Herding cats and taming wolves? Lessons from 15 years of business school research leadership

Managing academics is commonly likened to ‘herding cats’ and self-motivated researchers are often described as ‘lone wolves’. At risk of stretching the analogy too far, researchers beaver away at building their careers, and armies of ‘worker bees’ deliver the activities that generate much of the income that enables the cats, wolves and beavers to pursue their research.

In this blog, I reflect on some of the lessons that I have learned over 15 years of leading teams of highly qualified and motivated colleagues to deliver high quality research, in some cases to meet the requirements of external funders, in others to achieve results in relation to REF or accreditations such as AACSB or Equis.

Over this time there have been significant challenges - contextual challenges arising from changes in government policies, economic crises and, most recently, the Covid pandemic; institutional challenges in the form of financial pressures, reorganisations and changes in strategic direction and cultural challenges, notably inconsistencies between institutional objectives and the motivations, behaviours and incentives associated with individual researchers.

Research leadership in business schools is not, in my experience, solely or even primarily about herding the cats and taming the wolves. Above all else, it is concerned with nurturing an ecosystem through which all stakeholders recognise that research is a collective endeavour which benefits us all. For sure, this sometimes means encouraging the cats to be more cooperative and the wolves to be less self-centred, and convincing colleagues that behaving like cats or wolves is not necessary to achieve success. Finally, it entails recognising and celebrating the role played by the ‘worker bees’ in enabling the collective research endeavour.

This is easy to say and hard to do. It is not easy to argue that REF is only one of many indicators of research achievement, when funding and league table positions are driven largely by REF scores. Similarly, encouraging income-generating and impactful knowledge exchange activities can be challenging when colleagues believe that their career prospects depend on producing highly rated publications in prestigious journals.

There are no easy solutions to these conundrums, and different contexts require differing approaches. Nonetheless, I have found the following lessons helpful:

  • Act as internal advocate for research while appreciating wider institutional pressures: this has been especially important during the pandemic when, understandably, most universities concentrated almost exclusively on supporting teaching and learning, in many cases at the expense of resources for research.
  • Engage constructively with colleagues who are responsible for resource allocation: Deans and Heads of Department are generally supportive of research, but face many pressures, not least the need to meet income targets and to ensure sufficient resource to deliver teaching programmes. At Sheffield Business School (SBS), Heads have been engaged at an early stage in several research-related initiatives which had financial and resource implications.
  • Provide opportunities for all academic colleagues to share their research interests and activities: celebrating publications and grant successes is important, but less experienced researchers value the opportunity to discuss their research interests and ideas in supportive environments. This can stimulate collaboration with more experienced colleagues and helps to develop inclusive research cultures.
  • Engage early and mid-career researchers meaningfully in research policy discussions: important decisions affecting colleagues are often taken in forums that exclude them, intentionally or unintentionally. At SBS, we ensure ECR representation on all formal research groups and institution-wide activities such as Research Concordat monitoring groups.
  • Proactively build teams to work at the interface between research and knowledge exchange: SBS is active in delivering support for SMEs, and several colleagues have research interests in entrepreneurship. A research cluster has been established, engaging colleagues with diverse backgrounds in some promising initiatives.
  • Emphasise that REF, accreditations and league tables are not ends in themselves; the end is to achieve the strategic objectives of the school and the wider institution. It is important to encourage and support ‘REF-related’ activities, but leaders should take care not to (intentionally or unintentionally) alienate or exclude less research-active colleagues.
  • Finally, learn and reflect continually, including through engagement with fellow research leaders: I found the BAM/CABS Development Programme for Directors of Research (DPDoR) invaluable at the early stages of my research leadership journey and more recently, supportive discussions with peers across the sector have helped me to navigate the stormy waters of the pandemic.

Nurturing healthy and successful research ecosystems is a vital objective of any research leader. To some extent this involves ‘herding cats and taming wolves’, and the overall endeavour is becoming more challenging in the face of myriad contextual and institutional challenges. However, this should not deter us from beavering away at it.


Professor Steve Johnson is Professor of Enterprise at Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University.