new york, new york

At the London Business School (LBS) Senior Executive Program (SEP) last year, a senior executive from Adidas happened to remark at dinner one night that Frank Sinatra’s song “New York, New York” was used in German restaurants to signal to patrons it was time to leave. The things you learn in school!

She (yes, the Adidas senior exec was a she! why are you surprised?) wasn’t to know that Sinatra’s “New York, New York” was the piece of music I’d chosen for the LBS playlist. It was the song I’d selected that “had special meaning for me – that transported me back to a precise moment in my life, that captured an important, unforgettable time or turning point.

Whenever I hear it I am instantly transported back to an incredible party in March 1991 in Mudgeeraba on the Gold Coast hinterland in Queensland. The venue was a beautiful white Queenslander property on acreage, the home of two friends/colleagues from Bond University. After graduating with a DPhil from Oxford in 1990, I’d accepted a postdoctoral position at Bond University Science and Technology School (SciTech). In June 1990, some 9 months before the party, I’d arrived on the Gold Coast from the UK and had spent my first few nights at that very same house (along with my dad who had driven me the ~1000 miles from Melbourne) while I sorted out my own long-term accommodation.

The party was fancy dress and New-York-themed. I was Madonna (well, “Vogue” was in vogue at the time). The head of SciTech was there as Crocodile Dundee. King Kong also made an appearance.

Even my mum was there, visiting from Melbourne with 2 other family members.

The occasion was a very memorable farewell. Mine. A few days later I would be flying out of Australia to take up a 2-year postdoctoral position at Rockefeller University, York Ave, New York, New York. Before I had completed one year of a three-year contract at Bond University, I would be swapping my subtropical home on the Gold Coast for a studio apartment on the 17th floor of a high-rise on 63rd and York.

As I explained in a previous post, Bond University announced the closure of SciTech in Nov 1990, just 5 months after I arrived. Dozens of people were summarily sacked, including me. PhD students part-way through their research studies were without a supervisor, a lab or a stipend. It was a very traumatic experience.

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Two young women, myself (top) and PhD student Anneliese Palmer, 24 hours and a sleepless night after they’d been told their careers were about to be severely disrupted. I hadn’t even washed my hair by the looks of it. From The Brisbane Courier Mail, Wed 7th November 1990

For me, and perhaps for others, the New York party was a very welcome pressure release, after months of uncertainty and drama. It was a chance to have some fun, and to take control of life again, to set a new course after the turmoil and angst of the previous few months.

Not surprisingly, the grand finale of the party was that song, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York”. When it came on, the volume control was turned up to 11, the speakers blared, and the whole School – together with family and friends – sang in unison: “Start spreading the news…”

(in case you need a little reminder….)

So that was the song I had chosen for the LBS soundtrack.

I had selected it because it marked a key moment in time for me. A moment of stark clarity. A point in my life where threat turned into opportunity – an opportunity that changed the course of my career. I would leave Australia, move to New York, work in a fabulous lab, and generate new knowledge that would lead to a first author paper in a highly prestigious journal. That work would lay the foundation for research that I continue to this day.

Not that I knew any of that at the time. All I knew then, was that I was taking a big risk, and traveling half-way round the world again to re-start my post-doctoral career.

Perhaps unconsciously, I had also chosen that song last year for LBS because – as my Adidas colleague so neatly explained – it’s the song that signals it’s time to leave.

In March 1991, I hadn’t particularly wanted to leave Bond Uni, the Gold Coast, or my colleagues, friends, and family in Australia. And in October 2015, when I selected that song at the start of the SEP course, I didn’t particularly want to leave UQ either. But by the end of SEP, it had become clear that, well, it was time to think about leaving.

Through informal discussions with SEP colleagues, through the SEP personal development coaching group, through the SEP business development coaching group, and through understanding myself and my motivations and values better, it was obvious. It was time to take another risk and find a new challenge. So it was in March 2016, almost 25 years to the day after that famous party, I started a new phase in my career.

event horizon LBS

So. Where was I? Oh yes. The London Business School (LBS) Senior Executive Programme (SEP). October last year. In my last post, I wrote that the SEP experience was transformational. But I didn’t explain what the programme was or how it changed my life. A twitter buddy wrote that I left the post on a “cliff-hanger”. In the present post, I want to document what made SEP such a powerful, emotional and delightful experience for me. And in a third post I will write about my transformation. These two new posts, I hope, will address the cliff and the hanger!

Now, about the title of this post. One might argue that using “event horizon” is perhaps a little melodramatic. After all, LBS wasn’t a black hole. It didn’t suck me in so I couldn’t escape. Yet, looking back from the vantage point of ~4 months since graduation, I can clearly see that SEP marked a point of no return – in some senses. So please forgive me my melodrama; it brings me just a little joy to link this post to a key scientific concept.

To paint a clear picture, I should also explain that I am writing this series of three LBS-SEP posts mostly for my own benefit. It’s extraordinarily valuable for me to record my feelings and experiences, so that when I return to them in years to come the detail I might otherwise forget will be crystal clear. (and just in case you didn’t pick that up, “crystal” is another scientific concept that I like including in posts/blogs). Anyway, I hope that these trilogy of posts will benefit others. But I recognise they are very self-focused, so I won’t be at all offended if you are not interested and don’t read any further. Please be gentle with comments.:-)

So why was LBS SEP such an incredible experience?

powerful, planned, prepared

The gravitational pull began a long way out, ~6 months prior to the course, with the on-line expression of interest. This required detailed responses to questions about where I was in my career, what my learning objectives were, and how and why I thought I would benefit from the course. I had to think deeply about my professional journey (lucky that I’ve been writing blogs on that for a few years!), where I was going, and what was stopping me progressing. Following this, a phone interview was set up with the LBS programme director to ascertain my “interest and suitability“. I was on tenterhooks taking the 30 min call from the UK one evening late in April last year. There was a grilling of course – why LBS? why SEP? how was my organisation supporting my participation? how would I hand over my current roles during the 4 week intensive course (“there’s no way you can do both“)? how would I set aside time for the extensive, compulsory pre-reading and preparation? Fortunately, at the end of the phone interview I was given verbal assurance that I was accepted, though it wasn’t until 8 May 2015 – when I received the official email: I am delighted to confirm that your application has been approved and we would like to offer you a place on the programme” – that I really celebrated. After all, I was about to embark upon an educational journey that will likely transform (my) professional life.” Hurrah! Champagne time.

Information from LBS flowed in regularly from then on. Importantly, we were advised early on that we would have 5 free evenings and 4 free weekend days during the 27 day programme “you may wish to arrange your own social and business activities”. Being an organisationophile, I pre-arranged a weekend visit to friends in Rugby for the single free weekend during SEP, booked a 4th row seat to see Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51 one free Saturday evening, and signed on to attend “Bridging the Gender Gap – How Men Can Be Allies For Women in STEM” in nearby King’s Cross one free Wed evening.

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Preparation didn’t end there of course. There were colleagues to invite (thank you!) to complete questionnaires on my 360° leadership skills and on the organisation’s strategy execution capabilities. I too had to complete those questionnaires as well as surveys on personal health and wellbeing, media background, and Hogan personality (bright side), Hogan development (dark side), and Hogan motives, values and preferences inventories (inside)  (Hogan reports would help reveal my “core values, goals and interests” – “hmm” I thought, “this should be interesting!”). Not to mention the short bio, photo, corporate logo, and org chart (to show where I fit in the organisation) to be uploaded onto the portal. Then there was the email discussion with other participants from this part of the world about our contribution to the mid-programme International evening (what food we would like prepared, what antipodean souvenirs we would bring to showcase this part of the world, what we might present in our 5 minute overview etc). And a week prior to leaving, I downloaded a bunch of pre-reading material (case studies and articles) and printed them off for perusal on the long-haul flight from BNE to LHR via SIN and DXB).

delightful, enchanting, charming

SEP is a residential programme. We were housed in the London Business School campus in Regent’s Park (a posh suburb of London) just a nip down the road to Baker St and Regent’s Park tube stations and Marylebone railway station. Nice. We were allocated “executive” rooms – tiny British bedrooms outfitted with all the mod cons: TV, en-suite, hairdryer, internet (essential for skype calls home). The proverbial cat would have trouble being swung within those confines, but somehow we all managed with our 1 month’s worth of belongings. One overachieving senior exec training for a triathlon whilst undertaking SEP even managed – somehow – to secrete his bicycle into the phone-booth sized bedroom.

My room was on the top floor. Pros: the stunning views across Regent’s Park and the opportunity for extra exercise (more steps in the highly competitive pedometer challenge – spoiler, triathlon man won). Cons: the hot water struggled to make it to the top floor at peak shower times. The food provided on the course was incredible. My only complaint – too much of it for someone with very little yummy food willpower.

Social events were organised throughout the course by the SEP management team “to help capture that London experience“. Early on there was a cocktail reception hosted by the LBS Dean (Sir Andrew Liekerman) in the Dean’s residence – he gave a terrific history of the School and the beautiful Regency building including its bombing during the Blitz. To get our London bearings, we were treated to a dinner cruise on the Thames, with an unexpected “bonus” of a stop-start London A-Z tour during the 1 hour each way 5km trip to the London docks! There was a dinner in a swanky restaurant in the Old Royal Exchange Building mid-programme, and for graduation evening we were packed into a red double-decker bus to transport us to the farewell dinner on the top floor of Tower Bridge (Yes! Dinner in Tower Bridge!). We definitely captured an amazing London experience.

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Souvenir program for Tower Bridge Graduation dinner; restaurant located in the top span with glass floors to watch the traffic below

memorable, immersive, intense

As a strong introvert, the prospect of walking into a room full of people I’d never met, high achievers across the business, not-for-profit and government sectors, was – well – intimidating. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt incredibly nervous as I entered the lecture theatre. How do you break down those barriers, put people at ease, create the conversations that build a community from day one? You make it special. You set aside the same beautifully appointed, spacious and modern lecture theatre for the entirety of the programme. You remove the anxiety about where to sit by indicating each person’s spot with large font nameplates that slot into the front of the long curving desktops. On the nameplates you print the participant’s’ name and organisation as well as their home country flag – that’s more than enough to stimulate conversation. For example, my immediate neighbours in week 1 were from Indonesia (bank), Taiwan (pharma) and Nigeria (bank).

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Nameplate indicates my spot in week 4. Water bottle to the right. LBS loan iPad in front.

At the beginning of each week, nameplates were moved to new positions, so that over the course of 4 weeks each participant would sit in every locale of the theatre, and beside people from all corners of the world. Name badges in lanyards helped with remembering classmates’ names during breaks from the lecture theatre and could also be used to magically procure unlimited free coffees (hot choc in my case) at the local LBS cafe. Also provided on day 1 was the printed SEP course information in a leather-bound LBS folder, LBS pen and notebook (miraculously outfitted with the exact number of pages required for four weeks of copious note-taking), LBS water bottle (for health and wellness – important to stay hydrated), LBS coat and umbrella (it is London after all – people from some parts of Australia and Africa have never seen rain before), and LBS backpack (to carry all the paraphernalia). Well that little lot must account for some huge chunk of the course fee. And of course these “gifts” build a strong connection with LBS (not to mention the brand power when the commodities travel off to 26 countries). On day 1, we were also asked to submit to the programme managers a song that had a special meaning for us – the song should be one that transported us back to a precise moment in our life, that captured an important, unforgettable time or turning point.

Most days began the same way. After early morning wellness sessions (yoga, pilates, exercise class or gym), followed by a (possibly cold) shower, and sumptuous breakfast, we would make our way to the lecture theatre by 8.30 am. Then, when everyone was seated, we would be asked in groups of 4-5 to discuss our major learning from the previous day and appoint a spokesperson to write this on the whiteboard and explain the learning to everyone in one or two sentences. Photos of the whiteboard were loaded onto the programme portal for our records. Finally, 3 or 4 people would be called upon to relate the story behind the song they had nominated. These stories were riveting: hard-nosed senior execs were transformed into vulnerable souls with deep feelings and emotions. Stories of new love, of lives lost too young, of new life directions and of deep passion for country.

After a short break, we’d then move onto lecture content. We were warned beforehand. There would be “long days filled with thought-provoking lectures, activities, exercises, and group work” the emails said. This programme would be a “challenging, inspiring and intense (yet fun) experience” the emails said. And you know what? Those emails were right. It was challenging. It was fun. It was engaging. As evidenced by emails home to my husband, it was intense; Day 1 “It’s been very intense already. Met lots of nice people from all over the world.” Day 2 “Another long day. Started at 7am finished at 9pm. I’m somewhat exhausted” and later “Its certainly an intense course. Not much time left over for anything else.” “Week 2 is even more intense than week 1, if that is possible.” “Another busy day – got up at 6.30 am, wrote up notes, emails, showered, breakfasted then lectures from 8.30 am till 5.45 pm then a Women In STEM event at Kings Cross at 6.30 pm, returned back to room by 10 pm. Some reading homework to do now and then to sleep. I’ll try to get up for a walk tomorrow morning at 6.30 am.

The regular lecture programme was interspersed with extra-ordinary days: a mystery-shopping outing to Oxford St and Regents St for brand evaluation (complete with full-day tube ticket and map); a whole day session at the Royal Society of Arts in central London working with actors on performance skills (“leader as performer” – It was terrific! Lots of ideas on voice, posture and rehearsal); a full day of radio, TV and crisis event media training, including an unexpected and unrehearsed TV vox pop outside the lecture theatre (think hot choc in hand, backpack slung over shoulder, camera in face, mike likewise, interviewer: “Do you think media has too much power?”); and a day devoted to governance and board directorship including role-playing in a dysfunctional board setting.

Lecturers were incredibly skilful at describing new ideas by using a range of engaging techniques: citing the literature (eg how the natural phenomenon of regression to the mean reinforces incorrect use of negative feedback); asking questions rather than telling the answer; using videos to stimulate thinking (eg the invisible gorilla movie highlighting that selective attention in a complex task can lead to important detail being missed); setting a 10-min challenge to design our personal coat of arms (thereby defining our core values); using the marshmallow challenge to stimulate “collaboration, innovation and creativity”.

On graduation, as a record of our time together, we were ceremoniously presented with several items: an LBS graduation certificate (mine is currently being framed for display in my new office), a group photo, a 20 pound voucher to spend in the LBS shop (I bought an LBS fridge magnet and LBS phone charger – which came in handy barely a month later when I was stuck in Kolkata airport for 12 hours) and an LBS USB with MP3s of all the songs selected by participants – which was now the soundtrack of our journey together. What was my song? Well. We’ll have to wait for LBS blogpost 3 to discuss that.

Overall, LBS SEP lived up to its tagline London experience. World Impact. It was indeed a special, life-changing, immersive experience. A turning point for many. A point of no-return for me.

 

ch-ch-ch-changes

Deeply saddened by the untimely passing of David Bowie this week, I was reminded of a thought bubble from a colleague some years ago. (You know who you are). It went something like this: “There’s no situation in life, love or death that cannot be captioned (or perhaps it was captured) by a Bowie lyric or song title“. In honour of David Bowie, and in a hat-tip to my colleague, this post – pointing to a transformational experience for me last year – duly follows that rule.

For me, 2015 was actually a bit of a blur. I guess that is mostly due to a very intense travel schedule, with five international work-related trips and more than a dozen national trips for various committees and presentations. The in/out of office balance was well and truly tipped in favour of being out more often than I was in. Despite all that, there was at least one trip to the UK that remains etched into my memory. That’s because it was quite literally life-changing.

On that trip, I traveled to London to undertake a 4-week intensive Senior Executive Program at the London Business School (LBS) in October. Four weeks. That’s a serious chunk of a year. “Why would you do that?“, I hear you ask. Actually, many people had a similar question after they heard I was taking this course. “What are you doing that for?” was a common response, usually said in a high-pitched tone of astonishment and incredulity. I even began questioning myself “What the hell are you thinking?“.

The truth is, I don’t know what I was planning when I first decided to take the course about a year ago. What I do know is that as a successful research scientist and academic at a research intensive university (the same one for more than 20 years), I nevertheless had had a growing and unsettling sensation that I was treading water. I spoke about this with my circle of peers and colleagues (probably ad nauseum, if you were to ask them).

Anyway, the most helpful feedback I received was to investigate senior leadership training, as that might help me to set a new direction that would also accord with my research career goals. After some online searching, and consulting with peers, I chose to apply for the course offered at the London Business School. Why that one? Well, it’s true, I could have taken a course at my own university which also has a very highly regarded business school. It would have been a whole lot cheaper too. But I wanted to be taken out of my comfort zone. I wanted to reflect on where I was at in my life, and where I was going in my career. For me to do that required removing the urgent pressures of my everyday role and my everyday life. Moreover, if I was going to take several weeks of my precious leave entitlement to undertake a course like this, I wanted an experience that would give me an entirely new perspective. And – as I was taking leave, after all – I wanted to be situated in a place I enjoyed visiting.

Believe me. I know I was in a very privileged position. I had sufficient leave accrued to take time off for the course. I lead a highly capable research team that runs like a well-oiled machine whether I am there or not. I had the support of a husband who would hold the fort at home while I was away for a large part of the year. And he also supported the decision that we make a significant financial investment in me, for a ch-ch-ch-change that I had not yet clearly defined.

Importantly, the cost of the fees was also defrayed by a considerable contribution from my employer (thank you UQ!) – providing genuine evidence that they supported this investment too. Do you want to know how that happened? Well, I’ll tell you anyway. I had fully intended to pay the entire cost of the course fees myself. As I entered the course dates in my calendar, I realised that it overlapped with a commitment I had made to sit on an important multi-day panel for the university. Rather embarrassed about having to withdraw from the panel, I spoke to a senior exec about what I should do.

After explaining the situation, his first response was a sombre “The Vice-Chancellor will be very upset“.

Oh dear,” I said “should I cancel my enrolment?”, fully expecting that I wouldn’t be permitted to attend the course. Sometimes I really am rather thick.

Till the end of my days, I will never forget what he said next.

No, of course you shouldn’t cancel your enrolment. We’ll work something out. And what’s more, we should support you to attend this course. It’s important that we provide leadership training to senior women. This is an expensive course (too expensive he actually said!), but let’s see if we can find some of the cost to help you to attend.

My initial response, a classic I guess, was to remonstrate strongly. “Oh, no, no, no. No. I will pay for this myself.“. There’s a life lesson right there, I think.

So that was that. I was going to London to take a Business School course. Me. A scientist. It ended up being a 6 week trip in the end. The first week I had arranged meetings related to my scientific and committee responsibilities, the middle four weeks for the course were taken as leave (so I wouldn’t be too tempted to feel guilty and try to work at the same time as undertaking the course) and the last week was a week of actual, real leave. On that last week, I caught up with friends from my Oxford days and visited the Lake District with the hope of processing all I’d learned and been exposed to on the course, before returning to Australia.

To give you a first little taster of the experience, here is an excerpt of an email letter I sent to my research team, as well as to family and friends after week one of the course (additional comments in italics):

“Dear all,

It’s Sunday afternoon 11 Oct 2015, 12 days since I arrived in London and 1 week after starting the programme. It’s been fabulous. 

The course started on Sunday last week at London Business School which is situated in a lovely old building of 26 terrace houses designed by John Nash and facing Regent’s Park.

The London Business School in Regent’s Park (this view is from my room on the 3rd floor – yes, this was a residential course)

The building has been renovated so that only the facade is from the early 19th century. Regent’s Park is fabulous to walk about at lunchtime or Sundays when we get a day off, and I’ve managed to walk to the top of Primrose Hill a couple of times to get a beautiful view across London.

View of London from Primrose Hill

View of London from Primrose Hill

The course participants (there were just shy of 50 of us) are all signed up to wellness sessions including yoga, pilates and circuit training. (we were each assigned to a health and wellness coach, and trained to the mantra that improving your health and wellness gives you a competitive advantage – I definitely won’t argue with that). We’ve been issued a pedometer and our coaching groups of 4 people each have to log our combined steps walked at the end of every week. As you might guess it gets very competitive with senior executives from around the world (the cohort included senior people from over 25 countries representing commercial companies, not-for-profits, government departments as well as academia e.g. Adidas, Electrolux, Woolworths, the Royal Navy, St John Ambulance, UK National Grid etc).

Last Sunday we started with a 1-day refresher on finance and accounting so that (hopefully) we’re all on the same page with the metrics used in business.  I now have a fair idea of what net present value and accrued rate of return means. (not sure that’s still true) Since then the course has thrown us some challenging ideas about the predicted 100 year life and how that will impact us in the future. Not to mention the digital revolution of networks, information and big data and how these are changing the world.

On Thursday we went to the Royal Society of Arts where we were coached in performance skills in a program called “Leader as performer“. That was fun! Afterwards, I walked back from Trafalgar Square to Regent’s Park (to get those steps up) via the National Portrait Gallery where I had dinner at their rooftop restaurant overlooking Nelson’s column.

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View from the restaurant in the National Portrait Galley, London

There’s been a bit more walking in Regent’s Park today….and walking to a few other places nearby – one of which might look vaguely familiar. Can you guess where it is?

I'm sure you don't need to be told where this is

I’m sure you don’t need to be told where this is

You can see that by the end of week 1, at least, I was pretty happy with the course and the venue. But what did I learn at school? And how did that lead to the changes alluded to in the title?

Well those details, dear reader, will have to wait for another day.

Vale David Bowie: Ch-ch-ch-changes. Time may change me. But I can’t trace time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

on risk and luck in a scientific career

It’s funny thinking about one’s career in retrospect, and contemplating how it ended up where it has. For mine, there have been risks, as well as some dumb luck along the way. Not to mention a fair share of mistakes. One of the silliest mistakes was to assume – when I was a young student at Pharmacy College in Melbourne – that the academics instructing me always knew they wanted to be academics and that they’d all had a smooth career path in reaching that point. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, as I learned from my own academic journey. Bumps and hurdles, both personal and professional, abounded on the way to where I am now. I certainly didn’t start out knowing that I wanted to be an academic. Far from it.

I was lucky in many ways early on. For one thing, although I was born into a poor family I was reasonably clever, did well at school and I had the opportunity to move out of poverty. Unlike my parents who both left school at 13 or 14, I had the chance of a tertiary education. Without incurring a hideously large debt. Yes, tertiary education in Australia was free when I was an undergraduate. That was a great bit of dumb luck. It required being born at the right time.

Second, there were strong female role models in my life who, either through necessity or chance, had taken paths that diverged from the norm for women of low socioeconomic status. My mother – with 9 children – became charge nurse in a hospital operating theatre when I was still at home. My aunt, a nun, had a successful nursing career in a major city hospital. My high school physics and chemistry teacher was a woman. These women weren’t simply passive objects in a male-dominated world, and they showed by example that getting married and having children was not the only option for a young girl from the sticks. A good thing really. For an excruciatingly shy young girl, if marriage and children were the only measure of success I would have been a complete failure.

Don’t get me wrong. Tertiary education was not all beer and skittles. In fact there was no beer. And no skittles. To attend college I had a 90 minute commute each way on public transport (it’s probably no coincidence that ever since then my commute has been 15 min or less). Domestic duties awaited when I returned home every night: cooking, doing the dishes, the laundry, etc for a large family. With travel, undergrad lectures, long pracs, nightly revision of lecture notes as well as home duties, there was no time for the usual student social life at college. On the flip side, I did gain important time-management skills.:-) And I loved the pharmacy course. Indeed, it was a revelation to see the chemistry underpinning a drug:receptor interaction and to find that drug design was not merely the stuff of science fiction. So it was no trouble to absorb the course information and, perhaps in part because I had none of the beer and skittles distractions, I aced the degree. That early success set me up for a competitive government scholarship towards a Masters research degree. A postgraduate degree. I had certainly not planned that when I started out. And it was a bit of a risk moving into research when my peers were moving into well-paying positions as pharmacists. But that is what I chose to do. The thrill of discovery beckoned.

As I described in a previous post, I wasn’t really sure what to do after the Masters degree…research or pharmacy? pharmacy or research? At the time, what I really wanted to do was travel. There was a whole wide world waiting to be discovered. And there was that little issue of a young man I’d met during my Masters degree who had returned to the UK after a year in industry in Australia. I took another risk. I planned a trip through Nepal and India on my own (what was I thinking?) and applied for PhD scholarships in the UK. If I was awarded a scholarship I would move into research. If I didn’t, I would spend a few months on a working holiday in Europe and return to Australia to a job in pharmacy.

Leaving Melbourne, not knowing I would be gone for 4 years, on my way to discover the big wide world.

A young Aussie girl – complete with Akubra – farewells her family at Melbourne airport at the beginning of her journey to discover the big wide world. Photo taken by her dad

If you’ve read that earlier post, you’ll know the scholarships came along just in the nick of time, and I earned a D Phil degree at Oxford University. By then the young man was history (well let’s face it, he was never that into me anyway). So there’s another bit of dumb luck that turned out to be a huge cornerstone of my career. Likely, I wouldn’t have a degree from Oxford if I’d not fallen for a Brit boy and not had the support of mentors directing me to a research degree there.

So there I was with a DPhil degree from Oxford. You can imagine, I was on top of the world. Where would I go? What would I do next? After several years in the UK, I was desperately homesick and longing for a bit of sun. As luck would have it, a new private university had opened in Queensland, and I accepted a 3-year postdoctoral position there. Big mistake. Within 6 months of my arriving, the university closed the entire science and technology school; it was too expensive to run. Along with scores of others, I was unemployed. The world that had been my oyster had slammed shut. But then, another bit of dumb luck. I was mobile. I didn’t have a mortgage or a family to support. I could go overseas. Two positions came up, one at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, the other at Rockefeller University in New York. I ummed and ahhed. Both were great labs, great opportunities. Which one should I choose? In the end, I opted for New York. I thought it might be marginally safer than Tel Aviv (the first Gulf war was raging at the time). Funny thing is, a year earlier I had stated categorically that I would never work in the USA. Now I was having to eat those words. Big time. New York was probably the last place I would have chosen to go in the US had it not been for the circumstances. Yet it turned out to be a great career move. I worked hard at Rockefeller University for two years and generated two high profile first author papers. That decision was a good one. Even if it was precipitated by bad luck.

slide1a

A much younger yours truly hard at work in front of a precious Apple Mac at Rockefeller Uni (hmm I must have cleaned up my desk for the photo)

For personal reasons, after the Big Apple I decided it was time to return to Australia for good. This time to the University of Queensland in Brisbane with my own fellowship, and my own set-up money. I had been given a golden opportunity to establish a protein crystallography lab, in the Drug Design and Development Centre. I ran with that opportunity, and I’ve now been at UQ for 22 years. There have been ups and downs of course. Personally, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. For a couple of years I was in a….well, let’s say a troubled relationship at home. Fortunately, I was not financially dependent on my partner. And we didn’t have children. So although it was very distressing, I was able to extricate myself after a couple of turbulent years – with the help of friends and colleagues. My self-confidence and self-esteem suffered, and I lived alone for a long time after that. The experience did teach me a very valuable lesson about defining what I wanted in a relationship. That was definitely a good bit of planning.

A few years later, I met my now husband. We met late in life and neither of us had married before. The whole marriage thing was a bit of a gamble for both of us. But that risk was well worth it; in hindsight, the decision to share my life with him was easily the most brilliant decision ever.

So things are going well. My research is at an all-time high, I work with a great team of young and enthusiastic scientists, and my other great passion – gender equity in Australian science – is firmly on the national agenda.

If I’ve learned nothing else in my career, it’s to capitalise on success. Now is the time to put myself out there, take a step out of my comfort zone. And so I recently accepted the role of Director of the Eskitis Drug Discovery Institute at Griffith University in Brisbane. I begin in March, and am thrilled by the opportunity to continue my research and step up to a more senior role. I’m also just a little terrified by leaving the known (UQ) for the unknown (GU).

Lucky I completed that Senior Executive Program at the London Business School last year. Must write about that next time.

 

how will I know (if we have succeeded)

Today, Wednesday, 16 September 2015, is a very special day. A red letter day. A day to mark in the calendar. A day we will look back on in years to come as the day we changed the course of history herstory. Today we launched the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot of Athena Swan in Australia. At Parliament House in Canberra. In the presence of MPs and academic VIPs from around the country.

From the kernel of an idea a couple of years ago, a group of incredibly inspiring people have now changed the landscape of science in Australia. I cannot tell you how proud I am to count myself among their number. And I cannot describe the overwhelming feeling of joy when I learned that 32 Australian institutions had put up their hand to participate in the rigorous SAGE Athena SWAN accreditation pilot that rewards best practice in supporting the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). Those 32 organisations recognise that diversity is strength; diversity is good for business; and that supporting and achieving diversity will give them a competitive edge.

For me, it was a blur of a day, starting with a SAGE committee meeting at the Academy of Science, then the SAGE launch at Parliament House, a brief lunch with attendees, followed by media interviews, photos and video shoots.

A question posed by many was “how will you know if you’ve succeeded?“. In one respect, we have already succeeded. After all, we have 32 Australian institutions – including 25 of the 39 Australian universities, more than half! – signed up to participate in a pilot program to address the attrition of women in STEMM. That’s got to count as a win.

But what if I pose the question to myself? How will *I* know when we have succeeded? Well that would be:

• when 50% of professors and vice chancellors in Australia are women

• when 50% of Australian scientists taking extended parental leave or working flexibly are men

•  when 50% of grants and fellowships in Australia are awarded to women

• when 50% of invited speakers at 100% of conferences in Australia are women

• when 100% of women scientists are paid 100% of the salaries earned by men with equivalent loads/roles

•  when 0% of Australian STEMM professionals experience workplace sexism, racism, intimidation, harassment, or bullying

•  when the alpha-male model of success is the exception not the rule

Clearly, we have a long way to go when we struggle to reach 1 in 5 women STEMM professors. The SAGE pilot of Athena SWAN in Australia is only the first step on a long road towards a new norm of true gender equality. Nevertheless, my heart sings knowing that the winds of change are finally blowing through the crusty old cobwebbed halls of science in Australia.

Today, the sound of that howling wind means success to me.

 

 

goosebump moments

It’s been rather hectic these past few months. There’s been little time to sit back and reflect, to prepare for and write a blog post. So, apologies for the delay if you’ve been waiting. You see, I need a chunk of thinking time before I write these things. Finally, I have a few hours to contemplate and muse.

What comes to mind most prominently are the awesome women and men I have had the privilege to meet recently. People who carve their own path, challenge and disrupt societal norms, rewrite the rules, and leave others awestruck. There have been a bunch of mesmerising, goosebump moments for me recently; I’d like to share just three of them with you.

wonder woman

Perhaps the most surprising encounter occurred a month or so ago. After returning from an overseas trip, I found a 5-page letter waiting for me in my office. The first two pages were handwritten in pencil. That was decidedly odd; I don’t often get mail that isn’t electronic and, well, who uses pencils to write with these days? It was all very curious.

Dear Prof Martin”, the letter read,

Our Big Hero 6: from Hypatia to Honey Lemon.

We have been learning a lot about different female scientists throughout history – our scientific heroes! We have read several biographies about women such as Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, and Rachel Carson to try and understand their scientific work and lives.

We would really like to meet you as a modern-day scientific hero and hear about your work. We are making a film to share with our classmates so they can learn about our heroes too. Mum has written a letter to you as well. We have included some of the questions we would like to ask you there. We really hope we can meet you. We will be happy to come to you at the University at a time that suited you. Thank you for reading our letter.

Yours faithfully

Scarlett (age 10) and Clementine (age 8)

Well who could resist the charm of that appeal! Not I. In the accompanying (typed) letter, their mother Karalyn went on to explain:

I am a mother of four very enthusiastic young scientists (Harry, Scarlett, Clementine, Violet). The children have been active members of the CSIRO double helix science club and also, are keenly involved with science programs at their schools. Every year since Harry started school, we have researched enthusiastically as a family, different science topics at home, too, including: energy; flight; chemistry (molecular gastronomy and also, testing lunchbox contents for the presence of fat, sugar, protein and starch); nanotechnology; light and pinhole photography; space science and astronomy; leukaemia; sport science; the mathematics of origami; nuclear science and “plastic” oceans. In addition to our own background research, we also get creative and make short documentary films…….

This topic (from Hypatia to Honey Lemon) was prompted by Scarlett commenting to me last year that all the scientists we had met/interviewed to date had been men.

I can tell you confidentially that I nearly fell off my chair whilst reading those letters. Who does this? What a super-family. What a wonder woman. What creativity, originality, what a delightful family occupation. It was truly a goosebump moment. Of course, I arranged a meeting as soon as possible.

So during their school holidays in July, the family visited the Martin Lab (as well as many other women scientists’ labs, I might add). We found out then that Karalyn had trained as a lawyer but had always been fascinated by science. She had stepped back from her promising legal career to take on caring responsibilities when the family moved overseas for her husband’s business. Now that the family were back in Australia, and the children all at school, she was about to embark on a new adventure, undertaking a university science diploma – she is enrolled in the UQ School of Mathematics and Physics, taking first year courses, and loving it.

Shaw_family_visit

I couldn’t help but be fascinated and spellbound by the energy, strength and sheer uniqueness of this incredible woman. In one of those uncanny coincidences, Karalyn had baked and decorated a #crystalcake themed morning tea (see above) for the Martin Lab. Not surprisingly, their visit made it onto our lab website, and Karalyn is now an honorary Martin lab member. I’m looking forward to catching up with her on campus very soon.

blue-collared woman

Saturday, another goose bump moment. After being introduced electronically in May, with every intention of catching up soon thereafter, I finally met with the awesome Teagan Dowler, founder of The Blue-Collared Woman (BCW).

In her own words (well somewhat paraphrased) “BCW began a couple of years ago following my experiences as a HR professional, leadership coach and consultant in the construction and mining industries of Australia. As a young woman fresh out of Uni I was motivated to achieve, ready to take on the world and make positive impact on the industries I was passionate about. However after a few years it became apparent that I was experiencing challenges that didn’t seem to bother male colleagues. At the time I thought it was me, that I was failing and that I wasn’t good enough. But then other women began coming to me, talking about their own similar experiences. This made me realise there are gender specific challenges women must navigate when working in a masculine environment.

From this experience I thought there must be other women, all around Australia and across a whole range of industries, that could be feeling the same thing. I started a Facebook page and website/blog as a way to reach out to them. My approach has always been to tell the truth of what it’s like, in all its ugliness and awesomeness and this seems to have resonated with people.

Teagan’s blog describes the realities of being a woman working in a testosterone-rich environment. The BCW website provides advice on how to navigate and overcome problems, how to influence and build relationships. Was I thrilled to find that Teagan runs workshops and information sessions? Yes, I was! How valuable is that going to be for those undertaking the SAGE/Athena SWAN Australian pilot? Teagan is also writing a book which “captures the experiences and advice of a range of women across traditionally masculine industries (resources, construction, engineering, manufacturing).” I cannot wait to read it!

We discussed impostor syndrome, self-awareness training, strategies to develop diversity and many, many other things besides. I was captivated by the powerful, self-confident message this young woman was presenting. Through her own ingenuity she had developed a toolkit of skills for success and influence, and by sharing these was empowering other women and men. So much understanding, so many great ideas, such a clear vision for change. Goosebumps! We will meet again Teagan:-)

champions of change

The third goosebump moment was last week. I was privileged to attend a lunch forum in Sydney held in honour of Elizabeth Broderick, one of my heroes. Liz is about to step down from her highly successful role as Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner after two terms and eight years.

One of the many initiatives she established was the male champions of change (MCC). Some have questioned why these champions of change are male. The reality is that CEOs of major national companies in Australia are almost exclusively men. As MCC Gordon Cairns has said “Men set up the system, men largely run the system, men need to change the system”. Champions of change – whether male or female – recognise that winning the war on talent means supporting all of the population, not half of it. Champions of change disrupt established norms, and rewrite the rules. They develop action plans that support careers of women and men, policies that support work-life balance for everyone, pledges that ensure women’s and men’s voices are heard equally.

The event was a stirring celebration of Liz’s extraordinary, remarkable leadership; of charting a course that will change the world. “We need more decent, powerful men to step up beside women in building a gender equal world” she says. I’d had the honour of meeting Liz earlier this year, and on the occasion last week I was also introduced to another hero of mine, male champion of change David Morrison, former Australian Army chief and star of the viral video that called out sexism in the army.

The MCC message Step Up Together is powerful and consistent. Below are quotes from speakers at the lunch or from the MCC website that hosts videos screened at the event.

Listen. Learn. Lead. Listen to women. Learn what to do. Commit to action. This must start with leaders and executive teams. Fix the system, not the women. Leave excuses at the door. The idea that addressing gender equity will compromise on quality is fanciful. The Australian workplace is deeply embedded with a male way of being and a male way of succeeding.

  1. develop targets with teeth

Gender equity is often last on the list of priorities. This needs to change. Set targets, track progress, incentivise with bonuses, and consequences for failure to act. Remove assumptions about what’s possible. Set stretch targets. Aim high. 40% across all levels. Ensure a balanced short list for new appointments. Ask for daily, weekly, and monthly reports. Targets and merit are not mutually exclusive.

  1. take the panel pledge

Women have important, vibrant and different things to say. If women are not heard, everyone misses out. Commit to increase gender balance in internal and external forums – aim for 50:50 100% of the time; insist on including women; call out imbalances; support balanced conferences – tie sponsorship to diversity. Don’t accept excuses.

  1. all roles flex

What if flexibility was the starting point not the exception? In 2013, Telstra adopted a new and disruptive attitude – all roles were advertised as flexible. Without exception. Other organisations have now followed suit. Ask for flexibility and choice for all.

  1. take action on violence against women

800,000 women in the Australian workforce today are living in, or have lived in, an abusive relationship. For many, their only refuge during the day is their place of work. Violence against women is a workplace issue. A focus on safety and zero harm must include tackling violence against women. Establish a framework. Listen without judgement. Make a start.

not cold, captivated

The dictionary definition of goosebumps is “small raised areas that appear on the skin because of cold, fear, or excitement“. I got goosebumps meeting these three awesome, thought-provoking, inspirational women, and hearing from dozens of male champions of change. I was not cold. I was not afraid. I was captivated, awestruck, spellbound. Each time, I was thinking “this is how individuals change the world for the better – locally, nationally, globally“.

merit and demerit

When I graduated many years ago, the hall was filled with people from around the world: different colours, different races, different religions, as many women as men. Now some 30 years later, I’m often the only woman in a room full of white men. When I ask my peers where all the diversity has gone, they shrug their shoulders and say “We appoint on merit”.

Actually, they’re wrong. We don’t appoint on merit. We appoint on metrics.

rethinking merit and metrics

The accepted norms of the higher education workplace are an obsessive focus on a very narrow set of metrics as a proxy for merit, a high attrition of women, a lack of diversity in leadership, and sometimes the development of toxic unwelcoming workplaces.

We need to rethink how we measure merit and we need to consider demerit too so that we can be confident that the people we invest with power, leadership and decision-making are not sexist, racist, homophobic or bullies.

To start, we need to look at what we mean by merit. The dictionary defines merit as the “quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward”. I don’t think anyone would argue that we shouldn’t appoint leaders on merit using that meaning. In a society that is diverse, like ours – 50% women, multicultural – you would expect that merit and the power and leadership earned as a result, would be evenly distributed across diverse demographics. But it’s not.

For some reason, promotion on merit does not give everyone a fair go. Leadership, power and decision making are concentrated almost uniformly in a narrow demographic: old white men.

Yet the data show that leadership teams with greater diversity and differing life experience generate better outcomes. More diversity provides a competitive edge. If we focus on gender, for example, companies with more women on their boards make larger profits. Really, investors should only support companies with women CEOs. They’d make a lot more money. What about research? Well, teams of mixed gender produce higher quality research and a higher proportion of women increases team collective intelligence. What’s more, when organisations improve things for women they make things better for everyone by increasing access to parental leave, flexible work practise, better work life balance.

The attrition of diversity impacts negatively on productivity and innovation in academia. Yet when the dominant group are challenged about the lack of diversity in senior academic positions, their defense often focuses on the word “merit”. When we probe further, we find that merit here actually means metrics. Most importantly, we don’t measure demerit at all. Let me explain.

easy to measure metrics

To assess merit in academia, we measure a few specific things. The number of publications, the number of grants, the number of PhD students. These numbers focus on a very narrow selection of things that people and universities do. And it is no coincidence that these metrics are also easy to measure. The problem comes when we use these “easy to measure” metrics as a proxy for merit. We have now evolved ever more cryptic numbers (H index, IF, etc) that mean nothing to those outside the sector but which are avidly pursued within the sector, almost to the exclusion of everything else. The higher the numbers, the better and more valued you are. We chase after these metrics – but do they really measure what we should be measuring?

personal qualities we value

creativity     critical thinking   resilience   motivation   persistence   curiosity   endurance   reliability    enthusiasm   empathy   self-awareness   self-discipline leadership   courage     civic-mindedness    compassion    integrity   resourcefulness    honesty   sense of beauty   sense of wonder    generosity  humour   humility  kindness   consideration authenticity care

(Collated by US education policy researcher, Gerald Bracey with a few extra that I threw in)

In my opinion, it is the above list of personal qualities that should be considered when rewarding merit and choosing leaders. Yet none of these are measured directly and most are not measured at all when we assess the merit of people and higher ed institutions using current metrics. That means there is a disconnect between the metrics we use and the actual merit of a person or an institution based on these qualities.

We need new metrics. Metrics that value personal qualities. We should not measure how many PhD students an institution produces, we should measure how well an institution supports their PhD students. Universities should be assessed on how inclusive they are, how diverse their senior executive is, and how well they support the work-life balance of their staff. After all, university rankings are meant to help students and staff identify the best places in the world to study, work and do research. That should mean measuring which universities provide the safest and most supportive workplaces where everyone – not just those who fit into a very narrow demographic – can succeed. Professors should be assessed, for example, on how well they sponsor and mentor others to achieve research, teaching and service goals (with more weighting given to supporting diversity), not how many people are in their group or how much money they have received in grants.

And then we also need to look at the other side of the coin.

demerit 

The dictionary defines demerit as a “fault or disadvantage”, or “a mark awarded against someone for a fault or offence”. When we measure the worth and value of someone or some institution we ought to consider demerit alongside merit. When a professor tells a sexist, racist or homophobic joke, that should count as demerit. When a university supports or organizes a conference with an all white male list of speakers, that must count as demerit.

Our current focus on a very narrow set of metrics as a proxy for merit sometimes leads to or supports selfish, unprofessional or even unethical behaviours that can generate toxic workplaces. Harassment is one such toxic behaviour that pushes women out. In a recent study, 64% of scientists surveyed about their experience on field trips reported sexual harassment; 22% reported sexual assault. The majority of those reporting harassment and assault were young (undergrads, postgrads, postdocs) and female. The perpetrators were predominantly male and senior. The power differential makes it very difficult for the victim to report the bad behaviour; the perpetrator may be a highly respected person with huge metrics. They are “too valuable” to lose, too powerful to challenge. The power differential silences and shames the victim. Even when unethical behaviour is reported it may not be dealt with appropriately.

Sometimes I wish there were a Demerit App – one that silences and shames the bully, harasser, or predator. So that when a married male professor won’t stop looking down the shirt of a female postdoc, she can press the thumbs down button against the professor’s name. The professor would be denied access to his laptop and portable electronic devices for an hour. If two or more people activate the app, the professor would be locked out for an even longer time and a message sent to the supervisor who would need to take action or they too would earn demerit points. Demerit points would accumulate for each individual and for each institution and would be deducted from the metrics used to calculate a person’s merit and a university’s international ranking.

it’s time for change

We are now well into a new millennium. But we are stuck in the stereotypes of the past. This roadblock is limiting our decision-making, our progress, our innovation. To move forward, we need to challenge the current norms; define merit much more broadly; measure qualities we value in people but which are hard to measure; and we must value ethical behaviour. Most importantly, we need to assess demerit alongside merit to gauge the true worth of a person or an institute. This way we can bequeath new models of success and leadership to the next generation to help fix the problems we have inherited from the past.

In this revolutionised workplace, academics with integrity, empathy, respect and compassion – as well as critical thinking and creativity – will be rated highest and valued most of all.

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This post is based on a TedX talk I gave at the University of Queensland on 23 May 2015. The video is here. (updated with new link on 10 Jan 2016)