On 1st April 2016, Maria took up her new post as Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive at Wrexham Glyndŵr University. She joins the University after a successful tenure as President and Chief Accounting Officer of Limerick Institute of Technology in Ireland. She oversaw significant development of the Institute since her appointment in 2004, increasing enrolments to nearly 7000 students, adding campus locations in Limerick and Tipperary.
How did you get to your current position?
I was President of Limerick Institute of Technology in Ireland, which was an equivalent role. I have always worked in education – starting out as a teacher of Business English in my native country The Netherlands. I have always loved working with people and still do, even though I don’t spend time in the classroom anymore.
Within your career to date, was there a specific turning point that you believe helped you to become the successful leader that you are today?
Definitely my move from The Netherlands, where I was Head of a Business School (part of Stenden University) with 800 students and 50 staff, to take over as President of Limerick Institute of Technology with 5000 students and 500 staff. Quite a step up and a leap in the dark not just for me but also for the organisation. Eleven years on, I was able to look back on a successful time there and took the next plunge, across the Irish Sea to join Wrexham Glyndŵr University.
Have you always been ambitious?
Yes absolutely, I was one of these annoying kids who wanted to be top of the class. That doesn’t mean you can also become a successful leader though.
Real leadership is about wanting to fulfil the ambition of your organisation and passionately believing in what it stands for; it’s not just about achieving your own personal and professional ambitions.
What was the first job you had that entailed managing people and what lessons did you learn?
At the college in Rotterdam where I was teaching, the five-strong team of English teachers were always bickering and couldn’t agree on decisions such as the syllabus and timetable for students. They collectively asked me (as one of the team) to take on the ‘voluntary’ role of programme leader – the bickering stopped as I somehow managed to find the right compromises.
Throughout your career could you explain what leadership & management development you have undertaken?
While based in Ireland I undertook a programme for university leaders offered by the UK Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. The content was excellent and it also helped me to build networks in the sector which are very useful today. I also got to travel to some nice places such as Edinburgh where they held one of the residential sessions. Wales was not on the itinerary unfortunately.
Have you made any mistakes during your leadership career and importantly how did you recover from them?
Firstly, we all make mistakes. They only become real problems if we don’t acknowledge and rectify them. When I brought Limerick Institute of Technology through the process of expanding by incorporating a smaller college in Tipperary, you would have thought that the party being taken over would panic the most. Wrong! It was the staff on the main campus who were worried about the impact on them. I rectified my mistake by organising more frequent briefings and Q&A sessions.
And conversely what would you say is your greatest achievement in a leadership role?
Well, that must be my feat of moving to country number 3 and being given a senior leadership role. It’s also really exciting and rewarding, although I won’t quite say my first few weeks were like a holiday. It is certainly fascinating to experience the similarities and differences between The Netherlands, Ireland and Wales – plenty of them, but never make assumptions.
With regards to your current role, how would you describe your style of leadership?
Listen, learn, take decisions, communicate. Do this every day and you won’t go far wrong.
Did anyone in particular inspire your approach to leadership?
Anita Roddick who founded The Body Shop – the cosmetics retailer who transformed the industry, brought ethics into it and built up a hugely profitable business across over 50 countries in the process. My PhD subject was international retailing and The Body Shop was one of my case studies. It taught me that it is possible to be commercially minded and driven by an ethos and by principles at the same time. We need to do that in universities as well.
When recruiting, what do you look for in the managers and leaders that work for you?
I would typically look for people who are proud of what they have done in previous work, who really believe in the goals set for any new role they are applying for, and who bring passion and enthusiasm as well as the knowledge and skills.
What would be your one piece of advice for other business managers?
Never underestimate what you are capable of – and try something different occasionally. It’s really energising to switch to a different job or location.
The LMW Team would sincerely like to thank Professor Maria Hinfelaar for this interview.