What Scientists Value Add to Leadership

October 12, 2020

Imagine a leadership team where one member began their career journey on the floor of a meat processing plant, and another began their journey in the laboratory. They now sit at the leadership table where their input carries equal weight.  

Professor Robert van Barneveld began his career as a scientist and researcher.  Nowadays he combines core business and commercial skills with his strong scientific background to bring critical thinking and analysis to his many leadership roles.  In our conversation today, Rob speaks about the inception, leadership and governance of Cooperative Research Centres, his drive for recognition of the competitive business advantage of diverse brains at the leadership table and his career insights for Scientists and STEM school leavers.

Rob is an internationally-recognised scientist specialising in the field of nutrition, with his core focus being grain and food production and food security.  Rob currently serves on multiple national boards and peak bodies.

Rob has applied his specific skills in research and development, education, corporate governance and government liaison as he has played a central role in the evolution of two very diverse Cooperative Research Centres. The latter of the two sees Rob leaving a significant social legacy for people with Autism and their families - in particular Rob’s driver is to demonstrate the benefit to business of employing people with Autism for their skill sets and the diverse lens they bring to the table. 

Scientists as Leaders - A precis' of Rob’s takeaways for those with a view to moving beyond the lab.

  1. Don't limit your career to research and the lab. Focus on the world beyond the lab - unless your research is helping the community in some way, you are not making a difference or building a career.
  2. Test your assumptions about the value of your research - find the “end users” who will benefit from your research and ask them to tell you how your research will impact or contribute positively to their outcomes.
  3. Your brain is wired differently to most brains in the business world - this is your competitive advantage. If you want to have a leadership career away from the lab, this is entirely achievable. However you will have to work for it and be able to demonstrate the value add you bring to the business world.  This value lies in the lens through which you will view a situation, and the way in which you will understand the constituent parts of the problem, analyse them and come to a recommendation.

Scientists and Researchers looking to build on their career within Cooperative Research Centres -A precis' of Rob’s Takeaways

Rob advises researchers looking for opportunities to build their in CRC’s, that it is “not about them” and that they must deliver research that focuses on the particular needs of this CRC’s end-users, which may not be directly aligned to their own area of interest or expertise. 

Leadership within a CRC requires good negotiation and communication skills, and the capacity for complex stakeholder management. Challenges include:

  1. Stakeholders may be competitors in the commercial world, but in the CRC they must cooperate and work towards shared outcomes for end-users. 
  2. Tempering researchers with specific expertise to do research industry wants. 
  3. CRC’s are about solving industry problems - articulating these problems so they provide clear goals for all participants is essential.
  4. Recognise you can't be all things to all people.  Rob enjoys the stakeholder engagement in leading CRCs the most - influencing stakeholders to grasp, and work towards delivering the end-user value proposition.

Employers and Leaders building Leadership Teams - A precis' of Rob’s Takeaways

  1. STEM people - those with brains wired for science, technology, math and engineering are not commonly around the leadership table.  The Scientific lens will view each issue or problem differently to others at the table.  This serves to strengthen team decision-making processes - assumptions are replaced with data, hard facts and analysis - this supports the team to be robust in their deliberations.
  2. Rob conceptualised and led the evolution of the first Autism CRC, and he explains his driver was to see an allocation of resources into Autism that is reflective of how prevalent Autism is in our community.  His focus is on how business benefits from the inclusion of people with Autism at all levels of the organisation because of the diverse lens they can bring to issues and problems. This can turn an issue on its head and allow the team to explore out of the box thinking to give business a competitive advantage.

STEM Students - A precis' of Rob’s takeaways

  1. Acknowledging 2020 has been a challenging year - STEM is still a powerhouse for your future.  You will fail plenty of times, and as long as you get up and try again, and again, you will eventually find your way to winning.  Take time to reflect each time you don't achieve a goal - what would you do differently?  Then do it differently next time.
  2. STEM skills can propel your career beyond the lab and library and into business. In your early years, ensure your research is applied to making a positive difference for the community.  
  3. When you are ready, your unique lens will set you apart in the business world.  You will be able to analyse and provide insights into issues through a lens that is not commonly found around the business table. This is your point of positive differentiation - and you can build on this across your career.  It can drive you to succeed in business and in leadership - when tempered with the skills of EI skills of communication, influence, empathy and negotiation.  

Leading and Building Business in International Settings

  1. Immerse yourself in the culture of that country - and how they do business.
  2. Respect 'the way they do business' within their culture and work within this framework.
  3. When working in China - there is a long established business culture and to succeed you work within its norms.
  4. Even doing business 'across the ditch' in New Zealand is very different to doing business as an Australian in Australia. Don't make assumptions.

What is a Cooperative Research Centre?

Cooperative Research Centres (CRC’s) are an initiative of the Australian Federal Government.

Broadly a CRC is the development of sustained, user-driven, cooperative, public-private research centres that outcomes to end-users.  CRC’s drive intense engagement across private and public sectors in research, education, commercialisation and technology.