Sandra Elliott – Learning about leading through collaboration

Sandra Elliott

Sandra Elliott

Imagine you were tasked with leading the and international work for one of the largest organizations in Wales? An organization that with over 34,000 direct community members (6,000 of which are staff), and a turnover of £411 million is the size of a small city. How would you lead ? And this isn’t just any organization, this is an organization tasked with a special kind of purpose, a social purpose. The organization is . It’s purpose is to inspire the heart and minds of the future leaders of Wales, the UK and the hundreds of countries, which adults come from to study and work.

If you are Sandra Elliott, you would lead through collaboration — locally, nationally and internationally.   

In my eight years at Cardiff I was fortunate to meet and work with Sandra Elliott, the Direct of Communications and International Relations Division (CAIRD) for Cardiff University.

In 2005, little did I know that when I started so too did Sandra. It would be a few years before we formally met, but when we did I was immediately struck by her friendliness, professionalism and astute regard for the communications change that was happening across the university and the sector. From the role students were taking in their own learning, to how faculty were sharing their work to the fostering of different ways to connect with student internationally and people locally.

I also came to learn of Sandra’s love of travel and people from different cultures and countries and her respect for the diverse human spirit. For an Australian in Wales, this warmth I really valued. In my years abroad, I’ve learn’t that it doesn’t matter where we each are from, it matters how we are welcomed.

When someone decides to call Wales their home, and Cardiff University their place to study or work in Wales; to travel thousands of miles away from family and friends be it for a 1 or 3 year degree or eight years working; knowing that people like Sandra work at the University, people who value the difference you bring, makes that transition just that much easier (and harder when saying goodbye).

In 2011 I remember a very memorable meeting with Sandra and a working group that had been tasked to look at different innovative communication practices across the University — from social media, video to iTunesU etc. I was fortunate to be asked to share about social media. I can remember thinking, “Do they want an introduction to social, a review of the Universities profiles or my perspective as a geeky maverick academic.” I opted for the latter, sharing how today, without using any of the universities communication channels or public relations staff we (staff and students) are engaging with and learn from anyone, anywhere. Today, we each have our own platform and it is international.

A fascinating discussion emerged around the table led by Sandra, which grew into a process for the development of a new Digital and Social Media Strategy for Cardiff University. A strategy that had the universities social purpose, learning at the centre (not marketing); involved input from staff across the university and was championed by Sandra (those in the biz know how important this is); and the hard work and dedication of the entire communications office (esp. Amy, Jessica, Emma, Louise) and colleagues from across the university. The experience was inspiring.

So many great people, so many ideas. In September 2012, Sandra Elliott and the PVC for Engagement, Prof. Hywel Thomas signed off on the strategy. With University approval it is starting to roll out. What did I learn from Sandra during this entire experience?

It doesn’t matter how big the organization, with the right person to champion for change at the top, change although hard is welcomed, especially when lead through collaboration.

I reached out to Sandra last week and asked her for some time to share with us about the people and things that have inspired and supported her throughout her life. This interview I share with you now.

My 16th #Wowwales tribute is to Sandra Elliott, Director of Communications and International Relations Division (CAIRD), Cardiff University

Learning about travel and communications …

Kelly: Could your describe yourself in a couple of sentences

Sandra: I’m a marketing and communications specialist with a background of experience in the travel and tourism industry and, more recently in .  I have particular interest in international marketing and travel and still love going new places and meeting new people.

Kelly: Could you describe your work in a couple of sentences?


I’m responsible for the communication and international activities at Cardiff University.  That includes all public relations activities and engagement with external and internal audiences as well as the recruitment of students from overseas, and the international profile of the university.

Kelly: What is your proudest achievement or moment?

Sandra: I find it really difficult to pin down one particular moment or thing.  I suppose having decided at about age 16 that I wanted to do something that involved travel and then being able to follow that through my professional life is something I am very glad I have achieved.  I’ve also been very fortunate to have met some great people and been to some extraordinary places and feel very privileged to have been able to do that.

Kelly: What has failure and success taught you?

Sandra: Learn from mistakes and don’t have regrets – life is too short.  When you are successful, enjoy that success and encourage others.

Kelly: What is your biggest moment of life change?

Sandra: I think moving from a rural part of Ireland to university was a major shift for me.  While I was ready to leave home and I loved university life, it was still a shock to have to adapt to both a very different way of learning (more independent learning, presentations etc) and living (dealing with raucous housemates at 3.00am) but an experience that has given me friends for life, a love of language and France that continues to this day and other skills that are sill relevant.

Kelly: Is the glass half empty of half full?

Sandra: Definitely half full.  Have a pretty optimistic view of life – friends and family would say over optimistic especially in relation to time allocated to get places…like airports to catch planes…

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Learning advice on washing machines, living with change and being social

Kelly: Is there a book you’d recommend others to read or video talk to watch and why?

Sandra: I first found TED talks a couple of years ago and the one by Hans Rosling on the “Magic Washing Machine” stands out as a memorable one which highlights to inequalities of the world and presents data in a powerful and accessible way. I love books too but am really struggling to think of one that I would recommend  - I’d have the same issue if I ever had to do “Desert Island Discs“!

Kelly: What advice would you give to others working in communications in HE today?

Sandra: To be open to new ideas. The world of communications is changing so fast that you cannot afford to think that how you approached an issue in the past will necessarily be the right solution for the future.  However, while there may be lots of new channels and opportunities to communicate with others, there will be the need to be clear on the overarching strategy and not to be too distracted by all the “noise”.  The value of sharing issues and problems with others to decide on the best route is still valid, especially when the matter may be sensitive.  

Here is an interview of Sandra Elliott at the 2011 Higher Education Partnerships Forum, talking about learning from international university collaborations.

Kelly: What advice would you give women starting out in their careers in communications today?

Sandra: There are so many opportunities – take advantage to keep your options as open as possible in the early stages of your career – that will allow you to specialise later if you find one aspect that works really well for you.

Kelly: What do you feel/think about social media in your life and work?

Sandra: From a work perspective, social media opens up some many additional channels to talk to others.  It does however mean you need to react very quickly as news can travel incredibly fast.  It does allow for a much more personality to come through in communications as a story can be brought to life through video/audio and photos and shared much more widely.  As I have responsibility for international activities at the University, social media allows us to build communities of prospective students and current students to blog on what university life is like – warts and all. From a personal perspective I love the instant nature of social media and the fact that you can share fun stories/pictures etc from amywhere with anyone. 

Learning about being inspired: “Who inspires you?”

Kelly: Can you tell us about a Woman in Wales who has inspired, mentored or supported you.


  • Louise Casella has been a great source of support, and demonstrated clear leadership.  She involves others, generates enthusiasm, drives projects forward…with determination and clear goals and a sense of humour as well.  However there have been lots of others as well
  • Professor Terry Threadgold for her professionalism, direct manner and ability to deliver often difficult messages with great integrity and clarity.
  • I’m also often humbled by some of the international students who travel thousands of miles and start a new programme of study, often not in their native language and can really make a difference back in their own country when they return.

Kelly: What do you want to share, and inspire in others if you ran a workshop, gave a talk .. or wrote a book ;-)


Not sure about the book!  I would probably talk about the importance of being driven by achievements – not necessarily personal but the collective power that can be released by working together towards a common goal.  If you have the ability to enthuse others and to build teams to work together, so much can be done even against impossible odds.  

I can recall having a very short deadline to deliver a new corporate identity for a previous employer.  It involved not just getting the right agency and the right creative but a launch event, building support from stakeholders for a whole new strategy for the organisation, securing web addresses etc.  It was really hard work but with a great team we pulled it off and the ideas and feeling of achievement after the official launch was great.

Kelly: What is important for you for learning?

Sandra: I am less inspired by formal training than by learning through practice.  Occasionally there is also a presentation or speech that makes a mark.  I recall one presentation years ago about the importance of thanking others and have tried to do that myself but also remarking when it is not done what a demotivating impact it can have

Kelly: What does being a ‘Women of the World in Wales’ mean to you?

Sandra: Working in Wales has many benefits – the scale of the country allows for networks to develop quickly and easily.  Access to others is often easier that in larger communities.  My work involves many aspects of international activity and it is a great pleasure to link different bits of the world together here in Wales.


Sandra, your love of travel, people and the openness with which you embrace change and welcome ideas, activities and the involvement of others, supports and inspires not just those around you, in your team at CAIRD, but to the many of us scattered locally and further a field.

To Sandra, traveller, communicator, master collaborator, lover of TEDxCardiff and leader for change (not just of change), I dedicate this #WOWWales tribute.

Sandra Elliott, a #WOWWales colleague, mentor, and friend.

Who inspires you?


Read more about my #Wowwales Insight Series. From the 9th February to the 9th of March, I’ll post a new blog post every day with a tribute to someone who has inspired, mentored or encouraged me during my 10 years here in Wales. 

You can follow my insight series @drkellypage with the hashtag # OR why not join me and contribute your own blog tribute to the Women of your World (#WOW) — women who inspire, mentor or encourage you. :-)


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