Tales from the Lockdown #4: a conversation with Sarah Lethbridge, Cardiff Business School

08 May 2020

In this series of conversations, our guests talk to Senior Consultant Claudia Monteiro about what they're learning during the pandemic and what future they're imagining.


What aren’t we talking enough about during this crisis?

There are endless opportunities for innovation right now, even though we’re going through some terrible times. Great transformation stories often begin with a ‘burning platform’ and well, this situation is definitely that! My background is in Lean Thinking and service improvement and in simple terms good Lean encourages us to spend more time reflecting, thinking and using that time to improve and develop strategy. The payoff of investing this time and space is that you come up with better systems which make our day-to-day working lives better. Once we got through the initial hurdle of postponing programmes and cancelling events we had some free time and I can’t remember the last time that had happened. This has enabled us to refocus our activities, to try new things and to be adventurous.

What’s surprised you the most - either positively or negatively – once normality disappeared and your organisation had to adapt to a different reality?

People often feel universities can be slow at making decisions, and what’s been really refreshing is that when it’s really mattered, everyone moved so quickly, even when some massive decisions had to be made. What’s interesting to me is that it proves that ‘it can be done’; that universities can operate boldly and flexibly.

Cardiff University has been brilliant at protecting the welfare of staff, setting up Wellbeing Fridays. The idea is not to have web conferencing or emails on Fridays, instead each of us are to focus on areas of work or relaxation which boost our wellbeing. Everyone is very grateful for that and its proven once and for all that you can be productive when working flexibly.

Tell us a tale of one of your local heroes, a person or a group within your university or school community who have pulled out all the stops at this time of crisis.

Our Dean Rachel Ashworth has been incredible, communicating frequently and openly with all our staff and students. We have a sizeable body of international students and all of her decisions, as everything unfurled, were about making sure that they were as safe as possible. We all feel that she is putting us first and she completely understands the pressures everyone is under. Her leadership makes me feel valued, heard and appreciated in the school.

Name one change that you or your organisation has been forced to take that you’d like to carry into the future?

We need to invest more in blended resources and online learning. We’ve been very face to face, which is valuable and can’t be replaced, but I'm also amazed at how well we’re working together and collaborating online, and how eager people have been to tool up when it comes to digital. Our University IT team has been running 20 minute daily tutorials and people are really engaging with that light-touch approach.

Online collaboration tools are really working for me. I feel more focused, I am more aware of other teams’ work and that’s generating new ideas for projects. My internal contacts are strangely broadening. Maybe that's because I’m now not in an office where I am mostly in contact with my own team? I perhaps don’t have such a horizon view of what’s going on across the organisation within that bubble.

Can you reflect on one area that you might let go of, going forward?

I hope this experience drives universities to rethink lengthy processes and rules that no longer fit into our present world. We have some processes that take too long to enact – student misconduct situations that happen in January that are then only made manifest at Exam Board in May for instance? It’s an opportunity to revisit the academic year schedule. Does everyone need to start in September? Could we have multiple starts? Plus I will never understand Exam Boards.

What have you learnt about yourself?

I’ve confirmed that I enjoy working hard and that I am innovative and brave. The pandemic hasn’t crushed my spirit, if anything it’s given me a sense of urgency to act on opportunities. I’m full of ideas and feel more inclined to act on them. The other day I hunted down an author that I really admire on twitter and asked him if he’d do a virtual talk for us as part of a Business School Book Club. He said yes and I was delighted. Booking him is something I wouldn’t have tried before all of this. I’m seeing this desire to get stuff going again in others too, and it's really heartening.

This crisis has brought on more of who we are into the workplace – the daily clutter of our home life is lurking in. How are you experiencing that?

There’s a different quality to our meetings I find. And even those meetings that traditionally have been relatively informal and conversational, like our Logistics and Operations Management section meetings, are now touched by that new pastoral energy. Now when people ask ‘how are you?’ they really mean it and we all stop to listen attentively. We really want to know how others are doing. In a weird way, because we can all be affected by this, at any time, there’s been a kind of levelling of the playing field. We’re all in this together.

Sarah Lethbridge is Director of Executive Education and External Relations at Cardiff Business School  

Photo: Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels 


Read more Tales of the Lockdown with

Kai Peters, Coventry University, UK

Molly Ihlbrock, ESMT Berlin, Germany

Dil Sidhu, Coursera, USA

Ivan Bofarull, ESADE, Spain

Rob Angell, University of Southampton Business School, UK

Antonio Batista, Fundação Dom Cabral, Brazil 

Yusra Mouzughi, Muscat University, Oman

Kate Kearins, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand 

Daniel Traça, Nova School of Business and Economics (Nova SBE), Portugal



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