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City University of London

Case Study: City, University of London – Future Leaders

Blended Learning & Development for Future Leaders at City, University of London


City, University of London (City) is a global University committed to academic excellence with a focus on business and the professions, and an enviable central London location. It’s in the unique position of having special links with the City of London and attracting over 17,000 students (35% at postgraduate level) from more than 150 countries. In 2016 City embarked on a strategic transformation to further strengthen its position as a leading global University.

The Management Centre was appointed to support this transformation through the development of a blended learning approach to leadership development – for both managers and senior academic staff who want to progress in their careers.

The challenge

The University has an ambitious vision, and the organisation is changing. At the same time, there is stiff competition in higher education and a difficult economic context. This needs strong leadership.

In 2016, City began working on its new ten year vision and strategy. The vision centres on “being bigger, being better, and focusing on partnership”. This mean growing as an organisation and in terms of student numbers; further developing academic excellence; and fostering even stronger partnerships with professions.  All while remaining one of the top Universities and having global impact. This is set within a tough financial climate that many in the Higher Education sector are experiencing. With changes in student fees, and staff pensions, the challenge at Universities cannot be underestimated.

Overcoming this challenge requires strong leadership, at all levels. Before 2016 leadership and management development was delivered through the ‘Leadership at City’ programme aimed at senior leaders/Heads of Departments. And there was training for first line managers – staff new to management or with little management experience. There was no development provision for middle managers – who typically have to handle tensions between their own values and those of their team/section, and corporate values and the expectations of senior managers. This includes academic staff who are not directly responsible for line management, but may be in a more senior position, responsible for programmes and courses, and overseeing the performance of others. Once the work on the new vision and strategy was underway it quickly became clear that these managers, both professional staff and academic, were the very people who would be essential to achieving the change. But in order to do that they needed to develop the skills and abilities to effectively manage change and to be able to lead, influence and motivate others through organisational and cultural change.

=mc brief

After a rigorous selection process, =mc was delighted to be asked to develop a leadership programme for staff with leadership potential, designed to equip them to lead with confidence and credibility. The programme was for both professional and academic staff in positions of leadership, and – in recognition that leadership is not necessarily the same as line management – potential future leaders, including those not formally line managing.

Sally Sambrook, the Organisational Development lead for this programme at City, outlined four core areas that the programme needed address:

  • Develop skills in facilitating and managing change at City, including identifying ways in which participants can positively lead and motivate people through cultural or organisational change
  • Increase participants’ self-awareness of the impact on others of their personal leadership and management style
  • Enable participants to think more strategically, and develop an outward and upward looking approach to leading others
  • Promote inclusivity and interdisciplinary collaboration with peers and stakeholders

What we did

In response to the challenge and brief, we designed and delivered a modular programme, now in its second year. To demonstrate endorsement by senior leaders at City, each participant is sponsored and nominated by Dean or Professional Services Director. And to show that they too were committed and engaged with the programme, participants take time to complete pre-course applications – helping them to reflect on their personal aims for the course.

A major feature of this programme is the blended learning approach:

  • pre-course reflection
  • trainer-lead workshops
  • peer support and assignments between workshops
  • group learning
  • reflective practice
  • Action learning

In addition, it is essential that the cohort is a mix of roles with both academics and professional members of staff attending from different schools and department across the organisation to encourage collaboration and inclusivity. In 2017 we have also included more emphasis on emotional intelligence and influencing skills, to further help participants think about managing upwards and sideways.

The programme is structured around three modules. The first concentrates on building an understanding of personal leadership, the second looks at leading and influencing others, and the third focuses on leading during organisational change.

Future Leaders Modules

=mc’s delivery is further supported by 360º questionnaire analysis, from the Work Foundation’s Outstanding Leadership analysis, and a one-to-one feedback session with an independent coach, from the Work Foundation. The feedback session in particular encourages reflective practice, and helps participants think about what leadership means in their role.

Key to the success of the workshops are the group activities and facilitated group discussions, which encourage knowledge sharing across the cohort. This is then backed up and reinforced by peer mentoring, where each participant had a learning partner. Learning partners (or “buddies”) meet outside the structured workshop days and complete assignments together which help them to reflect on what they had learned on the workshops.

We have also included optional Action learning sets (ALS) in the programme to further encourage shared learning. These are half-day sessions between the modules. In these sessions, small groups of participants challenge and support each other as they each tackled their own – real –  problem and then go on to implement their own solution.


The feedback from participants has been very positive. In particular, they have reported that they have gained new insight into other parts of the University, have developed an understanding of the role of emotional intelligence in leadership, and feel more confident to lead and manage change. The group learning ethos in the programme has broken down barriers and some of the action learning sets are committed to continuing without facilitation. The very practical approach taken in the workshops has helped participants with putting theory and learning into action. As a result, participants are better able to lead and motivate others.

As part of the evaluation of the programme and to assess its impact, City sent out a survey for delegates to complete. 58% of staff who attended one of the cohorts responded to this and the results indicated that following participation in the programme:

  • 100% agreed it had increased their awareness of their own leadership style
  • 74% confirmed it had raised their awareness of key issues relevant to leadership roles within City
  • 69% stated it had enhanced their ability to manage the performance of those around them
  • 74% had increased confidence in facilitating change
  • 74% felt better equipped to respond effectively to the new and emerging challenges in their department
  • 79% stated that their professional network had expanded as a result of attending the programme
  • 78% confirmed they had implemented changes as a result of the 360 feedback session.

Participant feedback:

  • “It has enabled me to think more as a leader, engage in the vision and strategy and be more conscious of direct reports’ development needs.”

  • “It helped me to put current issues in a particular context and look at solutions for them.”


  • “Insightful – we learnt various tools and techniques for planning, managing changes, making strategic decisions. I now use many of these in my day-to-day practice. Additionally, the group work was incredibly helpful for me as it provided a great opportunity to learn from other people’s experience.”

  • “The whole course really beneficial and engaging. It was positive that there was a mix of people from Professional Services and Academics, it gave a sense of all aspects of City life which you may not normally be aware of. The 360 feedback interviews were also an eye opener.”

Sally Sambrook, Organisational Development Manager says:

“The Future Leaders programme has been ideal for City as a development opportunity for staff who are potential successors for leadership roles in the University and who in previous years have not had anything available for them. Delegates have commented on how much they have learnt from the workshops, the opportunity to share approaches, expand their networks and support and learn from each other. This has helped them become better equipped to respond effectively to the new and emerging challenges they face as aspiring leaders of the organisation. The facilitators were effective at getting people talking, making them feel comfortable in sharing their ideas and experiences and getting the most out of the programme and it has consistently received positive feedback. It has helped people understand leadership as a tangible and personal concept that can be learned and developed, rather than being an idea in a book.”

Following the success of this programme, we are reviewing the content for future cohorts, and are looking forward to supporting more of City’s Future Leaders. We are also supporting staff at City, University of London through a range of shorter courses, such as Leading Change, Confident Conversations and Coaching Skills.

How to find out more

The approach taken with this programme can be adapted for your organisation. Some of the content was tailored from our standard courses, including:

All these – and many others – are available in-house.

And if you want to know more about how we can support your managers with action learning sets, call us on 020 7978 1516 to speak to one of our experienced facilitators or contact us online.

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...