Flipped Leadership

I’ve been in my new job for 5 months – Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning and Senior Advisor for Learning Initiatives at UBC Okanagan. Like everyone new to a campus, I’m learning how things work, who does what, where things are, and that will continue. What’s entirely new for me is being a leader and manager.

I’m participating in a great leadership and management training program. I’m learning a lot about different leadership styles. Our new university president, Santa Ono, describes himself as a “servant leader” and he’s been doing an amazing job making himself visible and available, responding to people, and using his position to recognize the success of the people around him, especially on Twitter as @ubcprez.

(Image freeiconspng.com, animation Peter Newbury)

(Image freeiconspng.com
animation Peter Newbury)

I’ve been developing a different approach. I certainly didn’t invent it but I like to think it comes from my uncommon trajectory of moving into leadership after an intense experiences teaching in an evidence-based, active, flipped classroom. Flipped learning is an approach to teaching that recognizes the incredible value of students working together to solve, analyze, explore, critique, invent,…and that time together in class is precious. In flipped learning, the instructor guides students through a set of tasks to be completed before class – learning background information, examining graphs/diagrams/artifacts/simulations that will be used in class, practicing techniques and skills on introductory problems, recognizing their own relevant strengths and experiences – all things students are entirely capable of doing successfully on their own. In class, the lesson can immediately dive into collaborative, conceptually-challenging discussions and other activities without wasting any time with the transfer from instructor to students of information available elsewhere.

Many of my colleagues are using this flipped learning approach in their first- and second-year undergraduate classes. I highlight “undergraduate” to emphasize the vast difference between the novice students and expert instructor. As hard as instructors try to create opportunities for their students to contribute, the flow of information and expertise is mostly in one direction. “Well, of course,” you’re thinking. “That’s what teaching is about.” And it describes the teaching I did before moving San Diego in 2012.

At UC San Diego, I had the privilege of teaching a course about teaching and learning to graduate students and postdocs. My first attempts followed the expert-teaches-novices approach. Over the 4 years I taught the course, I learned to recognize and then leverage the incredible knowledge, skills, and experience these graduate students and postdocs brought to our classroom. I learned to create opportunities for them to contribute their strengths to our learning community. They learned from each other. They learned from me. I learned from them. They brought skills, knowledge, and experiences to our classroom that I’d never heard of. A big part of “creating opportunities” was flipping the learning so the students had time before class to gather information and recognize their own expertise.

Here’s the thing: those graduate students and postdocs had knowledge that I needed, that we needed, and our class provided me with an way to draw it out of them.

That realization – they have knowledge that I need – is the foundation of my nascent model of flipped leadership. Let me give you a couple of examples so I can help myself remember what happened:

Designing a 400-Seat Classroom

There’s a new building going up here, an expansion of the Library to include many more informal learning spaces for students to gather and work together. There will also be a formal learning space: a 400-seat classroom, the largest on campus. I’m in the group tasked with designing the classroom – it’s really exciting and I can’t wait to see (and assess) the learning that happens in that room. One of my tasks was gathering feedback on the preliminary design from a group of faculty members chosen by the Provost and Deans because of their experience and expertise around teaching large classes. Ten faculty, me, the team of architects, and some IT and A/V folks would meet for 90 minutes.

Here’s what I could have done. I could have brought the faculty together and unveiled the classroom design right before their eyes, getting them excited and inspired about what could happen in that room.

But this isn’t about inspiration – they’re dedicated instructors who have already committed to giving feedback about the new classroom. I needed their thoughtful analysis of the design, not their buy-in to the project. So I flipped the meeting. With input from others in the working group, I created a PPT presentation containing the plans for the classroom. To help them prepare for the meeting, I explicitly pointed out the features we designed into the classroom to support collaboration – features they may have missed because they were unfamiliar with how to read the architectural plan or because of the overwhelming amount of information in the plan. I primed them with a few questions, too, like,

What kind of teaching do you envision happening here?

The large size of the room means it would be difficult for students to read the whiteboards at the front of the classroom. How important is it to have whiteboards?

I didn’t show this presentation at the meeting. Instead, I sent it out as a PDF a few days before we met. I used that email to inspire and excite them to come to the meeting.

At the meeting, my educator skills kicked in hard. I moved around the boardroom tables so we could all see eye-to-eye. I made 11 x 17 handouts of the architectural plan so everyone had something to examine and annotate. I did not start with a presentation that showed them things they already knew. After introductions – it’s important to know who’s in the room, why they’re there, and what expertise they bring – we dove straight into the discussion. I used all of my facilitation and learning community skills: calling everyone by name, constantly watching for body language when someone signals they have something to add, keeping a speaker’s list so the loudest people don’t dominate. I even tossed in “turn to your neighbour and talk about XYZ for a few minutes.” It was exhausting.

Part way through that meeting, I had a revelation that I’m sure I’ll carry with me for a long time. With this position and title of Senior Advisor for Learning Initiatives, I’ve been granted a bit of authority by my colleagues.  With this privilege, they gather together when I call, they come prepared, and they allow me to facilitate the conversation. I’m a little overwhelmed, and definitely honoured, by the trust they put in me that this time together will be valuable and productive.

By the end of the meeting, we’d identified some important characteristics of the classroom and they were excited about the space. The lead architect confided later that she’d never been in a meeting with faculty as successful as this one.

Meeting with the Deans Council

Like many Centers for Teaching and Learning, we run workshops about teaching and learning…and no one comes. It’s apparent that faculty members do not find attending these “one and done” events a valuable use of their precious time. I get it.

I’m working on a series (a campaign?) of events to better support teaching and learning. I’ll save the details for another post. In order to make these events valuable in the eyes of the participants, I need support and promotion from the Deans of each Faculty. I was added to the agenda of the monthly meeting of the Deans Council. The Provost (my boss) who chairs the meeting suggested I write something about my presentation that she’d send out before the meeting.

So here are my options: I write a short email to tell them I have something really exciting to share at the meeting. I carefully craft (and maybe rehearse) a pitch, following well-known symptom-problem-solution or past-present-future arguments. When it’s my turn to talk, I pitch the idea and get their feedback.


I carefully craft a long email, using symptom-problem-solution or past-present-future arguments, laying out all the details of my proposed plan, and ending with, “I really need your input on how we pitch this to the community. I look forward to hearing your ideas.” They read the email before the meeting. When it’s my turn to talk, I say, “Well, what you think?”

No surprise here: I went with the second option. I spoiled the engagement and/or excitement of hearing my pitch. Instead, I gave them all the information and time to think so they could ask probing questions and contribute thoughtful feedback to our discussion.

They have what I need

You see, whether I’m “managing up” to the Deans, “managing down” to the team in my centre, or collaborating with peers, the audience has knowledge, skills, and experience that I need. My job is to draw it out of them so I can work with it myself or so I can empower them to contribute their strengths to the project. That’s the kind of flipped leadership I’m trying to practice. And practice.

It’s remarkably similar to how I strive to teach. So I guess I was wrong, 1600 words ago, when I said being a leader and manager is entirely new for me.

Final notes

  1. Am I concerned the people in those meetings, and future meetings, will read this and recognize how I operate? Nope, not at all. Just like in the classroom, transparency is critical for engagement and contribution. You can’t just tell students how to do something, especially something unexpected. You have to tell them why they’re doing it, too. I have no problem following the same principle in my leadership.
  2. I’m excited to add a new category, flipped leadership, to this blog and hashtag #flippedleadership to my Twitter feed. I’m looking forward to using these spaces to reflect on and share this entirely new trajectory in my career. And to hearing from you about your leadership and management experiences and approaches.