Spotify's Amy Vale on defining career success.
What are your initial impressions of RMIT?
I’m only a few weeks in and we’re on a fast track to build the new Strategic Plan. My initial impressions are: remarkable institution, inspiring students, incredible research and infrastructure.
I knew RMIT when I grew up [near Melbourne] – it was synonymous with edgy, industry engagement, solving practical problems, equipping students to get jobs, celebrating diversity, being courageous about focusing on areas of excellence in technology and design.
I’m so thrilled that that’s the RMIT I found. I’m also struck how global RMIT has now become. It’s so clear that in addition to having the same core values, RMIT has multiplied it impact many times over by taking the best of Melbourne and broadcasting it around the world.
What is your message to alumni at this early stage?
It’s important for us to make sure that RMIT continues to be a distinctive, successful, innovative university in Australia and around the world.
To our alumni, that gives you something that you can be proud of, but also something that I hope continues to add value to you, in your life and in your career. We will do everything we can to make sure you continue to feel very proud of the institution that you graduated from.
As we go through our strategic planning, there will be lots of opportunities for you to contribute to help shape the next chapter of RMIT. I encourage you to contribute, because you will always be part of our community and family and you have a vested interest in making sure RMIT continues to go from strength to strength. I can’t wait to hear what you’ve got to say.
What is the role of the Vice-Chancellor and what do you enjoy most about the job?
On paper, the role of Vice-Chancellor and President would be like that of a chief executive officer. But the role of a Vice-Chancellor is more than that: it’s chief cheerleader, chief speech giver, you are the face and representation to major stakeholders, whether that’s governance, private sector donors or alumni.
There’s an expectation that you are fostering a community of scholars that is designed to be a check and balance in society. Universities are the creatures that are designed to ask the tough questions of our communities and our nations on the global stage, to make sure that people think deeply around the opportunities and issues that we face.
To a large degree they are also a major engine of innovation, economic development and growth. Without universities and tertiary education giving people the ability to develop skills and competencies, it’s very difficult to have economic development.
For me personally, what I love is putting the students and the student experience at the middle of everything we do. For me there’s nothing more energising than being able to get out and work with our students, making a difference in their lives, seeing our alumni go on and do breathtakingly successful and innovative things. That’s what fuels me.
You previously worked at Microsoft, where you became General Manager of the Worldwide Education Products Group. What were your biggest learning experiences there?
Microsoft is interesting because it teaches you a number of really defined competencies and ways of working.
Number one is evidence-based decision making. You can have a brilliant idea, but you’ve got to be prepared to go away and put together the evidence and a compelling argument. You can do too much of that, you can get into evidence paralysis, but it’s always important to have the courage to find the evidence to support what you’re doing.
Number two is a concept which Microsoft called strategy review; don’t just build a strategy – make sure that you have a structured process for reviewing progress and looking at what’s changed in the external and internal environment. The courage to say, “Look, we thought it was going to end up this way, but it hasn’t.” And then to refresh it – invest more in some things, pull back from other things, change some things.
The third is – if you want to keep innovating in a large organisation with mature practices, you have to find safe spaces to invest for innovation to take place. Otherwise all of the systems and processes aren’t necessarily geared towards stirring innovation and entrepreneurialism.
You need a rapid incubation area where you can invest for innovation and let things go. In those spaces, you can have a much higher risk tolerance, and you can do that because it’s contained, you haven’t put the whole institution on the line. That’s where a lot of organisations go wrong, especially in hard economic times, is that they don’t look for those safe places where they can invest.
How did you manage the transition from a corporate environment to an academic one when you were appointed Vice-Chancellor of the Open University UK (OU)?
The main thing is you’ve got to make sure – whenever you move countries, cultures or sectors – to suspend judgement and leave it at the door. You’ve got to really be prepared not to come in with a mindset that the corporate sector is “right” or that you should shape the academic world according to that. That’s how you fail.
I just spent four weeks having more than 200 conversations at RMIT to understand it before I would even dream of having opinions.
Why did you create a platform for massive online open courses (MOOCs) in the UK and what was the result?
2012 became the year of the MOOC. In the blink of an eye, 18 of the top 20 ranked North American institutions started giving away their courses for free.
It became world news. It was a phenomenon. For those of us that had been involved in open education for a while and scaling through technology, it was clear that the disruption was not so much for the OU, but it was an absolute challenge for the traditional universities. Working with other universities in the UK, with the full support of the UK government, the OU took the lead to create FutureLearn [a platform for MOOCs].
The thing I’m most proud of – in addition to giving people all over the world access to brilliant universities and brilliant university courses – is that it’s also helping those universities innovate and think differently around the provision of their core courses.
And that was what I learned at Microsoft – we found a safe place to rapidly incubate, do thing differently, do it together as a sector and then figure out how to use that information to help us improve our core teaching and learning.
Do you still need mentors once you reach senior management?
I think everybody, no matter how senior they are, needs to have people that you can turn to where you can go for honest objective feedback that you know will be delivered with a good heart and care – it’s invaluable. It doesn’t matter what position you hold or how much you’re paid or where you live, human beings are human beings. We’re inherently social creatures – that’s why so much teaching is now around that shared experience.
So the adage – it’s lonely at the top – it can be lonely at the top if you don’t have people to turn to and just say, what do you think? Am I doing this the right way? Why do you think this is happening?
In modern management speak, we often think a mentor has to be a very formal thing through a formal process. The mentors in my life have never been that, and I’ve had many. Sometimes it’s only when you look back that you realise that someone was a mentor, and that’s okay.
I would encourage anybody to think about where you are in your career right now and think, who would be good to have a cup of coffee with every now and again, just to chat? Look for someone who just simply wants to give you time and energy to give you the straight scoop.
How do you define success?
When I’m doing career planning or mentoring someone, I spend a lot of time on this question. I try to get them to focus on their retirement party – where will you be, what will you have been doing, who will be in the room, what will be said about you? Deep down most people know that, they’re just not used to being able to say it out loud.
I think I’ve been pretty true to myself all the way through my career. Success for me is being challenged in my role, being able to add real value, and having that as a shared experience.
For me success isn’t an individual thing; the great joy I get is about the team. Sitting on the shelf in my office here, I’ve got photos of teams that go back in my career. The reason those photos are there is that they give me great joy. When I see those photos, it triggers for me moments of great success and that fuels me.
Ultimately for me, if you get the balance right with the things you do for work and the people that you love, and everybody comes along for the ride, and it works out for the best, that for me is success.
In a leadership role, how do you manage setbacks and build resilience?
You’ve got to have resilience. I get resilience from knowing that every decision that I make, everything that I do, I do for the right reason. Therefore, if others want to critique it, that’s fine, feedback is really good and it’s important that you’re open to feedback and your organisation is reflective of feedback.
But the way I personally steel myself or build resilience is to just replay the movie in mind, and if I can satisfy myself, and colleagues can satisfy themselves that we did it for the right reasons, at the right time with the information we had available, then onward and upward.
So making decisions based on values?
Yes. Values are really important. And it’s hard because there are times when values really get tested. Because sometimes there’s the expedient, easier or less risky way forward. But inside you know it’s not the right way forward. And often it takes an incredible amount of courage to do what’s right.
I think that’s why it’s important having values, not just organisational values, but your own values, the way you want to live your life. These are incredible gifts to be the custodians of remarkable institutions for a short period of time. RMIT has been around since 1887. I will have the pleasure and responsibility of leading it for a very small piece of its future. It’s important I recognise that, and realise that it’s not about me, it’s about the institution.
What are the personal values that drive you?
Everybody describes me as Mr-glass-half-full. One of my values is that there’s no point identifying a problem unless you’re willing to point out a potential solution. You have to learn from mistakes but that’s more about gathering evidence. I am all about looking forward and problem solving.
I believe that it is important that you are upfront and open and transparent with people. You don’t do any good by trying to sugar-coat things or speak in convoluted ways.
I have a very strong streak of egalitarianism. I think a human being is a human being, I don’t care what they do, where they grew up, they are a human being and that moment that I am with them, I am going to enjoy it, and I’m going to treat them the same as I would treat anybody else. If you live your life that way, my goodness you’ll have a remarkable time.
I’m also deeply committed to my family and making sure I play my role as a spouse in the household and as an involved father. I recognise that ultimately, my kids are my legacy.