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SDF Festival: Keynote Listener Highlights – Cindy Vallance – AdvanceHE

Two Ears to Listen, One Mouth to Speak

I have been interested for a long time in the concept of ‘negative space’ – the space of not knowing. In the field of art, there is as much importance placed on the space between objects as there is on the objects themselves. In the image above, what do you see? Figure or ground? A silhouette of a vase or two faces? Or both?

My keynote listening that resulted in the highlights session concluding the 2021 SDF Festival started with a space of not knowing, not controlling what would be said, spending time listening to each speaker to discover what might emerge.

While I was unable to attend all sessions of the SDF Festival, I was enormously pleased to listen to the following

 While I started with a near blank sheet of paper, I did have in mind the themes for the Festival:

  • Reinforce: to strengthen an existing feeling, idea, or habit
  • Recalibrate: to adjust the way you do or think about something
  • Reinvent: to change something so much that it appears to be entirely new

To set the context for the keynotes, I first listened to the VCs’ joint session.

Janet Beer and Andy Schofield shared that the challenges posed by the pandemic had helped them to rethink how to engage and develop staff. They recounted how the journey had started with an energy and even a sense of exhilaration driven by the need to learn quickly back in March 2020 and they spoke with pride about what was accomplished, for example with the move to online education provision and remote working. They then described moving though the emotions of disappointment and frustration and the exhaustion felt by all of continuing uncertainties from autumn 2020 right up to the current time. They acknowledged their own uncertainties in planning for post-pandemic times, including the need to be vigilant to new forms of disadvantage and inequities.

They spoke about the need to consider different ways of operating in the future. They mentioned pilots to create living labs that reimagine working practices as an experiment, configuring spaces based on types of activity rather than function; monitoring use of space; what’s working, what’s not working, using the physical estate differently and considering the pace of new technologies and how people interact. They discussed developing new hybrid working principles, having more not fewer conversations and maintaining open and transparent communications through pulse surveys, collaborations and partnerships as well as communities of practice to facilitate sharing. They confirmed the need to pay continuing attention to individual and collective wellbeing.

Janet and Andy reflected on how the personal and professional are easily blurred. Some of this was practical: for instance, the need not to feel constantly on call when working remotely; being disciplined to take breaks; and the need to define boundaries between personal and professional existence and experience. They pondered how to treat people when expectations differ, for instance around remote working, and how to sensitively balance individual preferences with the need for all staff to serve the needs of the organisation. The VCs agreed there is more that all universities could be doing.

Finally, they reflected on the need to consider the even bigger challenges ahead such as climate change and commitments to carbon net zero and social issues of sustainability. They agreed that operating models need to change and there need to be incentives for change. They expressed their desire for continuing to reimagine spaces, for experiments, for pilots. They ended with a genuine request for the insight, advice and help from the staff development community to support the changes that will be needed within the workforce.


So, how did the keynote speakers support the SDF community to reflect on approaches to reimagining our universities for the future?


Kate Richardson-Walsh’s talk was very much about the meaning of belonging from her experience as the Great Britain Women’s Olympic hockey team captain. She told the story of the team and her experience of both belonging and leading in that team during moments when they felt they were at their worst and at their best.

She asked questions that were repeated in different variations by both Ginnie and Barbara in their keynotes: Who am I now? Who have I been? Where do I want to go? Who is the we? Who do I belong to? Who am I aligned with? What part do I play?

Kate encouraged us all to look back and forward as well as to the here and now. A critical question she said their coach asked the team was ‘How do you want to be remembered?’ and this question set what they called their gold medal standards of behaviour for the entire team. Another reflection she shared was the concept of how we can take own temperature in considering ‘what am I like on a good day? What am I like on a bad day?’ Kate spoke passionately about the need to create trust, respect and safe spaces to be vulnerable with others even on those bad days and to appreciate and celebrate the good days. One of the specific ideas she highlighted was the practice of the team of undertaking a snapshot poll every four weeks with the questions: ‘How have you seen the culture brought to life? How have you brought the culture to life? How have you seen a colleague bring the culture to life?’ The results showed that if the culture wasn’t being brought to life, something needed to change and if it was being brought to life there was something to celebrate. This practice became part of the routine and rhythm of healthy checks and challenges which enabled acceptance across the team that challenges could be made in a positive way in good and less good times.

Finally, she considered our super strengths and defined these as how we see our value and our worth; they form the core of our self-esteem. Kate told the story of her wife’s super strength. Helen was also a team member and one of her super strengths was her ability to maintain her equilibrium when faced with the pressure of penalty shoot-outs with all eyes of the team – and everyone else – on her. Kate encouraged us to consider our own ‘super strengths’ – what are we truly exceptional at?


The question I was left with was: What is your super-strength and how does it manifest itself?


Ginny Whitelaw also encouraged us to first look inward before – or perhaps in parallel with – looking outward. As keynote listener, her comment that ‘listening is taking in energy, making a choice to resonate with a signal and creating a chain reaction to add value to others’ experience’ resonated with me.

She shared three levels of learning: intellectual learning which is what goes into our heads; embodied learning which integrates mind and body; and unconscious or intuitive learning that is about the zen concept of hara – presence, the rhythm in life and relationships. Ginny discussed themes that resonated from the VCs context setting: the need for agility, the fact that business as usual will not sustain our organisations or our species. Ginny spoke about reimagining as the work of our time and how we need to create a more sustainable and regenerative way of learning, including the practice of influencing rather than using control.

Ginny brought to the session three individual practices: the first was centred agility, the second was a way to reimagine and reinvent and the third was how to build capacity to influence someone over whom you have no direct control. The purpose of these practices is not just to benefit ourselves although they also serve this purpose. The point Ginny was emphasising was that leadership itself is the exercise of authentic self-expression that creates value for ourselves and others and that leaves a lasting legacy. She emphasised that it is the state of our inner condition that shows up in the outside world.

Ginny talked us through the material concepts of resonance and energy – energy creates forms and forms direct energy that is then stored in a system like the path that water makes running down a hill or the patterns we develop within our lifetimes that manifest themselves in how we learn and who we feel we are in the world. She also brought in the focus on others – by feeling where others are coming from, we help people to move with us: getting on the same wavelength with others builds trust, relationships strengthen, teams get into a more coherent flow and the power of the collective can then catalyse social and system change.

The question I was left with was: The difference that is yours to make is what resonates for you. What kind of music are you playing?


Barbara Bassa continued the expansive approach within the keynotes and built further on the words of Kate and Ginny. She too noted how the distinctions between work and private lives have become blurred.

Barbara similarly focused on the need to navigate the new and the unknown; she connected our intelligences: intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual elements within ourselves that are all part of a greater whole. She brought in the Theory U model from Otto Scharmer. Scharmer tell us that ‘leadership is the capacity to shift the inner place from which we operate.’ The elements of the model help us to avoid the voice of judgment by opening our minds through curiosity; to avoid the voice of cynicism by opening our hearts with compassion; and to avoid the voice of fear by opening our will through courage.

In an approach resonant with Ginny’s, Barbara took us through skills that connect mind, heart and will. These include mindfulness, the development of heart coherence through practices of appreciation and gratitude, and trusting your inner knowledge, your intuition, which enables you to be fully present and then to act and change direction.

We came full circle from Kate’s session with Barbara’s questions, including: What are some of the old patterns I need to release or change? What is my true work here? What future wants to emerge from my current situation? What am I going to do about it?

The question I was left with was: What metaphor might you use to describe the future that wants to emerge from your current situation?


Jenny Garrett, Janice Taylor, Obehi Alofoje and Carol Stewart came together as a panel to talk about avoiding burnout in a 24/7 culture. This was a hugely practical session where the panel defined burnout and the various levels where stress builds and manifests itself, all in response to the interest expressed by the participants in a poll at the start to be able to influence their work places and support their teams as well as to avoid burnout themselves. Suggestions included building elasticity and flexibility into diaries and work to get control of our days – name protected space in the same way you might name a meeting; Jenny uses the label ‘sacred space’; build in regular breaks away from screens; get outside and get fresh air; build daily habits:  meditating even two minutes while making a cup of tea is a start; try journaling. Mindfulness practices were mentioned that included letting your mind be aware of what is around you and use all of your five senses – five see; four feel; three hear; two touch; one taste – bring your mind into the present.

The panel talked about supporting and influencing other people who need help by role modelling good practices, leading by example and openly sharing your own practices; encouraging people to take annual leave and to do so regularly; perhaps every quarter. They encouraged us to know what is offered by organisational EAPs and to be sure others know also. Sometimes there are policies and processes within the system itself that have detrimental impacts on wellbeing – can we influence these to be looked at? Senior people need to learn about wellbeing themselves; if they talk about burn out and encourage their teams to have these conversations then the conversations will become less difficult since no one is immune from feeling the impact of stress and the possibility of burnout.

Jenny mentioned that the end of the calendar year is a good time for a rethink (my new fourth theme) as we look ahead to 2022 and she ended with this fabulous quote:

 Burnout is what happens when you avoid being human too long – Michael Gungor

The question I am left with from the panel was: What is one thing about how you manage your time and support others that might benefit from a new perspective or way of thinking?


I began my keynote listening in a ‘negative’ space preparing myself for the unknown; I absorbed all that I listened to, what was going on in the room rather than any expectations or plans I might bring. I ended with my mind buzzing, full of ideas, energy, meaning and connections. I hope you found similar inspiration from the keynote speakers.

As you reflect back on the SDF Festival, questions you might ask yourself to support your own continuous learning and those of others include those we explored in the final session:

  • What is your own super-strength and how does it manifest itself? (reinforce)
  • The difference that is yours to make is what resonates for you. What kind of music are you playing and why? (recalibrate)
  • What metaphor might you use to describe the future that wants to emerge from something in your current situation and why? (reinvent)
  • What is one thing about how you manage your time and support others that might benefit from a new perspective? (rethink)

And what if some in your organisation aren’t quite ready to explore these questions in all their richness? How might you use your learning to work with others within your organisational environment? Here are some additional questions to consider as you support your organisation’s priorities and reimagine higher education to be fit for the future.

  • What might you want to strengthen? (reinforce)
  • What might you want to tweak or adjust? (recalibrate)
  • What might you want to change entirely? (reinvent)
  • What might you bring a new perspective to? (rethink)

And to carry us out to the festive season, a personal favourite of music I hope we can all be playing: Feeling Good by Nina Simone


In closing, I would like to once again thank all the organisers, all the speakers and all the participants who made the 2021 Festival of Learning and Development so rich and varied. I also want to particularly highlight the contributions of Rossana Espinoza whose dedicated commitment and efforts created a Festival to remember.