By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Research Culture & Researcher Development
As managers at the University of Glasgow we are all expected to support, develop and enable the people in our teams. As a manager myself, I understand that this is an act of balance, and that ensuring that the demands of the many projects, the needs of the team as a whole, and the development of each of the individuals are all met, is no easy ride. But it’s also not beyond any of us. Such ‘action centred’ leadership is a learned skill, one we can (and no doubt have) developed through practice as well as training.
For research Principal Investigators, the challenges of developing and motivating staff, may be even more pronounced. For our Research Staff timelines can be tighter and more pressured, workload can feel more out of balance, and employment contracts, less stable.
For this reason, every PI’s commitment to development of their researchers is steered by a 2019 national policy recognising that Research Staff, as a traditionally undervalued and marginalised staff group with precarious career structures, deserve special attention, from us all. The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers (of which the University of Glasgow is an enthusiastic signatory) sets out responsibilities for researchers, universities, funders, and for the managers of Research Staff.
The Concordat includes 15 different PI responsibilities
These responsibilities come under three headings:
- Environment and culture: Excellent research requires a supportive and inclusive research culture. (5 PI responsibilities detailed on p3 of the Concordat)
- Employment: Researchers are recruited, employed and managed under conditions that recognise and value their contributions. (5 PI responsibilities detailed on p5)
- Professional and career development: Professional and career development are integral to enabling researchers to develop their full potential (5 PI responsibilities detailed on p7).
Whilst insisting on more definitive regulation of the management of Research Staff looks like a tonal U-turn on the empathy for PIs I showed above, what the Concordat commitment does that works in our favour as managers, is ensure that universities also raise their game in how they support PIs to support Research Staff. When the Concordat says PIs should “Undertake relevant training and development opportunities so that they can manage researchers effectively.” – well then universities must consider how best to enable that. And of when I say ‘universities’… I mean me, and people like me, whose job it is to think about what PI’s really need to manage staff well, and how best to deliver it. The good news is that the recent redesign of Research Services has brought several new posts into our team, including a Research Culture Manager, who will (amongst other things) take a focus on supporting PIs.
Avoiding the ‘training trap’
What we at Glasgow recognise, is that developing your Research Staff doesn’t have to be ‘a big deal’ to you (though it will be to them) and supporting PIs to do this well, doesn’t have to take place in a training room, for hours at a time. Research Staff are smart, capable, well qualified, and very highly skilled people and a lot of the PI’s role as a manager is often simply to encourage, elevate, include and support them to excel. Permission to fly, and a bit of cheerleading for them, goes a long way. A small amount of your time spent listening to their career ambitions is a highly meaningful act. An introduction, an opportunity, bragging on their behalf, giving them permission to take the lead, a good quality career planning conversation. All these small, practical, achievable ways of supporting Research Staff, are greatly valued, and we know this because the data from our recent People Make Research campaign demonstrated as much.
Excellence in the PI community
The selected comments (from over 100 more you can read if you follow the link above) show clear examples of how Research Staff feel that their PIs make a positive difference to them:
“Working with him allowed me to see first-hand the powerful impact of professional trust. At the same, it has increased my awareness of the relevance of style and communication when facing challenging conversations or other aspects of the development of projects that involve different voices, approaches, and areas of expertise. He has also been generous in providing ideas and suggestions for me to grow professionally beyond formal lines of management.”
“We’ve had different meetings about how to pursue a career in academia, and she has been always extremely supportive in helping me to write fellowships.”
“He leads by giving those around him opportunities to be independent thinkers, to have their voices heard and to be leaders themselves, regardless of their background or barriers they may face. This is not just a tick-box, but something that he does with integrity and thoughtfulness. This takes incredible trust and wisdom but always brings out the best in others.”
“Although he is an experienced senior researcher and policymaker, he actively champions and empowers early career researchers when collaborating with them. He creates space for them to take ownership of projects, while offering mentorship that supports them in strengthening and expanding their skill sets.”
Are you getting the idea, and there’s more:
“He manages to tread the balance between giving lots of independence but also very clear instructions and enough support that I never feel overwhelmed. I always feel like he is prioritising my development and wellbeing – going out of his way to find opportunities for me to pursue my interests and learn new skills. I have learned a lot about leadership from him and hope I will always be able to emulate this.”
“Her approach is one that seeks to enable and provide a deep listening ear while also providing suggestions.”
“He has built a very welcoming, collaborative, and supportive research group. He continues to cultivate an atmosphere of supporting new ideas, and always hears, and seriously considers, the opinions of all group members. It’s so important to feel like a valued member of any group, and I know that this not only creates a better working environment, but also leads to much better research. I’m thoroughly enjoying my time as part of this group, and that stems directly from how the group is led.”
“She supported me in leading my first first-author papers, and encouraged me to apply for fellowship funding, which I was successful in gaining. She has supported other ECRs in this way, is generous with her time and expertise, is constantly celebrating the successes of ECRs she supervises, and always looking out for opportunities for them to develop their skills and meet career ambitions.”
She shows effective communication and empowers all the members of the lab. Also, she can delegate tasks in an effective way. This creates a positive environment for research and consolidates the CVs of all the members of the lab. She is always trying to identify and provide opportunities to us through her roles on different committees.
Inspiring stuff eh?!
Our approach to developing PIs at Glasgow, will not be training-led. It will place small acts of solidarity, and quality conversations at the heart of the approach. And it will recognise that excellence in the management of Research Staff already exists in our community. I look forward to working with you more closely, as we develop our approach and celebrate our PIs.