‘One thing I’ve learned is that if you can’t tol­er­ate fail­ure, you prob­a­bly won’t achieve suc­cess’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - David Price is vice-provost (re­search) at UCL.

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.

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