Embracing HELM’s Women in Leadership programme became a defining moment for alumni

Published On: 30 November 2022|

With less than three years in operation and now in its third cohort, the Women in Leadership (WiL), a flagship of the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme, is hailed as a vital capacity development offering for women in universities’ middle management.

At the HELM Summit 2022 recently concluded on 17 November, participants from the past two cohorts narrated how they have successfully integrated learnings from this tailor-made programme into their workspaces. Led by the summit’s focus on leadership development for organisational change and sustainability, this session was themed Re-imagining Leadership post-CoViD; Transitioning into Leadership.

Leading with confidence and from an informed perspective

Associate Professor Samantha Govender (right), Deputy Dean: Teaching and Learning at the University of Zululand’s Faculty of Education, said participating in the programme had illuminated her leadership strengths. She was in the first cohort in 2020, having been nominated when she first acted in the position she now occupies substantively.

She says she felt fortunate because the programme gave her access to professional women from various levels of seniority who shared a wealth of knowledge. Participants immersed themselves in the wisdom of accomplished national and international keynote speakers and learned a lot from their experienced facilitators.

“The programme was very relevant. We know that institutions of higher learning are very complex — difficult to understand and challenging to lead and manage.”

She says WiL equipped her perfectly because its content proved applicable to her real work-life experiences. “I have been able to put into practice the knowledge and insights I have gained from the programme in my current post,” she says. “Obviously, we are never going to be perfect when we lead — we are constantly learning and growing.”

Furthermore, the teachings have capacitated her cohort to lead confidently and from an informed perspective in their positions. The network of people that WiL provided through interactions and shared experiences makes a definite difference in how alumni live and lead.

Professor Govender found the professional coaching encompassed in WiL invaluable. It required a lot of self-reflection that taught the participants to analyse scenarios and their reactions to them as leaders.

Overall, she said the programme had taught her to lead with humility. It had cemented a belief in her, that her success as a leader lay in the success of those she led.

I became a bolder leader

Professor Dini Mawela (left), Deputy Dean: School of Medicine at the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, joined the programme after being asked to help in her present post when the then-incumbent left the institution. At the time, she was Head of the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health. She expressed a need for support in the Deputy Dean’s office. Thus, when they nominated her for WiL, it felt like both a reward and an expression of support from her institution.

Upon commencing, she says she realised it was going to be hard work; therefore, she needed to commit herself to the process. She soon discovered within WiL that she was in the company of women leaders who had contended with common issues. Thus, the peer learning opportunities became the most important and constant reminders that her circumstances were not unique.

“We learned from each other, things we can bring into our own workspaces and grew from it,” she says. “But it was also important for me to know that it is all within us… we lead from the inside. I became a bolder leader when I realised that I do not have to be looking at other people, but that it starts from within me.”

Professor Mawela says she learned the importance of context as a determinant of the kind of leadership to deploy. For her, how she sees and applies change in her environment became clearer. She says she learned to be a patient leader and understood that change takes time. More importantly, she also discovered through the coaching sessions that it was okay to take care of self; intentionally block time out and rest because. “Incessant busyness can eventually render people ineffective,” she said.

Thanks to WiL, Professor Mawela says she has been able to define a clear career path for herself; has become more self-aware and has learned to raise a hand when she needs support. Moreover, now that she sits around decision-making tables, she feels adequately equipped.

As she concluded, Professor Mawela, who was amongst the second cohort in 2021, underscored: “The development of people is key. The development of women is non-negotiable.”

WiL affirmed my leadership style

Associate Professor Zannie Bock (right), Deputy Dean: Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of the Western Cape, came into her post in the middle of 2019. She was there in the midst of the CoViD-19 lockdown during 2020, when things functioned differently, thus testing her prowess. Without prior head-of-department experience or previous exposure to a leadership course, she says she felt unprepared. Hence, when the HELM call for WiL nominees was published earlier this year, she was amongst those who nominated themselves.

“I liked the course because it talked about creating a space for women leaders to safely explore their own power in shaping the higher education sector,” she says. Having admired women leaders in her career trajectory, Professor Bock felt that WiL would also help her become a better woman leader.

She echoes Professor Mawela’s sentiments on self-care. She says it was revelatory to learn that self-care mattered as much in the workplace, as it did at home. “I suppose the focus on self-care somehow legitimised it as a very valid concern for the workplace. That enabled me to embrace it, instead of always pushing it to the back of my head.”

For Professor Bock, these wake-up calls occurred during coaching sessions when her coach tasked her to introspect on why she always felt exhausted and burned out. The answer was that she could not say “no” and tended to stretch herself beyond capacity, helping her 14 postgraduate students and seeing to her responsibilities as Deputy Dean. She called this her “lightbulb” moment. She did not have to agree to everything — including projects she found interesting. It was crucial to scan her capabilities to cope with the load.

“That was probably the most important learning. It is one that I am still trying to integrate,” she says, through “structuring my day and having a definite end to it, instead of just allowing myself to work until I can barely move, glued to the laptop as we all are.”

As a leader who works with passionate, hardworking and committed young people, she felt that if she could model self-care, it would also give them space to take care of themselves. Professor Bock says this is often overlooked, especially in the sector, yet it is one of the elements that help employees to perform optimally. “I felt affirmed by that. I now see things as always in a balance,” she says.

She says as an individual in the workplace, her goal has always been to take care of people and create a growth-enabling, listening, and inclusive environment. But that had never struck her as a leadership strength. She says it somehow felt like a mothering instinct. Thanks to WIL, “I felt affirmed in my leadership style,” she says.

Having completed the course in October, the lessons are still fresh and still to be fully implemented. However, Professor Bock says successfully sustaining what came out of the programme will require her cohort to embody its teachings. As an example, her peers must understand that leadership styles are unique, for which reason they should not feel pressured to copy anyone else.

About WiL and HELM

As this session’s facilitator, Professor Denise Zinn (left), HELM Programme Leader, explained that WiL was neither a training nor a capacity-building programme because people appointed to leadership positions already can do what is needed. However, it was created as a platform where women leaders, in particular, can speak to their vulnerabilities safely and ask questions about complex matters in the sector. At the crux of it all, WiL is about enhancing the aptitude of women leaders, informed by the studies that have revealed the extent of norms and gender bias in the academy.

Professor Zinn says the focus is on leading from the inside out; leading in times of crisis and challenge; focusing on higher education missions; leading and working with people; working with finances; career planning and advancement; and building networks globally, regionally and nationally.

HELM, as the WiL convenor, is one of universities’ support programmes at Universities South Africa (USAf), founded in 2002 to develop leadership and management capacity in universities’ middle managers. The programme is mainly funded from the Department of Higher Education and Training’s University Capacity Development Programme.

Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa.