Hello, Professor! Featured interview with Professor John Spinks

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Professor John Spinks
Professor John Spinks

In this edition, we had the pleasure of featuring Professor John Spinks from the University of Hong Kong (HKU). In every edition of “Hello, Professor”, we will focus on the interesting life experiences of academics from all over the world.

Name: Professor John Spinks
Gender: Male
Year of birth: 1950
Nationality: British
Current designation: Senior Advisor to the President
Institution: The University of Hong Kong (HKU)
City and country: Hong Kong S.A.R.
Alma mater: University of Southampton
Research interests: Psychology, but now a full-time administrator

What are the qualities of a good academic leader?
While I don’t believe that I can be described as a good academic leader, I can still describe what I consider to be the qualities of one! Vision and strategic thinking would be top of my list, both of which require an ability to think well beyond the status quo, to identify opportunities, but also risks and challenges. In Asia today, we are witnessing not just an economic power shift, but perhaps also a political power shift. But, what is really exciting is that there is, in my opinion, an intellectual power shift as well. This is not the place to go into details about this, but it opens up huge opportunities for visioning major developments in universities in the region. To be effective, any vision for new goals and ways of reaching those goals requires a second level of competencies, best exemplified by excellent communication (more than just talking, of course), preparing well, doing the ground work by talking to decision makers and stakeholders to understand their perceptions and arguments, and a clarity of goals and outcomes.

We all make mistakes. Which career mistake has taught you the most?
Where should I start – I can think of so many?! One that stands out for me was when we started, as a University, to move into international recruitment. We were late starters, a mistake in itself, around 2005. There were two places I visited – South Korea and India – that I returned from, depressed at the lack of visibility of HKU at that time. High schools would not entertain a visit – “why would our students want to go there?” being the typical answer. Even universities were reluctant to do more than entertain a courtesy visit. I wanted immediate results – and the lack of these put me off. I didn’t go back to South Korea for about three years after that. I almost gave up on India. I should not have been put off by such setbacks. Since then, I have read more about grit, determination and resilience – and the important roles they play in achieving success. I had little of these attributes in the early years. Years on, and we now have more applicants from India than any other country except China itself. We attracted the 2nd and 3rd ranked students in the country last year. The message is clear here – don’t be put off by failure, and accept that there will always be detractors. If you are sure that you have carefully considered the interests of your university and its stakeholders, go for it!

Professor John Spinks

We all have weaknesses. What is your strategy for overcoming yours?
I can remember one human resources issue that escalated to the level where I thought I might have a lawsuit on my desk the next morning. I would procrastinate, and ruminate on the issue to the extent that I would wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to get back to sleep again. Those are serious weaknesses. What was my strategy for dealing with them? Make sure that I never had to deal with HR again! Of course, this is not a good strategy – it’s an avoidance method that we acknowledge is the worst form of coping! But, it illustrates something about career development that I have only come to realize in later years. I always thought career development was about seizing opportunities when they came up (even though I rarely practiced this!), thereby working one’s way up the career ladder. This is almost the opposite of what I now feel. Career development to me now is how you can mould your path to a job that gets closer and closer to your real heart as you move from one to another – but each time more in line with your competencies and interests. It’s a process of evolution – making sure your job fits you better each time. Forget about promotions, forget about salary increments, forget about power or whatever drives people to leadership positions. Just consider the nature of the job. You will hopefully end up as I have – with perhaps the best position in the world.

Who is your professional role model and why?
I am fortunate in being surrounded by truly talented individuals – such is the nature of my work environment – so my professional role models are all from HKU. Rather than name them, I would like to identify which of their talents were or are so valuable to me. The first was a Head of Department who was perhaps the best academic I have ever met – and yet published virtually nothing! He inspired the best of students by his dialectic interactions with them – although frustrating the weaker students – by never giving any answers, only questions, asking them to consider the issues, or asking them to refine their questions. He taught me the value of those interactions, and of challenging both students and myself. The second is someone whose ideas and energy wear her colleagues out, but are an inspiration to everyone. As we move more into the entrepreneurship and innovation era, those skills and attributes are going to become ever more valuable. The third is a respected administrator, who sits quietly and listens to academics debating an issue in tediously long committee meetings (who can’t identify with that?!), and then gives us the answer we have been searching for! Humility, combined with a carefully considered evaluation, is a great asset. But, in reality, and as exemplified by my first role model, we realize as we progress in our careers that the best teachers are often our students. They have different perspectives, can turn their attention to whatever you want of them, and are talented enough to provide us all with food for thought.

Who would you like to nominate for the next Hello, Professor interview and why?
I would like to nominate Winnie Eley. Winnie is not the typical professor who has risen through the ranks. Instead, she has moved from working for the British Council in Africa, through to running an international office, to being the strategic leader for internationalization at my alma mater. Her career path is an exceptional one, and the lessons she can share with us will be valuable for a wide range of readers.