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The latest insights on narrative, storytelling and leadership in higher education.

Professor Kamil Omoteso

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Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the College of Business, Law and Social Sciences at the University of Derby

Professor Kamil Omoteso has many strings to his bow. His role involves both executive leadership of the College, and strategic leadership for university-wide initiatives. He is a father, an active academic, Chair of The Chartered ABS and supervises postgraduate and doctoral students.

Throughout everything he does, his passion for education shines through, and his determination to have a positive impact on others sets the tone for his leadership.

We’re imperfect…but if you are sincere [and] you deal with people from the heart, they know.

This is the message that sings out when I speak to Kamil Omoteso. We’re talking about transitions and the challenges of leadership, particularly in 2020. From childhood right through to his current role as Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean at the University of Derby, integrity, working hard and having a positive impact on others lives have shaped Kamil’s world view. As a leader, this means being sincere, and working for, and with, others to inspire positive change.

Here’s Kamil’s leadership narrative, in his own words.

Louise You’ve had a fascinating career in higher education, starting out as a lecturer in Lagos, then moving to the UK to do your PhD and now as Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of a College at the University of Derby. I’d love to know what values have shaped you through this journey.

One way or another, whatever you do, try to do the best you think you can.”

Kamil I’m the youngest in my family, and growing up with my siblings who showed me the ropes and a family who showered me with love has been a major influence on my worldview. The culture in our family was always to be honest and to be the best you could be, but not to achieve at all costs. To have decorum, a kind of civility and integrity: I think that’s the keyword. To not lose sight of who you are and not to only live for yourself alone but to try to impact on others. This is something that me and my siblings remember our parents instilling in us. Probably, this is how I developed an interest in teaching, because you can help shape people’s ideas and vision about the world. The subjects you love are, to a large extent, a function of how the teacher is, and this is what motivated me to move into academia. As a child, I also loved to learn new things and my interest was in education. I knew that to make something of yourself in life, you have to study hard. I loved sports too and I learned a lot from them. And for you to excel in sports, come on, it’s hard work! Nothing good comes easy and you have to work hard, train hard. One way or another, whatever you do, try to do the best you think you can.

Louise You have a clear love of education. How do you balance the pleasure you get from teaching with the responsibilities of leadership?

Give it go, if it works it works, and keep going.”

Kamil I joined academia when I was working as an accountant, teaching part time because this was where my passion was. When you impart knowledge and contribute to someone’s future or career development, that inner joy and feeling you have is unparalleled. One thing led to another, and I realised that to be regarded as a proper academic I needed a PhD. There weren’t many opportunities to study for PhD in accounting in Nigeria at that time, so I came over to do it here and found I enjoyed the research too, contributing to knowledge, practice and informing policy. Whilst doing my PhD I cherished my teachers and I was lucky to have very caring supervisors. Sometimes we would disagree due to differences in opinion, but we’ll always find a way forward. Replicating this experience for my own PhD students is a real joy for me. When you have a passion for something, you will always create time for it. My personal work ethic means that I don’t want to let people down. I’m happy to spend time doing my bit, that’s what keeps me going. It was never in my dreams that I was going to become Head of this or that, but here I am. Give it go, if it works it works, and keep going.

Louise Your research has a strong commitment to ethical topics such as corporate sustainability and accountability. When people and organisations are pressed, how do we make sure we keep making good decisions?

Kamil Leadership is a big part of this. The nature of the leader, their beliefs and how they stand their ground is really important. At the moment, millennials are becoming our co-workers and future leaders, and they have a very strong view on these issues. Any good leader will think twice before they relegate ethical or sustainability issues to the background because it will come back to bite them and their organisation.

There is no more room for leaders who do not allow ethics, sustainability and accountability to be part of what they do.”

We also have what we call an ‘agency problem’. People with power, such as Directors, make decisions “on behalf of the organisation”, but in a real sense because checks and balances aren’t always watertight, people can still get away with making selfish decisions that disadvantage the owners of the organisation or other stakeholders. This is where our research comes in. I’m particularly fond of public organisations, where a key question is, “where do I derive my legitimacy to act on behalf of the public?” It’s from society, of course. But if society withdraws their social contract – the confidence they have in the leader – then the organisation’s reputation will be in tatters, and you will not survive. So there is a lot at stake. This is what me and my colleagues have been working on, and everything is pointing to the fact that there is no more room for leaders who do not allow ethics, sustainability and accountability to be part of what they do. They will be crowded out of the market. And this is an area that governments are taking an interest in. If you aren’t doing what is necessary and you aren’t considering the interests of the people you are leading you will lose trust, and you won’t have a leg to stand on.

Louise Thinking about keeping pace with change, how have you found this last year, the transition to working online, and leading others through this too?

Tell people if they do a good job, and let them know it’s ok to show the imperfect human side.”

Kamil It was uncharted water for everyone when we went into the first lockdown way back in March. People were used to a particular methodology, and imposing another methodology will always be daunting and require a bit of learning. But colleagues worked really hard to convert their teaching and assessments online to produce results so that students could graduate, and that was huge.

Going through this transition, one key thing that made a difference was communication. Talking with staff members, letting them know what was going on. Frequent communication, listening to feedback, showing that we are co-creating this path together and that we’re both learning and not claiming that is going to be all hunky dory has been really important. Yes, we will make mistakes, but we will rectify them along the way. One thing our team did was to visit every discipline online, bringing them together so that they could tell us what they needed to tell us, turning their cameras on and talking to us directly. We didn’t have all the answers, but we could reassure them and come back on anything we couldn’t answer. If you can do this kind of communication well and stay on top it, it can make a huge difference.

The second key point has been empathy. We’re all human beings, and Covid will affect some of us directly, or maybe close relatives or family members, or you’re dealing with the general anxiety within the society. None of us is immune from it. But if you show that you understand all this, and you empathise and you are flexible in your approach, you will see people coming forward. Colleagues covering for each other. Tell people if they do a good job, and let them know it’s ok to show the imperfect human side.

Louise Thinking about the future and what’s next for your College, do you have any advice on how you bring people together to make a vision a reality?

A leader can’t do it all, it’s about engaging others. If we weren’t on the same page, it wasn’t going to happen.”

Kamil Prior to my role at Derby, I was at Coventry University and I joined at a point where they were just shooting up in the ladder in terms of recognition, league table, etc. and it was amazing how we were able to galvanise colleagues and people to work together to achieve this. It convinced me that it’s doable. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And when I came to Derby, I had a feeling of a déjà vu. I could see the passion from the Vice-Chancellor that connected with me straightaway. She was on a journey and I could see where I fitted into that. At my interview, I knew I wanted to be in this kind of environment and I had a vision for the role straightaway. I started by getting to know the state of play, learning the College inside and out. Okay, this is where we are, where do we want to be? Where do I want to take the college in the next three to five years?

When I joined, it was putting faces to names and getting to know the people in the College, what are the strengths and what are the gaps that we need to fill, and how does that fit into the strategy. I started to socialise my ideas and my dream with my team, because a leader can’t do it all, it’s about engaging others. If we weren’t on the same page, it wasn’t going to happen. I also discussed my ideas with the Vice-Chancellor’s team, and gained their support. These two together made a huge difference; the ability to carry people along, both within the college and at executive level who are convinced this is the right direction. Part of the conviction behind the vision, was ‘what will be the implication of doing nothing? Let’s keep it as it is.’ We all agreed that this is a competitive environment. We all agreed it was a complex environment, and we all agreed it was a dynamic environment and things are moving very quickly. But if we do something, we are never going to be stagnate. We won’t just be an idea on the shelf, we will be progressing, not retrogressing. We knew this, and this helped me engage them in vision for the College and get the resources I need to make it happen.

Louise You have a compelling energy of how you engage people within universities. But are universities, relevant to, and connecting with, their communities?

Kamil Universities don’t operate in isolation. We partner with City and local councils, and MPs, pulling together to make a case to the national government about what we, in our community, need. This is the case at Derby, and is the direction of travel for many other universities too. And I think from the universities I’ve worked in so far, universities contribute hugely to their local economies, to local policies, strategies and socio-political issues, helping develop graduates who can contribute to their regional economies.

We need to think about the things that the community value, what their expectations are, where their priorities are too. And when we’re working with local industry, for example through different parts of the Business School, you need to think about formalising the expectations on both sides. When you do this, it reduces the expectations gap between the University and the civil community. You create a social contract. Universities also have erudite scholars and professors, and we want their research to impact on the community and region. It’s all a symbiotic relationship, where our universities and society can both benefit.

Louise You have such a wide-ranging role, what are the most challenging parts of what you do?

Kamil The most daunting thing being the Dean is that the buck stops with you. Particularly if it’s a difficult situation between colleagues. Things are never black and white, and when you’re dealing with a situation where one party cannot see what you see, and they’re convinced that they’re right, this can be tricky. I don’t hold these situations against people, I show them empathy, that I understand what they mean and their perspective. But it can be frustrating, especially as you can’t just say ‘can’t you see I’m trying to help you’. It requires a lot of patience, and a lot of negotiation. But you want to get results, not just for yourself or because you want to feel good, but for that individual’s sake and for the sake of the organisation. You’ve got to be balanced. Leadership is about tough decisions; it’s about dealing with very difficult situations and it’s about taking the ownership of those. Sometimes taking the blame is part of it.

Louise Finally, if you could only give one piece of advice to a leader, what would it be?

If you are not a sincere leader, you will not be an effective one.”

Kamil It would be to be a sincere leader. Because you know, particularly in academia, most of us didn’t set out to be a leader. We were leaders by accident. Depending on your institution, they will invest in you, send you on training courses, etc, but no matter the training if you are not a sincere leader, you will not be an effective one. You need to be sincere to yourself by having self-awareness, and recognise what you need to develop in yourself. You will also be sincere to your followers, the people you manage, and you will be sincere to your employer too. And these are really important dimensions.

From my experience so far, if you deal with people genuinely from the heart, they know. I’ve had instances where people will say ‘Kamil, we know you are constrained, that’s not what you would have done ordinarily, but I understand.’ I’ve had other instances where people have lashed out. I will know before that this is not going to be palatable stuff. But after a week or two, they find a way of saying, ‘you know what, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind when I did what I did’. My response, is ‘don’t worry it’s gone, let’s just move on.’ That doesn’t mean you want to encourage people to throw mud at you. But, in certain instances you can understand they’re just emotional about something. Here, sincerity matters. It can be seen through you, really. So, be open, be honest. It goes back to integrity.


Our deepest thanks to Kamil for sharing his perspectives on transitions, the importance of being sincere both for ourselves and for others, and for sharing his story.