What makes a good leader? A UoM business academic shares his tips

Professor Simon Bell reflects on leadership skills, mentorship, and his unusual path into a leadership role.

A professor of marketing at the University of Melbourne, Simon Bell has worked with the University in various academic roles since 1997. In 2019, he took a step in a new direction and became head of the Melbourne School of Professional and Continuing Education, one of the University's newest schools.

Professor Bell says he never planned to take on a leadership role of this sort, one he sees as an atypical path for an academic.

“I don’t think leadership is seen as an essential element of an academic’s toolkit,” he says. “Almost to the contrary – the way we’re trained and incentivised to work is very much around us all being off doing our own things.”

When the opportunity to take up the role first arrived, Professor Bell initially turned it down. With a young family, he wasn't ready for the change. Now he feels he has the presence of mind to take on the task.

Professor Bell says anyone can succeed in leadership – provided they are able to make one crucial change.

“You have to have an ability to develop your self awareness, your emotional quotient,” he says. “I feel like if you can’t, you’ll end up always taking a cookie-cutter approach. That will rub people up the wrong way.”

“I love relationships,” he says. “I love talking to people and engaging with people. And I love seeing people engaged and happy and fulfilled in their work. If I have a small part to play in that, it’s incredibly rewarding.”

In his current role, he’s learned to avoid top-down management and micromanagement.

“Looking busy and hoping the team follows suit is little bit misguided,” he says. “I’ve been trying to demonstrate my intent, not by directing or micromanaging.”

Professor Bell’s leadership style has been shaped by a few key experiences and people. First and foremost, he’s had longstanding mentoring from colleague Colin McLeod, a Professor in the Faculty of Business & Economics.

“Colin has always been a practitioner in academic’s clothes, I feel,” says Professor Bell. “He has a PhD and he’s a wonderful academic, but he’s always brought that real world view into the classroom. That inspired me and also reminded me of what’s out there. The University has a place in the broader community.”

Given that he’s still new to leading a team, Professor Bell has also sought guidance from a leadership coach.

“It’s been the most transformative leadership experience I’ve had,” he says. “We meet regularly, and I bring my challenges and we work through them together. The most important thing I’ve learned from that is to be more self-aware. When I get too caught up in the weeds, if you like, he says ‘Simon, I need you on the balcony. Be apart from it.’ That’s been powerful.”

Like any academic, Professor Bell isn’t ready to completely relinquish his connection to research and teaching: “I haven’t taught in 2019, and I’ve written only a few pages of research, but I’ve had one of the best years of my career. Why? Because I’m part of this nascent organisation with amazing people, and most importantly, professional staff — that’s been an eye opener for me, that I’m not working with academics.”

Professor Bell has learned these skills in a relatively short timeframe, and he’s still learning every day. Needless to say, Professor Bell is a great believer in continuing learning and development, and taking the steps to develop your leadership.

“I don’t think fundamentally my personality will change,” he says. “I’ll always be relationship focused, I’ll always be a bit of an agitator. You have to learn to harness what’s good and reflect on what you have to change.”

Explore our Professional Development courses