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Steven McGuire, Dean of the University of Sussex Business School: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

Steven McGuire

Optimism. You have to believe that what you and your team are doing is for the best. When we first went into the Covid crisis I used to say to colleagues (then more in hope) that the worst case rarely arises. Indeed, the sector has emerged from the crisis in better shape than imagined.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing, Steven McGuire, Dean of the University of Sussex Business School. Professor McGuire has a particular interest in the interaction of firms and governments in international trade, and he has published a number of papers on the World Trade Organisation. He has also written extensively on technology policy in Europe and the United States.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. How did you got started?

I am a dual British-Canadian citizen and came to the UK for my PhD after receiving my MA from the University of Toronto. My research interests are in the areas of international political economy, international business and corporate political activity.

When the future seems so uncertain what do you think it means for business education?

First, I think business education has a lot to offer to society. For instance, we are doing a lot of work on sustainable finance at the moment, advancing our understanding of how finance can be part of the solution to global challenges rather than the cause. Understanding the future of work is critical for business too, and our new Digit Centre is examining the impact of technology in the workplace. Sussex colleagues have done a lot of excellent research on Covid’s longer term effect on work practices. So, at one level Covid has demonstrated the need for a good understanding of how organisations and the people in them respond to extraordinary circumstances. The pandemic has, however, demonstrated the need for a broader conceptualisation of what business schools teach. I cannot see how business education can ignore geopolitics, for example, or the growing influence of regulation and government intervention in the economy. The Business School at Sussex has a long tradition of understanding the interactions of markets and policy and this is paying dividends.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

Leaders have the difficult job of being the ‘link’ between the organisation and external pressures. We have several people researching leadership at Sussex, and I am struck by how they emphasise the essential tension in leadership roles; you need to some extent to protect your organisation but at the same time encourage adaptation. It is a very difficult balancing act.

Which three words best describe your approach to leadership and why?

Patient, collegial and pragmatic. Patient in the sense that you have to accept that organisations have a certain capacity for change and pressing too hard or moving too fast can sometimes damage people and make the achievement of goals harder. I’d like to think of myself as collegial. In all complex organisations there are interdependencies and working with other parts of the organisation is necessary. I also believe too that gaining a reputation for being a team player provides social and organisational capital for the times when your part of the organisation might need support. Pragmatism does not mean you lack principles or goals; it means that you are open to various approaches to solving a problem. In a university you are surrounded by bright people, so drawing on their expertise to suggest alternative approaches would seem a self-evidently good thing to do.

University of Sussex Business School

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

I tend to be a believer in incrementalism and experimentation. The future is always uncertain, sometimes more so, sometimes less, so move step by step. Accept that you will get things wrong despite your best efforts. Learn the lessons and move on.

What makes for a successful leader during challenging times?

Optimism. You have to believe that what you and your team are doing is for the best. When we first went into the Covid crisis I used to say to colleagues (then more in hope) that the worst case rarely arises. Indeed, the sector has emerged from the crisis in better shape than imagined.

What are your hopes for the future and The University of Sussex Business School?

That we continue to build on our great foundations. Few business schools have the depth of knowledge and history of researching areas like sustainability that we do. The School’s breadth of research interests — including areas not traditionally part of business education — are a real strength.

Thank you for your time!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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