Jo Silvester is professor of psychology at City University Cass Business School in the UK. She specialises in the assessment and development of leaders in public, private and political organisations and has worked on Parliamentary selection and approval processes.
Prof Silvester has a PhD from the University of Leeds and has worked as a care officer and an occupational psychologist. Her research interests include diversity and leadership in banking and politics.
In her spare time, Prof Silvester enjoys shopping, walking her dog and visiting her farmhouse.
1. What academic achievement are you most proud of?
I’ve spent the past decade working with politicians and political parties at national and local level. My work has focused on understanding the knowledge, skills and abilities required for political work, as well as how politicians and political candidates can best develop these. The findings have countered assumptions about differences between male and female political style, and shown that the intelligence, motivation and campaign behaviour of individual political candidates can impact on electoral performance over and above the influence of party campaigning and type of seat.
2. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?
When I first started as a lecturer my mentor (who was a woman) told me not to try to do everything too perfectly. It’s not that I am (or was) a perfectionist, what she meant was that with so many different and often competing demands in an academic role, it’s better to get things done well enough than spend too much time on the detail. Her philosophy was that you have to learn to balance and prioritise. Then, in most cases, if it is a good idea the detail can be worked out later.
3. What is your biggest lesson learnt?
Always take the opportunity to talk to the press. In 2000, I presented my work on diversity in employee selection at the British Psychological Society’s Centenary Conference. It was publicised by the press, and a few weeks later I received a letter from Conservative Central Office asking if I could advise on how best practice from business might be used to improve the diversity of Parliamentary candidates. If I’d never engaged with the press I would never have had the opportunity to take on what’s been the most important and fascinating challenge of my career – understanding how we can better identify and develop future political leaders and improve support for those in political office.
4. What would you do if you were dean for the day?
Just for a week I’d replace every man on a senior university committee with a woman. There still aren’t enough women in key roles; and one reason is that women are far less likely to get the sort of exposure needed to understand what these roles require or that they actually possess the talent to take them on. Alice Eagly argues that women find it more difficult to navigate the leadership labyrinth because they lack access to the type of insider knowledge and advice that aids their male colleagues. For this reason I’d also implement an annual “shadow week“ where junior faculty from under-represented groups get an opportunity to shadow a senior university figure. It really is time to level the playing field.
5. What advice would you give to women graduating this year from business school?
Do what interests you and do it your way. Don’t worry too much about playing by the rules, they’re usually written by men. Changing jobs allows you to recreate yourself – and taking time to step outside a business or academic career to work for yourself, deliver practical solutions and build an end-user network, can definitely pay off in terms of achieving impact.
6. What are your top tips for networking?
Treat networking as an opportunity to bring other people together. They will always remember the person who introduced them to an interesting new contact.
7. How do you deal with pressure?
Whatever life throws at you, keep going, take things step by step and remain positive. Above all else remember to enjoy and celebrate the little things in life. I find sorting my log store is quite relaxing.
8. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
I do try to remind early career researchers that academia is as much about learning a set of skills as it is about intelligence. These days universities are much better at supporting skill development among PhD students – thank goodness we’re getting beyond old assumptions that ‘the best will survive’. Reduced access to tightly-knit academic groupings makes it much more difficult for perceived outsiders to fit in. Then again, not fitting in can mean you just forge your own direction – it just takes a lot longer.
9. What are your future plans?
Ensuring strong democratic leadership is one of the most important challenges we face today, but it’s also fair to say that politicians perform one of the least understood of all work roles. Arguably political leadership is a “wicked problem” that can only be addressed by taking a multidisciplinary approach. My first aim is therefore to overcome traditional disciplinary silos by encouraging dialogue between experts from management, political science and organisational psychology. The questions we should be asking are “how can we attract and develop political talent”, ”how can we promote diversity in politics” and “what do we mean by good political leadership?” My second aim is to continue to build an international approach. We have already begun to work with politicians and academics from different countries around the world, but there is much yet to be done.
10. What is your plan B?
I rather like Germaine Greer’s idea of buying and restoring a plot of Australian rainforest, though I think mine is more likely to be a patch of moor in Cornwall.
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