Barney Dalgano: collaboration and establishing conditions in which people can flourish

Despite enjoying academia’s autonomy, Professor Barney Dalgano prefers to collaborate and engage with
others. Barney’s approach to academic leadership is centred on promoting curiosity. As well
as promoting curiosity about research and big questions facing his sector, he facilitates
conversations with his staff about their own careers and professional development.

A professor at the University of Canberra, Barney Dalgarno is the Faculty’s Executive Dean.
Among Barney’s research contributions are: the relationship between learning technology
and learning theory; learning in polysynchronous learning environments, including 3D virtual
environments; and the use of learning technology by university teachers and students. As
well as editing journals and chairing conference committees, he has also assessed research
grants and teaching awards from international organizations. A peer-reviewed author with
84 peer-reviewed publications, Barney has been awarded several consultancies in higher
education research and innovation. As a result of his significant contributions to this field of
expertise, the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education has
awarded him Life Membership.

During our interview, Barney shared with me his passion for creating an environment for flourishing and bringing out the best in others…

Barney: As a leader, I was almost ready to return to academic research at the time I took on
this role. I believe that the most important thing about leading a reasonably large
organisation or entity or unit is establishing conditions in which people can flourish in their
own ways. There are some leaders who like to micromanage or require micromanagement
of people further down in the organisation, and I don’t believe it works. That’s when an
organisation can do great things.

What do you love about your job?

As much as I love autonomy, I love the opportunity to work with great people who will come
up with ideas of things we want to do and enable others to succeed. What I enjoy most is
when I’ve been part of the conversation at the beginning, and I’ve provided support along the
way, and other people have done amazing things that make the faculty look great.

We do this in a variety of ways, including the development of new courses, the submission of
new research grant applications, or the conception of new research grant ideas. The same
applies when you think someone is ready for promotion and they go away and think about
what they’re doing. When they return, they say, “You were right.” Then they apply for the
position and are promoted.

What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made?

It sounds corny, but applying for this job at the University of Canberra. I worked at Charles
Sturt University for 20 years, and I have worked in a variety of different capacities. When I started in this role, I didn’t realise how ready I was for a change of place, institution, and employment. It has been such a wonderful decision to take on a new position here.

How did you become aware that the timing was right for you to do that?

Barney: Your first thought when a recruiter contacts you about a job is, Well, that’s an
interesting role, but it’s in another city; how can I manage it? The more I read about what
they were looking for in the role, the more I realised that this is actually a role that is most
tailored to me, and now is the perfect time for me to make that change.

This is a very important point because a lot of leaders don’t get asked whether they’re
interested in changing either formally or informally. I’ve never just said no and moved on.
The thing about this conversation is that sometimes it helps you realise that a certain thing is
perfect for you and that maybe now’s the time to change things up.

If you had taken a different career path, what would it have been?

Barney: As a leader, I was almost ready to return to academic research at the time I took on
this role. And I was quite motivated by that at the time. It is true that I have a lot of research
ideas I want to pursue before the end of my days, but that is one of the many opportunities I
have. That’s parallel thinking that I could be engaging in.

What leadership qualities are you working on developing?

Barney: I believe that the most important thing about leading a reasonably large organisation
or entity or unit is establishing conditions in which people can flourish in their own ways.
There are some leaders who like to micromanage or require micromanagement of people
further down in the organisation, and I don’t believe it works. When you understand what
motivates the individuals in the organisation, and what kind of incentives they need to go
above and beyond, then you can establish those conditions.

That’s when an organisation can do great things. So I’m constantly learning about how
resources are allocated can impact on people’s motivations, how people can be better
involved in decision-making, and how you can make everyone feel like they’re working
together to accomplish something they are passionate about. I will never be able to perfect
these things, but I’m really trying to learn.

How do you foster a positive work environment?

Barney: Collaboration. It is important to work on the vision together so it is embraced
collectively. We need to figure out individual performance goals, then lay off and let people
go about doing things in their own way. I work with my direct reports on their own goals and
encourage them to work together on their own teams’ goals.

And one of the things that is distinctive about academia but perhaps not unique compared
with other work environments is the absolute diversity of people. There’s quite a lot of
square pegs that won’t fit in a round hole in academia. Being prepared to say, I reckon we can
find a square hole for you. Letting people have a fair bit of freedom about their ways of
working so you can get the best out of them, rather than expecting them to fit into a narrow
definition of the role. These things together, allow people to focus on what’s important to
them, but still collectively deliver on something that’s important to all of us.
It has also happened to me that dean’s of faculties have tried to force people out of the
faculty because they didn’t fit their definition of the ways they should work and adopted
narrow performance measures. The fact that you can let different people work in different
ways makes a huge difference to people’s satisfaction with their work. It is still possible to
achieve the core goals through different methods.

What thought or thought-provoking questions do you ask your team?

Barney: A lot of what we do in the modern world is balancing our time between responding
to changes in the external environment and initiating creative bodies of work ourselves. In
our work, it’s often research where people have the opportunity to initiate different ideas
themselves. My role often is to be interested and aware of their work. A lot of deans don’t
attend research seminars that their staff are giving. I attend and ask probing questions to
help them see alternative ways of doing things and show that I really value this kind of work.
This is one piece, but I think the other piece is responding to changes in the external
environment. In teacher education, this is relevant at the moment, as there is a lot of political
discussion around the shortage of teachers and different ways we can educate them.

For me, asking the individuals around me for their views on how to kind of address things that have
been thrown at us and using that kind of melting pot of ideas and views to come up with our
pathway forward. It’s important to me to participate in as many of those conversations as
possible so that I don’t narrow my vision too soon.

What are some resources you would suggest for emerging leaders?

Barney: It’s a really good question because I recently had a conversation with a colleague
who had been struggling to identify what professional learning they needed in order to
progress their career. Often, people say, “I don’t know what I don’t know.” I have had a
couple of my senior faculty members attend our women in leadership programs. A colleague
who is strong in governance attended the company director’s conference. There are a few
structured programs available.

Executive coaching is really good too. Many leaders find it invaluable at a certain stage in
their career because those coaching conversations reveal what you need when you can’t find
a professional development course that fits exactly with your needs.

I’ve done it myself, and I found that at a certain stage for me that executive coaching was what I needed to go to the next level. It helped me identify a whole bunch of things I had yet to realise I needed to change about my approach.

Partner with Dr. Kim Vella

If you’d like to partner with me to explore the meaning of a leadership vision and how it can change your life or uncover some of the roadblocks that may be obstructing your vision, book a complimentary 15-minute conversation. We can work together to define a clear and achievable vision you can aspire to, use practical tools to set a roadmap for success, and address typical challenges you may face and how to overcome them.

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