Finding value in the spaces in between

5 minute read

Several years ago, I became aware of the concept of 'yohaku' in Japanese garden design which embraces empty space as a positive force, and so celebrates and includes the spaces in between the plants and structures that you put in the garden as much as the prized items themselves. This awoke in me an awareness that it's not only the structured, visible things in life that have value but it's the spaces in between, afforded by the structures, that create real meaning, unexpected experiences and depth in life. This has never been more relevant than in my Executive Diploma in Organisational Leadership journey at Oxford so far, which has embodied this concept.

As I reflect on our recently completed module three, I realise that the expansion in my thinking, new energy around my career and industry and change in outlook for the future, come as a result of not only the world-class teaching and structured activity of the programme, but from the friendships and connections that have been born from the experience. It's in the fun, 'extra' spaces in between all the programme's academic structure, where human connection happens, where the depth and richness of the experience is realised; whether it's over a college dinner, running round the Iffley Road running track (highly recommended!) or while walking to find a new Oxford pub in the evening.

It's in these moments of intentional debate or meandering conversation where ideas are sparked, or we are taken into each other’s worlds, and it provides new insight, inspiration and a widening of one’s own world. And the joy is that these connections, conversations and experiences continue beyond our residential weeks in Oxford to 'normal life' beyond.

But what of the structure itself? I can honestly say my expectations have been met and exceeded by the programme. I chose Oxford Saïd for my executive-level study because I wanted to be challenged and pushed in my thinking. With the investment of time and resources I was making, I was clear I wanted to learn something new and gain more than just a qualification to justify my years of experience. The Executive Diploma in Organisational Leadership has delivered.

Rich, world-class academic thinking, delivered by field-leading academics, underpins and strengthens areas of my lived, professional experience from the last 20 years. It helps me make sense of, and provides me with, new options and approaches to the challenges I am facing as an executive leading a business right now.

The programme is thoughtfully designed to challenge, engage and build our knowledge iteratively. It's during module three that I've had many 'penny-drop' moments, realising that the concepts of all three modules come together as a whole, and where I understand why we were taken down certain routes of thinking and theory in earlier modules.

During module three I’ve found great value in the exploration of the concept that misalignment is the normal state of organisations and that can be useful, and the internal tension this sparked in me having lived by a personal conviction to always drive for organisational alignment as a senior leader. Particularly resonating with me has been the exploration of governance and the potential to create action by the intentional design of tension and difference in leadership structures, forced by and very necessary for the navigation of the ambiguous world that we now live and lead in. If there ever was a time when we needed to take notice of and make use of the spaces between the formal structures of organisations, to help us reimagine the structures themselves and make then useful for the future, this is it!

Early in module one we studied the role of paradox in leadership. In module three, we explored how to use structure and models to consider our organisations as systems within a network and the impact this has on how you respond to the challenges and opportunities prevalent with senior leadership. These notions and tools have been really helpful as I've returned to my board team and we're grappling with the competing priorities that are normal in moving a business forward.

Paradox is not just something taught on the curriculum but is something I’ve enjoyed as part of the Oxford Saïd experience itself. The School has its own identity within the historic University of Oxford, it provides both the modern, forward-thinking of a world-leading business school, whilst being steeped in the deep history and tradition of one of the world's oldest, most revered universities. This provides the richness and authority in learning, along with new thinking, I had hoped it would.

Marc Ventresca said in a recent lecture that, 'we are not here to give you pop culture leadership' (I've paraphrased), which is an experience I have highly valued from the programme. I have definitely come away from module three feeling challenged and thinking about leadership in a way that leads me in a different direction to the more typical, ‘pop culture’ leadership thinking of which I am also a fan.

Overall, I have noticed the programme has given me confidence in my leadership and role in my board team. I have new ideas and practical tools to try in that team that are already positively impacting the business. I have more clarity over the leader I want to be and the impact I want to have in my industry - and I've felt propelled forward along that path already.

It is hard work and the pressure of balancing studying with running a business alongside family and wider life is a very real and sometimes stressful challenge, however it is absolutely worth it. I've gained so much more from the experience as a whole than I imagined and have found it energising and life-giving in ways that have surprised and delighted me.

A practical parting tip for those beginning the programme: the real, deep learning of each module comes after the residential week in Oxford. That is where the learning has been compounded and embedded in the everyday for me, so plan in time for it. See the pre-reading as preparation to enable you to get the most out of the in-person sessions in Oxford, and then it's the time after this - before your assessments - where the learning and connection to the concepts takes place.

As a busy professional you won't be able to learn everything from the programme, so focus in on what will equip you most with what you need as a practitioner of the concepts in real life.

Oxford Executive Diploma in Organisational Leadership