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City University of London

Impact report: City, University of London provides just-in-time learning in response to Covid-19

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.

The University is in the unique position of having special links with the City of London and attracting around  20,000 students (over 40% 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, and so far, has had great success.

We have been supporting City with this ambition in a number of ways. The Management Centre was appointed to develop a blended learning approach to leadership development. The Future Leaders programme is an annual, cohort-based course for both managers and senior academic staff who want to progress in their careers. We have also been supporting City’s award-winning Organisational Development (OD) team through a number of other learning sessions such as Development of Personal Presence as part of a package of learning curated for International Women’s Day.

In late 2019 City’s OD team were reviewing their leadership and learning offer. With changes happening across the Higher Education sector and with the ongoing strategic transformation within the University, they wanted programmes to be relevant and able to support managers with delivering City’s People Strategy. Then, in 2020, the pandemic meant another rethink was needed.

The challenge

As plans developed and programmes began to take shape, the Covid-19 pandemic took over. UK entered lockdown and all face-to-face learning went instantly on hold.

It goes without saying that for Higher Education organisations, dealing with lockdown has been a huge challenge. Finding ways to engage with students, to support staff in shifting to homeworking, finding ways to continue vital research projects, providing online study, and all whilst ensuring the wellbeing of all 2,000 staff.

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

Rapid Responses to Emerging Needs

The OD team certainly had their hands full. Sally Sambook, OD Manager reflects on what that time meant for her and her team.

Usually by April, our programmes are up and running. We’re into the delivery stages and are monitoring how learners are getting along. We have completed our planning and will be looking at initial results. To go from that, to having to think again, to take a blank sheet and really get to grips with what people needed to support them with their development and wellbeing right now, it took a lot of energy. Lots of people in the team had to contend with this sudden change in pace alongside dealing with all the issues the pandemic was bringing to everyone: home working, worrying about loved ones, home schooling and child care, health worries. It was a lot. And I couldn’t be prouder of how well we dealt with everything that came our way.

Sally and her team set about reengineering the development opportunities they had to offer their staff. They were quick to establish emerging learning needs for academic and professional staff alike:

  • Wellbeing and resilience – how to look after yourself, dealing with uncertainty, and as a manager, how to notice when people are struggling and knowing how to support them.
  • Communication skills – building effective working relationships when nuance and body language are suddenly much harder to interpret or even see, introducing new working practices to support team collaboration
  • Managing remote workers – managing individuals based on outcomes, managing performance remotely and creating a positive team climate.

From there the OD team curated, commissioned, and created a programme specifically to deal with the challenges that staff were facing in their everyday work. Staff were able to access this programme via an online learning gateway called Develop@City. The programme included a raft of initiatives, delivered in flexible and manageable ways. These included bite-sized live workshops recorded webinars, LinkedIn Learning corse recommendations and pathways, wellbeing initiatives, a People Manager’s Forum, and coaching networks. Staff could also access expanded support via Occupational health and the Employee Assistance Programme to make sure they could get the personalised support that they need

This was very much a blended approach to development. In doing this, the OD team were able combine bespoke content with curated content. This flexible and adaptive approach to programme design enabled the team to manage themselves as well as providing critical support to their colleagues when they needed it the most.

Enabling Managers to Manage with bite-size learning

As the pandemic and various lockdowns continued to rumble on, Sally and Olga turned their attention once more to leadership. We worked closely with them to explore what we could do differently in 2021 to support managers in their development. Recognising the ongoing pressure on managers, and the popularity of shorter, online sessions, we redesigned the Future Leaders programme to make it more flexible, accessible and relevant as ‘My Leadership Journey’. Rather than a modular cohort based approach, the programme became a series of stepping stones, enabling participants to plot their own development journey and join the sessions that would have the greatest impact on them. New topics were introduced to specifically address needs that had become more pressing over the 2020-2021 academic year such as influencing others online and how to lead group problem solving online.

This approach worked so well that workshops were oversubscribed, and a waiting list put in place. Participants could also elect to attend action learning sets, to support them in practicing and embedding influencing skills.

I wanted to say thank you for the Stepping Into Leadership programme and the Action Learning Sets. I’m usually allergic to management training and any “airport bookshop business section” jargon, but I was really pleasantly surprised by the whole experience. I will take away a lot of useful processes and new ways of thinking about my line managees and myself.

Participant, June 2021

What next

The OD team are well known for their tenacity and forward-thinking approach to staff development2. A global pandemic is not going to get in their way. Sally, Olga and the team are continuing to work hard to support their colleagues. Their annual Develop@City festival of learning evolves and thrives, providing engaging development opportunities for staff. =mc were thrilled to provide three 55-minute workshops: Group Problem Solving, Preparing to Influence, and Understanding Reactions to Change. These gave managers and staff alike a taster of the kinds of programmes on offer, and provided short, sharp tools-based learning online.

We’re now getting ready for the next Stepping into Leadership programme, excited to be working on updated workshops and even some in-person learning events which will (hopefully!) take place later in 2022.

  • “There were some very thought provoking and useful tools which have helped me identify how best to manage, motivate and lead others”

  • “I now feel like I can embrace change, collaborate effectively with others and understand myself and others better. The result is that I now have better ways of approaching members of my team, realising different people need different things from me as a leader at different times. I’m now more tolerant of others.” 


  • “I tell colleagues this course is 100% worth their time.”

  • “The trainer balanced the need for listening and participating really well, especially as this was delivered online. It was also a great opportunity to meet other academic and professional staff from across the University. The analytical and open minded approach to the workshops attracted a calibre of participants that both surprised and motivated me”

Olga Lavrentieva, Organisational Development Manager, commented about the programme re-design:

As a customer I was really pleased with your responsiveness and adaptability – you quickly came up with alternatives to incorporate the emerging needs into the programme and adapted it to be delivered as a series of bite-sized online workshops. You embraced the new ways of delivery which retained the high level of attendee satisfaction we’ve come to expect from your programmes.

The trainer was fantastic and delivered engaging content in sharp and short sessions (the fact that pretty much all participants prioritised attending sessions speaks a lot!). The content structure of these sessions was well-balanced and well-paced, allowing plenty of space for participants to explore new topics and practical tools as well as interact and connect with each other. Both academic and professional services staff commented on the high value of the workshops. I’m really pleased with how it turned out and how you worked with us

How to find out more

Sally, Olga and the OD team are often contacted by learning professionals and HE organisations to find out more about their approach. If you would like know more about Develop@City or the role of the OD team, see here:

You can read more about the Future Leaders programme here:

To find out more about our online learning speak to one of our consultants. Call us on 020 7978 1516 or email

  2. The OD team at City won the 2020 CIPD HR/L&D Team of the Year in recognition for their ingenuity.
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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...