Leadership – how it all started for me!

Some of you may know that I am currently involved in a leadership program at Lancaster University called the Bonington Programme. The programme intends to enhance performance and develop potential, establishing future leaders for the University and only a handful of people are selected on the programme every year. Being part of this programme made me realise that I have never truly captured my own leadership journey and this is what I will attempt to do in several blog posts.
In my opinion, moving up the leadership ladder is a very personal journey. Thinking about it, if I jump back 8 years in this journey, I used to question myself whether leadership is ever right for me? My thinking at the time was leadership comes naturally, you are born with it, I am not sure I am ready for it and importantly, I really enjoy what I do currently. I would have classified myself as a self proclaimed geek, developing library systems, enjoying my job.
Development of systems and services can be a challenging role. For me, it was enjoyable yet frustrating. The frustrations often came from not being able to make a difference or change at a strategic level. Things like separation between teams, distinct lack of communication, not having direct relationship or a co-production model with users, and lack of a coherent strategy (or my involvement in such strategy) all played a role in this feeling. This was the first time I found out how much I want to influence how and which things are happening, probably the first instigator of leadership push within myself.
As time passed by, I decided to make a difference. I moved horizontally to a smaller Library where I had more authority and decision making power. During this time, I also had a great manager, someone who flourished me and grew me with her guidance, support and appreciation. At the time, I didn’t realise how much I grew in the short 5 months I stayed in that role. In fact, I had no plans to move out of that role, I was fairly happy. However, this was also the time when I questioned myself honestly and openly on where I want to go ahead and started thinking bigger. You can call this my second leadership push in myself. This also made me realise how ambitious I was at that time and still am.
Co-incidentally it was my wife who found the job that I am currently in (update – I have left this job now). I still remember what I said to her when she asked me to have a look at this role. My words were, “I have just moved jobs, I am happy and it doesn’t reflect well on my CV if I move job so soon”. Interestingly, she knew my ambition better than I did at the time. She said just have a look! I looked at the job description, the person specification and instantaneously I said, this is it, this is what I really want to do and progress further. We had no idea about Lancaster, nor about the University. I researched well, applied for the position, presented to a lovely audience, met some lovely people and got the position. I can’t emphasise on how important researching the organisation and its culture is before you go to any job interview.
Early on in my role, I realised that the institution is going through a major change. Most of the VC’s team including the VC and DVC joined the institution only a couple of years back. The Director of ISS (Lancaster University IT services) started a few months before me. The PVC® at that time left the institution within a few months after I started. The Director of Research and Enterprise Services retired shortly afterwards. The Librarian left a few months after that. The Chief Administrative Officer joined around that time as well. In addition to all this change in personnel, the Library building was also going through a major refurbishment at the time. All of this meant a lot of uncertainty but also a great chance to put myself forward and seize these opportunities. Opportunities don’t come often and when they do, you need to be brave and take them head on.
It was/is not easy! Establishing a research data management service from scratch, development of University’s research performance and citation growth, establishing Library’s highly ambitious digital strategy, embedding a culture of innovation in Library staff, leading on aspects of the refurbishment project, growing my team at the same time from 3 people to 8 people in a short span of three years, and promoting Lancaster University at national and world stage. The key thing to remember is that you can’t do it alone. You need to have an excellent team around you, a collaborative network of colleagues and high level support from the senior management. During this time and even now, I worked very closely with PVC Research making sure Lancaster University is ready for compliance with external mandates as well as is leading from the front. I work very closely with Director of ISS, who has been a tremendous support throughout my journey so far. I was lucky to have him as my mentor when I was going through the Management Development Programme (now shaped into a new programme called Manager@Lancaster). He was keen to look for growth opportunities for me and asked me to lead on the Research without Borders project, a strategic initiative of the Digital Lancaster strategy.
When the Librarian at the time left, I found the opportunity to work directly with the Provost for Student Experience, Colleges and the Library. This was probably one of the best line management experience I have encountered in my career. The perfect mix of guidance and support along with push to get things done. During this period, I personally believe I grew tremendously, both in confidence as well as my abilities as a leader. At the same time, I had strong support from the senior academic community, the Associate Deans for Research in all four faculties, Research Directors from many departments, as well as Eminent Professors in many fields. They all increased my ability to understand their viewpoint and identify ways to combine that with institutional objectives to create a positive and winning situation. Another key lesson I learnt at this stage was how to present arguments from the other party’s perspective. In order to create a winning situation, you need to identify what’s in it for the other party and present those arguments in a clear and positive fashion.
Two other key things for me during this journey so far were not being afraid to take risk and admitting to your failures. Leaders of tomorrow, especially digital leaders of tomorrow, have to take risks. With risk comes occasional failure. As the consequence of failure increases, so should be your calculation for the risk. Calculate your risk intelligently and don’t be afraid to stop projects. In IT, the point at which you should stop the project is often the most difficult point to identify. The same holds true in life.
In my next post, I will talk about my experience of moving from a rapidly changing environment to an almost stable environment and how this impacts on leadership.

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