Mastering the art of saying no should be part of a research leader's … – Nature.com

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Gemma Modinos tells Julie Gould how she honed her leadership skills as a young scholar.

How do you learn leadership skills as a researcher, and how well is science served by its current crop of leaders?
These are just two of the questions asked of scientific leaders from a range of different sectors and backgrounds in this five-part Working Scientist podcast series all about leadership.
In this episode, Spanish neuroscience and mental health researcher Gemma Modinos talks about her own leadership journey as a group leader at King’s College London and former chair of the Young Academy Europe.
Modinos compares “command and control” leadership styles with more collaborative approaches and says aspiring science leaders should not neglect leadership training as part of their career development.
Learning how to say no effectively and allocating time to meet looming deadlines is another key skill, she tells Julie Gould.
But should all early career researchers nurture leadership ambitions? No, says Modinos. “Not everyone has to strive to become a PI, or to be involved in chairing an organization, or being president, or being in boards,” she says.
Never miss an episode: subscribe to the Nature Careers Working Scientist podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. And please leave a review. Your feedback is important to us.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-023-00130-0
Julie Gould: 00:09
Hi, it’s Judy Gould, and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to this series on the podcast, All About Leadership.
Each episode in this series explores leadership from a different perspective. We hear from academic leaders, research institute leaders, industry leaders, young leaders, as well as someone who studied leadership and what it really means. I tried to find out what these people think leadership is, how they got to these positions that they’re in, where they learned their skills, and what they think of the scientific leadership we have today.
But before we get started, just a quick thing. It will only take a minute, but we are looking for your feedback. So if you have some time, either now if you need a break, or after the episode, please could you head over to Apple podcasts (or wherever you get your podcasts) to leave us a review. Because we want to know what you think of the show. And more importantly, we would like to know what you would like to hear on the show.
Thanks, that’s all. Now, back to it. In this episode, I get an insight into leadership with Dr Gemma Modinos. She is an outgoing Chair of the Young Academy of Europe. She’s also a research group leader, and a reader in neuroscience and mental health at King’s College London, in the UK.
So Gemma holds these two different positions of leadership, one as the outgoing chair of the Young Academy of Europe, and one as a group leader. It’s not always easy to balance your time. But in this episode, Gemma shares how she does it.
And as always, the big question to kick us off, “What does leadership mean to you?”
Gemma Modinos: 02:01
So to me, being a leader means someone who is in a position where they are shaping the vision and the direction.
But how that is executed, you know, back in the day, it was more a style of command and control, and not so much transparency as to what led to that decision.
Whereas what I like to implement in my practice, and I think a lot of people that I interact with in the context of, you know, young scholars, young PIs, which is what we are in the Young Academy of Europe, is moving to a more collaborative leadership.
Julie Gould: 02:37
And where did you learn about this leadership style, or any of the other leadership skills that you currently have?
Gemma Modinos: 02:44
So the first thing that I did when I got my first fellowship to transition to independence, was to take up any training I could about leadership, and about unconscious biases, diversity matters. So things that I knew could influence the way I lead, even at the subconscious level. So, my university provides quite a few of these. And that’s where I started.
Then I also applied for the UK Academy of Medical Sciences Sustain programme, which is a mentoring and support programe for women in science at this career stage, and I was elected.
So we also had training on leadership as part of that, and this concept of collaborative leadership started coming up. Also at my university, there are different courses, different career development courses, at different career levels.
The thing that I feel was a bit lacking is management training. Because in the leadership courses they make it very clear, you know, there’s always a slide about the difference between leadership and management and how in leadership you know, you inspire, you have vision, you take people with you, blah.
But then actually you do have to do management. You have to manage finances, you have to manage difficult conversations, you have to manage, you know, you are line managing people.
I feel like in academia as well “Oh, no, I, you know, I’m not a manager, I’m, I’m a group leader, I’m a PI.”
But you are doing management, so that’s something that I’ve had to look into separately.
Julie Gould: 04:21
So where did you look to find management training?
Gemma Modinos: 04:25
So far, I’ve used the university resources. So until now, you know, I have looked on this skill portal that we have with the, with the different training and I have registered, as I’ve said, for the leadership and the unconscious bias, and the diversity matters.
But you know, I had not…whenever I saw something about management pick them up was not how was I wasn’t thinking that was for me. And so that’s that’s what I’ve done so far.
Julie Gould: 04:51
So your scientific career has taken you across Europe. You started with your masters in Barcelona in Spain and then you moved to Groningen in the Netherlands for your PhD.
And now you’re based at King’s College London, in London, the UK. So can you tell me a little bit about the different styles of leadership that you experienced in those countries?
Gemma Modinos: 05:12
I feel there’s something quite common to southern European countries, where it is a bit more command and control, in the sense that the senior person draws from their own experience, to direct, you know, people. And, and, you know, obviously to the best of their ability and also with a good heart behind it.
But it’s less, there’s less hearing out of the of the younger generations, for example.
Whereas once I moved to, you know, north western Europe, like the Netherlands and the UK, then it feels a little bit more approachable, less hierarchical, the leadership style.
There were still leaders who were kind of sheltering, I think that’s, that’s probably what was happening or not even, you know, just not not thinking that perhaps those are things that you would like to share with your with your team.
If you’re struggling with the finance or you’re struggling with, with with management, or you’re struggling with funding, or that’s not something that I’ve seen until now, I got to a position of more seniority, and then you have candid conversations with the person that was, you know, my PhD supervisor or my postdoc supervisor, and I think, “Okay, so everyone’s, you’ve also gone through this.”
So it’ll be interesting when it starts changing, and then it’s more of an, an equal, an equal conversation. I’m trying to start doing that earlier with with the lab so that they know, really, what’s happening.
Julie Gould: 06:46
Okay, so I now want to ask you a little bit about your role as the Chair of the Young Academy of Europe.
So firstly, can you tell us a little bit about what the Young Academy of Europe is? But also, what does your role as the chair of the academy involve? What sort of things do you need to do?
Gemma Modinos: 07:05
Yeah, so the Young Academy of Europe is a grassroots bottom-up initiative, established in 2012, of a group of young scholars many of them, most of them were ERC starting grant grantees, to, for people who have outspoken views on science policy and policy for science.
So it’s really a network of people. Currently, between alumni and current members, we have about 300 Young Academy of Europe fellows, and our activities involve from advising, you know, science advice for the European Commission. Now, we are also involved in several policy for science initiatives, such as, you know, the research assessment reform, the precarity of research careers, etc.
We also do a lot of networking and science outreach. And so being the chair of the Young Academy, gives me, you know, the freedom to propose initiatives and try and shape the vision and the the next two years for the Young Academy of Europe, what type of activities we will focus on, and I can run, you know, make these proposals to the board.
So some examples are “How about we try and do something more about widening participation?” So there’s quite a bit of this freedom of proposing, shaping the vision.
There’s also of course, you have to do quite a lot of engagement. So there’s a request for interviews sometimes, you know, kind of last minute, when there’s been a new, you know, some president of a country has made a statement that is relevant to academies, then sometimes we’re asked to comment on that. Invited to presentations to disseminate the group, the group where we do or to give our opinion, for example, at ESOF, I had recently a keynote on precarity and sustainability of research careers.
And I’ve also spoken at the VITAE workshop last year in the UK about mental health of young PIs. So there’s a lot of this sort of engagement and invitations that give us the opportunity to provide our insights. But everything that is to be commented on, of course, is run by the board.
So I do not make decisions without running things by the board. And Moniek Tromp is my vice chair. And she is extremely involved as well and active in many of the science policy and science advice topics.
So we, you know, I’m able to share the workload with Moniek for many of these kinds of invited talks and workshops. So that’s worked really well with Moniek.
Julie Gould: 09:41
So how do you balance your time and how do you balance your time between being the Chair of the Young Academy of Europe, but also to lead your group of researchers.
You know, a question we hear a lot from early career researchers is that iare the leadership activity distractions from the research work that you’re doing. And can you balance the two together?
Gemma Modinos: 10:08
Yeah, so the thing is that it’s not a constant. They are not the research and the YA work for example, I’m also involved in the International Research Society. I was in the board the last two years. So this is not the only board I’ve been in.
It’s not a constant amount of pressure in both. So I’ve been, you know, trying to combine when the research is more intensive, or I’ve been writing a grant and I’m getting to the end of it, and then communicate with the academy board, “Actually, I’m not going to be able to do Young Academy of Europe duties for the next two weeks.”
What is really unhelpful is when people are busy, and then they disappear or stop replying to your emails. Then you don’t know what’s happening.
But if you plan it, and you say, “Actually, this is going to be a really busy period, I won’t be able to chair the meeting.” Or “I won’t be able to, you know…” Then other people can pick it up.
And if they can’t pick it up, you know, we might need to say no. And in terms of the other way around, so there’s been…So I’ve been trying to fit it in the periods in which one is calmer, then you do more of this one, when this is calmer, you do more of this one.
And something that I’ve learned and practiced in the last couple of years, and actually, it’s not, it’s been a bit of an eye opener.
So saying no has been something (a polite no), to prioritizing what’s really important at this time or not. And if someone asks me, you know, “Can you come give a presentation in the group?” Or “Can you, you know, write a book chapter?”
Or, actually, if I’ve said, “No, I’m extremely busy at the moment.” Or if you say, “Actually, I’m really busy until July. But after that, I’d be very happy to do it.” It’s fine. It’s actually fine.
Or, you know, when I was younger, you think, “Oh, every opportunity, I have to take it, because they will never come again.”
Or if this person thinks I’m rude, then they won’t want to work with me, they will think I’m not collaborative. And of course, I still sometimes still feel like that, hoping it’s not the case.
But if you’re open and transparent, everyone is very busy. So everyone knows, I feel, that you might need to say no to some things and, and it’s fine, it’s been fine.
Julie Gould: 12:31
You are in quite a unique position with the Young Academy of Europe, in that you, you get to be involved a lot of policy, you get to see a lot of the policy decisions being made.
And you speak to a lot of people who are involved in policy and leadership in science as a whole. So I wonder, given the position that you’re in, do you think that science is served well by its leaders?
Gemma Modinos: 13:00
So for this question I want to think about what we mean by its leaders. Because if we think about scientific leadership, we tend to think about scientists, so people who lead groups, or people who, you know, who are in positions of leadership in terms of even heads of department, who also shape the vision of the research of a department, to teams who, you know, Vice deans of research, etc, in a university.
So I think that in terms of, of, this leadership, I think it is well served. I want to believe it’s well served. These people who are performing the science, leading the science, touching the science, and can have a vision of where things should go.
Of course, leadership of science also involves funders, for example. And I think that that is a great determinant of how science is, where science, you know, what direction it has, and who is funded and what projects are funded.
And so, in terms of funders, I think that now with things like the research assessment reform, hopefully we’re having funders on board, we can also make sure that there’s perhaps more diversity and that the way funds are allocated doesn’t disadvantage the certain groups that are currently being disadvantaged.
You know, we know that women tend to apply less but also, you know, maybe less successful in securing funding. We know that at the EU level, there’s underrepresentation of for example, ERC grants in Europe between countries.
So I think that needs, you know, I think people funders are working hard on this.
And then of course, we also have government.
And governments make decisions about the funds allocated for research to funders, mostly, you know, if their score funding for universities then that too, and I think that’s also a really big contributor to science leadership and where it’s going.
And the thing that we are realizing, and that is in the conversation a lot, is, it seems like among researchers we are agreeing upon a lot of the issues, but we’re not being so successful at actually reaching the policymakers, and by the policymakers in governments mainly, And that is, that is a tricky issue. And I don’t think we have an answer of how to actually engage, engage them better.
Julie Gould: 16:02
So are you saying that it’s about bridging the gap between the scientists, the funders and the government, and that maybe there’s a lack of communication between these, between these different groups, that means that science isn’t very well served by its leaders?
Gemma Modinos: 16:18
I’m not saying it’s not that well served, I think it would probably be better served, because not just science, in sense of discoveries, but science in the way of what how science is being performed? What are the structures? What is a scientific career and what is the attractiveness of that? I think that it that could be better served, if we were able to reach, you know, governments and policymakers better, and and they also listened better.
So I think our thing, it’s, there’s a bit of a disconnect between how we see science policy, and our policy for science among researchers, and how, you know, perhaps government think about policy for science, and that needs to be married better.
Julie Gould: 17:10
So a final question that I have for you, which I know that many young researchers would love the opportunity to ask people who are in leadership positions, which is, do you have any advice on being a leader and training for leadership positions?
Gemma Modinos: 17:27
Well, the first thing I would say is that it’s not, not everyone has to do it. Not everyone has to strive to become a PI, or to be involved in chairing an organization, or being president, or being in boards.
There’s very diverse career paths that people can do, so. But if it’s something that you aspire to, and you would like to do, or you are transitioning to it, I would say training is important and the earlier, the better.
So at the postdoctoral level, if you’re thinking that you would like to apply for PI funding and try and become a group leader, I would say starting training on leadership early is good.
Because once you’ve, you’ve done it, then you’re in it. And then you’re starting your own lab at the same time that you need to do all this, you want to do all these training courses.
And then I would also say, well, it’s important to remember how you’ve been supervised and how you’ve seen people in leadership positions, perform and act, And then take from that what you think resonates with you, and what do you think are good practices? And don’t do the things that you didn’t like?
Julie Gould: 18:35
Gemma, thank you so much for sharing this with me today. It’s been an absolute pleasure to speak with you.
Gemma Modinos: 18:41
Thank you.
Julie Gould: 18:46
Thank you so much to everyone for listening to this episode of Working Scientist. If you have a minute as they asked, please do leave us a review, or leave us a comment on what you’d like us to cover on the show in the coming series. And that’s it from us. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.
Technische Universität Dresden (TU Dresden)
01069 Dresden, Germany
The University of British Columbia (UBC)
Vancouver, Canada
Jülich Research Centre (FZJ)
Jülich, Germany
Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research GmbH (GSI)
Darmstadt, Germany
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