Leading Entrepreneurship at a University During Turbulent Times

Discover how in this age of uncertainty organisational development theory has been leveraged to lead the award-winning team at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Written by Wendy Kerr

It is human nature to crave stability. Our brain is programmed to prefer be in a state of homeostasis and certainty as opposed to a state of uncertainty or ambiguity. Being entrepreneurial is to feel comfortable and even enjoy that state of not knowing what’s in front of you, because the pay off as you work towards your grand vision for your venture is worth it.

How in these extremely uncertain times do we lead and encourage University staff and students to embrace additional unease and leap into the precarious world that is entrepreneurship? We know that leadership is a critical ingredient in any organisation’s success, and right now we need our leaders to be bold, steadfast and have a large appetite for ambiguity. We need them to be entrepreneurial. Can they transform a centuries old institution, take risks to reconstruct and reconfigure to meet the new fiscal and physical challenges? In the face of uncertainty how can they balance the needs of their stakeholders tactically for the short term while continuing to build strategically for the future? Successful leaders will push back their personal fears and harness their teams and navigate the current ambiguity together.

Personal crises and extreme pressure in my career has taught me to deal with uncertainty. Like climbing a mountain it’s all that one can do to take the journey one step at a time and know that eventually you will reach the summit and the crisis will pass.

We are extremely fortunate in New Zealand. Our government communicated clearly and openly, took prompt action and placed the country into lock down quickly and now as we open up, is cautiously assessing how we interact with the rest of the world.

Our university closed, programmes and work moved online and the constant fear for our personal and family’s safety pervaded our thoughts.

Leading a team and a community when you are fearful of your future and that of your family is hard. You must push your dark thoughts and unhelpful behavioural tendencies that come from high stress to the side. (Procrastination, stress, exhaustion from continued poor sleep, home schooling etc.).

You must push your dark thoughts and unhelpful behavioural tendencies that come from high stress to the side.

From my decade plus experience of being an executive coach with leading tech companies, I have found the following to be useful when leading teams and an organisation through unexpected and prolonged crisis.

1. Focus on purpose
Why are we all here? When we are highly stressed, our brain moves into an ‘away’ state. It purposely focuses on the short term, actively looking for danger so that we can move quickly from it. This causes our decision making to be reactive and focused only on the now. As a leader, we need to ensure safety and wellbeing of our teams and also ensure we create a compelling vision of the future. Focusing on your purpose, your BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal), will lift the thinking of your teams and give them a feeling of something worth working for, beyond the here and now.

2. Reframe the issues that the crisis brings
Another day, another issue, another new problem to solve. An entrepreneurial mind-set takes the never ending stream of new problems, reframes it and seeks the opportunity it brings. This isn’t about being “Pollyanna” but instead approaching the situation with a solutions focus. Encouraging a fresh perspective on our situations.

3. Control versus concern
Right now there is so much out of our control that deeply worries us. But as it is out of our control, there is little we can do to affect the situation. As a leader how can you encourage your teams to focus on only that which they can control, and apply less attention to that they can’t. This will help their stress levels, and give them a sense of agency over their situation.

4. Build alliances to serve
In times of high stress it’s easy to hunker down and work with those closest. As an entrepreneurial leader, we should be the most adept at dealing with this current ambiguous environment, so how can we reach out and serve others who may be less adept? Unexpected opportunities can come from helping others solve their problems, and may serve you well in the future.

5. Look for a reason to celebrate
Good news is in short supply. What quick wins, achievements or milestones can you celebrate with your team? A sense of play, engendering fun and adding energy to your zoom meetings will give your team a much needed positivity boost and a zing of energy.

These leadership approaches are not just for leaders of entrepreneurial centres, and as we work in this field, it should all come easily to us. However, even as leaders we can’t escape feeling the impacts of this pandemic. Do as the airlines say and put your own safety mask on first, and ensure you are well positioned to lead in these difficult times.

Did this approach work for us at the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship? Yes, and better than I had hoped. At the University of Auckland, all staff were asked to work from home for over 3 months. After the initial shock of everyone rapidly fleeing the offices, we regrouped, created a 90-day Work from Home plan, so we could focus on how we would achieve our purpose in these new conditions. The plan gave us all certainty, focus and anchored us. Our team delivered 70 workshops over the course of lockdown.

This high level of activity was enabled thanks to the foundation of the five leadership tenants above. We had the freedom to experiment with new approaches to delivering our workshops, permission to push the boundaries of how we might do team building on line, and a new way of communicating quickly through slack and MS Teams which some of us had been reluctant to embrace. We created a team culture within lockdown that enabled people to travel the journey from vulnerability to empowerment.


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About the author

Wendy Kerr
Director, Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The University of Auckland

Wendy Kerr is Director of the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Auckland, where she aims to grow business savvy, entrepreneurially minded students. In her tenure there she has transformed the Centre, developing programmes and initiatives which have increased participation by 370% since 2015. Now, 8% of the University of Auckland student body are involved in the Centre’s innovation and entrepreneurship programmes, including the recently launched incubator and the iconic innovation hub which was opened by the Prime Minister. In 2019, the University was named Entrepreneurial University of the Year at the Asia-Pacific Triple E (Entrepreneurship and Engagement Excellence) Awards. Over her career Wendy has been drawn to developing new ventures. An experienced General Manager she has global experience in leading technology and media start-ups with the Financial Times, Pearson and Quicken. In these roles she developed and executed the business strategy to grow successful ventures, and a record breaking tech IPO on the ASX. Wendy is a Board member for the icehouse, chair of a femtech startup, an active angel investor, and mentors high potential start-ups. She is also a speaker in demand and a best selling author, having written two books on female led start ups, one of which got to number one on Amazon.

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