Maximising your impact through creativity, visioning and design

The Director of Human Resources at Birkbeck, Charlotte Croffie, challenges us to be creative and listen in the latest Astrea networking event. This blog was contributed by Kayleigh Woods Harley, from Birkbeck’s Strategic Programmes Directorate.

Glancing around the hot and sunny room at Gordon Square, I realised I had never seen such a well-attended Astrea networking event in my time since becoming a facilitator. There were around 45 people staring back at me as I gave a brief introduction to Charlotte Croffie. I took my seat amid the anticipation.

There could be no higher authority from which to draw than Buddha, and that is exactly where Charlotte began: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” With humour and insight, she reinforced this message, moving on to the theme of creativity in one fell swoop. We considered how Michelangelo created his masterpiece David. She outlined the steps from selecting a block of marble, to chipping away in small increments until all that was left was David, appearing as if conjured straight out of the sculptor’s imagination from the inert stone.

We were asked to step outside of ourselves and draw or write down what we thought people saw when they looked at us. There can be no more difficult question than this; the ability to get out of our own head and peer at ourselves is something that everyone wishes they could do. I looked down at my blank green post-it, touched the pen to my lips, thought. After a moment, I wrote:

  • Young
  • Colourful, happy, positive, cheerful
  • Proficient and efficient

Those who had chosen to draw instead of write their answers were asked to show their hands. Only a handful of people had. It demonstrated how few of us are willing to step out of our comfort zone. We needed to start challenging ourselves to step out of our default position more.

Next, we were asked to write down what we wanted to achieve. I wrote:

  • Friendships and networks
  • To feel like my work is worthwhile – for others and myself

Being part of Astrea is one way for me to meet these personal goals, and so far it has not failed me in reaching them.

In the largest segment of the afternoon, we worked in small groups to take on one of three roles, A, B, and C: A – articulate what you want to achieve; B – listen; C – observe. Those who became ‘A’ took on the challenge of speaking non-stop for two minutes about what they’d written. The listener was forced to listen without speaking, while the observer noted the interaction, the body language and tried to interpret what was happening.

If you’ve ever done this exercise before, you’ll know how revealing it can be. For some, it revealed how little we truly listen to others because we assume we already know what they are going to say. Being unable to respond to the speaker was deeply uncomfortable, but also liberating to hear what is really being said. The natural temptation to ask the speaker questions was very difficult to override. It showed how deeply ingrained are the learned behaviours that we adopt from a young age into adulthood.

Charlotte taught us that active listening is a key skill for coaching. You must learn to override those natural instincts to interrupt, to comment, to reassure, and allow the other person the space to expand on their thoughts. We were encouraged to practice this often with a trusted friend or colleague. Learning to coach and being coached are both ways in which we can learn to unlock our potential through creativity. Creativity requires that space and time we don’t often find at work because we are constantly busy and feel under pressure.

Charlotte shared her roadmap for changing your default position and doing things a little differently in the future:

  1. Map your default position when approaching a task
  2. Plot your journey – challenge yourself
  3. Take stock – how will this be perceived; what are the strengths and potential drawbacks?
  4. Move to the next stage – is it propelling or hindering you? … next steps
  5. Future-proof – tweak, shift, reinvent
  6. Do it all over again.

It all begins with that first step of mapping your default position. It all begins with a realisation, a thought, just like the Buddha said. With a little perseverance and possibly the help of a friend, it can transform us.

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The Digital Transformation Project (DTP): termly update  

There is a lot going on in the digital transformation project. Jane Van de Ban, Birkbeck’s Digital Content Manager, provides this summary of activity over the past term.

What are we doing?
We are upgrading the Birkbeck school/department web presence, to provide entirely new, refreshed content, including new images, and improved navigation. With five school sites, 18 department sites, 21 microsites and over 32,000 content items – pages, images, files, events and news stories – all of which need to be reviewed and upgraded – this is a huge undertaking.  

Our objectives are to:  

  • review all the content, topic by topic and piece by piece  
  • decide what needs to be retained and upgraded
  • consider how best to present this information online, via workshops with subject experts from across the Birkbeck community
  • ensure that all content:
    • fulfils user needs  
    • meets our digital standards  
    • is fully optimised, to ensure that Google and other search engines index it properly 
  • build appropriate wayfinding pages, comprised of high-quality images and signpost text, to improve navigation across the Birkbeck site. 

Welcome to our expanded project team
Due to pressing technical issues with our content management system (CMS), Plone, we need to deliver this project by the start of the 2019-20 academic year. To help us deliver this ambitious project, our team has grown, with freelance editors and web staff from all of our schools working alongside us for a few days each month.  

So, a special welcome to Ollie Chinyere (Arts), Yossie Olaleye and Aaliyah Archer (BEI), Louise Ross and Matt Wicks (Law), Pauline Jones (Science) and Antonio Terzini (SSHP) and our freelance editors, Rebecca Slegg and Denise Drake.  

Improving access to MPhil/PhD funding information
At our launch workshop, subject experts told us the following about MPhil/PhD funding: 

MPhil/PhD funding is hugely complex and requires knowledge of different funders’ priorities and processes, as well as the conditions attendant on them.  

Funding is not static – it is awarded throughout the recruitment cycle. So, we need a flexible web solution that allows us to add and withdraw funding throughout the year.  

Information on funding needs to be easy to understand for both prospective students and academics, as the latter need to provide specialist information on the full range of MPhil/PhD funding available. 

Based on this workshop, we have developed a bespoke MPhil/PhD funding resource (on our development site) and shared it with subject experts across the College, who gave us extensive and helpful feedback, mostly related to the layout of the new wayfinding page. We have now revised and updated the content and aim to get final sign-off in January, after which we will schedule the go-live. 

Rationalising application information for MPhil/PhD applicants
As with funding information, you will find application information for prospective MPhil/PhD research students scattered across the Birkbeck website. The objective is to make it as easy as possible for users to read and follow our advice before applying.

At the workshop, the prospective MPhil/PhD research students need to explore potential supervisors and ideally, contact them and start writing a research proposal before applying. Although this advice is provided across our website, departments still receive ‘cold’ applications, which require a lot of administrative and academic support. We also learned that the application process is similar across schools – the most striking differences relate to funding.  

In response to the workshop, we have consolidated and improved our MPhil/PhD application advice on our online prospectus and on our central How to Apply pages, which will help improve the application process (we will, of course, test the changes with users). This information also dovetails with the improved MPhil/PhD funding information.  

The application information is now live and, early in the New Year, we will unpublish redundant, duplicate department pages and redirect users to our new, consolidated information. This will make it much easier for academics and prospective MPhil/PhD research students to find information.  

Telling the public about our research projects
In all the years that we have talked to schools/departments about their web presence, one message has come out loud and clear: the absolute centrality and importance of research. Yet, if you explore our department pages, it’s difficult to find much information about research.  

Around 160 funded research projects are currently underway at Birkbeck but learning about them is very challenging: the majority don’t have any presence on the Birkbeck website, and the only comprehensive list is a spreadsheet maintained by the Research Office.   

Yet, our subject experts told us that: 

We need to publicise the full range of our funded research projects.  

The audiences for this information range from the general public to corporations looking to invest their Corporate Social Responsibility fund, businesses keen to invest in new ideas and tools, potential academic collaborators, and REF panels.  

We need to provide more than just a summary of each project.  

With this and other findings, we have started to develop web pages for every funded research project at Birkbeck, using a standard template. In the New Year, we will engage with researchers to take this project forward, with a view to publishing these new pages in 2019.  

Other DTP projects
Other work that is ongoing includes: 

Improved search: the ITS Web Team have been busy implementing our new, much improved search tool, which will make it far easier to find relevant information on our website. This is due to go live in the first half of 2019, following a rethink of the implementation to reduce reliance on the College’s current CMS. 

Academic staff profiles: redeveloping staff profiles was set as a project priority by the Web Working Group and we commissioned new designs and extensive user testing and consultation with staff across Birkbeck. Pending final consultation relating to KEF and business services, the new profiles will be built and then populated with information by the DTP content team. The plan is that academics will maintain their profiles via My Birkbeck for Staff.  

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Astrea’s Cabinet of Curiosities

Sandra Bekvalac, Student Casework and Engagement Officer, reports on a recent event from Astrea, Birkbeck’s network for women working in professional and support roles. The event explored the value of building your personal brand. 

What do these items have in common: a brooch of a dancing cabbage; a satsuma; books; a necklace with a butterfly wing in it; a canvas tote; a scarab?

Other than they aren’t cats and therefore have no chance of going viral on the internet.

The answer is that they were all on display in Room B04, in the Malet Street Building on Thursday 29 November, at Astrea’s networking event hosted by career coach Anna Gordon. You, our lovely members, pulled these very personal and precious objects from your bags and pockets. Some of you even allowed us to touch them. We were amused and inspired by them in equal measure. For the objects were more than just objects. They were slices of yourselves. A cabinet of curiosities full of physical representations of your values, your purpose, and your ideal selves.

If this sounds ethereal and deep, it’s because personal branding is, as it turns out, both ethereal and deep. I didn’t know this before Anna’s talk. In fact, I thought branding was incredibly shallow, meant for things and not people. I was one of the people Anna mentioned in her presentation who think of ‘branding’ as a dirty word. I’ve realised that my dislike of branding was all a horrible misunderstanding. Branding isn’t about objects and sales, though it can help you sell yourself to employers more effectively. It’s not just about value, but values, and honesty.

As part of building our brands, we talked a lot about authenticity. What makes a brand authentic? What does authentic mean? As a Film Studies Masters student a few years back I remember grappling with the various meanings of the word, and whether it mattered. What I learned from Anna, is that it just means honesty. In order to brand yourself effectively, you need to know who you are, and what you believe in. In other words, branding can be about soul-searching.

So there we were, in room B04, looking into the dark and uncomfortable parts of our souls. I don’t know about you, but I learned some stuff about me that depressed me a bit. I learned that what keeps me up at night is worry, and that I do the work that I do because it pays the bills. From the groans I could hear from around the room while I was completing the soul-searching worksheet Anna had given us, my guess is that some of you were similarly depressed. But I also learned some things that made me smile and helped me see myself, and my work, differently. I learned that I am happiest when I’m writing. Anything. Emails. Shopping lists. Blog posts. That I long for what I long for because I want to leave a tangible mark on our planet, and not just a scar caused by climate change. I also learned that I am happy when I’m learning new things. By the end of the worksheet, I was getting excited about learning all this new stuff about me and about branding in general.

All of this could be just information. But in B04 with Anna Gordon this stuff transubstantiated. It became more than just stuff. Like the objects in the list, it became stuff I could use to build my brand: what makes me who I am, what marks me out and makes me special to employers, what I stand for.

Thank you Anna, for so many valuable life lessons all crammed into two hours on a Thursday!

The last thing I learned was that working on your personal brand can be empowering. Anna’s session helped me, and I think many of the other attendees, to articulate who we are and want to be and to communicate this to those around us. Which brings me to one really good reason to build a unique and consistent brand, which Anna also briefly touched upon in her talk. Branding facilitates communication, which helps us connect to one another better, be it through social media or in a room talking about objects that represent us and our values.

Connections are the whole point of everything we do at Astrea. Good connections don’t just mean improved career opportunities. Good relationships with Colleagues make us feel valued and part of Birkbeck’s mission, which can make us happier in our current roles.

The event on 29 November was very well attended. It was especially nice to see so many brand (no pun intended!) new faces. If you’ve never been to an event, for whatever reason, give it a go! Networks are cabinets of curiosities. You might find opportunities for learning you didn’t expect and meet some lovely new people. And as if that isn’t enough, there’s always free coffee and cookies!

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Big Ideas at Birkbeck

Birkbeck’s Big Ideas is a free public lecture series delivered in the heart of the local community. Organised by the Access and Engagement team, Big Ideas brings ground-breaking Birkbeck research to those who may not otherwise have the opportunity to hear about it. Ahead of the launch of the 2019 programme, hear from Dr Tim Reynolds who works in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. Tim took part in Big Ideas last year, and here he tells us about his experience.

The Access and Engagement department works to break down barriers to higher education for under-represented communities. Bringing Birkbeck research to a community venue is at the heart of this mission. As well as demonstrating the relevance of our academics’ ideas and research in today’s society, the series also highlights Birkbeck’s commitment to lifelong learning. Birkbeck’s Big Ideas operates on a simple premise: everyone is welcome, regardless of academic experience or background, and the lectures are a chance to learn something new. Some of those who attend may never have experienced a university lecture before so academics are asked to present their research in a manageable format, in a way that will be easily comprehensible for those without prior knowledge of the subject. Over 160 people attended the 2017/18 series, which included lectures in Psychology, Law, Geography and Philosophy. All were hosted by City and Islington College’s Centre for Lifelong Learning in Finsbury Park, and we’re delighted to be returning there from January 2019.

In April 2018 Dr Tim Reynolds, Senior Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, presented a talk on his work on the Neanderthal burial cave of Shanidar. Here he explains more about the experience and why he chose to get involved:

“I have been interested in Neanderthals and modern human archaeology since I was a child and read about Shanidar cave in 1978. I am now actually digging there and recovering new Neanderthal remains. In between, I have been County Archaeologist for Cambridgeshire and at BBK for 15 years. In that time I have worked on early human sites in Sarawak, Libya, Iraq and Norfolk!

I got involved with Big Ideas as these are exciting times in human evolutionary studies with new species and biochemistry expanding and challenging old ideas. These are embedded in scientific literature and Big Ideas is an opportunity to present them to an intelligent and interested new audience.

The lecture was well attended, people were friendly and keen and asked sensible questions that showed sound understanding of the issues. The venue was accessible and the staff welcoming. I particularly enjoyed presenting to an audience in an area where I grew up!

It brought the childhood interest full circle. Presenting was fun and the audience engaged. There were local people of mixed ages and even an editor from New Scientist! I would strongly recommend the Big Ideas as a way of getting research out to a new audience.”

Members of the Birkbeck academic community who are interested in delivering a Big Ideas lecture can contact the Access and Engagement department for further information on how to get involved, by emailing


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