I formulated for the Potchefstroom Campus when I assumed my role as campus rector - to move us towards becoming a university campus that produces world-class research outputs. I know it is an ambitious vision. Having said this, I think a lot of excellent work had been done by my predecessors and when I joined the NWU, I realised that we were in a position to capitalise on their efforts and it was incumbent upon me to do so.
Has everything turned out exactly as I had intended? Definitely not [laughs]. In many ways this has been one of my biggest leadership tests. The best laid plans often unravel and as a leader, when that happens, it is your responsibility to keep everyone focused, motivated and aligned with your vision.
In the last decade, the campus has developed a reputation as a research institute and is increasingly gaining global recognition for its work. What’s driving this?
Gaining a reputation as an institute that delivers strong research outputs is not something that happens overnight. It’s not only resource intensive but also calls for a mind-shift within the university. We started on this journey several years ago when one of my predecessors decided upon developing research focus areas within the university. This had several important implications for us. It taught us how to work smartly with our research finances, build multi-disciplinary research teams to achieve economies of scale and gave research a new level of prominence on the campus. An added bonus to this approach, which has been very welcome indeed, is the new perspective it has given our young people on the value of research. Over a period of time our research focus attracted some top researchers to our campus. Rubbing shoulders with these individuals, has created a new appreciation for the contribution research makes to society, amongst our young students. We are now seeing a surge in the number of young people entering research fields.
In many respects this is really an exciting time for us. As the quality and quantity of our research continues to grow and gain global recognition, so we are able to ramp up our internal targets. Presently we develop mid- and long-term goals for all our research areas and actively measure them – more importantly we meet regularly to assess how things are going and if it appears we are going to miss our targets we act quickly to get back on track.
I am really chuffed with what we have achieved in the last three years. We have exceeded our stretch targets for the number of post-graduate students that have qualified and for the number of articles that have been published in local and international journals. We are also doing very well with the number of rated researchers. Nothing of this is, however, possible without a good management team. In this regard I am blessed with a very good support base, ranking from vice-rectors, deans, directors and others.
Are you surprised by the better than expected results and what do you think has been behind the good results?
Things have really been going well the last few years. In fact, I often consider pinching myself to make sure I am not dreaming. When we developed the vision to get us to the top tier of research universities, I asked myself: How do we get people at all levels to believe in it, move with it and stretch to attain targets? How were they going to take ownership of it? We realised communication, open dialogue, and the creation of platforms where people could debate the way forward and how to deal with challenges would be key. The negotiation of targets and associated timelines is also a critical element, if you don’t set objectives, you can easily end up with a lot of discussion, but very little action.
I must admit, once we started getting traction, I continued to push very hard, not only to keep the momentum, but also to increase it. The academic leaders on campus started to realise that negotiating yearly targets with campus management would be tough, but we believe in fair process, where we would ask them to continually stretch themselves in pursuit of our campus mission: to become a research-directed campus where excellence is mutually strengthening in both teaching-learning and research. I can happily say they responded brilliantly to the challenge and much of what we have achieved is the result of their dedication and the work of their teams. I might add that we also believe in celebrating every success. When you work as hard as people do on this campus, it is understandable if individuals run out of fuel. Nothing revitalises one as quickly as a celebration where your contributions are recognised.
You have mentioned the importance of recognising individual effort. What do you consider key elements in providing recognition?
Recognition comprises a number of elements and I think one has to constantly review one’s approach to make sure one is getting the balance right. Money is always a consideration when one thinks of recognition. However, in my experience money is not the ultimate motivator. When someone is fortunate enough to have a good job that pays them reasonably well, a monetary reward maybe welcome, but it doesn’t create a long-lasting buzz. Academics are often doing work that represents a life passion to them. You therefore need to recognise that they need space to pursue those things that are meaningful to them. Giving them the freedom to explore research areas that are important to them and providing them with the appropriate assistance, as a means of recognising their contributions, often means much more than any monetary reward will. I think this approach holds true in any organisation, by all means have formal recognition processes for outstanding performance, but more importantly create the right type of environment for your top performers so they can see their contribution is recognised and be encouraged to continue excelling.
You seem to have a personal penchant for driving strong research processes. Is there a particular reason behind this?
Admittedly I did rise through the ranks as a researcher and an academic, and still write and publish articles on a regular basis. Considering it from that perspective I suppose one could say I have a bias in favour of research work, but also because I believe that one is a better lecturer if one reads, writes and thinks about one’s subject.
My background aside, I think the reality is that any institute of higher learning has a duty to produce new knowledge and to contribute to the understanding of the world around us. While there are important learnings to be gleaned from the past, a university is a place that should equip you with a contemporary understanding of your chosen field and also offer you a glimpse of the forces that will shape it in the future. The only way a university can achieve this is by having a thorough understanding of a subject field and this is gained through research.
Quality research is also a vital national asset and in this respect I am concerned that we don’t do enough as a nation. The lag effect of research, between a new discovery and the implementation of techniques or solutions it provides, can often be as long as a decade.Similarly, when one doesn’t do research the impact is not immediately obvious, only years later it becomes apparent that you missed out on an important opportunity. When you find yourself in that situation, it is very, very difficult to get back on par. I believe any institute that has research capacity should be pragmatic about how they utilise their resources. For instance, the research we undertake in the water, medicine, agriculture and governance arenas is disseminated as far as possible within the North West Province and utilised to find practical solutions to problems communities and local governments face. As far as I am concerned this is where the true value of research needs to be measured, the difference it makes to the lives of ordinary people.
Are there any particular challenges unique to running a campus and keeping it going as a centre for excellence?
Being a rector, like any leadership role, is a hot seat. You never know what challenges you will face tomorrow. My biggest task is keeping people focused. A university has many stakeholders and there are many spheres of influence that impact on us. If the equilibrium in a particular external environment is disturbed, it often has a knock-on effect that touches us and what we do. Responding appropriately to changes in our dynamic environment, while making sure we keep moving in pursuit of our goals, is a constant challenge. The wellness of our staff is also of great concern to me. All South Africans, no matter what their colour or creed, tend to be prone to a negative mind set and easily become demotivated. Whether it is a lack of service delivery, potholes in the road, politicking or the economy, they all contribute to impacting negatively on the psyche of South Africans and I am conscious of the fact that one needs to counter this.
I am particularly concerned when I encounter students that are negative about the future. If our next generation starts to perceive South Africa as a difficult and unsettling place, with no opportunities, we are going to be in trouble as a country. When I look at my students and I see the stars in their eyes, the enthusiasm, the drive and passion they have for this institute, I know I have been successful in keeping them focused. I therefore spend a huge amount of time and energy on creating an environment where people believe in the future, are confident that their contribution will be recognised and are proud of their institution. In many ways it is about giving people a sense of ownership and belonging. We recently launched a “We Care” approach at the campus. I believe that if I say ‘I care’ and you are willing to say ‘you care’, then together ‘We Care’ and this starts creating the possibility of changing the world. As individuals it is difficult to tackle big issues on an individual basis, but together we can make a difference.
It may sound like rhetoric to many people, but I know that by working together, bit by bit, we can achieve change. The more people hear a message and understand the value attached to it, the more they want to become part of it. We really care about what happens on our campus and in our society. We believe that re-enforcing the ‘We Care’ approach will over time, through our alumni, transcend the boundaries of the university and start to show society at large that if we all take an interest in what is going on around us and shoulder some of the responsibility, we can achieve good results together.
What is an important lesson you have learnt during your tenure at NWU?
That you can learn from everybody. I think people often don’t fully understand the importance of this statement. You can learn from a cleaner, a first-year student or from people who have been in the same position as you. One learns just by listening and asking the right questions. One of the talents I have developed over time is the ability to ask the right questions and get the right answers. By utilising those answers I have learnt where to put pressure in the right places to get meaningful results. I have therefore come to realise that every interaction provides me with a learning opportunity.
As an agricultural economist, there are many exciting opportunities you could have followed. When this opportunity came along, why did you decide to take this path?
When you make lots of money, you can afford a fancy car, have a house on the beach and live a good life, the outward appearance of success is very apparent. However, success measured in this manner is based on material things, which can quickly disappear. I chose this career path because it has given me an enormous scope to make a contribution – in this position I am not limited by the fact that I am an agricultural economist. I am now empowered to positively influence people and encourage them to make a contribution to our society in a number of fields. In other words, it provides me with an opportunity to leave a legacy that is about more than just material gain; it is about building people and knowledge that can ultimately be used to the benefit of society. I hope therefore that one day when my grandchildren ask me what I did with my working life I can tell them that I played my small part in helping to transform and build our country.
You have a busy schedule and lots of things to do. How do you find the balance between work and life?
I don’t think I have answers or solutions for other people regarding the continuous search for balance; it very much depends on the individual. I am a part-time farmer and farm on weekends. I like experiencing nature, and simply being out in the countryside or amongst my livestock does a lot in terms of re-charging my system. Holding a leadership role also means one has to be discreet with respect to the nature of conversations you have with people. This can sometimes lead to a shrinking pool of confidantes, a factor that can lead to stress, because we all need to decompress at times. Fortunately I have over the years cultivated a circle of friends, many of whom are in executive roles, that I use as a sounding board when needed. It is interesting to note that no matter what your industry, your biggest challenges are always linked to your people. How to make sure they are content, whilst giving their best to the organisation, appears to be a universal challenge.
What advice do you have for young people who might aspire to your role or other leadership positions?
I held most of my senior academic leadership positions at a young age. It’s easy for a young person to look at my career and say they can also fast track themselves to the top. They may be ethical individuals, with the right skills, intelligence, experience and knowledge. However, the key ingredient to success, which is something I feel very strongly about, is possessing passion for your work. If you don’t have the requisite passion for your work, you are not going to achieve anything. You also need to accept that passion alone is not going to achieve anything; you need to put in a lot of hard work. From my perspective this is the secret to success. I also think it is important not to equate success with the attainment of a leadership role. I know many impressive individuals who I consider very successful, who don’t hold any high profile leadership role. Yet, they are content and making a meaningful contribution to society. What I have learnt from them is: Make your passion work for you and follow where it takes you.
The Leading Edge
In this issue of CEO magazine we speak to Professor Herman van Schalkwyk, rector of the North-West University (NWU) – Potchefstroom Campus about his passion for research, the challenges of leading a diverse university campus and helping people find value in what they do.
When one takes on a new role, there is usually a long-term vision that needs to be formulated and acted upon. You are four years into your position as rector of the NWU Potchefstroom Campus. Have things turned out as you intended when you assumed this role?
All my life I have always maintained that there is no substitute for excellence! If you really want to achieve something, you have to aim for the stars. As a University we compete on the international stage with other universities. In my view it is important that we continuously benchmark ourselves against them to determine where we are in relation to them - particularly those that are excelling in the field of research. In this way we can identify gaps, address our shortcomings and start competing with the best in the world. This is the vision
Research Driven Results Focused
by Valdi Pereira