Fifteen to One | Tim Watkinson

“30 years since my graduation from Leeds, I’m looking forward to finding out what’s changed, what’s stayed the same and what’s coming up next.”

Older man smiling with a suit and tie on

In our latest Fifteen to One Q&A feature, the University’s new Director of Communications and Engagement, Tim Watkinson, outlines what he’s most looking forward to about the role after joining from the University of Nottingham. Tim also talks about his career inspirations, previous jobs and how he relaxes outside of work.

Can you describe your role in 100 words?

I would say my key responsibilities are to lead and support the teams that help to build, maintain, and defend the reputation of the University of Leeds. This means keeping staff and students informed, engaged, and consulted on developments at all levels of the University. It also means highlighting our academic excellence, research breakthroughs and student successes across print, broadcast and social media. And it means winning support for the University’s mission from important stakeholders, policymakers, and politicians – regionally, nationally and globally. In short, it’s all about persuading people to think, feel, and act positively about the University of Leeds.

What impresses you most about Leeds?

First and foremost it’s the sheer breadth of research, the quality of teaching and the brilliance of its students. It is a powerful University that is based in a vibrant and influential city and which plays a vital role in supporting its economic, knowledge, and cultural growth. The strategic emphasis on collaboration between people and institutions is, I think, unique in its positioning – particularly in tackling the challenges faced by the Global South.

What are you looking forward to working on?

See question one! Amongst my first priorities are getting to know, support and learn from the Communications and Engagement team; listening to staff and students’ views about communications at Leeds; getting on top of the exciting developments in the University’s brand and digital communications; and improving communications within our staff and student community at all levels.

Is there something, or someone, that has inspired you in your career?

I have been fortunate to work with inspiring people throughout my career in the civil service and universities and I learned many things from each of them. However, a recent example would be working with Professor Sir Jonathan Van Tam (aka ‘JVT’) on leadership and communication in the School of Medicine on his return to the University of Nottingham. As Deputy Chief Medical Officer during the pandemic, he showed how complex science can be communicated in simple and engaging terms. At Nottingham he demonstrated that communication is integral to effective decision-making, not something that happens after the decision is made; and how leaders can act decisively but with kindness, warmth, and a sense of humour.  

What’s your biggest achievement or something you’re really proud of?

I would say my biggest achievement is one that is shared with my colleagues - building talented, creative, and resilient communications teams. Whether at Department for Education, Sheffield Hallam or the University of Nottingham, I am really proud of how great teams can deliver effective communications to different audiences, sometimes - as we have seen only too recently in Nottingham - in very challenging circumstances. Of course, you will need to ask my former teams if they concur with that view!

What was your first job?

After Saturday jobs, paper rounds, and holiday stints as a farm labourer, my first salaried job was as a sales assistant in the café on Platform 12 at Leeds Station to fund my Masters in Medieval Studies at the University. I still pop by occasionally, the coffee is much-improved from my day.

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career that you know now?

So many things, but some of the insights I pass on to those at the start of their careers would include that there is no such thing as ‘off the record’ in a modern media environment. A successful piece of communication is never judged by how well it is presented, but by how well it is understood by your intended audience. And to trust your instincts - and most importantly your colleagues - the combination of diverse viewpoints and experiences is invariably the best way to get the right result.

If you didn’t work in HE, what would have been your chosen career?

Possibly a short-lived career in journalism or academia – so I am very happy to have landed the right career early on, which gives me a taste of both.

What was your worst mistake and what did you learn?

As a junior press officer in the late 90’s, I took a government Minister who had a legendary temper on an official visit where he got bundled into a photocall that I did not expect, and he did not want. Deploying a rictus grin in the line-up, he then took me to one side for a furious dressing-down. The lesson was to always prepare for the unexpected - and to keep your temper better than he did!    

Do you have a favourite spot on campus?

Soaking up the sun on St George’s Fields or avoiding the rain in the Brotherton Library reading room.

What’s still on your ‘to do’ list to visit?

Pretty much everywhere else on campus! 30 years since my graduation from Leeds, I’m looking forward to finding out what’s changed, what’s stayed the same and what’s coming up next. I want to get to know as many colleagues across the University as quickly as possible and understand how they think the Communications and Engagement team can help them in their work.    

What do you do to relax away from work?

I am lucky to live on the edge of the Peak District, so I’m regularly walking or mountain biking around there to enjoy the views and the headspace. I love scuba diving (in warm seas!) and have been privileged to explore some of the most beautiful coral reefs around the globe. But after a long day in the office, I relax by catching up with my children, Alice (14) and Daniel (10), or working through a decent box set with my wife Natasha accompanied by a generous glass of rioja. 

Where’s your favourite travel destination and why?

Exotically, our honeymoon destination, Pulau Sipadan - a Malaysian island formed by living coral on top of an extinct volcano, which thankfully remains one of the richest marine habitats in the world. More prosaically, Appleby-in-Westmorland in Cumbria, home to my parents and the conjunction of the Lakeland, Pennine and Howgill fells – some of the finest hill-walking in the country.

What’s your random claim to fame?

I once helped to write a dramatic storyline for the character Sarah-Louise Platt on ITV’s Coronation Street.

What gadget can’t you live without?

Predictably, my iPhone - a significant portion of my working and personal life is run from that little handset.

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