Liz Bromley, Chief Executive of NCG, reflects on times throughout her career where she has experienced – and led through – cultural collisions at work, sharing six key lessons that she has learnt along the way. 

As the Chief Executive of the UK’s largest group of colleges, I have spent 25 years working in higher education; a space that comprises academics, teachers, administrators, professional services and students. Rarely will there be such fertile ground for cultural collision as when intellectual powerhouses, political perspectives and generations come together. With broadly similar missions, visions and value statements, universities and colleges aim to improve individual lives, social good, mobility and justice. But there is plenty of room for different perspectives, alternative view points, and cultures to collide. I have tried, as a leader, to empower people to do their best to fulfil the organizational mission and vision, and to make a difference by creating opportunities for people through the power of education.

While working at Salford University, I developed one of the first integrated professional student services, ‘Student Life’. During this time, I witnessed a clear collision of cultures. The academic community saw Student Life as ‘robbing them of resource’, with ‘professional services’ having no place in a university. The challenge was compounded when I employed new graduates as front line advisors. “Not a good move”, was the response. How could new graduates become professional advisers? And yet, because the advisers looked and sounded familiar to service users – current students – uptake to the service was excellent. Moreover, the new graduates advised me on what was needed, what would work for the demographic, and by what means students would be most easily and authentically connected with the service.

As the leader in this situation, it was my responsibility to not only defuse the friction between the two groups, but to turn the collision into an opportunity for positive change. By using my position to start conversations and to navigate through prejudice and negativity, academics started to engage with me, and began to refer students with mental health and wellbeing issues to Student Life. This freed up their already-stretched time. Similarly, by building on these quick wins, I was able to negotiate for new student welcome and induction programmes to be developed by Student Life over the summer, giving more time back to the academics. When I left Salford, Student Life was recognized as sector leading and so useful to the academic community that understanding the service became a mandatory element of the academic induction programme.

Courageous conversations 

Cultural collision can come without warning. At the Open University’s Faculty of Health & Social Care, I managed the Social Work programme, the UK’s largest distance learning programme for trainee social workers. Due to an unexpected change of personnel, I had the opportunity to step into academic leadership just as a new social work degree was being developed. This was a cultural collision at a key moment for the faculty: I was in my early 30s, neither an academic, nor a social worker; the credibility of my leadership was uncertain. In order to lead through this challenge, it was essential for me to be authentic, to draw academic expertise together, and to keep the team working within a tight timeframe to get the programme validated and delivered. It was critical to respect them and their knowledge, and to earn their respect by leading them effectively through the process of developing the new degree. I decided to lead open, honest and courageous conversations about who had which skills, and how we would work together to harmonize those skills and do the job well. This empowered the team to work through potential friction, overcoming any cultural collisions. As a result, we were highly effective together and, due to a review of job descriptions and person specifications, I became the Faculty’s first non-academic Associate Dean, responsible for Teaching & Quality, line managing staff across the OU’s 13 offices, UK-wide.

"Authenticity, honesty and kindness are so important to being effective leaders in the workplace." 

Not every story has a happy ending of course. I worked for three years in an environment in which the culture of leadership was closed, hierarchical, disrespectful, and generally oppressive. My own values were completely non-aligned with the institutional culture, and thus a collision between my core and the core of the organization occurred. As the University’s CEO was an inexperienced leader, they were unable to bring together a senior team and therefore at odds with itself in terms of values, ambition and working practice. With no appreciation of the power of debate, or the richness of difference, I found it to be a workplace where there was no room for improvement or where my own values would find space. It was during this time that I appreciated the need for resilience in leadership; leaders have a responsibility to keep going despite challenge, but this is personally taxing and emotionally draining. Using the power of external networks, in which shared values and good practice are visible, is an effective way of keeping oneself steady in the face of toxicity. It is also an excellent means of checking whether your cultural perceptions are off key or not. If it becomes evident that, despite best efforts, there can be no improvement in such a collision, remember that it is okay to move on and explore other avenues. Making the decision to leave an unhappy workplace can release unexpected creativity. For me, I realized that I did not have to stay bound to one sector, or in a place where the institutional culture was in constant collision with my own. 

Remaining authentic in your positions of leadership 

As CEO, technically everyone works ‘for’ me, however, I don’t think it is necessary to spell this out. Like showing respect for colleagues, I believe the use of language is important to work through potential cultural collisions. I choose to use the language of people working ‘with’ me, as I work with them. Inclusivity takes us all much further into other worlds and can avert unnecessary collision. Years ago, I took my girls to ‘Daughters to Work’ day. I was both surprised and yet somehow heartened to hear their surprise that I was ‘just the same at work as at home’. I asked them what they meant by this. They explained that they had not expected me to be as chatty with people at work as I was at home. They had not expected laughter, or story telling in the workplace. They were relieved that being authentic at work was ‘allowed’. As my daughters have grown up and become professional career women in their own right, I am proud to see them bring their true selves to work, showing the same warm and generous characteristics with their own colleagues and direct reports. Authenticity, honesty and kindness are so important to being effective leaders in the workplace and in remembering that we are all people wearing different labels at different times.

So, what have my experiences taught me? Six key lessons, I think:

  1. Be tolerant. Leaders are not always right, there is much to learn from the outcomes of cultural collision, and showing tolerance will lead to a better outcome for all sides.

  2. Recruit for potential rather than experience. Fresh eyes and generational difference are means by which you can lead through complexity with innovation and new perspectives.

  3. Use humour appropriately to break down barriers during times of conflict – it can defuse difficult situations and can bring opposing sides together with a smile.

  4. Maintain self-respect and self-belief in a toxic working environment. Guard your integrity, mental health and wellbeing.

  5. Develop resilience; have tried and tested coping mechanisms. A resilient leader will support the resilience of the workforce.

  6. And finally, lead through cultural collision by listening and learning. If we want to stop learning, it’s probably a good time to stop leading too.