Sunday, 17 June 2018

Laidlaw Scholars Leadership Weekend 1

The first Laidlaw Scholars Leadership Weekend took place in Trinity on 8th and 9th June, with the 18 Laidlaw Scholars, Joel and Orla who run the show, and a collection of invited speakers and facilitators to run sessions. The Laidlaw Scholarship is a Research and Leadership Development programme that runs for two years teaching us how to lead and pays for us to do research projects over the summer.

I was really impressed with the weekend. In previous things I've been to, a lot of the advice would be stuff I already knew or not very useful, but I thought this stuff was good and they'd clearly put thought into it. Like Beth, I definitely prioritise the research aspect, but the leadership weekend very much seemed worthwhile. 

They also somehow managed to make this a really trusting environment in the space of two days - people were super open by the end of it and shared our thoughts with each other really easily; it was especially clear when hanging out with people afterwards, and I loved that. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised since they said from the outset that they wanted to do that, but they were really successful at it. It also helps that I know some of the Laidlaw Scholars from my other scholarships, so some are Scholars (of Trinity) and some are Naughton Scholars (I should make a Venn diagram of this), so I can see them there too. The Scholars are great, as I say below; they all seem super interesting.

Day 1: Friday

0900: Intro session: Joel and Orla told us about the weekend and taught us some leadership terms with examples of mission statements from various companies and institutions.

1000: Team building: We got into groups of 3 (carefully arranged so there was one girl in each group, as there are 12 guys and only 6 girls, or Laidlies as we've taken to calling ourselves) and did a really cool teambuilding challenge called 'SURVIVAL ON THE MOON', where you pretend you've crashlanded on the moon and need to either make it to an outpost 80 km away or stay put until you're found, and have to prioritise the items you'll take with you from a list of 15 (e.g. oxygen, water, food, liferaft, space blanket, map, compass, spacesuit repair kit). It was a cool challenge, one I hadn't seen before even though I've done a fair few bootcamps so I was very glad of that and especially glad it wasn't the Marshmallow challenge which seems to be a mainstay of these events.

Joel was funny; he said something like 'you've got the description there in front of you, but I'll read it through with you for dramatic effect.'

1100: Photos: Photoshoot time. Here's the photo they took of all of us:

1145: Research and Leadership in the Arts and Humanities: We went over to the Arts side of campus and Prof. Jane Ohlmeyer, Director of the Long Room Hub and Professor of Modern History talked to us about her experience through her career in research and administration and then invited us to ask questions. I asked about how research in the humanities compares to research in the sciences, for one. 

Something interesting she talked about was her work to digitise the 1641 depositions which are apparently very important but controversial documents about ethnic cleansing in Ireland, that she said Protestants have been using propagandistically for 300 years, and that she managed to get the UK government to pay loads of money for it by saying it was important for Anglo-Irish relations. In her answers to the questions she talked about a bunch of things like the high employability of arts graduates (but not in their field, so for example classicists get hired in financial, strategy and law sectors, ethicists needed for ICT and pharma), the number of international students vs the number of Irish people who don't get in, problems that can arise in teams, how Sofia is brilliant for maths because it was the tech hub of the Soviet Union, and how law and medicine shouldn't be undergraduate degrees.

We then had a tour of the Long Room Hub, which is a research institute for the arts and humanities.

1300: Lunch: We had lunch in the Science Gallery cafe and chatted.

1400: Research and Leadership in Engineering and Science: We had a lecture from AMBER (Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research) about what they do. The presentation just seemed to be their pitch to investors since it was very slick and very much about their impact and metrics, so I'm not sure why it was shown to us - I'm not sure what we were to gain from seeing how many European Research Council Starter and Consolidator grants they have. They also pitched Trinity a bit which again was weird since we already go there. A second guy then spoke and talked about his job as a liaison with industry -- it was quite interesting to hear about how the process works and the sort of projects they're working on. I accidentally went full socialist by saying 'What if they just nationalised the pharma companies?' during the discussion. That side of me came out quite a bit during the weekend for some reason! It was interesting to hear about things like additive manufacturing and also upcoming projects with companies that I won't blog about just in case, although hopefully they wouldn't have told us anything confidential...

The second guy said that while doing his postdoc he somehow became President of the Singaporean National PostDoc Society because despite being shy for Ireland he wasn't considered that over there, and also that 99.5% of people who go in looking for academic jobs won't get one.
  • We then went on a tour of the place and that was quite cool, seeing what they're working on.
1530: Leadership Development Plans and Reflective Practice as a tool for self-development

I was not a fan of this session. We were given Post-It notes at the start and told to write one sentence starting with 'I' about what we wanted to get out of the session. The speaker refused to explain more so I just read the title of the session and said 'I want to learn how to begin a Leadership Development Plan' but when I read that out she said we wouldn't be covering that and when I said the words 'Leadership Development Plan' were literally in the title of the session on our timetable she didn't seem to get what I was saying or ignored it and it was very frustrating. The session just ended up being about reflection and I didn't like it at all; she talked about Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning as applied to the practices of being a student, where the first level, remembering, became 'did I remember the due date of that assignment to submit it?'. It seemed pretty useless and like a distinction without a difference. She also talked about reflection and different levels of describing/reflecting on something: 'Descriptive writing', 'Descriptive reflection', 'Dialogic reflection', 'Critical Reflection' with an example of describing walking the dog:
    • Descriptive writing: "I took the dog for a walk."
    • Descriptive reflection: "I took the dog for a walk and he trotted along beside me, wagging his tail." - apparently this shows 'evidence of deeper consideration'?
    • Dialogic reflection - "I took the dog for a walk and, as he seemed to enjoy and benefit from the walk, I will walk him more often" - this is fine I guess but I don't see what's special about it
    • Critical reflection - "I took the dog for a walk and it was obvious that the activity and fresh air is good for both the dog and I. His good nature reminded me that a reason I have a dog is for companionship ... so our daily walk is now on my 'to do' list." - this just seems like a far more verbose way of saying #3. Yes, they're now thinking about their own enjoyment of it too but it really seems to have been blown up into a bigger deal than it is and I don't see why they've formalised it like this. And I like reflection, that's why almost this whole blog is made up of reviews.
There was one thing I did take from it, which was the idea of being intentional about things; before sessions at conferences and things, think 'What do I want to get out of this?' and be deliberate about it. That seems like something i might do.

She also talked about how there are both conscious and unconscious competencies and incompetencies, and you can only identify the conscious ones by yourself so you need to use peer review.

She said that taking another's perspective is a very important attribute of a good leader, which was a bit problematic for the multiple autistic scholars there. Weird to say that if you're not going to offer alternative strategies for doing it to people who can't do it the usual way. 

1615: Building Your Networking Skills (How to Network without Cringing): 

Sinead English from Hilt Career Services talked to us about how to network, even for introverts. The session was mostly about informational interviews - it was described well and was useful information. I happened to pretty much know it already because I've picked it up slowly through experience over the last few years, but it was a good session and I can definitely see it being useful to someone who hadn't done it before. There were also a couple of new bits.

She had an interesting pyramid showing what employers do to fill vacancies in their company, starting with looking to promote or move someone within the company, then asking those employees for recommendations if there's no one to promote, then other things and then penultimately using jobs agencies and at the very end posting the job publicly. Apparently sometimes existing employees get paid if they suggest someone who then gets hired? She said that 30% of jobs are advertised. It seems a bit unfair honestly. I can see why you'd trust your employees' opinions of who might be good for the job but it definitely makes it hard for new people to get in and I don't think your chance of getting a job, especially one that doesn't really depend on people skills to a huge extent, should rely on being able to network. 

A nice quote on why you should be intentional about what you'll get out of going to a conference: 'There's easier ways to get a new pen'.

I also really liked how practical the session was; she talked a bit about the theory, which was fine, but did also give us tons of actionable tips so that was good.

Photo creds to Aaron.
Day 2: Saturday

1000: Elevator Pitches 

We spent an hour learning about elevator pitches and then coming up with our own. I thought we'd be doing it about ourselves but the way we actually did it was fun; we had to come up with an elevator pitch for a well-known company. Some groups did Hodges Figgis, Centra chicken rolls, and bottled water, and mine did Lego. 

I did the actual speaking and got grilled with questions like 'You said Lego has sold over 600 billion bricks. How do you justify the environmental impact of all that plastic?' and 'Is it possible to make it less painful to step on while still sticking together?' and 'How do you justify selling toy guns in your sets?', to which I replied something like 'We don't care about the environment, next', 'Nope, next', and 'We're actually sponsored by the NRA ... but good question and I actually don't support that'. So I guess there's a reason I'm not a company spokesperson! 

Also got an interesting question about why Lego doesn't expand to the digital space and I said it's important that we help kids develop manual dexterity (that said, they do actually have digital things like movies and video games but I had forgotten that). A lot of the pitches were really entertaining and people definitely got grilled. I love the Laidlaw Scholars, they all seem really smart/incisive/confident.

(Also, I was pretty proud of our pitch to be honest. Wasn't bad for having had a few minutes to prepare it.)

1100: Discovering your Personal Leadership Style

This was a pretty interesting 2-hour session on leadership vs management and the skills both require and when each is needed, the types of leaders (there are 6 apparently, including Commander, Affiliative, Pace-Setting, Coaching, Democratic and Visionary), and values. The Coach style seemed super interesting and is apparently about always trying to develop your people and help them grow (even if that's outside the organisation). I must say, the guy's slides were very fancy, and I liked the faces of each leadershpi style. He said democratic style is about managing expectations since you solicit opinions but aren't always going to follow them; visionary is about describing a future authoritatively; commander can be about being scary but can also be, when there's a crisis and no one knows what to do, stepping in and saying 'ok this is what we're doing, you take that side, you do this, I'll do this' and assuming that authority to sort of the problem, so it works better in the sort term; coaching is about noticing and conversations; and pace-setting just starts and doesn't really explain, and people tend to burn out after a while. The styles are best in combination.

The speaker described leadership as being about stepping into crisis, taking initiative, and going out to face the music. When going between management and leadership, it's important to be able to think 'Is this business as usual or is something different?'. 

It reminded me of that book I read a while back, Behave by Robert Sapolsky, about how weird it is that humans actually choose our leaders often (e.g. by elections).

Tidbits: apparently Anna Wintour is known as 'nuclear winter' in the industry; the iPad was ready before the iPhone. 

We were asked to think about how to define purpose, and that did make me think about how the words used for these things can be a bit ambiguous; my partner and I agreed that 'purpose' and 'vision' can be very interchangeable. An interesting question he gave us was 'If I was in a leadership position, how would my personal purpose show?' - purpose isn't just something internal, it should show through in some way. 

Tidbit: apparently IBM, 70 years after they started, having never laid off an employee, laid off 110,000 employees in a summer.

My socialist (or even just honesty-loving) side came out again in the 'values' part when I said I hate when for-profit companies publicise their values because clearly their main goal is money and as for-profit companies they will always prioritise that so it feels disingenuous to then say all these lovely things post-hoc when those aren't actually what you mean. 

That stimulated a lot of discussion (was quite scary to see all the hands shoot up!) and I do agree with some of the points people made, like that values are good as a signal of 'lines we won't cross' in pursuit of profit, but I still think far too many of the publicised values are post-hoc and not actually important to the company but just for PR purposes. Also, to be clear I'm using a fairly broad definition of 'non-profit' (which I think is fine to publicise values for) - they can make money, and their staff can be paid to do the work, but they should put excess money beyond a decent wage (which yeah can be difficult to define exactly) back into the work.

1300: Lunch

We had lunch in the same room in the Careers Service. I talked to Orla, the Director, and found out she has a very cool academic background. They did have vegetarian food, although it was largely leaves which was odd.

1400: Guest Laidlaw Scholar Beth from University of St. Andrews

Beth is an outgoing Laidlaw Scholar from a college with an established Laidlaw programme. She talked to us about her research (medical - palliative care I think) experience and how to make the most of the programme. She seemed cool and spoke well. A funny part was how she said originally she just wanted to get paid to do research and figured she'd just go along with the leadership part to get the research part, and Orla said 'I'm sure nobody here is like that...'. But Beth said that the leadership part did turn out to be good and that's been my experience too so far.

1430: Vocal Coaching Workshop with Cathal Quinn from The Lir

Our last session was a three-hour session with an actor from the Lir on public speaking. He starting by going around and asking each of us how many presentations we'd given before; most people said a few and then well I mean I wasn't gonna lie was I, so I said about 20. Which immediately drew attention to me. I thought I made some good suggestions for public speaking and so did a bunch of other people, which was cool. We did a lot of different things, from breathing exercises (have you ever been criticised on your breathing? it's an odd experience) to learning to project. We had one guy who spoke super quietly be gradually coached to get louder and honestly I felt so proud when he did in the end. We're friends now so that's cool. 

Cathal told us that a good idea is to take the work seriously and ourselves less so. One of the other scholars, Conor, said something helpful, which was to go through your presentation beforehand and mock it yourself in a safe environment maybe with friends, to see what's the worst that can happen and inoculate yourself against embarrassment.

Tidbit: apparently politicians speak past the ends of their sentences and are trained to become uninterruptible, i.e. saying phrases to get them past the expected full stop and into a new sentence without every officially ending their old one.


After the official programme had ended, we went to sit outside the Pav in the sun. Normally I'd have turned down that sort of invitation during the year as I was constantly studying, but I went and it was lovely - I finally felt like a real college student. I talked a lot to Sean, Luke and Mollie for about 4 hours. Such a good time.

Me, Luke, Mollie.

Also, just under a week after the Leadership Weekend, a group of us went out together to eat at the EatYard so yeah we've definitely bonded. Here are some pictures from there:

A nice candid photo taken by Luke.

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