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The role of risk-taking in successful leadership

There’s a fine line between being a gambler and a calculated risk-taker. How much uncertainty can you handle? How much would you stake on a decision you’ve made?

Big risks require nerves of steel, so it takes a special kind of person to look down into the yawning chasm of possible defeat and jump across it. Deakin’s Vice-Chancellor, Jane den Hollander AO, is one of those people. Since taking the job in 2010, den Hollander has taken calculated professional and financial risks to transform Deakin into a place of cutting-edge learning and technology.

The building material of the future

Profound institutional change requires high risk-tolerance. Just nine months into the job, den Hollander took on a challenging contract to produce carbon fibre at Deakin, the only place in the southern hemisphere to do so. Carbon fibre is a lightweight, high-strength material used in everything from space shuttles to tennis rackets. The contract was deemed high-risk because of the large financial outlay and the technical build that was required, but den Hollander saw the potential, and went for it.

Of the project den Hollander said, ‘The project finished on time, in budget, and earlier this year we signed a deal with an American company to license our newly discovered IP and use it to provide cheaper quality carbon fibre to a much bigger market… it’s a global success story.’

An opportunity in the decline of manufacturing

Manufacturing has been in decline across the west for many years, and Australia is no exception. The decades-long offshoring of industrial capability might give some pause as to the wisdom of embracing advanced manufacturing at Deakin. Was this move high-risk? Or a calculated leap? ‘We’re optimistic about the role of machines and artificial intelligence and what it means for the jobs and more importantly, the skills of the future,’ den Hollander says.

‘One of the interesting things we’ve done is talk with advanced manufacturing companies on our Waurn Ponds Campus. Most of Australia is saying manufacturing is dead but it isn’t. Advanced manufacturing has taken its place, creating new jobs that require different skills to enable us to be more competitive and to use our technology to good effect, creating wealth in our community. Over 1900 new skilled jobs have been created at Waurn Ponds over the past five years.’

'The best idea can come from anywhere. Not just the top, not just the bottom.'

Vice-Chancellor Jane den Hollander AO,
Deakin University

A focus on students as ‘True North’

Big-ticket projects like carbon fibre and advanced manufacturing are not the only way risk-taking can help an institution evolve.

In conjunction with den Hollander’s forward-thinking leadership, transforming Deakin has been a collaborative process with the people whom the university places first and foremost, its students. Giving students control of their study might seem a dangerous course of action compared to traditional, top-down institutional learning. But den Hollander explains how it has paid off:

‘Students are our True North; our north star, as a staff member said recently,’ she says. ‘We learn what we need to do by listening to our students.’

Deakin now has three entry points per year plus start-anytime, multi-speed learning options, credentials, a redesigned assessment process and a brand new curriculum. ‘We’re one of very few universities that places student outcomes as our first priority.’

Under den Hollander’s leadership, Deakin has achieved the highest student satisfaction rating in Victoria for seven years running.

A way to make space for ideas

Academics can be very fond of their personal space; their oasis in the turbulence of a campus environment. The Vice-Chancellor pushed the envelope again when she reduced the number of offices in refurbished and new buildings, creating shared spaces in stylish and servicable environments that enable staff and students.

The idea behind this move was to encourage interdisciplinary thinking, which means looking at problems from a variety of different perspectives. For example, how might a materials scientist get help from a microbiologist? Or how might a teacher and a software engineer learn from one another?

‘The best idea can come from anywhere. Not just the top, not just the bottom,’ den Hollander says. She believes the democratisation of space encourages interdisciplinary thinking, the cross-pollination of thought, and as a result, new ideas. ‘My view is that if you’re in your safe little space, you sometimes don’t think as courageously. Shared space is a new concept for our sector, it is a journey but the signs are good.’

Thinking courageously and risk go hand in hand. Being prepared for the possibility of failure is essential, but if you make smart choices, the odds of success will be in your favour. If you listen and do your research to have the evidence you need, taking a risk might just pay off.

Find out more about how Deakin is putting student outcomes first.

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Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander AO
Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander AO

Deakin University

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