This week we talk to Robyn Healy, Dean of the School of Fashion & Textiles, about being present and leading through disruption.
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Being present - Leadership series interview
[RMIT ORGANISATIONAL DEVELOPMENT MANAGER NOELEEN CARES TALKS TO PROFESSOR ROBYN HEALY, DEAN OF SCHOOL, FASHION & TEXTILES, ON A SPLIT-SCREEN VIDEO CALL]
[NOELEEN CAREY IS SHOWN SEATED IN AN OFFICE AND SPEAKS DIRECTLY TO CAMERA]
Thank you for joining me today, Robyn. We are really happy to have you as one of our guest presenters in our leadership series. So, I'd like to start off with a question around what leadership principles have you followed over the last few months to set yourself and your staff up for success?
I suppose one of the things that I've really worked hard at is just knowing that I've got really good people around me and I've trusted them. So, I've been really-- I've been really pleased with how people have responded in a very, you know, difficult situation. I think for me as a leader, it's also letting people in. So, in terms of knowing the School, I got to know the School differently. And I know that sounds quite odd, but in terms of being put in a situation like this, and rather than telling everyone all the time what to do, I suppose what I've had to do is let go of some of that. But also, at the same time, give people confidence that I do know what I'm doing, even though I have no idea what might happen next.
So, I think that's a very interesting part to play as a leader. So, you don't want people to doubt that you can't lead in a situation like that. But at the same time, there's nothing wrong with being very honest about the sorts of things we are all confronting together. So, for me, it's also been sharing that. And also, trusting people to be part of what we do next. And I think in terms of a turnaround where we saw our staff-- and it's not just learning and teaching front-line staff, but everybody, turnaround very quickly to deliver online, you know, when we had very little preparation time. But we trusted-- I trusted my staff that they could do that, and they did. And they did it incredibly well.
So, I think rather than me always telling people exactly what to do, and you tend to, in a situation like this, which we would describe as an emergency situation, it's very natural to sometimes become too officious. And I think that's one thing in terms of a principle, is when you know your people, you should let them do the things they are good at.
One of the things that we discussed in our earlier conversations, is around how you are reaching out to so many of your staff and students, or our staff and students across the University. How do you juggle such a load?
Well, I don't see it as a load. So, what I decided early on, was that I needed a presence. I mean, when you are in a physical space, people see you, you walk around, you collide into people. But when you are in a virtual space, you really have to think of another way of popping in. So, I've been popping in at program meetings, student forums, any opportunity where I can just be there. I'm not there to take over the meeting, I'm not there to make people feel that they can't talk. I mean, sometimes I'm just in the background. Other times people will ask me things and I will share what I know.
And I think that's been a real lesson to me in being part of more communities than I ever have before in some ways. It doesn't have to be a heavy touch, it can be a light touch. And I think that for people to know that the Dean is there, that I'm listening. But I also can answer questions, has really given me a sense of what everybody is doing. So, I understand more deeply some of the concerns. I also recognise things before they even tell me. I think that sometimes leadership is always looking ahead, rather than waiting for people to come with you with a situation. So, it's trying to see if you can put in place something before it actually happens. And I think that's where that intelligence of being present, noticing, listening. And often, as I say, it is just being there without actually having to take front and centre. It's not a hierarchical, it's being in a place where you can share. And again, it becomes-- we all come together in the same way, because we have knowledge of each other.
So, it's interesting that you said that's one of the lessons that you've learned and an incredibly valuable lesson. What other lessons have you learned?
Well, interestingly enough, very personal observation being a Brunswick-centric person. I've now communicated with more people in the University than I ever did when I was at Brunswick. So, for me, it's interesting how you network and ways of network-- networking. And I think sometimes we get a bit lazy about how we include people in things. How we extend our networks. And suddenly, I've discovered there is a whole world out there that I can connect with, without having to worry about whether I have a meeting at Brunswick or somewhere else. And I think it's probably a lesson for all of us when we start to think of how we-- how we network with each other.
I've also learned, as a leader, it doesn't matter if I don't know everything. So, going back to instilling in people a belief, a confidence that, you know, together we can do this. But also, for me, what next. So, rather than just dwelling now. For me, it's been very much about looking at opportunities and what happens next. We've now developed some incredible ways of working online. For us, we are also very privileged to be part of a PPE project developing masks for the medical profession. We've seen ways of working differently with industry partners. We've also seen the importance of ourselves to a community that relies on us, you know, in many different ways. Like the community of Brunswick, the livelihoods that fed into our campus, the various people that we interact with.
So, I think for me in terms of looking at, as a leader, being part of a community, that we are not in isolation. And I sometimes think we forget that. And I think by having time to reflect on what we do, what's important, we've been challenged as a university in terms of our role, both to ourselves and also to the greater community. And I think that, as a leader, gives you an opportunity to think, so what are we doing? What is important? What is our contribution? And I think they are the sort of reflections that I've been having.
I've also been trying to share with my School, and certainly with my executive team, for us to really think about what our role is in a broader community. Because at a time like this, it's very easy just to look at oneself. And that's important, we need to look after ourselves, we need to worry about our families and all the other things around us. But in our role at the University, it's also important to look at, so what is my role here? What are the things that are really important? So, as we come out of COVID-19, what are the things that we-- that we put more effort into? What are the things that perhaps we let go of? I think they are quite hard decisions that all of us are thinking about and need to be made.
You certainly speak with a great deal of optimism. And when I reflected on our last conversation, we really are entering into a time when we are going to be able to truly work differently. We're going to be able to work as one university now more than what we have in the past, because we don't have to worry about whether you are located at Bundoora or Brunswick or the City or Spain or Vietnam. So, it's really-- very really encouraging for me to hear your optimism and these great opportunities that you've identified. So, just in closing, my final question is, what advice would you give to other leaders in the University during these times, but also as we start to transition back onto campus?
Well, I think-- I think it is good to look at opportunity. And people that know me know that I am a great optimist. But I find for me, as a leader, they are the sorts of things I feel I have the capacity to share with others to get them excited. And even though we go through a moment like this and it all seems all too hard at times, we do start to see the opportunities and also the new capabilities for our staff and also our students. And then, what our industries will look like as we come out of this. And we know the conversations that are going on at the moment in the Australian economy. You know, we've been asked to take a leadership role and we should. And that's where we need to step up and think quite differently about what that looks like. We all know our areas incredibly well. And, as I say, we have proven from what our staff and our students have done over this time, incredible capabilities and capacities that we have.
So, I see that coming out of this, is a great opportunity of what will happen next. And we can drive that, we can be a really important part of that. You know, and our communities around, it's not just the university sector are looking to us. And I think this is the opportunity that I would continue to pitch to the people around me.
Well, thank you for joining us today, Robyn. Some very wise advice and some amazing learnings. And I love your optimism and I look forward to seeing how these amazing opportunities play out in the near future. Thank you.