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Dr William Figueira’s #leadership tips

Associate Professor @ The University of Sydney

Will was nominated as an awesome leader by my wife. At a time in her life when she was juggling the commitments of babies and a research thesis, Will was able to inspire and motivate; and bring a positive approach to the many challenges faced on a somewhat lonely journey of scientific research. It gives me great pleasure to bring you Will’s tips and I particularly like Tip 3 and Will’s views on milestones.

Who is the best boss you’ve had and why?

This is a tough question as I think what you need out of a boss changes as you take on different roles and become more experienced in your career. Plus I’d probably struggle to rank them as there have been things about all my bosses in the past that I’ve liked and some that I’ve disliked. I’m typically pretty organised and have struggled with bosses who are not. I’ve had bosses who I felt at the time were too hands off with me but now I realise the resourcefulness and self-reliance this instilled has had much to do with getting me to where I am today. Did they do that on purpose…I don’t know? I think a common feature I’ve found positive in several of my bosses is that they create an environment in which I can do my best.

What are your three tips for being a better leader?

Probably the number 1 tip is that you cannot treat everyone in your team the same and you must take the time to learn how to do this. Some people may react well to the management style I may be most comfortable with but many others will not. If you want to get the best out of your team, you may have to adapt your approach.

Tip 2 is to be organised. I find that even relatively disorganised people respond well to structure, to knowing what’s expected. When you are disorganised it seems to quickly spill over into everybody you manage.

Tip 3 is to try to promote an environment of positive and transparent expectations. I’m continually trying to improve how I handle meetings and interactions so that things like deadlines and action items are mutual and transparent. In the case of students I have a big responsibility to keep them on track and motivated. Milestones can be a way to do this but when they aren’t clear or mutually agreed upon, it rarely works. And when goals are unrealistic and never achieved, it can quickly lead to a pretty negative experience for everybody.

What conventional corporate wisdom no longer applies in today’s workplace?

Well my workplace is academia, science in particular. Science is a process, a search for answers which follows a relatively prescribed methodology. There is a generally held belief that the integrity and utility of science, to humanity in general I suppose, is fundamentally tied to the objectivity of the scientists themselves.

The historical belief is that the maintenance of this objectivity necessitates a distance between science and the rest of society. I agree that objectivity is fundamental to good science and I understand the nature of the resulting disconnect. What’s frustrating is while this relative isolation has in the past served to reassure society of the value and objectivity of science, this seems to no longer be the case.

Intertwined with the post-truth movement (can we call it that) that has characterised much of this century, is a fundamental suspicion about science. Conventional wisdom would suggest the appropriate response is further isolation so that scientists cannot be perceived to be influenced by anything other than the logic of their results. There is increasing awareness that in fact, that is not the solution.

I’m not sure we know what the solution is but it involves greater social engagement and outreach. And you see this mindset and awareness in younger scientists. It’s a challenge as we move forward but one that is ill-informed by conventional wisdom.

Workplaces are changing, I predict…

Change!…some forward, but also some back. I think as many good solid practices as bad ones are being tossed aside in the name of increased efficiency and productivity. It usually takes 5–10 years for it to become obvious which of these has happened and then we see the pendulum swinging the other way.

More about William on The University of Sydney website