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(S7E2) The Concordat and manager engagement: A closer look at the challenges
Episode 231st January 2024 • Research Culture Uncovered • Research Culturosity, University of Leeds
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In our weekly Research Culture Uncovered conversations we are asking what is Research Culture and why does it matter? In this episode of Season 7, we explore the challenges of engaging managers of researchers in supporting their teams, especially in implementing the Researcher Development Concordat.

We discuss the pressure and expectations faced by managers, the difficulties managers face in conducting career conversations and the need for researchers to prepare for, and engage in, these discussions. We also share insights from their work in implementing the Researcher Development Concordat at the University of Leeds, highlighting the importance of open career conversations and the need for academic institutions to prioritise career development for their staff. 

The main points include:

  • Difficulty could include time pressure and unrealistic expectations
  • The need for more confidence and support for managers
  • The responsibility of researchers to prepare for career conversations and engage with managers
  • Manager discussions help researchers clarify their career path and make informed decisions
  • The development of a program to help faculty members run group-based career coaching programs
  • Emphasising the availability of resources and support for managers
  • Encouraging managers not to feel pressured to know all career options and to seek support and expert advice from career professionals

All of our episodes can be accessed via the following playlists:

Follow us on twitter: @ResDevLeeds (new episodes are announced here), @OpenResLeeds@ResCultureLeeds 

Connect to us or leave us a review on LinkedIn: @ResearchUncoveredPodcast (new episodes are announced here)

Leeds Research Culture links:

Transcripts

Intro [:

Welcome to the research Culture uncovered podcast, where in every episode we explore what is research culture and what should it be? You'll hear thoughts and opinions from a range of contributors to help you change research culture into what you want it to be.

Emma Spary [:

Hi, it's Emma, and for those of you who haven't met, year I lead the researcher development and culture team at the University of Leeds. My podcast episodes focus on research culture and research leadership, and today I'm joined by Ruth Winden, our careers with research consultant, to discuss how we can get better engagement from our managers of researchers, particularly in our work around the researcher development Concordat. Ruth and I are both responsible for the implementation of the researcher development Concordat at Leeds and we've just been going through our action plan and progress updates for our annual report and it's really highlighted some areas where we still have challenges. And not surprisingly, given the topic of this podcast that was around manager engagement, and it's certainly not for a lack of trying, but we know this is something that other institutions also struggle with. And if you're listening to this episode thinking, well, we've cracked it, then we would love to know what you're doing and maybe you could drop it into the comments section on our LinkedIn page for this podcast, and I will make sure I put a link to that page in our show notes. We recently ran a pulse survey to ask people how aware they were on different elements of our research culture work. And one of the questions was if they were aware of the researcher development Concordat. And from our respondents, only 45% of our academic staff agreed that they had heard of the researcher development Concordat.

Emma Spary [:

But slightly more reassuring was that 64% of our research staff respondents said they'd heard of it. So it's not all bad, but again, it highlights the work that we still have to do. So before I start diving into questions, I'm going to give Ruth an opportunity to introduce herself. In case you haven't listened to one of her previous episodes, it's lovely to.

Ruth Winden [:

Be here with you Emma. And yes, my name is Ruth Winden and I am the careers with research consultant. And what I love about my role, it's so much about career conversations and how to help our researcher community with their career development. And yes, that is the managers and that is the researchers. And as someone who's come from the private sector to higher education, I think what I notice is that there are a lot of people who would like to do or give better career support to their staff, but are often a little bit unsure and I think where I see myself coming in in my role is really supporting the managers as well as the researchers in having really good, sound, meaningful career conversations. So my bar is high, I admit to that. But I'm also a realist. I know it's not something people were trained to do.

Ruth Winden [:

I'm a trained career professional. I've been at this for decades. It's my 30th anniversary this year. So I can imagine, Emma, how many career conversations I've had with clients and colleagues. And I don't always get it perfectly right either. But I'm on a mission to normalize having those conversations. And when I look back, what attracted me to Leeds and your team and the way that you work is that Leeds says very clearly in terms of career development, the researcher background is a fantastic foundation and we want to enable you to go into any career direction that is appropriate for you. So we're not favoring the academic career path over other paths.

Ruth Winden [:

And for me that is a wonderful basis to have for career conversations and making them really open.

Emma Spary [:

So I'm going to start off with a really easy question here, Ruth. Why do we think it's so hard to engage our managers of researchers with this?

Ruth Winden [:

Know, I think they are very busy people and I think they also have really high expectations of themselves in how to do this. So when I ran a workshop last year to support managers in giving and holding career conversations, what really struck me was they were enthusiastic and they were eager to do it really well. But there was also a lot of anxiety not to do it well enough. And I had to really come in and say, look, you're not trained career professionals. We're not expecting you to do it in a professional manner, but it is part of your role and how can we help you? And what I noticed is it's often something that needs. It almost feels like it's a big responsibility. I need time to prepare. I don't have the time or their focus is elsewhere.

Ruth Winden [:

They're under pressure to get research grants in whatever it is. You need time and space and mental space to have those conversations. And for me that is actually one of the biggest barriers and that's something that I can't really influence. But what I can influence is and support is helping people who are willing to do it to feel more comfortable doing it and also more confident and then those who do not want to do it well, that's a different challenge. But in general, I was really, really heartened to see so many research leaders came and said, I'm doing it but I'm not sure whether I'm doing it well enough. And Ruth tells how can I do it better? And that is for me a really good starting point.

Emma Spary [:

And for those of you who aren't doing it, just be aware that Ruth is on the warpath and she will find you. As I said, it's not from a lack of trying. We've got Concorda awareness sessions that we hold. We've got a range of self guided resources that are available on lots of topics that come underneath our concord at work. And you've mentioned there about time being a pressure. Do you think that we put too much pressure or unrealistic expectations on our managers to be able to support not only their own development but that of their research teams as well?

Ruth Winden [:

I actually don't, Emma. I mean, you know, I come from the private sector, and in the private sector it is normal that you as a manager help your staff develop. That is just the way it is. And you know my attitude, I always think we need to benchmark ourselves against other sectors. And I can't see why managers in higher education research leaders couldn't do it. I think it's more about helping them and giving them more confidence and more strategies or more tools or resources. But on the other hand, I also think I'm not expecting them to be a career professional. They're not.

Ruth Winden [:

But having that, for me, it's making the time and then having open conversations. I mean, one thing, and that is not special about Leeds that is in our sector. I think there's still something about recognizing that researchers have many career options open to them. And I also know from the researchers themselves that they're often a little bit scared to share when they think, actually the academic career path isn't for me. And this comes up so often in conversations I have with people that this person invested in me, this person supported me, this person has high hopes for me. And I feel so bad about admitting actually, for whatever reasons, could be personal, it could be professional. There's so many reasons. The researchers have decided maybe, after all, it's not for me.

Ruth Winden [:

And for me, that is a really difficult situation for both parties. But it doesn't have to be so difficult, Emma, because people have a right to change their mind and they have a right to change direction. But that, I think, is the most difficult conversation that people can have in a higher education context. And how can I support them and where I come in as well, Emma, is that yes, there are the managers, but for me it's always a two way process. So for me it's also the researcher. So you remember when we had those conversations, what I could do? I said I must offer support for managers, but I also must offer support for the researchers because it's the researchers responsibility as well to prepare for those conversations, to expect those conversations if they don't get them to remind their research leaders. The university scientific and researcher development Concordat we have to have those conversations. That's part of the agreement.

Ruth Winden [:

And I'd love to have a conversation with you, and not just five minutes on the corridor here or there, which is good, but I think sitting down and really giving it space and giving it an hour and having those conversations is a really important thing. But the researchers have to be engaged and prepared and do their bit because I always say to the researchers, it's your career, you need to be proactive, have conversations and prepare them and get what you need from those conversations. But that takes courage and it takes time and it takes more than you and I who do this so regularly might acknowledge. So I see it's a big thing to expect, but I think it has to happen not just because it's in the Concordart. We also know, Emma, that younger people, their expectations are. These days, when you look across the different sectors where people work, the expectation is very high in terms of I want to learn, I want to grow, I want to develop, and career development is part of that. That is an expectation. We also have to meet if we want to be attractive to many intelligent, talented people coming to us.

Emma Spary [:

Do you think it's a relatively new thing for academic institutions, though? Obviously it's been going on in the.

Emma Spary [:

Private sector for a while.

Emma Spary [:

Do you think this culture of having those career discussions is something that is relatively new? I know the Concordat itself isn't new, it's been around for a while, but we know we've had problems with engaging people. So is this something that's still considered new or novel to some of these managers?

Ruth Winden [:

I just don't think that we give it enough importance in people's job descriptions. I don't envy research leaders. My word, have they got a lot to do? And it's a gazillion things. We know this. And I don't necessarily think that in the he sector that career development of their staff is high enough on the agenda. And of course we have wonderful examples at Leeds, people who do it extremely well and stand so behind and say, for me it's really important. I'm a research leader and I want them to explore opportunities. And I really want them to grow, and if they want to go, they need to go.

Ruth Winden [:

And if they want to stay, I'll help them stay. And they have that openness and they actually take great pride from seeing their team members do amazing things and amazing things in all different walks of life in different sectors. And we have a lot of people at Leeds who feel very strongly. It's important to me and that's why they do it. So I think there is a lot of good practice, but maybe also we don't share enough of it. And that's where you and I come in. How can we also share good practice? That's why I'm so excited that, yes, as part of the Concorde Awareness Month this year, in February, we have a panel session there where career conversations is a topic. I chose that topic because I think it's really important.

Ruth Winden [:

I could have chosen another topic, but I didn't. So it's also for us to really see how can we raise awareness, how can we bring people on the panel who have tremendous experience, and how can we have these fruitful conversations about career conversations?

Emma Spary [:

And also, going back to what you said about the recognition and the reward for this type of work, it isn't accurately represented in our job descriptions. But I'm hopeful that with the new ref, people, culture and environment section coming in, it's this type of activity that is going to help people to showcase how wider remit their role actually has.

Ruth Winden [:

There's also a really strong motivation. I hear when people say to me, you know, when I was a younger researcher, at the beginning of my career, I didn't get that much support. But now I'm in a position where I can offer that support. And for me, that is really important because I know how hard it was for me. And that is a fantastic motivation, isn't it, Emma?

Emma Spary [:

It is. But let's be honest, we also hear the opposite. Well, I didn't have that support when I was doing it. So, yeah, I think we could look at that one both ways, couldn't we, with our hats?

Ruth Winden [:

True. But you know, when I thought about, ok, now, how can I influence things a little bit? I'm not starting with people who really don't want to do it because that is too hard. I'm starting with people. My strategy is I'm engaging with people who are already doing it, helping them do it better and feel more confident and feel satisfied they're doing a good job. And then people talk a lot about these things, even if it's private career conversations, but they're saying, oh, my manager, I had this amazing career conversation. They don't need to go into detail, but they're saying it's happening and then someone else must say, oh, that's really interesting. I didn't even know you could have that kind of thing. I mean, this is how change comes bottom up, doesn't it?

Emma Spary [:

Yeah. So you've mentioned there that you've got a group of people who are really engaging with this, and I know that you ran some focus groups with them, didn't you, to try and understand what they needed to be able to support their researchers. Was there anything surprising that came out of those conversations?

Ruth Winden [:

I think for me it was how many people were worried they weren't doing a good enough job. And I had to reassure you and tell them, well, you're not trained career professionally, they almost have these expectations. I think that's about this academic excellence, isn't it? I'm an excellent research leader and I need to be excellent at doing career conversations. I don't have that bar for people who are managing researchers. I want them to have really sound open conversations, patience, asking really good questions. And when I say good questions, open questions and basically listening to their poor stocks. The majority of what is being said should come from the poestock, not their managers. Because the managers there to understand their researcher community and what's important to them and what their aspirations are and where they might struggle or what opportunities they're seeking to pave that way.

Ruth Winden [:

It's asking a few questions, open questions, and then listening and then coming up with a plan. Okay, how can I support you? But I don't have the expectation that they do it to the level that a qualified career professional, which is a professional and which takes several years to achieve, that's not my level of expectation. So that surprised me and I think there was also a little bit of surprise. But that might be my naivety coming from outside the he sector in terms of resources, because I obviously have so many resources and I'm very aware where all the resources are and we have almost too many resources if you're interested in careers. And I think that also was a good signal for me to think, okay, people just need, they need to be able to signpost. And I think that's where we also play a role that managers can sign posts and they do, because we do get the crest from managers saying, oh, can you help with that? Or what do you suggest? Or what should I do? And that's the dialogue we welcome. Because if we equip the managers to do it themselves and become more confident, more resourceful, then this can spread across the whole university.

Emma Spary [:

And you need to be really careful on that one, because when these managers come to you saying, Ruth, I've got an idea, or Ruth, how could you help us with this? It can get you into trouble. I'm thinking particularly of an example you're working on the moment, which is developing a train, the trainer program for managers and researchers in the faculty of medicine. Did you want to tell us how that one came about?

Ruth Winden [:

Yeah, to be honest, I don't quite know, because, yes, I love working in groups, and I have a reputation at the university for running, facilitating pretty impactful career management programs for researchers. And I guess that's where it came from. They might have heard about me. I also know that some of their researchers have been on my programs. And so I was asked last know we have this idea, and what we'd love to do is to run group based career coaching programs for our early career researchers. And I, as you know, Emma got very excited and thought, yes, and what excites me about it is that I can help people in the faculty develop that skill set and that ability to run it independently. So what we're doing is, and we just started a couple of weeks ago, I'm the lead facilitator in many ways. We have a group of nine early career researchers, and I have three colleagues who I'm working with and I'm trying to bring in, but they also said, we want to see how you do it.

Ruth Winden [:

And so we have a lot of conversations about it. Then I go in and we facilitate, and of course my colleagues are also in there and helping me. It's not like they're sitting in the corner and taking notes for 2 hours. That's not going to happen, but I'm leading on it. And then we will review the pilot, and then the idea is that I will then have trained them up enough so they can run it. I'll still be with them, but only in the background. And then the third version would be where they do it all on their own. And I will just give them support maybe once a month for an hour if they have questions or not, like supervision, but a safe space where they can say, okay, this is working really well, but we don't know what to do about that.

Ruth Winden [:

The idea behind is basically this very traditional train, the trainer approach over several cohorts. And what excites me about is a not only that, it's always such a joy to work with researchers and to do it in a group setting because I think it's so impactful for everyone. But also helping colleagues in the university who want to take the lead on know they have that career coach academy and they're so eager to learn and implement these strategies and these programs. Emma, for us that's just wonderful, isn't it? Know we can't do everything, but if we can help people who are keen to do their part in career development of researchers so we can help them do it themselves, well, that's only good news. And I know it obviously is a lot of work and it takes me away from other things, but thank you for giving me the chance to do it.

Emma Spary [:

But that's really important, isn't it? Because we talk a lot about capacity and how we can't work with individuals on a one to one basis. And as much as we'd love to, we can't work with every group within the institution. So this model actually is one that I'm hoping if we can show it works in this faculty, we can then look at rolling out across other faculties. Are there any particular topics or themes that they've wanted to concentrate on?

Ruth Winden [:

Yeah, it's interesting because the program is actually helping them very much about the clarification where am I and where do I want to go? And then once that pilot program is finished and it's eight sessions, so we meet eight times every two weeks. So sometime in may we will have gone through the program and then it takes them through to mentorship. So we do more. The clarification piece where am I? And I got to this point, what are my aspirations? I very deliberately bring in the word aspirations because they have aspirations and they need to learn also to acknowledge them and express them so that people can then their mentors can then take them forward. So that's a different program to. What I normally do is because I normally do the whole thing, don't I? Sort of the clarification at the beginning, where am I and where do I see myself heading and what are the opportunities and the possibilities are there? And then I actually help them get those, fulfill those aspirations in this model because of the way that they've set up their offering is it's an orientation program. The aim is that by the end of the program they have a much clearer idea where they're heading and then they will have found their own mentor to take them forward in that process. So it's a really interesting new model and it's also exciting for me to see how that works in practice.

Emma Spary [:

Do you think it's really important, though, to have the academic buy in for these types of programs to have that sort of continuity, because we know that our research staff, they are looking for what comes next, so naturally they're going to be moving on. Is it really important to get a foundation team in place to be able to take this work forward?

Ruth Winden [:

Absolutely. And I think it's capacity building, isn't it? But it's also buy in. And of course, it is really hard for some senior research leaders to think, oh, they're going on this program, and they might actually decide not to stay. But some of them have been here a long time, and they've given the university a lot, and they have progressed. But now, as all of us do, at some point in our life, decide, okay, decision time, I have options. Do I want to stay? Do I want to go? And I always know in reality, it's not as simple as that. But I think we want people to be in the right place and to make the right contribution and be really satisfied, because that's the best basis for doing great work and contributing to the research that we're doing at leads. And for some people, they've done it for 510, 15 years.

Ruth Winden [:

And maybe there's a different path. And one thing that I always notice in academia is that we have such an issue with that. And for me, coming from outside academia, it's so normal. I used to work with executives who would say, oh, Ruth, I've had a great run. I did 15 years as a senior leader in logistics. But you know what? I want something else. Help me change into human resources or whatever it could be. And people didn't feel guilty.

Ruth Winden [:

They felt, we have many talents. I've had a great career. I've really enjoyed it. But you know what? I'm ready for a change. And in academia, what I find so striking is that, oh, my word, so much guilt around. And also, am I not good enough, or am I letting people down? Or how will I be perceived? Or there is a lot of, I mean, it's such a big emotional decision, and I come in and say, you know, it's okay. We're all entitled to step back and say, is this really exciting me as much as it did 510 years ago? What else do I want to do with my life? Where else can I make a difference? And also, Emma, we know from all the programs we run, some people actually use the programs to realize I'm in the perfect place now. I know.

Ruth Winden [:

And then it's an informed decision. It's a choice. A conscious decision, a conscious choice to say, you know what, I am going down the academic route, because now I'm certain. Before, I had doubts, but I explored things. I talked to lots of people. I went through the program. Now I've got the clarity. So it's not always, oh, we're helping people leave because there are no opportunities.

Ruth Winden [:

Absolutely not. It's taking that time to make those conscious decisions. And again, it's that time factor, isn't it? Does take time. You can't really rush it. But I really applaud researchers to say, you know what? I just need that time. And it's important to me. And I'd rather people do that than follow a career path that they're not really convinced of or not passionate about anymore, because that is not. Or feeling stuck.

Ruth Winden [:

And feeling stuck is not a nice feeling.

Emma Spary [:

Yeah, it's that feeling stuck or actually not taking the time to step back and reflect on whether or not this is the job for you tend to see people who roll from contract to contract to contract, and this actually enables them to take, as you said, that informed decision to make this a choice rather than something that's just happened. So we're getting towards the end, unfortunately, this time goes so quickly. But before we wrap up, is there one piece of advice you would give to a manager of researchers to help them, to support them?

Ruth Winden [:

Yeah, I think for me, the tip is really, if you need help, if you want help, you need to reach out to us. That's what we're here for. I want to do my best job in supporting people, in having those career conversations. And the more I also understand what are the challenges. Sometimes it's difficult for people like me. It's my bread and butter. I've done this for decades and I still find it so exciting. It's very hard for me sometimes to think, why is this even so difficult? Because I have to go back into the beginner's mindset.

Ruth Winden [:

And that's sometimes really hard when you have so much experience and I would say, reach out and don't put yourself under pressure to do the perfect job. Or that's the other thing, to know all the different career options that there are. I don't know those career options either. There are, what, 20,000 professions, and they're changing by the day. You will never know everything, and you don't have to know everything. Come to us, talk to us so that we can support you better. I think for me, that is the most important tip I would give.

Emma Spary [:

Brilliant. Thank you very much. It just leaves me to say a huge thank you for joining us today. I'm sure that there will be lots of people out there who are facing similar challenges. And again, we would love to hear from you, but for now, I will leave it to Ruth to give the final goodbye.

Ruth Winden [:

Thank you so much. And yes, we'd love to hear more from you and what you are doing in this space, and together we can share our best practices and make a real difference. So thanks for listening to our episode.

Intro [:

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