Professor Harro van Lente: Managing professionals? Don’t breathe down their necks or excessively scrutinise their work

Professor Harro van Lente: Managing professionals? Don’t breathe down their necks or excessively scrutinise their work

New series: leadership styles at UM

16-03-2022 · Interview

His job is to not overburden employees with forms, strategic plans or citation metrics. “You don’t need to tell academics that they have to publish papers. They know that.”

It has been almost eight years since Harro van Lente became head of the Department of Society Studies, formerly known as the Department of Technology and Society Studies, at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS). “I changed the name. A lot of people in the department didn’t feel like it fit well, so we dropped the T.”

He was an outside hire from Utrecht University, which had certain advantages, he says. “You get quite a lot of leeway at the beginning. People are more likely to accept that you want to shake things up a bit. The disadvantage is that it takes time to figure out how everything works.”

He succeeded Wiebe Bijker, a beloved scientist with a long track record. Was it difficult for him? Van Lente chuckles. “It’s easier to start somewhere where things aren’t going well. But I always emphasised that things would be different because I was different. I invited everyone for a one-on-one meeting and told them where I stand as an academic. I was a consultant at KPMG for a while. It wasn’t for me. I deliberately chose an academic career after that. It’s important to regularly ask yourself: why am I here? Why am I passionate about research? That’s what you should stand for as a manager. It’s easy to get frustrated within the university system – the lack of funding, the atmosphere of distrust in places where one should actually rely on the professionalism of one’s people. You must always act from a place of inspiration rather than frustration.”

To breathe down their necks

His source of inspiration as head of department is a book by Professor of Organisational Science Mathieu Weggeman entitled Managing Professionals? Don’t! Its main message: professionals studied for years to do the work they care about. They just want to do their job to the best of their ability. You don’t have to breathe down their necks or excessively scrutinise their work. Don’t overburden them with rules, procedures, forms and reports.

In the spirit of Weggeman, Van Lente does not focus on the publication rates or teaching evaluations of the 43 people in his department. “It’s about the big picture: are you doing the right things as a researcher and a teacher?”

What kind of manager is he? He is approachable, empathetic and a good listener, he says. He doesn’t push things to their limits, but keeps things together without letting decisions become weak compromises. “Different truths can coexist, although consensus decision-making has its weaknesses. Sometimes discussions go on too long. I could put my foot down more often.”


We shouldn’t overestimate the job of a head of department at FASoS, says Van Lente. “We have a matrix organisation. Reporting relationships are set up as a grid: we have someone who is in charge of education to whom I report when it comes to my teaching duties, and so on. As head of the department, I am responsible for the working atmosphere, coaching, HR matters, and putting together a well-balanced department with both experienced senior staff members and ambitious young people.” He isn’t afraid to hire academics who disagree with him. “Diversity is good. Some people are all business, others are completely focused on a particular goal, and yet others go for the big picture. It can cause friction – between them and me, or within the team – but I take that as a given because it can ultimately generate a lot of energy.”


He isn’t afraid to be vulnerable. “I sometimes tell employees that I’m being pulled in different directions and I’m not sure which way to go. I ask them: what would you do? I am the first among equals, a cooperative leader. I may be the head of the department, but in the end I’m just someone who is doing their best.”

Leadership Academy UM

The university is changing. The Recognition & Rewards programme is not just about creating room for academics to choose a career path that suits them (e.g. with a focus on education, research, patient care, or a combination), but also about ending the academic rat race: fighting for grants, the pressure to publish, the obsession with citation metrics. Also, the academic world ­– from teachers to policy officials and management assistants – must become more diverse and inclusive; almost everyone will work from home more than before; and the topic of work pressure, along with the related concepts of work-life balance and sustainable employability, is everywhere. Just like lifelong learning.

All this will require new leadership styles, says Maastricht University, which launched the Leadership Academy at the end of January 2022. Leadership is not just for heads of departments, deans and service centre directors: it’s everyone’s business. Every employee will need to take responsibility at some point, whether it’s about their own research, dealing with a conflict within their team, or organising an event.

In the coming years, all employees will have the opportunity to participate in the Leadership Academy through workshops, training courses and coaching sessions on topics ranging from developing personal leadership to management training. The courses are currently being developed.

Author: Riki Janssen

Photo: Joey Roberts

Categories: news_top, People
Tags: leadership,boss,harro van lente,instagram

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