Here we find out about the experiences that have shaped Sir Christopher’s leadership style, his first impressions of, and ambitions for, the University and his thoughts on the challenges ahead. Having recently become the University’s Equality and Diversity Champion, he also talks about the importance he places on creating a diverse and inclusive culture at Southampton.
Since you joined Southampton, is there anything that has made you particularly proud to be our Vice-Chancellor?
There are so many things that make me proud, indeed honoured, to be Vice-Chancellor here that I couldn’t single out one thing. The more I see of the University, the more I’m wowed by it. The people – staff and students – are so impressive and the research is really exciting.
You have met many people since you arrived. What has struck you about the character of our staff community?
It’s a fantastic community and one that is perhaps even more cohesive than we realise.
Everyone’s very proud to be part of the University, which is great, and it’s invigorating just to hear about the work people are doing, not just here but internationally and with other communities.
I’ve found that people are very friendly and happy to help, but also very willing to listen – something that I am also keen to do.
For those colleagues who haven’t met you yet, can you describe your leadership style and how you like to work with people?
I hope that people will find that I’m a very enthusiastic and energetic person with a clear, well thought-out vision of how things should be. I’m very interested in looking at things from other people’s perspective; I hope people will find me approachable and willing to listen to different points of view and take them into account in my leadership actions. I also hope they find that I offer an exciting and invigorating style of leadership, rather than just a managerial perspective, and that I am a human being!
Before you moved into leadership roles, what did you most enjoy about being an academic?
I love working with students and really enjoyed teaching. I always challenged myself to think about how I could give the best lectures and interact with students, and tried to offer what I hope were exciting and sometimes innovative approaches to teaching. But I’m also really fired up by research, in particular the creative, innovative aspect of it. As an academic I think that’s something you never lose.
What do you consider your greatest academic achievement?
There are lots of things that I’ve really enjoyed doing, but from a personal point of view I’d have to say being made a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. It was fantastic recognition of my research work.
With the National Student Survey (NSS) now live, how important do you think student feedback is – to staff and students?
I think it’s fundamentally important because the feedback we get from the NSS gives us the opportunity to improve. If we’re doing something really well it gives us the chance to do it well more widely. It also gives us the chance to find out about areas where we haven’t quite got it right. I think it’s also important for staff in another way. Most of the feedback relating to students’ experience with staff is incredibly positive, so it gives us an insight into that appreciation.
How have your experiences of working overseas and in industry made a difference to you personally and professionally?
The experience I gained working in the United States and other countries has had a profound effect on me and helped me to become a better person and a better leader. When I went to live in the US I naively thought that it would be just another version of British life. I couldn’t have been more wrong! Learning about other people’s ways of living and their different perspectives on life broadened me as a person.
Professionally, the culture in the US made a big impression on me; I was influenced by the positive, ‘can do’ approach and I’ve become a very positive and affirmative kind of person as a result. I also learned about measured risk taking, and the importance of not being afraid to try something even if it might fail. Here in the UK we’re very risk averse, which can mean that we don’t always grasp all the opportunities that come along.
You have talked about the importance of collegiality. Why do you think that matters?
For me, collegiality is the bedrock of a successful organisation. In terms of leadership, it’s very important to understand that it really matters and encourage it.
To be successful, an organisation needs to have its team behind it. For the team to be effective, you have to really understand and recognise everyone’s skills.
Of course, it’s natural to feel most closely associated with your own research group, team or department, but you can keep that sense of identity and appreciate what colleagues do in other parts of the University.
As our new Equality and Diversity Champion, you have said you want to address diversity and equality issues “directly, consistently and continuously” – what difference do you believe this can make to the people in our University community?
I think it can make a big difference. All universities, including Southampton, have embraced diversity and equality but we need to keep working on it. We need to remember that people have different needs and requirements at different points in their careers, and offer flexibility and support. For example, you can’t expect a parent with a young child trying to balance childcare and a career to have exactly the same working day as everyone else.
I think we need to deal with these issues directly because it’s important not to pass them over or pass them around, responding consistently because fairness stems from being consistent, and continuously because we simply can’t drop the baton.
What difference can it make to the achievement of our strategy?
This brings us back to collegiality, because having an ambitious strategy means we’ve got to expect the best from the organisation, and the organisation is about the people in it. If we don’t value people, how can we expect them to support the strategy? If we understand and respond to people’s needs they will value working here and we will get the best out of them from the University’s perspective.
Also, if you have a diverse community you usually get the very best outcomes, because you have people with a range of different perspectives looking at problems in different ways.
Are there any particular areas of diversity where you would like to see a step change?
I think it’s about continuing on a journey rather than making a step change. We’re moving from a white, male-dominated culture towards one that really appreciates that true diversity involves understanding everybody’s needs and contributions. I think we’re making good progress, not only in terms of gender but all aspects of diversity. The important thing is to keep looking how we can build on what we’ve achieved so far. For example, when we appoint people to University roles we need to make sure we create an opportunity for all candidates to be considered. Sometimes that means going the extra mile, so it’s about being diligent in how we approach things and not simply taking the easiest route. The end result is worth it.
What do you anticipate to be the biggest challenge facing the University at this time?
We live in an ever-changing environment and this is something that people really worry about. It’s extremely important that the University leadership is able to help us to move through periods of change successfully. At the moment we’re facing the changes proposed in the government’s green paper, such as the Teaching Excellence Framework and the introduction of a new regulatory body for higher education, so we’ve got to be flexible and adapt to that. I don’t think change is something we should be daunted by – we just have to be a bit more agile.
In the longer term, what is your ambition for the University?
I hope that when my time as Vice-Chancellor comes to an end I’ll have helped in many ways to make us even more successful and to build a stronger university.
I hope that we’ll be a top 10 university and that we’ll have created something sustainable that won’t feel in any way threatened by the changing world around us.
I see enormous opportunities for the University and I don’t think we need to take too many huge steps to make the most of them.
On a lighter note, who would be your ideal dinner party guests?
For a really exciting evening I’d go shopping through history for a variety of people with different talents and views. It would be great for my wife and I to have people like Winston Churchill, Picasso, physicist Richard Feynman, scientist and double Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie, athlete and double gold Olympian Dame Kelly Homes, and Tanni Grey-Thomson, the inspirational former gold-medalist British wheelchair racer, now a parliamentarian and television presenter. I think the conversation would be lively!
What does an ideal Sunday look like in your household?
Because I have such a busy week, Sunday is a chance to relax and spend time with family. We’ve got two boys, both at university – they were home for Christmas but will be going back shortly – so my Sundays get quieter during term time! It’s also a chance to share some quality time with my wife – there isn’t much chance during the normal week.
What three words do you think your family might choose to describe you?
That’s a good question! I hope they’d say I was caring, thoughtful and a good dad.