The most desired qualities of academic leaders

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I am exploring the topic of leadership for almost 6 years now, roughly since the Top 500 Innovators training at Stanford University that our group took in 2012. We were taught then how important the effective leadership is for the success of any organization, in that case of universities and similar research institutions.

The concept of leadership cannot exists without people, and I am lucky to work closely with a group of smart and dedicated students. They taught me that my actions and behavior can indeed influence their activities, performance and sometimes even mood. It was humbling, and over time, I understood how much more there is to learn and practice…

It is hard not to notice that the internet is flooded with leadership advice aimed at entrepreneurs. Thing is, even though academia is a bit different from the business environment, it still needs to embrace challenges of the modern world and apply suitable leadership practices. I look at trends and challenges of leadership, especially in the context of youngest generations, but there are hundreds of posts and articles being published on this topic every single day. It is just counterproductive (and impossible) to read everything.

Earlier this year Google updated its list of 10 behaviors that characterize best managers. There are so many lessons on this list to be learned by scholars. Especially those working closely with or supervising other researchers. Let’s discuss this list in the context of academic leadership.

Academic Leader…

Is a good coach

Being a research supervisor means that you have an knowledge that you share to the benefit of your students. Good mentor knows his expertise and stays within his competences. It is important to stay away from giving advice in areas that you have no prior experience. You might look competent on the short run, but the truth will always surface. This is not the way to build trust in the team.

To support a research team, it is necessary to understand that everyone has different needs and expectations. The only way is to find out how your team members work best, and adjust your coaching to match their work style. This requires to develop empathy to understand when the team need to be nurtured, and when it needs to be pushed towards the desired goal.

Empowers team and does not micromanage

Empowering sounds simple, but it is tricky. In reality it is often difficult to let go and allow others to think for themselves. After years of working in trenches, the transition to supervising position is challenging. Not everyone finds the new role enjoyable, as it usually means less hands-on research, more meetings, and much more administrative tasks.

Becoming leader in academic environment requires getting rid of the whole I-can-do-it-better mindset. Empowerment means that young researches need to be allowed to make their own decisions and take responsibility for these decisions. This demands substantial degree of trust and willingness to share valuable information. Great mentors know that information empowers, while the lousy ones think that sharing undermines their position. Truth is, only if young researchers will be allowed to fail, they will learn from their own mistakes and produce above average results. So, no more ready answers and no more micromanaging.  Empowering, just like leadership, is a skill and like every other skill it can be learned and practiced. So, there is hope for all of us.

Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being of all members

Progressing towards PhD title is often stressful and lonely endeavor. Thing is, the most effective research is done in a collaborative environment. The group can support themselves and find solutions to individual member’s problems. It is now generally accepted that sparks of creativity most often fly in diverse groups. That is why many top world universities, including Stanford and UC Berkeley, made collaboration and team work very important part of their curriculums.

There are various ways to create inclusive academic environment. It is important to get to know team members a bit better on personal level. Flexibility with regulations and deadlines is also recommended, for example allowing working from home if necessary (actually, unless you need a lab, this is not a big deal in scientific research). Encourage collaboration between team members, for example facilitate teaching substitutions or help them working together on some small research project.

Is productive and results-oriented

Daily survival in academic environment is especially challenging for people without clear goals and laser-like focus.

Various dangers lurk around corners, awaiting everyone about to embark on a journey towards a PhD degree. Working on thesis can quickly take a student on an endless voyage towards the horizon of knowledge. The more she knows, the more she finds to learn, study, and understand. It is so easy to lose the way. At the same time, a scientist must avoid focusing solely on “the next paper” or “the next report” and keep an eye on larger goals (like writing thesis). The research is done for a purpose, and it is not wise to forget what this purpose it.

The guidance is especially valuable here, as the supervisor is often the one looking and at the compass and steer the research in the right direction. Pushing towards doing the right things.

Is a good communicator — listens and shares information

Staying silent and listening allow other people to share information about their work issues, and sometimes even their personal life. Being good at listening increases ones trustworthiness, and at the same time helps to gather information. This is important because it is impossible to direct young researchers effectively without understanding of their situation and needs.

Only a fool mentor will rush in and start speaking and acting without discernment. Yet, I find this the most difficult skill to develop. Shut up and listen.

Supports career development and discusses performance

Many young researches do not know what is expected of them at work. They need a clear direction on what is expected of them, how much and when. They need to be held accountable for results and should be provided with regular feedback on their performance. They need supervisors that are approachable, responsive, and  available whenever mentee needs some support.

An academic leader should be a role model and mentor. The long-term relationship between research supervisor and his mentees means that he will have substantial influence on their career development. It is not only about honing research skills. It is also about explaining nuances of academic life. It requires frank and direct conversations about long-term aims, as well as short-term performance.

Has a clear vision/strategy for the team

It is just impossible for a PhD student to start with a clear well-thought career and research plan. This is a job of his research supervisor. Student might have some plans and expectations, but usually their understanding of academic reality is rather vague. So he needs to rely on advice of his older peers.

Great leader is focused on the future looking for potential opportunities for his team. He plans research, dissemination, collaboration and, at the same time, develops his team in order to prepare it for upcoming opportunities.

Has key technical skills to help advise the team

One cannot drive the research team without fundamental understanding of the studies being done. True, after several years the competency level of a PhD student on a particular topic might exceed his supervisor’s. Still, collaboration and effective leading are possible only if both sides understand each other needs and expectations. What I found, this puts quite a burden on the supervisor, who needs to improve his expertise constantly in order to keep up with his team. Especially, if he works with a group of PhD students carrying on different research projects.

Collaborates across Google Faculties

Academic environment is very rigid. Quite often, interaction is limited and the level of secrecy between research teams is high, especially between groups studying similar topics. Academic leaders need to focus on building agile and energized research networks. The times of science cultivated in solitude are over.

Unhealthy competition between research groups prohibits collaboration and advancement. It is not easy to bulid rapport and establish trust between teams, but in the long term, this might be only way to ensure progress in XXI century.

Is a strong decision maker

Any significant progress requires action, and action always follows a firm decision. Academic environment is especially susceptible to procrastination that expresses itself in unending ongoing research. Endless studying is very addictive, and it is as bad as perfectionism.

This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to establish effective collaboration between business and academic environments. Time seems to be an unlimited resource at universities, there is no harm in one more read paper or one more conducted experiment. At the same time, entrepreneurs desire quick and correct answers, here and now. They cannot afford waiting.

This is why academic environment, now more then ever, would benefit from convinced leaders capable of making competent and strong decisions. Academia no longer has luxury of being slow and perfect. I do not necessarily appreciate that fact, but the world changes very fast nowadays, and the only way for us is to adapt.

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Three things I learned during my stay at Stanford University

Three things I learned during my stay at Stanford University

Few years ago, I spent two months on certified training at Stanford University. I was a member of a larger group in the Top 500 Innovators Programme organised by Ministry of Science and Higher Education. We were sent to California to learn research commercialisation from the world’s best. We looked into forces and principles that stimulate cooperation between academics and business environments, hoping to implement the best practices back in Poland. Our goal was to absorb as much as possible and bring back the knowledge, but also the motivation and the spirit.

Looking back at the time I spent at Stanford University it was one of the greatest periods of my life. The place and the people that I shared this experience with, they left permanent mark and change me in several ways. For now, I want to tell you about three lessons…

Environment matters

One thing that surprised me was how quickly our group started to run at “Silicon Valley speed”. Scholars from Poland, taught and trained in the Central European country, we adapted to the Stanford way of work surprisingly fast. Very soon the new norm was long intensive study hours, followed by overnighters fueled by dozens of coffees and energy drinks.

It is not that all of us suddenly become productivity monsters. It was the place that demanded so much that we had no choice but to put extra hours. I don’t think it was healthy, but back then we felt like superheroes and nothing could stop us.

The environment pushed us to work at the limit. Every single thing around was there to inspire creative thought and team collaboration: white boards, open rooms, cafeterias, and the heroes… because you never knew who will show up at the corner. I gave up on a lunch once just to sneak into Melinda Gates seminar (this one), wouldn’t you?

There is only so long you can survive such intensive craziness, but the lesson learned was clear. In order to achieve you must find or build for yourself the setting that will properly inspire you. True, there is only one Silicon Valley, and many of us struggled upon return to Poland, where things moved at different pace. Still, that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to create your own little stimulating environment.

It will not be easy, and you will probably fail a few times. Still, do not get discouraged and remember that in Silicon Valley…

There are no failures, there are only lessons

One thing that you learn quickly at Stanford is that everything is a lesson. Every mistake you make is there to let you draw conclusions, correct, and try again… or “pivot” to something else. The one thing that you will be judged upon is the numer of attempts. Only those who don’t do anything are left in contempt. The mantra is “It is ok to fail.” and everything is about owning the mistakes and move forward.

Sure, life is often not that simple and some mistakes have bigger consequences than others, but at Stanford the experience is everything. It is hard to disregard people for their past mistakes. The failures are like battle scars. They are permanent, but it is up to you if they are the mark of shame or the sign of competence.

Once you get in your mind that there are no failures, only lessons, you quickly understand that the fastest way to success is to…

Get to know the people

There is only so much you can do alone. The entire Silicon Valley understands that. The great importance is given to working with the right people. Your true strength and degree of success depend on the team you work with.

At Stanford, homework was usually a team work. Groups were different in every class, and we needed to learn how to work with a different pack every time. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes not. We were quite diverse group of scholars at different age, career path, speciality, experience, and character. Every single one of us was looking for or wanted something different. But there we were, stuck with each other, needed to work together. So we did, and it was an amazing experience. The lesson was simple. There are great people around you, and you can work together with anyone. You just need to find what you have in common, and build on that.

The Top 500 Innovators Programme was an unbelievable experience. Over the years total five hundred people were trained at the top world universities: Stanford University (US), but also University of Berkeley California (US), and Cambridge University (UK). We came back to Poland motivated and full of ideas.

Years have passed and some of us are still in touch, some collaborate on research, some have became friends. Many are now involved in Top 500 Innovators Alumni Association. They are implementing the best practices right here in Poland, encouraging collaboration and building bridges between representatives of science, technology transfer, and business. Together, they have written many stories…