‘Not everyone who drops sh*t on you is your enemy’

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By Nigel Savage on

During a journey from academia to management retiring University of Law president Nigel Savage has accumulated a few basic rules. This is his personal reflection.

Having made the decision to retire as president of the University of Law, I now face the challenge of carving out a new career at the age of 64, so it’s a good time to reflect on “if I knew then what I know now…”

There have been two parts to my professional career: the consultancy, research and writing, including my PhD way back in 1980, and then my management career. It was the success in the former activities that brought the opportunity to enter senior management in 1989, but the skill sets were largely entirely different. So I started my first day as dean of a university law school in 1989, responsible for the careers of some 50 individuals and a large chunk of taxpayers’ money, without any training or preparation. Academia is much like professional practice — you achieve success in fee-earning, which doesn’t necessarily make you a competent leader and manager.

Over the years I have accumulated a few basic rules, largely tried out on my colleagues. The only management book I ever read was Alex Ferguson’s first book and from that I learnt a good deal, including the overwhelming principle of defending the team/the business and your commitment to it. If we are all working hard as a team, don’t worry about some of the popular perceptions (or misconceptions) too much.

A few more things I’ve learnt…

Always stay on good terms with ex-employees or candidates who have taken the trouble to apply for appointments. It’s always preferable for staff to leave with a debt of gratitude than a yearning for revenge. Look how many of Ferguson’s great players became advocates for the club and went on to be managers in the Premier Division. Besides, you never know when people are going to “bob up” as clients.

Be confident enough to surround yourself with people who can do your job for you. Constant challenge is good for leadership. A boss who helps their team achieve its goals rather than being its biggest problem is more likely to succeed. Be honest with each other and acknowledge your respective strengths; identify your defenders, your midfield and goal-scorers and make sure they are in the correct roles.

Don’t be afraid to attract and retain prima donnas. They need constant attention and support, but if managed and motivated they score goals and make the difference between success and mediocrity. A classic current case in point is Kevin Pietersen — a real game changer — but with an England captain and management who are incapable of managing him and getting the best out of him, and hence have settled for mediocrity.

Articulate a shared vision, and how different you are, and make sure it is sufficiently and soundly embedded. When I left Nottingham Law School in 1996 my parting words were that few vice chancellors can resist dismantling a successful subsidiary and that’s precisely what happened. If the subsidiary company had been more embedded, that might not have occurred so easily.

Always demand an evidence base (a good training for lawyers as well as in management!) for decisions and assumptions. BUT having done that reflect on your instincts — the killer ones which may give you first move, not the gut instincts with which you were born.

At the start of the day identify what’s the most difficult task/meeting you have. Then confront it as early as possible.

Finally, take heed of the following tale, I can’t remember who related it to me many years ago but it does ring true:

A little bird was flying south for the winter and was almost frozen and eventually fell to the ground. Whilst it was lying there a cow came along and dropped some dung on it. As the frozen bird lay there it began to recover from the heat of the dung and thaw out and soon found sufficient contentment to sing for joy thus attracting a passing cat, which promptly dug the bird out of the dung and ate it.

Lesson from the above:

Not everyone who drops shit on you is your enemy.

Not everyone who gets you out of the shit is your friend.

When you are in the shit, keep your mouth shut!

Professor Nigel Savage is the president of the University of Law. He will retire from his full-time post in April, after 18 years leading the institution.

The full ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series is here.

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