What is the role of leadership in academia, and what makes the research team good? Those are some of the questions I’ve asked Erika Blaschke, leadership consultant, in the following interview.

Erika Blaschke is a leadership consultant and organized for HES-GEO leadership training.

1. Could you briefly tell me about your expertise and role at the university? 

I started working at the University of Salzburg at the Department of Geoinformatics in 1996. In my first years, I was involved in our distance learning programme “UNIGIS” where I was coordinating the German and the English language programmes. In 2010, a new long-term GIScience doctoral school was awarded to the Department of Geoinformatics – Z_GIS at the University of Salzburg under the prestigious and highly competitive “DK” framework of Austria’s National Science Fund (FWF). I started to work within this programme as a coordinator at the beginning of 2011.

2. And how have you got to the topic of leadership? For how long are you helping early-career researchers navigate through team relationships?

I was always fascinated by the topics of leadership and leadership styles and how different styles motivate employees and influence team spirits. I already investigated this topic in my Master thesis years ago. As the coordinator of the international doctoral programme, I was responsible for the support and education of our doctoral candidates. I have organized training measures in leadership and, in particular, in team development. Since 2017, I have started to offer workshops within this field inside and outside academia.

3. Has leadership and management always been on the universities’ teaching agendas?

Leadership is a topic, which has been on the agenda of universities for several years. I think this programme started around 2010. The University offers leadership training within the framework of its staff development programme. This programme is open to early-stage researchers as well as to senior scientists. Since 2019, the University also offers training called “Academic leadership”, which is tailored to the heads of departments.

Follow this link to read more about the training provided by Erika to HES-GEO research teams.

4. How could universities foster leaders that will help motivate and unite excellent scientists in joint projects? 

I have been working on several projects over many years. In many project applications – due to lack of funding or other reasons – no accompanying measures – e.g. transferable skills training – were included to support early-stage researchers. Fortunately, the topic “soft skill training” has become increasingly important and I hope there will be more awareness and – of course – funding for this topic in the future.

5. Is it something that should be on the agenda from the beginning (BSc, MSc) or instead later?

Leadership training should be an integral part of PhD education. These training measures can also be offered in selected master’s courses, but I would not yet offer them to general classes at this stage. Bachelor students and Master students can be trained in specific transferable skills, like project management, presentation and communication techniques,…. These kinds of trainings are also helpful for the development of the student’s personality and their general skills and are important for their future career. 

6. Should leadership/management capabilities for specific roles within academia gain more importance over the scientific expertise and credit, or is it still the science that matters the most?

I would say that chronology plays an important role here: In order to be successful in your specific work environment, either in academia as a researcher or in the industry as an expert in a specific domain, you first need the necessary technical expertise. You obtain the formal qualification by completing a master’s degree or by completing a doctoral degree.

“Depending on your personality, there are different scenarios for the future: Some people like to continue their work as a specialist in their field, while others want to get a management position.”

Depending on your personality, there are different scenarios for the future: Some people like to continue their work as a specialist in their field, while others want to get a management position. As a manager, you should be a communicative and empathic person to lead a team successfully. Without an appropriate master or doctoral degree, you are usually not even shortlisted for such a position. If you make a career leap, leadership skills are of course necessary. As a manager, you then have to learn to delegate the work according to the skills and knowledge of the employees. 

7. You have mentioned that meetings play an essential role in glueing the team together and staying on track. Has the shift to an online environment made this easier?

Meetings are important for team spirit. If you do not have the chance to meet with your colleagues/peers, you rarely have the chance to communicate. And good communication is one of the key factors of successful teams. Due to the pandemic over the last two years, we all faced the same problems, no matter if someone works in academia or in private industries. Most people started to work from home and team meetings hardly took place. This situation certainly boosted the digital transformation. Relatively quickly, a wide variety of platforms made it possible to conduct team meetings, workshops, webinars, etc. online. There are some advantages: work and private life can be better combined and organized, especially if you have to take over care responsibilities. However, there are also disadvantages: the distinction between professional and private life is certainly more difficult as the boundaries between working hours are blurring. I would put it this way: a mixture of online and face-to-face meetings definitely makes sense, but the challenge is to find the right balance. Important meetings in the plenum should take place on-site on a regular basis, some minor meetings can be held online. 

8. Having now the experience with various teams from the HES-GEO project, what, in your opinion, should be improved?

As part of the HES GEO project, I had the opportunity to conduct a half-day online workshop with all research team leaders. In addition, I was able to get a first impression in a two-day online workshop with the individual teams. I think, in these 2.5 workshop days we managed to work out the importance of well-functioning teams: to start a team identity process, so to speak. Due to time restrictions, it was not possible to work on a more detailed level. The success will become apparent in the coming weeks and months. However, in order to guarantee the team achievements, a regular exchange between the individual research teams and myself on a regular basis (e.g. three-month interval) would be important. These meetings will allow the reflection and discussion of the team’s performance. Team development is a continuous process that should be carried out as an accompanying measure for the remaining duration of the project.

Erika Blaschke works at the Department of Geoinformatics Z_Gis of Paris Lodron University Salzburg and currently is a leadership consultant outside and inside academia.