for this year’s cohort of NUIG Aurorans is now out – so apply apply apply!



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