In the university context, we often focus on issues like how to develop robust research methodologies, how to write a good journal paper, how to do amazing literature reviews, and how to contribute new knowledge to existing research topics and themes.

However, we spend much less time in thinking about professional development, the skills that we need outside of research methodologies and publishing papers; those skills that are transferable to other fields as well as we progress in our career journeys.

This week I had the opportunity to engage our HDR students at Griffith University during HDR Skills Week in doing some of the broader thinking around such issues like how do you start developing your leadership skills, how do you start formulating your unique set of expertise, and how to then make decisions in developing a daily practice.


What skills, where and how

The first thing I always like to point out that no one, absolutely no one, is born to be a CEO.

Rather than seeing leadership as a position-based requirement, we need to fundamentally change our view of leadership and see it as a set of habits that we can develop if we commit and are disciplined in doing so.

Leadership skills are something that can be learned; in fact, they are part of habits that we can all develop and excel in.

For example, writing down your decision principles in different situations, documenting the outcomes and which factors played a role in how those outcomes turned out are part of the learning process.

This relates directly to also paying increased attention to self-awareness, how we relate to others, our strengths and recognising how we work at our best.

For example, for those interested in the literature around good leadership, publications like Harvard Business Review and the associated HBR Ideacast podcast provide lots of evidence-based learnings into leadership can look like, and what issues most managers struggle with.

For those wanting to expand their knowledge and thinking beyond strictly leadership and management angles, podcasts like Coaching for Leaders offer an amazing set of resources (insightful conversations as Dave calls them) with some of the key thinkers on innovation, leadership, coaching, and creativity.

Leaders are always eager to learn, and fostering your knowledge base on key issues and trends, and then thinking how to put those in practice is essential.

There are always those who seek out new perspectives and ideas but don’t put them in practice so leadership is as much about continuity as it is about discipline.

In a conversation with Dave Stachowiak a few months ago, we discussed this principle and he reminded me that there are always thousands who begin something (a blog, a podcast, a gym) but very few actually keep going with the commitment.

And it so reminds me of one of my favourite quotes from Jim Collins:


I always return to this to thought because it gives me comfort in knowing that commitment to discipline via conscious choice to lead well is more important than our circumstances.


Stealing ideas?

When it comes to defining your unique brand, it is essential to understand how the world builds on ideas that have come before.

In academia, this means that we read what other people have found and discovered, and then we use those ideas as platforms to merge, disintegrate, and re-discover new angles that add value.

By understanding the current state of knowledge, we have a much better chance in adding value to the current discussion but also discovering new angles that other people have overlooked.

Many younger academics often worry about finding their own niche and it often seems like people all over the world have already done what we wanted to do.

There is nothing more depressing than reading a journal paper on the exact topic that you had in mind to write… (and that happens a lot during PhD in particular).

But the great thing about science is that ideas build, evolve and develop over time.

If we take the time to understand what those ideas are, how they have originated, we can put our unique spin and contribution, and also own our own brand of thinking and expertise.

Always credit the original idea but be clear about what your own contribution is.

Age or length of career does not mean that you cannot make a contribution.

And once you do, be sure to let those people know whose ideas you built on.

For example, one of our WonderWomen sends a copy of her paper to those key authors whose work she has cited the most in order to let them know how their work and ideas have influenced her thinking.

We definitely don’t do that enough in terms of showing gratitude and connecting with those who we learn from intellectually through reading their papers and ideas, and so seeing her doing this is truly inspiring.


Seek out models of thought leadership and create communities of practice 

Many leaders I have spoken with often lament that they did not know how to seek out for example mentors and didn’t realise the importance of starting to think early on strategically about the leadership skills that they need and could develop.

But it is also about finding role models, following how they lead and behave, and trying to develop a deeper understanding of how they put their principles and core values into practice.

We were lucky to have Professor Andrea Bishop and Professor Elizabeth Cardell to come and share insights from their leadership and career journeys, and it was fascinating to hear how self-reflection, self-awareness and self-regulation have all played key roles in  how they have evolved in their thinking and leadership skills.

This week I also attended Dorie Clark’s Recognised Expert webinar where I had the chance to post the question to Dorie: what is the most surprising insight that you have learned in the last two years about personal branding.

Dorie’s answer?

The most surprising and important insight for her has been the need to build a community of practice in order to have a consistent community with whom to share the insights and experiences, and who she can help to excel.

Starting to develop such communities of practice or even small groups with whom you can share your ideas will help you to hone your leadership skills but also elevate your role and skills as a thought leader.

Also, something that she said really resonated with me when it came to thought leadership: “If you want to be a thought leader, you need to share your thoughts”.

For academia, this translates into thinking more broadly about the way we can share our ideas but also the different and diverse channels available us to really grow our impact and influence change in society.

Just writing journal papers and getting grants is, at least to me, no longer enough to demonstrate thought leadership but we need something more: we need people who are not afraid to share their ideas and expertise also across the non-conventional channels of communication.

This applies as much to leadership as it does to fields like climate change adaptation where we have increasingly so many opportunities to share our knowledge and engage in insightful conversations about what adaptation is and how we can progress it through innovation and impact.

I am grateful that the early career researchers who showed up in both of our campuses this past week to attend the workshops were clearly already thinking ahead, and I truly hope that we can develop some form of continuity and community of practice around these discussions at the university.

Let the learning begin and continue.