Enabling An Environment For Innovation: Dr. James Trotter, Dean And Academic President of Murdoch University Dubai
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“Innovation is not usually the product of a genius individual working in isolation, but most often results from the collective work of a talented team working in a collaborative environment.” This, says Dr. James Trotter, is how he sees leadership, which was influenced by Harvard Business School’s Professor Linda Hill and her book, Collective Genius. Dr. Trotter is the Dean and Academic President of Murdoch University Dubai, a role that he’s held since 2017, and he believes that the responsibility of a leader is not only enabling an environment that fosters collaboration and innovation, but also knowing when it is appropriate to do so.
“Leadership requires the ability to adapt appropriately to the situation and needs of the organization. Different circumstances require different styles of leadership,” says Dr. Trotter. He points out how when an enterprise is in undergoing significant change, a leader should focus on communicating a clear vision of the organization’s future. He likens its importance by telling how he joined the institute.
Established in 2008, Murdoch University Dubai is a branch campus of Murdoch University in Perth, offering Australian accredited university degrees such as foundation, diplomas, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Dubai. Prior to joining the Dubai campus, he has been with Murdoch University in Perth since 1994, and has held a variety of academic and leadership appointments, including: Deputy Dean of the School of Arts, Associate Dean Learning and Teaching of the School of Arts, and a term as Deputy President of the University Academic Council. Upon joining Murdoch Dubai, he says, "This transition period created great uncertainty and anxiety for the staff. It also had the potential to damage the university’s reputation.” Dr. Trotter decided it was his top priority to focus on being articulate ("both in words and actions") of the vision of what the campus would be after the transition.
In keeping with this mindset, Dr. Trotter remarks that it’s all the more important to intentionally focus on creating and sustaining an environment that enables innovation during so called “business as usual” days too. Having a capacity for innovation is an uncommon trait associated with higher education, but one that he proudly says that his Murdoch Dubai team has. “Creating an environment in which they are able to collaborate and refine different or competing ideas a team provides the necessary context that leads to innovation.” This trait has been essential as the enterprise adapted to the realm of challenges brought on by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
With the government’s mandate for online classes in March, the university only had three days to make the transition, and yet, the campus hasn’t missed a single class, with all technical issues addressed and corrected immediately. Since then, the dean notes how it has been a cycle of improving the quality of online experience for students. He credits this milestone to two specific factors: first, is how the university was prepared for the transition as they developed contingency plans for online learning, supported by its home campus. The second is the quality of the Dubai team who collaborated and are continuously working towards better approaches to teach in a digital environment. In fact, having developed new ways of teaching and engaging students, Dr. Trotter says they will also retain and refine some of these approaches in the post COVID-19 era.
Whether you work in academia or not, Dr. Trotter says there’s always a call to be enterprising in one’s role. Earlier in his career, Dr. Trotter was imbued to be the best teacher and it was later through serving on academic committees that he began to realize the value of academic leadership: “It can either be a hindrance or catalyst in the creation of an environment that permits academic staff to flourish." For people who are delving to leadership roles for the first time, he advises to ensure that you have a support network from the start. “There will be unexpected challenges and you will face events that stretch you both professionally and emotionally. It is vital to have people you trust.” He also adds to forge the strength of your staff, “The best leadership is not about providing all the answers, but creating the environment in which your team innovates and excels.”
Source: Murdoch University Dubai
Dr. Trotter is also cognizant that Dubai’s diverse population, making up the staff and students at Murdoch Dubai, is a distinct opportunity. He states that leading a Middle East-based institution has reinforced the worth of careful listening as this sort of diversity comes with heightened risks and rewards. “The potential rewards lie in the broad range of new perspective brought together in the diversity, but the risk is not being able to hear them. Communicating across so many different cultural and linguisitic backgrounds requires a level of sensitive and careful listening that is rarely required anywhere else in the world.” On their approach to students, Dr. Trotter notes they aspire to foster graduates who are accustomed to teamwork and apply solutions to real-world issues. “I think some people still conceive of university as memorizing and repeating answers, and maybe it is still like that in some places, but that is not what we want to achieve."
He commends the students’ willingness to take calculated risk to develop their skills, and boasts that students are eager to engage in internships, work placements, competitions and even start entrepreneurial ventures while they study. To his students and the next generation, Dr. Trotter advises to be open and grab the possibilities that come along in life. “I could not have set a course to get directly to where I am now when I was a student. I could not even have imagined becoming the dean of a university campus in Dubai at that point in my life.” He concludes, “I believe that success requires the combination of determined planning and the willingness to adapt to unexpected opportunities as they come along.” As a Murdoch Dubai alumnus, it’s nice to see that the university, and its students, are in great hands.
The Executive Summary
Dr James Trotter, Dean and Academic President of Murdoch University Dubai
Q: What do you think are the three characteristics of great leaders?
- Trust “You choose the members of your team because you believe in them and their abilities to accomplish what the organization needs. Then you must trust them to get the job done. Overbearing control and micromanagement are the surest ways to stifle innovation and limit success.”
- Empathy “Human beings are not capital or resources, they are people, and work is not an isolated entity from the rest of life, it is part of life. That means there will be joys or sorrow or suffering that will inevitably be part of the workplace. Machines can be serviced or repaired. Human beings need support, understanding, and compassion.”
- Resilience “If you feel empathy, you cannot isolate yourself from the emotional impact of supporting the people in your team when they face difficulties and loss. It is essential to find your own avenues of support and the means to care for your own well-being.”