Inside track - Dr Tim Peakman

Tim Peakman, Chief Operating Officer (COO), introduces himself and outlines how and why several University services will be brought together under his leadership from 1 August 2018.


Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

For the vast majority of my career I have worked in or around science and universities. I completed a PhD in bacterial gene regulation before working in the pharmaceutical industry on treatments for epilepsy and pain, as well as working for a time as a management consultant.

Before joining the University seven months ago, I spent 14 years helping set up and run the UK Biobank initiative - a major collaboration between funders and UK and international universities to establish a scientific resource to understand the causes of common, complex diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and stroke. The fact that it has been much copied around the world is testament to the success of the model and it has provided a good basis for my role at Leeds – I was working with leading academics and service groups across many universities to deliver a challenging project.

What attracted you to Leeds?

Like the vast majority of people that work in the sector, I passionately believe in the role of univerisities as a civilising influence and force for public good. Indeed, I hope and believe that thread of public good runs through much of my career.

I have also particularly enjoyed working very closely with researchers from across the Russell Group and overseas. It is an environment in which I feel I have been able to make a contribution, so when the opportunity arose at such a prestigious institution, I was keen to apply.

How do you see the experiences of your previous jobs benefitting the University?

Principally, through being able to work effectively with academic and services colleagues in a way that benefits the wider University and recognises the symbiotic relationship between the professional services and our academic mission. In short, having a well-run and efficient organisation will help us deliver on our core objectives of excellence in student education and research, with an increasing focus on internationalisation.

I am also a strong believer in supporting people to develop a career that they find genuinely rewarding and which enables them to realise their full potential. In part that involves creating systems and processes that work for people, not against them.

What is the rationale behind creating this new post?

Large universities are complex organisations, with thousands of staff and students from across the globe, extensive and varied facilities and huge research portfolios. They are operating in an increasingly demanding regulatory environment, and external challenges – such as the decision to leave the European Union – are further complicating the picture. Within this volatile context, my role is to align the organisation in support of our three priorities of student education, research and innovation and internationalisation, as efficiently and effectively as possible. The Vice-Chancellor has recently redistributed responsibilities among the senior team to support this.

What challenges is Leeds facing to its key operations?

The external challenges are many and acute and certainly aren’t exclusive to Leeds. The review by Philip Augur into post-18 education, the restructuring of the principal grant-awarding bodies with a focus on fewer, bigger grant awards in support of Government priorities, and the formation of the Office for Students, all create a highly challenging environment with a significant degree of uncertainty. Factoring in Brexit as well, we are entering probably the most challenging period higher education has ever experienced.

Internally, we are undergoing a huge amount of necessary change, which will help us prosper in this environment. This includes extensive campus development, a redesign of underpinning systems and processes and changes to the make-up of our student and staff cohort. This is placing great demands on our staff, who are still having to deliver their day-to-day roles, while supporting these various change programmes.

How do you plan to tackle them?

Ultimately, success at a prestigious University, such as Leeds, will rely on us keeping an unrelenting focus on our core mission of student education, research and innovation and the international dimension. All of our efforts, and the relevant contribution of our staff, must be geared towards this. Clarity in ambition must be matched with pace in delivery in a way that avoids creating a working environment for staff that is not sustainable.

I am also leading our work to look beyond the end of our current Strategic Plan, which takes us up to 2020. During the next 18 months, we will be developing our strategy for the following five years in a very challenging world. Our long-term operational plans will be informed by this work.

What resources do you have at your command to realise your goals?

From my perspective, the recent adjustment by the Vice-Chancellor of responsibilities of the senior team has aligned all of the organisational resource required to deliver our major change projects, and created a single point of accountability for operations across the University. For example, each of the major projects we are engaged in has an IT component, a business change component and, often, a facilities component. Bringing these and other areas together under a consistent structure that supports effective working with colleagues from faculties is essential to realising our ambitions.

How can we get involved and what are your plans for engaging with staff?

During the next month, I will be meeting colleagues that now report in to me and their senior management teams. We will agree how we will work together and understand, from their perspective, opportunities for increased effectiveness under the new structures and how these can be delivered. I am quite clear that the expertise resides in the organisation and its staff. It’s my job to create an environment where that expertise can be harnessed to effect change.

After this initial period, I hope to meet as many staff as possible, and that won’t be a one-off event. I hope people, at whatever level in the organisation, feel they can come and talk to me, and I will be continuing to engage with teams across the University on a regular basis.

What can you bring to the job from your interests outside of work?

I used to play a lot of rugby and have also done a lot of coaching. This has taught me effective teams perform best when there is clarity of leadership, mutual trust and a shared commitment.

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