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Unprecedented with Dr Terri Simpkin

Published 30th April 2021

At Unprecedented, we had the opportunity to speak to Dr Terri Simpkin, Associate Professor and Head of MBA Programmes (Int’l) at Nottingham University and CEO at Mischief Business Engineering, who told us about how the pandemic has affected her personally and professionally.

A background into you and your business?

Where to start!! My first career was in hotel management and, as a result of that, I became interested in training. Having started the first hotel school in Tasmania, Australia I moved into teaching hotel management, and after finishing my undergraduate degrees in Human Resources Management, I started my own company in which I worked as a consultant to industry associations, governments and businesses in the area of strategic management, HR and workforce composition.

I ended up running two businesses, teaching in Higher Education and undertaking a PhD simultaneously - all while raising a son. It was a busy, but fruitful, time as the business allowed me to do really interesting research work into the demographics of workforces, public investment in skills development and responses to labour shortages, skills wastage and government-funded capability development.

I’ve now found myself back in the HE sector and do all sorts of interesting work across industries as diverse as digital infrastructure, defence and retail. Of course, a big part of my work now is preparing a new generation of leaders and augmenting the capabilities of current leaders as part of my international remit with the MBA programmes at the University of Nottingham. 

Define leadership and what being a leader means to you.

I think the definition of leadership is a moving target now. The traditional notions of leadership and what it means to be a leader have changed so much in recent times, and it continues to evolve. Previously, ‘strong’, ‘stable’, ‘aggressive’, and ‘unwavering’ may have been appropriate descriptions or expectations of a leader, however, these terms must now give way to notions of ‘collaboration’, ‘inclusion’, ‘humility’, and ‘compassion’. Where charisma was once thought of as the key to a leader’s success, capability and competence have become much more important, and rightly so.

What’s demanded of leaders now is not unflinching certainty, but flexibility, vulnerability, the capacity to be human and the ability to recognise the fragility of the people in their sphere of influence.

The great Sir Terry Pratchett once wrote, “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.” Sadly, I’ve seen much too much of this behaviour from leaders in my own work experience and, unfortunately, we see it all the time around us.

So, I don’t think there is one definitive definition of leadership. To suggest so supports the fact that leadership should be tied to context, strategy and organisational operation as a good corporate citizen. I think the days of a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership are long gone.

Who are your Leadership role models/inspirations

The idea that leaders are going to be exemplary at all things and at all times, denies the fact that all leaders are human with vulnerabilities and flaws. I think the worshipping of leaders (particularly in politics and big business) we’ve seen in the past (and still today, perhaps) is an outmoded way of looking at leadership as a ‘superpower’ invested in one person, rather than a suite of capabilities enacted with, and in, the service of those around them (e.g. colleagues, customers, community stakeholders etc.).  

I think leaders who have the capacity to be warm, decisive, inclusive, collaborative and firm but compassionate are those who will have greater success as our notion of work and organisational/political governance shifts to meet the demands associated with disruption.

Having said that, I have a lot of time for Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister. Even before her response to COVID, she has been a bit of an exemplar for contemporary leadership behaviours and capabilities. All power to her.

What would you like your Leadership Legacy to be?

I think all anyone can ask is that, perhaps in some small way at least, someone else’s life has been enriched as a consequence of what a leader has done and how they have behaved.

What are the “non-negotiable” behaviours that you expect you and those around you to live by?

I think being around people who have the capacity to feel and display empathy is key. So too is the sense of comfort, or responsibility, to challenge ideas or decisions made by people around them if they feel they are at odds with the vision or philosophy of the team/organisation.

Probably most important is integrity and a rousing sense of humour!

What impact has Covid-19 had on you?

I’ve been very fortunate to have maintained my work (both at the university and some consulting/public speaking work) as I can work from home and have the benefit of having the tools and space to do that. I’m aware that many have not had that opportunity.

My experience has been dominated by the fact that I have not seen my immediate family in over 12 months. I have family in Australia and my first granddaughter was three months old when I saw her last. I have missed being around for her first steps, her first tooth, her first word and her first birthday. These are the experiences that can never be replicated, and this has had a profound impact on my priorities. I have come to realise how I have taken the privilege of being able to travel freely to the other side of the world for granted.

What impact has covid had on your business?

Covid has been a game changer. Much of my work is focused on my Higher Education role, and the impact there has been profound. We have had to completely revise how we deliver learning and how we interact with our students and colleagues. We have reconsidered how to facilitate assessments, how to provide social interaction opportunities and how we recognise and respond when people are struggling.

Where were you and what were you doing when you first realised that Covid-19 was very serious?

I was speaking at a conference on the Gold Coast in Australia when Tom Hanks and his wife were all over the news as they had contracted the virus while they were there too. It started to dawn on the conference attendees that this was probably going to be the last conference for a while, but I think it really became clear that this was serious the day that I was getting ready to fly back to the UK as Australia was putting out the call for Australians abroad to get back into the country before the borders closed. I had a terrible fear I would be stuck in transit if the UK shutdown!

Are there any people within your support network who made a big positive impact on you as a Business Leader during those early weeks/months?

A good friend and colleague (my self-appointed coach and mentor) have always been a massive influence. His grace, honesty and insight have always impressed me and made me think of the world, and my place in it, from a different perspective. He has also been the one to tell me to ‘wind my neck in’ when I was losing my connection to my values. Having someone around like that for twenty-five years (and counting!) is a blessing.

What were the 3 biggest (or best) decisions you have made in 2020?

My work is not necessarily measured by big decisions, to be honest. It is more often about the small things that make a difference to people where they are at the moment; particularly if they’re in a place of distress or uncertainty. The smallest act of compassion at such times can have profound impacts. I don’t think this can be underestimated, but we are often distracted by the ‘big ticket’ issues that often grab attention.

What remain your 3 biggest challenges?

Maintaining a focus on the fact that this is business as usual now. The crisis, in many ways, has passed and now we’re left with the ongoing need to navigate through uncertainty as a ‘situation normal’. 

Bringing people with you to continually step up to meet volatility can be a challenge, and maintaining the focus on the mission when systems and structures are not necessarily designed to work under lockdown conditions can be a real grind.

Looking ahead to 2021 what are your predictions for the economy? For your sector?

A lot of the issues we will be facing in business and the economy were already on the agenda pre-pandemic. For example, emerging notions of how we conceive work, who is engaged in work, how it is done and how organisations operate as corporate citizens within communities have been amplified by the revelations laid bare by lockdown regarding inequality, the digital divide and the subjective (perhaps biased) value of prioritising some work over other work. I think the economy will recover, but the deeply embedded issues around inclusion, wellbeing, economic parity, and equity of opportunity will need much greater levels of scrutiny and action by businesses and governments.

At the beginning of 2020, we were in a talent short market. What is at the top of your "people strategy" agenda for 2021?

I’ve been working on research on, and responses to, talent shortages across a range of sectors for over 20 years and there are key concepts that I think need to be clarified to properly design people strategies. Organisations (and policymakers) must recognise that skills shortages, labour shortages and talent/skills wastage are different challenges but they often get conflated into one problem with a catch-all skills/talent shortage moniker.

Unpicking these three issues will provide organisations with a better understanding of the challenge/s under scrutiny and therefore will be better placed to form people strategies. Essentially, you need to know what the problem is prior to formulating an appropriate response and I know from my work globally that this is often the underpinning reason why people strategies often don’t gain the traction or positive outcome that they’re designed to make.

Fast forward to 2050 .... what would you say to your future self… That you did well or badly in 2020 to learn from.

Step away from the haircutting scissors!! Put on a hat instead!! 

What advice would you give to those entering the workforce today?

Stay curious, keep learning, be critical of everyone who says they have ‘the answer’ on any topic. Stop and smell the roses. Be kind.

The Pandemic has caused many of us to reassess what is important in our lives. In what ways have you recalibrated your own priorities and goals.

The constant drive for relentless growth, be it personal or within an organisation, at the expense of ethical practice, wellbeing and sustainability needs to be reassessed. Personally, I’ve really had a wake-up call as to what is truly important and what’s fleeting, vacuous and hurtful. Ego driven goals have made way for priorities around relationships - and that’s quite liberating!

If you have enjoyed this blog with Dr Terri Simpkin, and want to learn more about her, follow her on Twitter and Instagram. For more Unprecedented blogs, visit our blog section here.

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