The Dance of Strangers: leading research teams

by Tom Irvine

1tmobile_flashmob_1At the end of July I attended our bi-annual event for our programme directors where I got talking to the inspirational leader of our Research Team Leadership programme – Dr David Faraday. This evolving and changing programme continues to be astonishing – we have run this 2-day programme more than 50 times now, mainly as an in-house leadership programme for early career research leaders. The feedback from the Research Team Leaders is just amazing.

David and I got talking about the many challenges that leaders of research projects face in a world where inter-agency, inter-disciplinary and often inter-national research projects hope to thrive. We mused that research projects rarely fail for want of the necessary technical expertise, knowledge or application. The funding review processes are generally excellent at establishing that these elements are in place and the competition drives up the quality of the applications in these areas. However, there are many examples of projects which do fail, or are less successful than they should be.

David recalled two projects in which he was involved that under-delivered due to failures in management, leadership and/or communication. The first, a major EU grant which included 10 partners – 2 academic and 8 industrial – spread over 5 nations; one of the industrial partners was the lead organisation. The first problem was clarifying the leadership. Although the lead organisation was one of the industrial partners, the individual in charge changed more than once. But, even more problematic, it become clear early on in the project that the lead organisation was not really prepared to (or capable of) taking on that role and was expecting one of the academic institutions to do it. This wasn’t allowed under the funding rules, but the industrial partner had the purse strings and the institution was committed having recruited a team of three post docs for two years to work on the project. This resulted in a complex and very ineffective leadership structure for the project and real problems arose when it came to decision- making, especially when all the partners were involved. In the end, despite all of this, there was some high research output and most of the industrial partners were very happy. However, the delivery could have been much more impactful. Issues similar to this are frequently discussed on the Research Team Leadership programme, where academics describe how they are grappling with leading multi-partner/institution projects

The second case concerned a principal investigator. The nub of the problem here was – in David’s words – simply based on the PI’s inability to effectively lead and manage a very talented, but highly independent post doc. David said: “The post doc was young and enthusiastic, as was the PI. But the PI was inexperienced at the time, particularly in being able to keep their post doc focussed on the core task specified in the proposal. His boundary setting was good, but his ability to maintain those boundaries and have the ‘difficult conversations’ was poor – needless to say the PI learnt a lot!”

This particular issue comes up in one form or another on almost every Research Team Leadership we do. Often we find that researchers spread themselves too thinly as they have too many concurrent research commitments. Ultimately, the research output from these projects can be much less than planned for, even if the technical quality remains high.

If these cases resonate with you then you may find it useful to talk these issues through with David Faraday. He’s great at tailoring the RTL programme to the needs of an institution – and has run a whole series of programmes at institutions such as Cardiff and Birmingham.

Tom Irvine leads the Leadership Foundation’s consulting team, full details on all the Leadership Foundation’s research programmes can be found here: Research Programmes.


Georgia on my mind: A distinctive experience


by Dr Paul Gentle

I was fortunate to be able to visit several higher education institutions in and around Atlanta, Georgia last week, in the generous company of a cohort of Top Management Programme 31 delegates. The programme was led by Dr Tom Kennie & Professor Robin Middlehurst. I was most struck by Georgia Gwinnett, a public undergraduate, teaching-only college whose mission is to be a 21st century access institution. It was newly-built and launched in 2006 with 118 inaugural students, now providing a liberal arts education to almost 10,000. The campus provides beautifully-designed buildings and sports and leisure facilities which are well-used by students. Given Georgia Gwinnett College’s mission to engage large numbers of students whose parents did not experience higher education themselves, tuition fees are far from prohibitive, and are limited to a full-time year equivalent of under $3,500 – just over £2,000.

Visiting on a Friday (often a quiet day on US campuses) gives a tangible sense of the engagement and inspiration demonstrated by Georgia Gwinnett’s students. It is immediately obvious that the college and its organisational culture is built on clear and focused educational principles:

  • Harnessing innovation in learning technology to support student success
  • Providing an integrated educational experience in which service learning and other extra-curricular activities play a key role and are actively managed by the College
  • Engagement by all faculty in teaching and mentoring as a hallmark of the institution

There is a deliberately-stated intention to act as a model for innovation in education and administration. All on-campus services and facilities that are not directly linked to delivering the curriculum are outsourced, and the college was designed in this way from the outset.

The founding president, Dan Kaufman, and current president Stas Preczewski, are both former senior officers from West Point Military Academy, and they have applied their experience and vision to creating and sustaining an institution which breeds success – the opening sentences of the prospectus declare ‘Failure is not an option.’

As one dean at Georgia Gwinnett put it, teaching staff are selected on the basis of ‘passion for teaching, and liking students’. Faculty are actively involved in student support, and are expected to be available for students with tutorial needs outside class hours. Every course handbook has the mobile number of the teacher printed clearly on the front cover, and this college-provided phone is meant to elicit a fast response. In addition to providing academic support for students in class and across the campus, there is also a 24-hour online tutoring service for every major undergraduate programme offered on campus.

Despite a short history, Georgia Gwinnett has build a strong reputation quickly, and is already ranked in the top 10% of colleges nationwide for academic challenge, student/faculty interaction outside of the classroom, and for active and collaborative learning. It has also achieved remarkable results for student retention, performing at least ten percentage points higher than the average for state colleges in the United States for first year retention. For a non-selective institution, this pays tribute to the supportive and challenging learning environment offered to students. It also reflects the practice of having maximum class group sizes of 25, and a compulsory attendance requirement.

The power behind the rapid growth of Georgia Gwinnett’s numbers lies in word of mouth: where live-transforming examples of student success affect families, this also impacts on communities, and ultimately, Gwinnett County and beyond. The most frequently reported aspect of student feedback is consistently about one aspect: the quality of the teaching staff. The key message which is now well established in the community is ‘Faculty here will help you make it through’.


There is a clear purpose for Georgia Gwinnett, that of inspiring students to contribute to society. This links to the value of service, and is intended to ensure that the college contributes to the long-term civic growth and sustainability of Gwinnett County and its hinterland. Importantly, the current ethnic mix in the County corresponds to the predicted balance for the United States as a whole by 2040 . This is roughly 35% African-American, 35% white and 25% Latino. Georgia Gwinnett sees itself as an overt prototype of higher education for the 21st century, and is attracting considerable interest from its peers. Not only was it the first new four-year college founded in Georgia in more than 100 years; it was also the first four-year public college created in the United States in the 21st century.

Leadership is a key factor in the organisation of the college. It was set up deliberately without academic departments or departmental chairs, in order to avoid silo mentalities. Deans therefore manage within a model of distributed leadership, in which clusters of colleagues work together across academic programmes and thematic areas of responsibility overseen by associate deans.

In the week when I visited Georgia Gwinnett with a group of leaders from across the UK, the college had just succeeded in securing accreditation for its degree programmes for a further ten-year period, with feedback from the accrediting body which was entirely positive. One aspect which was found to be an outstanding example of leadership practice concerned strategy: Georgia Gwinnett’s strategic plan is a dynamic reality, constantly being updated and enacted. The accrediting body had never before seen this happen before in a higher education institution!

My thanks to Tom Kennie and Robin Middlehurst for setting up such a comprehensive programme of visits, and for all their inspiring work on TMP over the last 14 years

Paul Gentle is the Leadership Foundation’s Director of Programmes and from autumn 2013 will lead Top Management Programme 32 onwards. To find out more about TMP visit:

Flying too close to the sun

by Dr Mark Pegg

Ryanair plane

For several years I’ve had great fun using Michael O’Leary CEO of Ryanair in my teaching. My provocation was ‘everything they teach you in business school is wrong’: here was a man who became a multi-millionaire by openly doing the opposite of the recommended path to business success. He displays contempt for his ground staff, his flight crew, the customers, the regulators, and sometimes entire nations. He is unkind to people with weak bladders and even politically incorrect with his indifference to the old and infirm, and passengers with disabilities.

I challenged my students to disprove my hypothesis and, bless them, they usually come up with a range of solid business virtues hidden beneath the O’Leary rhetoric:

  • Clear offer to the consumer – low cost, a ‘no frills’ brand
  • Sweat the assets – work the aircraft very hard, no excess capacity
  • Genuinely low cost – stripping out everything possible, and then doing it again
  • Business growth and shareholder value – fantastic growth in revenues and profits, building from nothing to a leading European airline in less than 20 years.

But this chapter in the story seems to be ending and his tale may have to be retold. Mr O’Leary seems to have changed his tune. He has been on Twitter for the first time, and changed some of the customer unfriendly aspects of his website. He plans to stop penalising passengers for minor infringements of the Ryanair rules – no more large ‘fines’ for bags that are millimetres over the approved size. A new team will be created to actually reply to customer emails for the first time and the Ryanair app can now be downloaded for free.

Mr O’Leary told shareholders at their annual general meeting he is ‘… very happy to take the blame or responsibility if we have a macho or abrupt culture’ and that ‘some of that may well be my own personal character deformities.’ Voted the worst for customer service of Britain’s 100 biggest brands by the consumer magazine Which?, shareholders complained that the airline’s aggressive and unfriendly image is harming its business. They protested that members of their own families were offended and upset by Ryanair and ‘reduced to tears’ – so that even they refuse to travel on the airline any longer. Mr O’Leary acknowledged that rival EasyJet led by Carolyn McCall, (one of only two women CEOs leading a FTSE 100 index company) bases its marketing and public relations almost entirely around customer service that is better than Ryanair.

So what has caused this change of heart? Simple. Ryanair profits have dipped, growth has stalled, aircraft are mothballed, and ambitions to annex Aer Lingus have fallen foul of the Irish authorities on competition grounds. Easyjet is gaining market share. That is why Mr O’Leary now seems to be eating humble pie in this public act of contrition. He told shareholders with characteristic pithiness: “We should try to eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off,”

But is Mr O’Leary really a changed man? I am unconvinced. This may just be a cosmetic conversion along the road: a naked tactic to keep shareholders at bay while revenues are depressed. I suspect the moment there is any sign of revival in business performance, he will be back to his bad old ways. Management Today called him ‘Icarus Ascending’ with the witty inference that the wax holding the wings together might just melt. In fact, he seems to have been more Daedalus than Icarus in the last 20+ years and there may just be a few more years left in the authentic Mr O’Leary. Maybe, just maybe, my favourite bête noire case study can run for a little while longer.

Dr Mark Pegg is the chief executive of the Leadership Foundation.

Inspiring Women


By Tom Irvine

I’ve been inspired by two women this week. One of them is Janet Beer, the vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes. She gave a very frank and candid interview  recently where she described the challenges she faced as she built her career. I was struck by her ability to balance the demands of family and professional life – and the struggle that many women face when it comes to reconciling those demands. We hear a lot about glass ceilings and the macho culture that dominate our institutions – perhaps factors that – as Janet points out – do result in only 10% of VCs being female. I’ll come back to this if I may when I reflect upon the Leadership Foundation’s female-only *Aurora leadership programme for early career aspiring leaders.

The other woman who has inspired me is my wife Helena. We laughed at each other some years ago when we were both sitting on the settee, side-by-side, reading magazines. The telly was off, the bairns tucked up in bed, and we had a bottle of wine to share. We looked over at each other at the same time – just as you do. We laughed, shook our heads, and got back to our reading. I was reading the Sainsbury’s magazine looking at recipes and she was reading What Car checking out the brake horsepower of the new car she fancied. That pretty much sums us up.

But why am I inspired by Helena? Partly because she manages that balance of family and career and partly because of the way she does it. She has a tough job as a housing director – a job that I just couldn’t begin to comprehend. But equally we have each made very significant compromises to make that balance happen for each of us. But she does it with grace, patience and a sense of humour.

I once had a job in London that took me out of the house– from early to late five days a week while we lived in Yorkshire. That really hurt Helena’s career – but we had agreed it was ‘my turn’ to have the time to attend to mine. She took over the caring responsibilities. On the other hand we have moved home twice to follow her career and family needs. I was a management consultant when we made our move from Chester to Worcester so that she could take up her first directorship in Birmingham. That hurt my consultancy business for a couple of years, but it went with the territory. All the way through our marriage we have played this game of swings and roundabouts – where we took turns at scaling the greasy career pole, with the other doing more of the childcare and homemaking.

What’s all this got to do with a women-only leadership programme? We hear a lot about the many barriers to women as they try against the odds to build a career that has some balance to it. These cannot and should not be underestimated. The LF’s most popular research work (by a country mile) is Louise Morley’s stonkingly good Women and Higher Education Leadership: Absences and Aspirations. The new Aurora programme is seeking to do something practical about this.

I do have a fear though that some men are part of the problem here, and not just the collective ‘macho’ culture. I had to learn to be more fair-minded I must admit, and it wasn’t easy for many years. But I had a patient teacher. My hope is that as the years pass that couples will increasingly engage in that very difficult game of swings and roundabouts. Men may have to accept greater responsibility for parenting to help their partners make their career transitions. My hope is that the Aurora programme will help aspiring women leaders to ‘fix the men’ and to help create a fairer balance based on merit and not gender – or any other ‘difference’ for that matter. Buy your man a subscription to BBC Good Food and laugh while he reads it – it will do him the world of good!

Tom Irvine, leads the LF’s Consulting team

*The Aurora programme begins this autumn in London, and will also run in Bristol, Manchester & Glasgow.

Just the Jobs


by Tom Irvine

There must be more blogs about Steve Jobs than there are apples on earth. But here goes. I am prompted to blog about Steve Jobs as I saw in the last couple of weeks that his biography by Walter Isaacson came out in paperback. I got the hardback as a Christmas pressie in 2011 and found it both fascinating and troubling. I keep the book on my bookcase just outside the kitchen with the front cover facing you as you walk past – I like that it challenges me to think about leadership and success and how the two are both illusive and hard to sustain.

The ‘leadership luvvies’ will hate this book – it describes the genius of Jobs but also talks about his bullying and obsessive behaviour. I loved it from cover to cover. The biography was authorised by Jobs and he was interviewed many times for the book. He however had no editorial input into it, but seemingly obsessed about the front cover that would be used. Isaacson interviewed shedloads of people – fans and critics of Jobs – in the writing of this book and it shows in the range of opinions about his style and approach.

I won’t go through the many successes of Apple and the products that he inspired. Who needs to – they are all around us? I must say however that I still fondle my old iPhone 3 as it is just so tactile. Maybe there is a group I could join to help me with this?

What I do want to do in this blog is two things – firstly to muse about the challenges of managing ‘talent’ and secondly about how you could ever imagine leading someone like Steve Jobs through ‘change’.

Jobs has been described as volatile and obnoxious – but he helped create products that had simplicity, utility and beauty at their core. He stole, bullied, denied being a father to his illegitimate child, refused to shower frequently in his early days, and cheated his friends. This young hippie, truth-seeking, tech-savvy hothead was obsessed about the beauty of products and their functionality and ease of use.

It would be a cheap joke to equate the behaviour of Jobs to that displayed by colleagues in the Academy. But I like cheap, as long as it is cheerful. Imagine being a dean who is just about to commence a ‘performance appraisal’ with a Jobs-like character. It would go like this: “Well Steve, I’d like to talk with you about how things are going with your post-docs.” You can imagine the response. But at the Leadership Foundation we hear all the time the challenges that leaders (particularly academic leaders) have when trying to have that ‘difficult conversation’. If this is an issue for you then you might be interested to know that at the Leadership Foundation we are just about to publish a major piece of research on *performance management – have a look at our website for details.

The other challenge would be being led through change by Steve Jobs. He must have had people around him who could translate his vision in a business reality. You don’t employ 700,000 people in China without being able to organise a business process, or review it to ensure that it is fit for purpose. Nevertheless ‘change’ would be an interesting challenge in a business that had SJ at the helm.

Leaders in higher education face being asked to lead increasing amounts of change – and many involve colleagues who sometimes show greater loyalty to their academic disciplines than they do to the institution. This makes leading change in higher education uniquely difficult in my view. I met with a vice-chancellor recently who said to me: “I don’t mind what academics do as long as it is excellent.” Maybe that is the key – Steve Jobs may have had an obsession with being ‘excellent’ and maybe that carried the day. A focus on excellence – whether it be in teaching or research – is however not a simple thing to carry through. If change is becoming so pervasive and the challenges ever present, then perhaps a focus on excellence will lead to a greater chance of success.

Tom Irvine leads the Leadership Foundation’s Consulting team.

*Performance management approaches in UK HEIs, by Monica Franco-Santos, Mike Bourne and Dina Gray of Cranfield School of Management will be published by the Leadership Foundation in November.

China – West Dual Carriageway

hong_kong_pol98 China

by Hannah Phung

As our International Leadership Development Programme (ILDP) for Hong Kong and mainland China comes under the direction of our new Hong Kong Associate, Katherine Forestier and Professor Jim Yip, I’ve had my eyes opened to the complicated higher education relationship between the two powerhouses of Asia and their ambitions.

Of course the relationship has always been complicated, just read Chris Patten’s East and West – subtitled China, Power, and the Future of Asia. Traditionally Hong Kong was known as ‘the Gateway to China’. I would now like to offer a different metaphor and call it ‘The China – West Dual Carriageway’. When I was researching the higher education relationship between the two there was much going on but the main points are:

  • Hong Kong was ‘returned’ to China in 1997 but it was not included in China’s Five-year plans until the 12th version running 2011 – 2015. This now gives Hong Kong a strategic role to play in the mainland’s development
  •  In 2011 the National People’s congress officially approved an agreement between China’s southern Guangzhou province and Hong Kong to co-operate across the border as a ‘world class’ economic region

These developments allow Hong Kong greater opportunities to grow into the mainland and greater access to funding and resources, especially for scientific research, an area in which China is looking towards Hong Kong to support their development.

But opportunities come with their challenges. Hong Kong has always seen itself as independent and its universities are autonomous. How does it balance that with the mainland and its one party control? I know there are UK universities who have links with Chinese universities and the debate is not new, but it is on-going and Hong Kong universities are better placed than most to explain the reality.

Partnerships and links with China is one of the interests for learning more about the region. Another is the students. With predictions that fewer young Britons will want to go to university – for example, at a recent conference UCAS suggested that by 2020 there would be 50,000 fewer UK home university students. This means that UK universities and higher education colleges will continue to recruit from overseas and with China as a prime target.

Chinese parents work tooth and nail to send their one child to a university where they are taught and encouraged to question, reason, justify and think for themselves.The recent issues with UKBA give other nationals the impression the UK no longer welcomes overseas students (indeed, on a recent programme for Saudi Arabia I organised a student said to me “they [British people] are not interested in us, only in our money.”) This is perfect for Hong Kong’s universities as they move up the rankings: they provide a perfect compromise – Western ethics in their style of teaching and at mainland China’s door step. This is not just my speculation, but a prediction in our recently commissioned research report ‘Horizon Scanning: what will higher education look like in 2020?

Hong Kong and China are the vanguard of higher education development in South East Asia, indeed we are doing more leadership work with that part of the world. In the long term (in our ever changing world it may not be that long), I don’t think it will be about students, I don’t think it will be about partnership or deep level partnership, I think it will be role reversal. The meetings and connections that we make possible through ILDP will give you an insight into the thinking and doing that it is going to make it happen.

Hannah Phung is the Leadership Foundation’s international projects manager.

Places are still available on the autumn 2014 run of ILDP more information here.