Leading By Example: Female leaders at The Franklin give us their thoughts on leadership

International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the achievements of women, annually held on 8th March. This year, the UN theme for this International Women’s Day is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”. In recognition of this, we interviewed a few of the Franklin’s female leaders to see what they thought made a good leader, whether this had changed during the pandemic and who their role models are.

Dr Gillian Burgess is a Franklin board member and Head of Research at Grünenthal. She obtained her PhD from University College London and has worked for a number of pharmaceutical companies including Novartis, Pfizer and Vertex. Gillian was drawn towards pharmacology at university, because she saw the potential for making a big difference to people’s health and lives.

Professor Josephine Bunch is an analytical chemist with a speciality in mass spectrometry. In addition to being Science Co-Director of Biological Mass Spectrometry at the Franklin, Josephine also holds positions at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and Imperial College London. She is passionate about obtaining extremely precise and accurate measurements.

Dr Róisín NicAmhlaoibh leads the Business Development and Partnership team. Her team deals with the management of grants, projects, intellectual property and contracts. She has a background in cancer biology, she completed her PhD and a number of post-docs before moving into business translation. Róisín enjoys her current role as she gets to help passionate scientists translate their research to benefit society.

What do you think makes a good leader, and do you think this has changed during the pandemic?

Gillian: “I think great leaders lead by example, they are curious and encourage those around them to be curious too. Apart from where safety is concerned, I find that it is generally not helpful to tell people what to do, they need to come to their own conclusions. However, you can help them through this process by being interested and asking questions. I don’t believe these basics have changed during the pandemic, on the contrary, it has required us to be even more curious to find new ways of working and required greater level of flexibility and adaptability from us all.”

Josephine: “Great leaders enable and empower others. I work with fantastic teams of scientists – they are all really self-motivated, brilliant researchers. I try to support and empower them to do the great things they are capable of and to remove obstacles for them when required, so in the important ways this hasn’t changed much during the pandemic.”

How have you stayed connected with your team?

Róisín: “My team have been utilising many virtual means to keep in touch. I ensure that we have regular 1 to 1’s and team meetings, but I think having shared projects has made the biggest difference for staying connected – shared projects gives us joint goals and keep us in regular contact.”

Josephine: “My teams have done a fantastic job supporting each other, so it’s not necessarily me driving meetings. Although, during the lockdowns I have set-up more formalised catch ups, as we were missing those informal conversations and this has in some ways improved the communication efficiency within my teams.”

Is there anything you have started doing that you would like to keep on doing once things ‘return to normal’?

Gillian: “I have started sending out a weekly e-mail to my team, it can be about anything from my thoughts on a seminar, something new I have learnt from the literature or from colleagues, or just what I plan to do in my garden at the weekend. I keep it informal and that helps to spark some interesting conversations. This has become an important way for me to reflect on my week. It is also a way to reach more members of my team on a regular basis, so I would like to keep this going.

Also, I think it is important to push outside your daily bubble, connect with peers and friends; these conversations can be really energising and can help us gain distance and new perspectives on challenges.”

Róisín: “It is harder virtually but I have stopped waiting for the perfect time to have difficult conversations. I would usually put them off until you could meet with people in person, but the pandemic has made this impossible and now I have gotten used to having these conversations over teams, so there are no excuses to put them off anymore!”

All agreed that they would no longer expect everyone to be in the office every day and how this would influence the people they recruit going forward, allowing them to hire people without expecting them to move and allowing them to work much more flexibly.

Are there any strategies that you have found particularly useful for keeping up your motivation whilst working from home or working in a more isolated way?

Josephine: “I haven’t necessarily found it harder to motivate myself to do the science – planning experiments and looking at results is always motivating for me. However, especially during the first lockdowns, I found myself in a lot of meetings and suffered from Zoom fatigue. I struggled with that but this time round I have made sure I take the time to go for a walk everyday which has helped.”

Róisín: “It can definitely be trickier to stay motivated, I have learned to be kinder to myself, and if I need a break, I give myself a break.”

Who are your female leadership role models and why?

Gillian: “Rita Levi-Montalcini’s story of determination and resilience in the face of adversity has always inspired me. Her academic career was cut short during the Second World War, but undeterred, she set up a laboratory in her bedroom. She did eventually gain a position at the University of Washington where she did her most important work on Nerve Growth Factor, for which she received the Nobel prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1986.

However, not all my leadership role models are women. In fact, Sir James Black, who was head of the department at University College London whilst I was doing my PhD, was a great leadership role model for me. He showed me what it looked like to lead by example, and always stayed curious and encouraged others to do likewise.”

Róisín: “One of my earliest role models was my mother, she was a teacher and was very passionate about it. This meant she not only encouraged me to find a career I was passionate about but she showed me why it was important and what it looked like.”