Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Leading research centers effectively

Not long ago a colleague who is a senior staff member at a world-class research university outside of the US wrote to me. She has been tasked to draft a manual that will provide guidance for research centers at her institution and asked if I would share any suggestions I might have. I thought an abridgement of my response might be worth sharing more widely.

“Here are some brief thoughts on research centers, drawing on my experience with a number of them. I am not sure they will be helpful in drafting a handbook because I think that the function a handbook can play in contributing to a successful center is a fairly limited one.

“What distinguished every center with which I worked was the presence of an effective, even charismatic leader who had a clear vision. He or she had the ability to attract, inspire and empower those working at the center with the feeling they were participating in an important enterprise and making a difference. The people they attracted could produce results. The leaders were great mentors, though they sometimes assigned demanding, seemingly impossible tasks. They were also not afraid to fire non-producers or, if that was not possible, to deftly move them to peripheral activities. What is interesting is that these leaders were not good “managers” in any conventional sense. In particular, they did not hesitate to think out of the box and break the rules when the rules impeded their vision and objectives. I like to think that I exemplified some of these qualities myself when I built the Center for Teaching Excellence at American University though it wasn’t exactly a research center.

“Managing such leaders “from above,” as your department will be doing, requires patience, flexibility and a light touch. Creating a non-hierarchical context of partnership, teamwork and mutual empowerment is essential. It is, however, important to have disciplined financial management, which can be the Achilles heel of a research center and an area of weakness in charismatic, creative managers. How to impose disciplined financial management without stifling creativity is a challenge but it can be done. The principle is to combine maximum discretion with an emphasis on results and accountability.

"It never hurts to look at “best practices.” Pick research centers that are outstanding and develop a clear understanding of how they work. If possible, talk with those who have been successful leading such centers and take their suggestions seriously.

"A book I would recommend is Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins. It is not a book about research Centers, but offers some great insights on effective management. Another is The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization by Peter Senge.

"Best of luck and my best wishes for the success of your project.

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