AIM CEO David Pich and Deakin University vice-chancellor Jane den Hollander discuss the different ways leaders make an impact.
Jane den Hollander, vice-chancellor of Victoria’s Deakin University, is seizing the future of tertiary education with both hands, with her ambitious plans to transform the institution into the best cloud-based university in the world.
The daughter of a miner, Zambian-born den Hollander was the first member of her family to go to university. After gaining a Bachelor’s and then Master’s degree in Science at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, she completed a PhD at the University of Wales that delved into cellular biology. She also developed an enthusiasm for IT, and it was this that led her into management positions at the University of Western Australia and, eventually, the job of deputy vice-chancellor at Curtin University.
In 2010 she became the sixth vice-chancellor of Deakin University – one of nine women vice-chancellors in the country. Speaking to The Australian just before she took up the appointment, she revealed how scientific training can be an asset in management. “All good scientists are quite good managers, in my view… it is about finding problems and solving them. It is no different,” she said.
David Pich caught up with the ebullient vice-chancellor to chat about her ambitions for Deakin and how emotional nous also has its place in leadership.
DAVID PICH: Deakin is now in its 40th year of existence and you’ve graduated your 200,000th student. How do you, as vice-chancellor, “maintain the rage”?
JANE DEN HOLLANDER: The most important thing is to keep the narrative going – to keep talking about who we are, what we are aiming for and why, and what everybody’s role is. Once the narrative is there, and there is belief [in your organisation’s mission], you have to share that belief right down to the newest person in the organisation. They need to understand who it is we are.
DP: It’s our 75th anniversary at AIM and we are in the process of writing a book about the seven key attributes of leadership. Leaders, vision, mission and strategy are very overused terms, but surely the role of the leader is to set the vision for the organisation. How do you set that vision and then communicate it?
JdH: Deakin is a university that had started as a distance educator. The original vice-chancellor, Fred Jevons, was a genius. He came to Deakin with the aim of making it the best distance educator in the world. Forty years ago, distance education was a place you went when you couldn’t go anywhere else, but he did it beautifully.
Then the university went along and got a bit successful and moved away from distance education. When I got here, it was my view that we had to go back to our roots and become the best cloud-based university in the world. And that remains our vision: to stay at the edge of the digital frontier in everything we do – learning, teaching, research and our enterprise. [This bold approach is outlined in Deakin’s LIVE the future: Agenda 2020 strategy.]
“When I got here, it was my view that we had to go back to our roots and become the best cloud-based university in the world.”
Freeing up money for this core business has to come from somewhere. Now there are no landlines [at the university]. The second thing we did was to put video in everywhere to cut down travelling. If you are going between two campuses [that are] two hours away, that’s four hours a day for one meeting just to get there and back. It was silly. [Deakin University has two campuses in Geelong, one in Melbourne’s Burwood, another in Warrnambool, and four learning centres in Melbourne’s outer suburbs.]
We also realised that when we put offices in our buildings, people sit in isolation. So our most recent two buildings have no offices in them. All the engineering professors sit alongside senior lecturers, associates, PhD students. People are able to communicate more effectively and we saved $400 million over about four years.
That money has gone into creating great staff conditions and attracting very, very good staff so we can get to the next level. We are currently at 324 in the world [in the QS World University Rankings], so the aim now is to be in the top 200. As a 40-year-old university, that’s where we would probably be quite happy to be for a while. We know we are not going to be Cambridge or Harvard – we can’t afford it right now, nor is it our mission. Education for the jobs of the future is our mission.
DP: How would you describe the culture?
JdH: I’d say the culture at Deakin is one that believes the vision and our mission. Our vision is to be the best university we can be using the digital frontier. Our mission is education for the jobs of the future and research that makes a difference to the communities we serve.
DP: It sounds like an incredibly complex organisation to lead because you’ve got your staff, you’ve got your students and your prospective pool of students.
JdH: Everyone is a prospective student, but I don’t think it’s the most complex place. It’s a multi-campus university (and I think there’s friendly rivalry between the campuses), but we don’t have international campuses. All our international students come here so it is actually a fairly straightforward process.
“There is a very difficult balance in leadership. It’s not just taking charge…It’s about enabling good conversation.”
DP: What have been the challenges of your job? I’m sure that the six-year journey has not been that easy.
JdH: There are always challenges, but you have to keep it in perspective. It’s very easy to say “Oh, we digitised the whole curriculum”, which was extraordinary, but not difficult. Educating a medical student to be a good brain surgeon is difficult, so is educating engineers so they will never kill anyone when they build a bridge. That’s important.
DP: At AIM, diversity in the workforce is a key interest for us and we have a program called Diversity Matters. You’re one of nine female vice-chancellors, which sounds impressive, but that’s only 25 per cent of the total number of vice-chancellors in this country.
JdH: I think it needs to be much higher than that. I think we need to do more with gender diversity and diversity generally in Australia. Look at parliament, look at the ASX and look at the big public institutions. Everywhere you look there is an absence of diversity; it is shocking.
DP: How do you judge your impact in the vice-chancellor role?
JdH: So often, before I go to bed I think, “Oh you over-talked, you often get quite critical. I spent the whole time lecturing them …” I’m aware I have to be careful of the impact I have.
I think there is a very difficult balance in leadership. It’s not just taking charge, losing patience and saying “All right team, this is what we are doing today.” It’s about enabling good conversation. I’ve had to learn that.
I have a very good person who coaches me on this. I’m so effervescent I can take over the room. But, of course, I shouldn’t be doing that. So now I’m trying to contain myself by stepping back a bit.
The other point about impact is that I think all leaders have to be careful about their mood. If you walk into a room and you look like thunder, you are going to impact the mood of that room. Making sure that your mood and your tone are appropriate to the occasion is very, very, very important. Don’t go to work if you’re bad-tempered!
Leadership in 60 seconds
Who is your leadership hero?
Nelson Mandela. He brought democracy without bloodshed and after spending 26 years on Robben Island, he was able to forgive, and he forgave everyone. Then he stepped down from the role [as South African president] with dignity and respect. Who would have done that? People would have let him stay in office until he died. I think he personified everything that is brilliant about leadership. He knew what he wanted to do. He came and he did it without harm. He set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that Afrikaners and everyone that they had oppressed could get together and at least have it out and they did. It doesn’t get better than that.
Oh there have been a few. When people betray the trust of whoever they are leading, it is absolutely dreadful. I was absolutely despondent that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard gave away so much trust in a fight that they couldn’t sort out in a room. I thought that was shocking.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat?
Twitter and Instagram – I’m keen on photography.
Which three people would you invite to a leadership lunch?
I would have [US President] Obama, [scientist] Rosalind Franklin, who probably should have got the Nobel Prize for discovering DNA, and my mother. She would enjoy the conversation and is very literate.
What is leadership to you in ONE sentence?
Having responsibility for what the future looks like and telling everyone that we all get there together.
What are the most underrated traits in a leader?
Talking to your people. Some of my senior staff think I’m indulgent talking to staff. If I walk through a building, some people won’t go with me because I’ll talk to whoever is along the way. Some of the best ideas we’ve had have come up that way.