What do surgery and running a university have in common? Turns out quite a lot, actually.
Deakin University Vice-Chancellor Iain Martin trained as a surgeon before forging a career in the tertiary education sector, working in leadership roles in the UK, New Zealand and now Australia. Speaking to PwC Australia Partner, Di Rutter for their Government Matters podcast, Iain shared some of his secrets to leadership, and how decisions made in the surgery and the management suite require similar skills.
Leadership in the digital era
When it comes to the digital environment, Iain acknowledges that a broad understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of technology is important, but leaders don’t need to be experts. The role instead requires the ability to synthesise large amounts of information to make informed decisions. It also requires the ability to engage with people at all levels of the organisation and work as a team member to draw on the skills and strengths of others, rather than expect to have all the answers.
Most important of all though, he says, is authenticity, which for Iain means “there’s no sense that you are a different person in the leadership role than you are outside of that.”
The skills that make a job-ready graduate
For 15 years Iain has been asking employers what it is they want to see in graduates, and the answer rarely varies. Their degree will give graduates a “fundamental knowledge and understanding of that particular discipline” but, he says, “that’s not a differentiator”. Instead, the employers he speaks with are more interested in the development of so-called ‘soft skills’:
The ability to communicate well, the ability to work well in teams, the ability to deal with incomplete data, the ability to be able to synthesise all of that together into something that makes sense. And I think the other thing is the ability to learn from mistakes. And I think we need to work together between universities and employers to make sure that we get that balance right.
Iain sees it as the job of both universities and employers to get the balance right when it comes to ensuring graduates have the necessary technical and professional skills that will enable them to work well in a team.
Leadership as an innate versus learned skill
While some people may have personal attributes that give them an advantage, Iain is a firm believer that leadership is something people grow into by learning the skills that they need. The classroom can provide a foundation, but this needs to be supplemented by real-world experience working in a team environment:
Like most things in life, it’s a blend between really solid classroom learning, but also that lived experience and getting the balance right between the two.
Iain says that mentors have played a crucial role in encouraging and inspiring him throughout his career. The initial decision to follow a leadership path was inspired by a conversation with John Hood, the then Vice-Chancellor at the University of Auckland and later Vice-Chancellor at the University of Oxford, who suggested it might be something he would come to enjoy.
It was John Hood who provided Iain with another pearl of wisdom that has stayed with him: “Remember, it’s not just about the numbers, but if you don’t know the numbers, you don’t know the data, then you’re dead in the water.”
What being a surgeon teaches you about decision-making
Iain is quick to point out that the transition from working as a surgeon to university administration was a gradual one – ever since he graduated, he had roles split between university life and hospital life until eventually he had to make a choice. Even though university eventually won out, he believes being a general surgeon for well over 20 years gave him a real perspective on life that provided balance in his other role.
Iain credits his clinical background for the communications skills that enable him to engage with everyone in the academic community – which at Deakin includes around 75,000 staff and students.
“Not everyone’s going to agree with you,” he says, “but they’ve got to have the sense that you are listening.”
He is the first to admit that making decisions as a surgeon can be quite different in terms of time and intensity when compared with his current role. But he also notes there are important similarities:
Getting the balance of when you need to make an urgent decision, when you have to make a decision with incomplete information or when the best thing to do is actually wait until you’ve got more information. That’s the essence of good clinical decision-making and actually in a lot of leadership roles it’s the same thing. If you wait until you’ve got all the information, it’s often too late.
To hear the full interview with Professor Iain Martin, and other inspiring stories from Australia’s public sector leaders, visit PwC’s Government Matters podcast.