Academic Leadership, Module 1

Last week I participated in the first (two day) module of a six month TU Delft course on “Academic Leadership” — a course so successful it has been taught every single year for the past 32 years.

Maybe the most impressive content comes from the participants themselves (16 in total this year), who serve in different leadership roles at TU Delft. Participants can bring in “cases” they are currently struggling with — my case relates to moving my department to a new building (with less space for the 150 people involved). The participants can ask questions about these cases, often reflecting their own experience in dealing with similar cases. The questions not only help to drill down to the essence of the case, but also to the (possibly deeply personal) reasons behind the struggle at hand.

The format for this participatory content is that of “intervision“, which in English translates to “peer supervision”. It is a technique common among (mental) health care professionals, to exchange their experiences, to analyze how they handle a given complex situation, and to reflect collectively on their professional conduct.

The intervision in this course takes place in smaller groups of four, under the guidance of a coach. In a series of sessions, each participant gets one afternoon to present his or her case, and to discuss it in depth in a trusted, fully confidential setting. A few years back I participated in such an intervision, and I look forward to doing this again.

The actual course content of the first module came from Mathieu Weggeman, a professor and consultant who specializes in management of knowledge-intensive organizations. His lecture carried the title of his book Managing Professionals? Don’t!, emphasizing that professionals usually work best when their managers take a step back. No more “planning and control”, but a focus on shared ambition and employee expertise. I’m sure this resonates with many academics.

Weggeman spent considerable time discussing the characteristics of leaders in excellent professional organizations. Such leaders:

  • develop, together with all employees, a shared ambition;
  • inspire people, and involve them in the organization’s strategy to materialize the ambition;
  • communicate fairly and timely: they are available, and they listen (think management by walking around);
  • are clear about the desired output, and offer clear feedback;
  • are assertive towards employees who are not good at their job anymore;
  • function as “heat shield” against “noise from above”
  • have an authoritative yet serving and humble attitude

Weggeman connected this to a quote from Laozi (老子, 6th century BC):

A leader is best when people barely know he exists,
not so good when people obey and acclaim him,
worse when they despise him.
But a good leader, who talks little, when the work is done, his aim fulfilled,
they will say:
We did it ourselves.

Weggeman also discussed tools to diagnose and design organizations. Such tools need to distinguish (1) setting goals, (2) designing the organization, and (3) executing a strategy to meet the stated objectives — in Dutch nicely summarized as richten, inrichten, verrichten. Weggeman explained how such activities can be influenced through organizational “design variables”, which he (loosely) based on McKinsey’s 7S Framework. This framework distinguishes seven elements, described as (wikipedia):

  • Strategy: Purpose of the business and the way the organization seeks to enhance its competitive advantage.
  • Structure: Division of activities; integration and coordination mechanisms.
  • Systems: Formal procedures for measurement, reward and resource allocation.
  • Shared Values: Included in culture by Weggeman, who also includes in culture the way of working derived from these values.
  • Skills: The organization’s core competencies and distinctive capabilities.
  • Staff: Organization’s human resources, demographic, educational and attitudinal characteristics.
  • Style: Typical behavior patterns of key groups, such as managers, and other professionals

McKinseys 7S Framework

The basic premise of this framework is that these seven internal aspects of an organization need to be aligned, and that they are interrelated: Changing one element will affect the others.

As any good management consultant, Weggeman was full of quotes. To explain the need for a shared ambition, he quoted Nietzche:

He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how’.
(“Hat man sein warum des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie”, translation by Frankl)

As an academic, it is easy to get lost in the fights of the “how” (getting tenure, submitting a paper, writing a review, applying for funding, managing the class room, handling Blackboard Brightspace, etc., etc.). And naturally, it is our collective duty to improve the ‘how’ wherever we can.

But our ‘why’ is clear: Driven by curiosity, we train young people to become the world’s leading computer scientists and software engineers, and we push the boundaries of what the world knows about computer science. And this we want, in the words of the late David Notkin, “so that society can benefit even more from the amazing potential of software.”