‘One thing I’ve learned is that if you can’t tolerate failure, you probably won’t achieve success’
Whether they come from an academic background or not, the senior managers who serve their university best are those who recognise that the ultimate purpose of everything they do is to support the academic mission of their community. Clarity about this overarching goal helps enormously in cutting through the noise that inevitably surrounds discussion of policies, accounting, staffing, planning, regulation and so on.
In maintaining such clarity, I believe I have an advantage in that I began as a researcher and continue to be research-active (I fully expect to be submitted to the 2021 research excellence framework). Now that I have fewer “bosses”, I am able to deliver on the key advice I received early in my career: block your time to allow for concentrated work. Accordingly, I set a number of recurring meetings, and then try to respond positively to as many other requests as possible between 8am and 4pm and 6pm to 8pm, Monday to Thursday. Friday is for research, reflection and
complex emails (as is Sunday).
But as the complexity of my diary increased, my teaching morphed from lecturing to project supervision, and my research engagement evolved from supervising PhDs to managing postdocs, and then to collaborating with peers and colleagues. Finally – when I realised that I would not be returning to the academic ranks full-time – I moved my whole research field from modelling and data creation towards analysis of existing data.
I tend to think of my role as “leadership” rather than “management” – although I recognise that both terms have their negative connotations. What I mean by leadership is striving to use my influence to nurture, facilitate and inspire colleagues.
The greatest pressure on me – and, indeed, my greatest ambition – is to ensure that despite the internal and external constraints I contribute to making my university greater than the sum of its parts. The true perk of my position is in seeing that happening. By the same token, however, I have learned the importance of keeping an open mind and enabling other colleagues to pursue their own good ideas in service of a shared vision. This is as important as delivery of your own ideas.
I’ve grown into leadership over 26 years, as a head of department, vice-dean, dean and, currently, vice-provost for research. While I do not think of myself as “poacher-turned-gamekeeper”, with each progression in my responsibilities I have gained a more nuanced understanding of the wider complexities within and beyond my university. I seem to be, however, a constant source of disappointment to former departmental and faculty colleagues, who assume that I can fix all the woes of the institution (not to mention of the government) single-handedly.
On a day-to-day basis, I am blessed by an excellent set of colleagues in my current team, who provide a sounding board and multiple provocations. I have also benefited from bosses with inspiring strategies, including my first head of department (“have catholic interests”) and my first provost (“see beyond the next step”). And I have enjoyed and hugely benefited from being able to talk through issues with a personal coach from time to time.
But, mostly, I have learned on the job. Primarily, this has been from mistakes, both my own and other people’s. Some degree of learning-by-doing is both inevitable and desirable, and one thing I’ve learned is that if you can’t tolerate failure, you probably won’t achieve success.
Other pearls of wisdom I have accumulated include the fact that interviewing is a very hitand-miss way of making appointments, and that if you ask for things well, you may get more than you asked for (in both senses).
I also keep certain clichés close to hand. Leopards don’t change their spots. You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. Through many years of rigorous testing, I have established their truth beyond reasonable doubt.