Training Principal Investigators to better support their teams and themselves
New bespoke leadership training is aiming to help Principal Investigators implement positive changes - for themselves and their teams.
6 December 2023
The Experienced Principal Investigator (PI) Leadership Training programme was developed following UCL’s 2021 Research Culture consultation, which gathered more than 2,400 survey responses.
One commonly identified sentiment from the survey was that more could be done to support the development of senior academics and their teams.
In response, Dr Amy Hong and the Academic and Researcher Experience team in Organisational Development (OD), began working with Professor Jacqui Glass, Vice-Dean (Research) at the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment.
Jacqui’s perspective proved invaluable to the instructional design of the programme. She highlighted the many responsibilities and skills that PIs who manage large grants encounter: they need to be able to influence stakeholders without authority, develop diverse and distributed teams, and engage in strategic thinking, all while leading interdisciplinary research.
The resulting Experienced PI Leadership Training programme, co-delivered with experts from AdvanceHE, was designed to meet these needs for PIs and their teams.
Building in reflection and space for PI peer networks
The programme delivered 17 hours of live training across four modules, alongside curated e-learning SharePoint resources and four 20-minute coaching sessions for each participant.
Emphasising devolved and distributed leadership strategies, PIs learned to apply approaches to foster trust and help them delegate to subject-matter experts, while collaborating with a wider range of people.
The programme included a 360-degree feedback tool – an intensive reflection exercise designed to help individuals understand how PIs are seen from a variety of perspectives. It involves asking colleagues and peers – who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to contribute - to provide qualitative and quantitative feedback, scoring the participant according to the UCL Ways of Working. Participants talk through the feedback with a trained coach.
The programme received almost universally positive feedback from participating PIs – one participant said they’d be ‘interested to find out if this kind of training can be given at a whole-department level’.
There was also consensus about the major benefits of spending time amongst other PIs to share their common challenges.
“Given time to talk about specific topics, it makes PIs realise they’re not alone in the challenges they face. They have a whole community they can rely on,” says Amy.
Implementing the learnings
How easy will it be for the participating PIs to implement these changes in approach, once they’re back among the day-to-day pressures and challenges of the research environment?
Amy feels the answer to that question lies in the shared experiences and sense of community the PI Leadership programme provides.
“We provide a lot of information and there are frameworks PIs can follow. But frameworks are no use unless they’re implemented. And that’s why being part of a cohort is so important – 18 or 20 people sharing experiences and challenges, and they learn from each other. I think that experience, combined with frameworks, is the most valuable thing.”
In her role Amy has input into a range of leadership programmes across UCL and has actively encouraged the inclusion of community-based learning in such programmes.
“That’s something we’re really thinking about – how to help academics and researchers to get together and really build that network. Then PIs can support each other to improve the research culture at UCL in the long term.”
Continued support for the next generation of PIs
After the success of the first cohort, OD has committed to continue the Experienced PI Leadership training programme with two further cohorts every year, in line with UCL’s Strategic Plan and UKRI’s People and Culture Strategy. To date, over 50 PIs have completed the programme and an additional 40 will join the 23-24 cohorts.
Although the continuation of the PI programme now firmly sits within the remit of the Organisational Development team, Amy credits its existence to the findings of the Research Culture programme: “We were able to obtain the data, and take it forward, so we’ve got the evidence for funders that we can make a difference.
“But it’s important for people to know that this training doesn’t just benefit senior leaders. It will actually make a difference to the culture, how we do things around here, and ultimately all colleagues working with PIs.
“PIs have a huge influence on their teams and we hope, that by giving them the tools to lead their teams more effectively this will have a direct impact on those they manage and support.
“I really want to empower future cohorts to become champions, who can lead positive change for their team members and collaborators."
“This training isn’t just for the senior leaders. It will actually make a difference to the culture, how we do things around here, and ultimately all colleagues working with PIs.”
- Dr Amy Hong, Head of Academic and Researcher Experience, Organisational Development“
About research culture
UCL’s Research Culture Programme is developing a fair, collaborative and inclusive research culture, where both our research and research community can thrive. We work with UCL’s research community to support and deliver change against our 10-year Research Culture Roadmap.