On the 7th of July, Jazzy and I set off for Newcastle to attend the Frontrunner Leadership Programme for disabled students. The course is run by Common Purpose and consists of three intense days of workshops, discussions and lectures intended to give us the tools to become the leaders of tomorrow.
“Common Purpose and Santander are working together to help empower disabled students in higher and further education to be leaders of the future. By empowering these young talents, we aim to increase the diversity of leadership in the United Kingdom.”
All that sounded quite daunting to me- I’ve never really thought of myself as a leader – to be honest I was very nervous when I stepped off the train in Newcastle, which is probably the reason why I very nearly left my suitcase sitting in the luggage rack! Thankfully I had a wonderful time, met a whole bunch of inspiring people and was sorry to leave on Thursday evening.
Day one: Getting to know you
We’d been sent a welcome pack beforehand with an itinerary and biographies of the other participants, so I had a rough idea of who and what I was in for. The course appeared to be very well organised and the organisers extremely helpful and efficient in identifying any requirements you might have, which went a long way in tempering my anxiety.
I was met at the station by one of the organisers who walked me to the hotel and showed me to my room. We were staying in The Jury’s in which was just a short walk from the station and was very swanky. After I unpacked our bags and Jazzy sniffed every inch of the room (just checking for monsters under the bed, forgotten biscuits etc.) we headed down stairs for dinner. Everyone was shown to their seat and given an ice-breaker question to help fill any awkward silences. Thankfully I didn’t have to break out my question at any point; everyone was friendly and chatty, and I soon felt pretty comfortable. After dinner most of the group on my table relocated to the bar, where we continued the introductions and conversation veered in all sorts of directions from the latest season of Game of Thrones to our range of disabilities.
When getting ready for bed that night, I felt reasonably happy with how things were going so far. Everyone seemed approachable and open-minded; we were a very diverse bunch as I don’t think there were any two people with the same disability or studying the same subject among us. I felt that there was a refreshingly general feeling of acceptance within the group. Everyone seemed happy to help and support each other, which I thought was promising for the days to come.
Day two: learning to lead
The first day of the course we were up bright and early for Breakfast and to gather in our allocated taxi groups to journey over to The Royal Station Hotel, where the course was being heled. We were based in a very professional feeling conference room where tables had been set up on one side for group work and chairs had been arranged in a semi-circle on the other. For the first exercise of the day, we’d all been asked to bring with us an object to represent ourselves that we would present for the group. I had initially planned to take along my iPod, but at the last minute grabbed the t-shirt I bought at a recent Taylor Swift concert which I hoped would represent the thrill I get from throwing myself into anything and everything. It was an interesting if nerve wracking exercise with creative juices flowing freely; a couple of my favourites being an umbrella representing how someone might seem closed and shy at first but can open up as you get to know them and a bag of Lego demonstrating how someone was trying to rebuild their life.
An eye-opening exercise was the task of coming to a group consensus on whether we agreed or disagreed with a number of controversial statements e.g. “same sex marriage should be legalised” and “the death penalty is an effective method of crime prevention”. It was quite a challenging task for a group of strangers and required us to be open-minded and mindful of other’s opinions. Needless to say, we got to know each other pretty quickly!
We were fortunate to be joined by three speakers that day, including Michael Wilde, Political Programme Editor for the BBC – North East and Cumbria region, who lead a discussion on methods of effective questioning. We were also joined by Vidar Hjardengh, Diversity Consultant for ITV News and Chris Carson, Head of Corporate Services at HMP Durham who shared some of their valuable insights into their thoughts about leadership, drawing from their own experiences.
That first day was intense but definitely interesting and set the pace for the rest of the course. I enjoyed each speaker’s contributions and found myself being challenged more than I’d anticipated. By dinner everyone had gotten to know each other much better and the atmosphere was relaxed, if a little tired. Jazzy made me proud by behaving immaculately all day, though she didn’t appreciate being left out of the circle during one of the activities.
Day three: I’ve got the Power!
The following day was all about power; who has it, how to gain it, how to use it. After a brief outlining of the days objectives, we were joined by Nick Swales, Regional Director at Rathbones Investments and Chairman of the Percy Hedley Foundation who spoke to us about where power lies in a city and the role of power within leadership.
Before I knew it, the time had come for what I considered to be the most exciting but challenging aspect of the course – the raid visits. We were split into groups and given briefs for which organisation we would be sent to after lunch, where we would be given a real-life organisational problem to come up with solutions for. To my utter disbelief, I was nominated team leader for the raid. I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly authoritative and usually tend to shy away from the spotlight, but this was not the time to pass the buck of responsibility to somebody else – this was the time to challenge myself.
My group were asked to present some ideas to increase engagement among customers of an organisation who provides housing and other support to vulnerable people. As team leader, I was tasked with introducing us to our hosts, keeping us on track during discussions and giving the thank you’s at the end. It was definitely a challenge coming up with something realistic and feasible in the limited time we had, but we worked brilliantly as a team and got some great feedback from our hosts who seemed really impressed with our ideas. Upon returning to the venue after the raid, we were asked to give each member of the group constructive feedback on their performance. Because of the respectful attitudes of everyone, it was a great way of finding out what you should work on as well as what you did well.
We set up camp in a corner of a nearby pub after dinner to celebrate our success in the raids and make the most of our last night in Newcastle. We let our hair down – me with a couple of cocktails, Jazzy milking every dog lover in the room for all they were worth.
Day four: Graduation
I woke up on the last day of the course with mixed feelings; while I was looking forward to being reunited with my own bed at home, I would be sorry to leave the friends I’d made and the supportive and encouraging environment of the programme. Never the less I got on with packing, all be it a little wobbly (I may or may not have still been feeling the effect of those cocktails).
The first session of the day was all about challenging yourself. Programme Coordinator Genevieve Bar shared her experiences of challenging herself by attempting to follow an acting career as a deaf actress. Following this, she asked all of us to challenge ourselves by pushing ourselves to improve whatever we need to work on to be good leaders. For me, this is public speaking. So when Jen asked for volunteers for the next exercise called soapboxing, it seemed like an opportunity stupid to pass up. Soapboxing means to get a message across to a number of people promoting your own agenda. I was challenged with speaking for a minute in front of everyone about something I am passionate about, so somewhat obviously maybe, I chose to talk about Guide Dogs. It was scary and daunting and my legs shook the whole time, but I was pleasantly surprised to get lots of good feedback afterwards and to have the most votes for best delivery! I’m sure the fact that I had the advantage of an adorable prop at my feet had nothing to do with it 😉
For the next sessions we were joined by even more speakers including Kerrey Baker, Marketing and Relationship Manager at SharedInterest, Beth Hazen, Senior Account Director at Drummand Central, Stuart Birkett, Managing Director at NCJ Media, Ian Miller, Opperations Director at GEM Partnership and Steve Irish who is the Regional Manager for Newcastle at Santander who were all very helpful in answering our questions about how they resonate their ideas and lead.
After lunch we discussed the importance of the network we had created on the course while sharing our thoughts about what we have learned about leadership during the last couple of days, before we graduated from the programme. For graduation, everyone was given someone else’s certificate and had to present that certificate to its owner, along with a few words about what they might have learned from or with that person during the programme. It was a really nice touch to end on, again testing your ability to think on your feet but also creating a real sense of community within the group.
Unfortunately I had to rush off for my train before the course had officially finished so didn’t get a chance to speak to everyone before leaving; a good thing probably as I’m not great at goodbyes! On the journey home from Newcastle to Bangor however I had a long time to think about everything I’d learned, about leadership and about myself. It was definitely a challenging and inspiring programme that I’d recommend to anyone with a passion for making change. Common Purpose appear to be an extremely innovative and inclusive organisation which I really look forward to working with in the future.