Getting on Well with the Other Cats: Leadership for Postdocs

If you are early in your career you might not feel much like a leader yet. But the chances are you already supervise students and other team members within your group. You might also want to take leadership in the way your group develops a new research area or want to create change through an initiative you are involved in – you can, of course, show leadership from anywhere in a group, not just the front.

While there are whole libraries filled with books on leadership in business, leading in an academic and research environment is – shall we say – a little different. The authors of a recent book, and others before them, liken researchers and academics to cats: independent and with a high resistance to being managed in any form. 
‘Herding Cats’ is not primarily written for postdocs. It’s aimed at the other end of the academic ‘food chain’ as its subtitle suggests: Herding Cats: Being advice to aspiring academic and research leaders. The authors, Geoff Garrett and Graeme Davies, combine their own experience as senior executive leaders of higher education and research institutions with those of 50 current and past top executives in the sector around the world.
The result is a great collection of key lessons, ‘war stories’ and advice on working and creating change in an academic environment. I heard one of the authors, Geoff Garrett, speak and was very taken by his down-to-earth and, at times, irreverent take on leadership, so I bought the book.
If you have any interest in leadership, university politics or how to manage ‘cats’, the book is a great read even if some of the content is not that relevant to early career researchers. However, I was surprised how much of the advice is really useful and interesting for those just starting out. Here are some of the key points I took from the book:
On time management
·      Whether you are a postdoc or run a university, prioritising is the key. This quote nicely summarises the topic: ask yourself “a year from today, will it matter?” “When my prime objective became clearing my inbox each day, I knew I had my priorities quite wrong.”
On networking
·      “The more senior you get, often the lonelier it becomes.” While this may be more pronounced for someone heading a university, isolation can be a problem at all levels. Advice from senior leaders on this is to create an external network of like-minded people and peers. Such a network also helps you to find out what works, compare notes about working with others, initiate collaborations, collect ideas about strategies, and so on.
On communication and building your team
·      “A golden rule – when you’ve got something nice to say, write a letter; where there’s a problem, pick up the phone or, better still, if you can, go across for a chat. It’s amazing how often people get this the wrong way round.”
·      “What you do (as opposed to what you say) also generally communicates volumes.”
·      “Where there is conflict in life, there are always two sides to every story.”
·      Praise people. The motivational power of saying ‘thank you, well done’ is significant and will be remembered for a long time. Also, spend time with your team, find out what motivates them.
·      “When you take on a new research student, very often you’re taking on a relationship for life.”
·      “Give people responsibility and don’t micromanage”. “Don’t delegate and then send e-mails of advice.” Let others get on with their jobs but your job is to make clear everyone knows who’s doing what, and by when.
·      Managing performance is a skill to acquire. Learn how to give direction and motivate at the same time. “With good leaders people learn. They create the playing field for success.”
·      “Communication ‘cubed’ is a leadership imperative – communication, communication, communication.”
On collaborations
·      “Academics etc. are profoundly bad at collaboration. All the performance drivers are geared towards individual attainment.” A real constraint, when: “it’s amazing the stuff you stumble across working outside your own discipline” and “strong signs are that the future belongs to the boundary crossers and skilled collaborators”.
Making decisions and being strategic
·      “Q: How do you make good decisions? A: Through experience. Q: But how do you get experience? A: Through making bad decisions.”
·      “Strategy is about choice. It’s saying we’re going to focus on these things, and not on those. This is where we are going to put our effort.” And in order to develop your strategy you want to be “rolling backwards from the future, not extrapolating forward from the present”.
And here are some interesting insight into the politics and culture in academia or research:
On bureaucracy
·      There was a surprising agreement among senior executives featured in the book that bureaucracy can be a real bane at universities. So, if the leaders don’t like it either, and every early career researcher, senior researcher or administrator is complaining about it bitterly (at least in my experience) – who is behind the bureaucracy??
On money and resources
·      While it seems tempting to think that there used to be more money, “it’s (always) a tough climate”. “Closer examination of the typical financial climate over past decades shows quite clearly that pressure on resources is the norm.”
On the academic culture
·      “The culture of the typical ‘cats’ environment is often repleted with remarkable intellects, passion, argument, politics (with a small ‘p’) and prejudice […]. Accept and embrace these qualities of your cats and you will find your worklife remarkably enjoyable.”
·      “Cats will not be commanded”, will not follow rules and see the point when a decision is made as “the starting gun for the debate to commence in earnest, using all the ‘political’ weapons at peoples’ disposal”. If you don’t believe it, just watch next time a decision is made at a senior level. Interesting.
Even if you don’t see yourself as a future in academia in the conventional sense, the fact is, there are ‘cats’ to be found at every level, in every walk of your professional life. The themes and reflections in Garrett and Davies’ book tell us a lot about many of the fellow travellers we’ll meet in our careers, and about ourselves – and how to manage both!

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