Women in leadership: an interview with Anne-Marie Henderson, the new Director of Student Success & Engagement

Anne-Marie Henderson

Current Job Role: Director of Student Success and Engagement  

Previous roles/ background:  I studied Geography at The University of Reading before training to be a Geography Teacher. I really enjoyed teaching and taught in a variety of schools in Bristol, Oxford and London. I then moved to King’s College London and had a variety of jobs in Widening Participation, Student Support and Student Success. I recently moved back to Reading and have been the Director of Student Success and Engagement since January.  


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Talk us through your approach to leadership:

I think my leadership mantra has become ‘focus on relationships and impact’. If you think about those two things the rest tends to work.  I work hard and I have a vision of what I want but as a leader you are only as good as the people around you so it is crucial to support and develop your team and listen and rely on other people’s expertise.


Do you feel that enough has been done to advance women in the workplace?

I think there has been a good start in some areas but there is much more to be done.  There is considerable structural work needed in changing policy and legislation but also in cultural and social expectations.  For example, women need to be comfortable and given the opportunity to: apply for that promotion, negotiate their pay, speak up and be listened to, but we also need transparent conversations about the pay gap and address paternal expectations to enable shared parental leave.


What has been the most significant barrier in your career?

I wouldn’t necessarily call it a barrier – more of a setback. I have always been quite ambitious, and I became head of department quite early in my career.  I really struggled with some of the responsibilities and had a warped perspective of what I could achieve so I became incredibly stressed and burnt out. I realised I had to change, and I started again in a different sector in an entry-level position. My pride took a hit and it was tough starting again but it was a fantastic opportunity to reflect, learn and think about what kind of leader I wanted to be.  How you react to setbacks is a key reflection of what kind of leader you are.


What encourages or motivates you when you face a challenge as a leader?

This one is easy – it is people’s stories and the connections we make with people. Whenever I feel stuck if I talk it over with someone it always helps, either in giving a different angle or by getting some perspective.

In a previous role, I supported individual students who had incredibly difficult circumstances but were committed to overcoming them and succeeding. I really thrived on fighting my students’ corner, but I learnt the best way to create real change is to support and empower people to champion for themselves (for those who can). When you see people power in action it really is fantastic.

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Is there anyone who inspires you and why?

I have a very hard-working, no messing, Irish mother who is a strong believer in social justice. She taught me to support and lift other people up and it is something I take very seriously.

I have also been lucky and had some excellent female bosses throughout my career. All very different but all have shaped my perceptions of what a leader is and can be.  For example, one was an incredible public speaker and could get people listening and buying into every word she said, another was much more introverted but had a fantastic ability in reading people and understood where they were coming from, often before they did. Very different methods but equally influential.


What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

Watch and learn as much as you can from everyone and expand your networks and don’t be afraid to ask for help and insights.  Also read and ask yourself what kind of leader you want to be. There isn’t a perfect leader and the best leaders are genuine and authentic to themselves.

Everyone can lead and amass power to change things if they know how: this makes more sense if you think of power in terms of influence and relationships and less about institutional and traditional hierarchies. Read Matthew Bolton’s book: ‘How to Resist’ if that doesn’t make much sense.

Last tip: in networking situations ask people ‘what do you care about’ or ‘why do you do your job’   instead of ‘what do you do’ : You will get more interesting responses and form better connections, although you may raise an eyebrow or two.

 

 

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