Jan Gulliksen on middle management, leading autists, and building values and trust… with drama

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Jan Gulliksen is a Professor in Human Computer Interaction and Vice President for Digitalization at KTH in Stockholm Sweden, among various other national and international leadership roles. He was also Dean of school for 7 years and we talk here mostly about his experiences and thoughts on middle management and academic leadership. He shares his personal development as a leader as well as some practical strategies, many using techniques from his background in theatre and drama, for example, in how to read and interact with people, or in using improv theatre to create insight and shift values around PhD supervision.  We also touch on a range of other issues including the nature of academic freedom, building organisational values, the importance of 2-way trust, what makes good role models, the problems with meetings, the ‘too’ in working too much, and much more.

"You are building an organisation and you are actually building values. This is probably the single most important thing…around the values that you are bringing…and trust is then intimately connected to these values."

"Everybody should be able to play in the organisation on equal terms."

"I never say I work too much. It’s when people add that word ‘too’ that it becomes a problem…claiming [it’s] more than they want to [and] not in control of setting that. But...it is always our own choices how many tasks we take on."

"We have too many [meetings] that don’t contribute and don’t make efficient use of people’s time."

Overview: He talks about (times approximate) …

1:30 Jan introduces his background and current role.

3:27 He notes the values embedded in my question about his choice to do more strategic impact and management work. Discusses being in management roles for the last 10 years and motivation for doing this. Got a management role of 45 people as part of his package when he moved to KTH. Must have done well as he was then promoted to Dean two years after, which is not the obvious way to do this as usually appoint older people. A former colleague said “Jan are you going to be a dean? But you’re actually a good researcher!”. Fascinating because it showed the values that says doing leadership or management is not considered as prestigious or as good as other things. He finds this strange.

6:35 Strategic choice for management an option? But we don’t always do strategic choices. Discusses how we didn’t use to have metrics or Google Scholar and no-one was talking about citations etc then. So you can look at different people in the past who happened to make choices that benefit them now eg in high h-indexes but they were lucky to have made that choice. He believes that leadership roles should be valued much more. He didn’t do leadership as a prestigious thing but because he thinks he has something he can contribute and wants to be part of shaping how we do these things.

8:45 Formal training for leadership roles? Yes. He really likes these internal training programs. Started with pedagogical training courses because they were rewarding and he learnt new things. Inspiring and wanted more. What came next were different types of leadership courses. Every time you join a leadership course, half of it is about leadership, the other half is about personal development. So that was a way to use these courses to mature and reflect on how you. Joined every leadership course he did at Uppsala. And when he came to KTH, joined their leadership courses. Final step was that he went to INSEAD and did their advanced management program for a full month which is something that shapes you up a bit. He also joined as a mentor for others which is also a way of developing.

11:05 What were the personal qualities that made the role a good fit? Jan finds an enjoyment in seeing other people’s development. That’s why PhD supervision is the most fun and rewarding thing academics do. Similarly the thing he likes with management roles is not what people would think. Now that he has gone from dean to Vice President, he used to have staff responsibility for more than 400 people but as vice president has no staff responsibility. People say ‘lucky you’ but he thinks that is the most rewarding part, the between 4-eyes meeting with staff, mutually solving problems to help their development. Much more fun than working on strategic plans or management group meetings that you also need to do. Typically HR issues is the biggest part of leadership roles.

14:00 Practical skills he brought? One of his backgrounds that he uses a lot in his leadership role or any role is that he started out with theater and drama. Wanted to be an actor, director. Read a lot, did a lot. Learnt a lot. Uses that knowledge every day without being aware of it, reading people’s eyes, trying to watch what is happening from the outside as a director, shape what is happening there, simply by how you phrase things and speak you can control the stage there. Thinks drama should be one of the core subjects for schools. Can use that knowledge to control your voice, your body, how you pause, create awareness by being silent and being ready to be silent for a longer time than you do. Both reading, seeing, observing and then also turning it into something you do yourself. Classes on improvisation, and how they make the story line continue etc but clear rules on how you make an improvisation that you need to follow to develop the story. These happen in real life.

19:15 Subtle herding of cats, or leading clever people? Management book, writing about management from a conductor’s point of view (Esa-Pekka Salonen). Leading artists. Which is bit like herding cats. He felt that when he became Dean. Wants to do a follow up, leading autists, simply based on the experience of leadership in academia. Can seem like an insulting title but clearly have brilliant people, many of whom probably have some cognitive special skills, that makes you need to be more aware of your leadership skills. Another aspect of academia that should be debated much more, compared to leadership in business or public sector, and that is the concept of academic freedom. Academic freedom means nobody should influence you on what types of methods or research questions you use but many academics, particularly the higher you get up in the academic career, would want the concept of academic freedom to be read as “I don’t have a boss, nobody should tell me what to do” rather than it is about your research and the freedoms in relation to that. So management in that sense becomes very complicated because you are supposed to be a manger of people who are of course highly skilled, more skilled than you are in their particular topics but still there are things you can contribute to their development. This is something that probably will change in the future because he doesn’t think it is a sustainable solution to have universities run in the leaves of the organization and where the management roles don’t have any opportunity to steer or control how things are happening. He has heard something said about a president at a university that when they make a decision it is heard as a statement in an ongoing debate. This is bad as it means a president can’t make any decision and how can you develop and change a business if that is the perspective.

23:50 Business of academia? Discussion of different way that the term ‘business’ is used. In Swedish have the word ‘verksamhet’ which is best translated into English as business but it is a concept about ‘work activity’ but more than that. Wants English to inherit that word. So talking about teaching, management tasks.

27:20 Navigating boundary, encouraging people to participate in the business of academia? Usually go to a leadership course on individual management between two people to have difficult conversations, then courses on strategic management, but really not a course for middle management and middle management probably the most tricky side of management. He has had a manager above him and is managing people so has seen this tension in the middle management role. Also works fairly well in industry but there are things that need to be developed in academia for middle management. How do you contribute to delivering on the development plans of the manager above so decisions are channeled through. But he sees this autonomy makes a management meeting on the top a tricky issue, and need to come up with a decision. Middle manager may have been fighting for the opinions of their groups but may not have got their will through and how do you deal with that. He has seen many middle managers go back to their group and instead of saying “we had discussions, made tradeoffs and agreed on this that we have to deliver”. Instead they say “I really fought for you and these stupid managers above didn’t listen to what we said so now they are forcing us to do this.” But this is not in the management spirit. He would love to see a management course to help with the struggle of that role that has contradiction in terms, fighting for subordinates upwards and then have to communicate decisions down.

32:10 A better way of doing it? Role play or drama might help you think about these different roles. When you are middle manager, you should talk much more “we”, “we made a decision, we did this” and talk about the collective of management that made the decision. But he hears instead that “he made the decision” and distancing from the decision and keep on fighting that instead of being part of the collective making that decision. As a manager of a group, need to be the advocate for the joint decisions being made and even if you didn’t like the decision, your role is to make it happen than fight against it. Need to reflect on how to tell the story about why the decision was made. We are in the trust business. So need to build that trust so people can see that different views were considered. Then eventually decisions had to be made and different tradeoffs.

37:00 Trust also works both ways. Talking about needing to trust our managers, but managers also need to be able to trust staff to work in this fashion. You are building an organization and you are actually building values. This is probably the single most important thing to do, is around the values that you are bringing – so that people like we are moving in this direction because we share a set of values in this organization and trust is then intimately connected to these values. How to do this practically? Openness and transparency is a value but you can’t be open and transparent about everything as a manager, sometimes not even allowed to be. But if generally have the notion, openness needs to work in collaboration with trust, that if we appoint someone as a leader, we need to trust the leader to take the wisest choices. Delegating the management role.  Equity also important. Everyone’s point is important and valid. The more heterogenous the group is, the better choices you actually make. It is involving every staff, students, administrative staff in management team.

42:00 Next issue is a lack of respect between faculty and administrative staff. In Swedish, the word ‘administration’ is seen as not prestigious, for the lowest in the income scale etc. But still everybody should be able to play in the organization on equal terms. How to have these conversations? In groups, coming up with concepts you can stand by. In other situations, they come in organically. Busy academics can feel these types of discussions are beyond the limit of what they can do. So may need to trick that in to get discussion. Talks about some issues related to harassment based on what people are earning. How to work with these issues? 

47:12 Did a long project over a year and a half called a Sustainable Work Environment. Could see it was working in the annual work environment survey that harassment went down and trust in management went up. PhD students felt most pressure, to work long hours, not getting enough support from professors. These were also things to discuss. Got a theater company to come, interview PhD students and supervisors. Then gathered with all supervisors with theatre company re-enacted student views, then stopped and asked for what could be done differently that was then discussed. Then re-played with the new approach. Afterwards people could really see this was for real and how difficult it was to recover. So trying to come with these things that are fun, efficient, social, these are activities to help with development.

52:20 Did a lot of activities with PhD students. A lot of their problems is with time management. Didn’t do any relaxation. Tools to get more relaxed and work with own attitudes to work and lower self-expectations. And working with the supervisors about what is reasonable and to think about how expectations are communicated. Need to talk about it in a different way. Role models? Role models usually ‘stars’. Female role models to show what you can do/become. Didn’t work out as good as getting role models that were more ordinary that people could identify with and see this path as a great outcome. Role models shouldn’t be the top people in excellence.

55:25 Working hours role models? Talks about this freedom that we have … to choose where and when to do work is something that we really should treasure and treat with dignity. And trusting people to deal with their own time properly. Better to work with people’s way of managing their own time/work. It’s your own choice. That’s the important thing. Email is what people think is their biggest work environment problem. Interested in seeing what work will be like for the next generation that don’t do email. Talks about our digital environment, being able to take work with us everywhere we go.

1:02:45 How does Jan manage that flexibility? A lot is about how happy and satisfied you are with what you are doing. So not a big problem if working too much in periods. Other periods where you don’t work as much. Would never say he works too much. It’s when people add the word ‘too’ it becomes a problem, working more than they want to work, and perhaps not in control in setting that. As academics, our own choices how many tasks we take on. We need to set reasonable levels for what we are doing. Discusses his strategies for saying yes/no. Most of tasks are ones he has chosen because he can contribute something and add value. But we also go to too many meetings. Need to think through how we do meetings. Could have done better over the years having fewer meetings. The most rewarding meetings are between 2-3 people. Big meetings cost and we have too many that don’t contribute and don’t make efficient use of people’s time.

1:07:45 Discusses his own strategies as Dean for handling meetings, collecting them on one day, some you have to have. Could have prepared meetings better to have a more efficient meeting. But schedule became too crowded to do that. And maybe didn’t delegate enough. People also didn’t open agenda before they came to the meeting. Experimented with ways of making them more efficient eg Google doc that all could contribute to, removing need for a secretary. Good for losing time to translate notes to document but created less dynamics at the meeting with people distracted by their laptop in the meeting.

1:10:34 Final thoughts – for another discussion, about engaging with politics and think there is a lot we can do there. National and international politicians and their interests in wanting to contribute to society and their openness and curiosity to get knowledge from academia. An issue of them getting access and we’re not very good at communicating with them. Also brings in selection of research topics – do they contribute to our career development or to changing the world.

1:14:15 End

Related Links

Jan’s personal web page & blog: http://jangulliksen.com

Jan’s KTH web page: https://www.kth.se/profile/jangul/

INSEAD Advanced Management Programme:

The conductor Jan referred to is Esa-Pekka Salonen and he has given several talks and seminars on leadership in relations to the orchestra - how you see the individual and look at the whole picture at the same time. We’re unable to find the book but there are several articles in the newspaper media about it but not the exact quote, such as: https://www.metro.se/artikel/stjärndirigent-leder-chefer-xr. Or he talks about his leadership here: https://www.aktuellhallbarhet.se/esa-pekka-salonen-han-vagrar-att-lamna-havet-bakom-sig/

The word “verksamhet” is untranslatable as the following statement from the dictionary in Swedish explains: https://sv.wiktionary.org/wiki/verksamhet. A Google translate of the concept brings the following: https://translate.google.com/#sv/en/verksamhet. But Jan feels that the concept of  “Operation” clearly does not capture it.