Why do Researchers Need Leadership Training?

February 8, 2016

I am a social scientist, trained as a demographer, who has developed a particular interest in reproductive health in sub-Saharan Africa. I crunch numbers, study population dynamics and explore trends in fertility, marriage and mortality; one might say that I have never seen a spreadsheet I didn’t like.

My training has included formal lectures and workshops on social change and family/household economics, so that I can have the skills and knowledge to study how people behave and how they make choices about their own reproductive health and wellbeing. But what my training has not included, despite 22 years of schooling that culminated in my doctoral degree in 2011 from the University of Montreal, is skill-building in leadership and management: both critical to any researcher seeking to do more than just publish.

In the past, research scientists have been allowed to hide behind their books and microscopes, peering over their spectacles and shunning the interpersonal niceties required of most professionals as they advance through their careers. Not anymore. Now, research leaders must interrogate not only their research questions and methodologies but also how their research can influence policy discussions at all levels. It’s added value, no question. But how do we learn how to do it?

I have done a lot of ‘learning by doing’ during my tenure at the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), where we work every day to champion evidence-based development across the continent. I have been a project manager on several projects on provision, access and use of family planning, and maternal health services and information. I have also mentored research assistants and other people in my department.

But it wasn’t until I was invited for a leadership fellowship at the Guttmacher Institute that I really understood what being a research leader means, and how to develop and nurture those skills in myself.

The leadership fellowship program at the Guttmacher Institute is run in conjunction with the Bixby International Fellowship Program, and brings scholars or advocates from the developing world to the Institute for up to two months to collaborate with Guttmacher staff on new or ongoing international activities. The Bixby fellowship was an opportunity given to me to bring to Guttmacher knowledge and expertise that complements the Institute’s work on sexuality education. I also had the opportunity to engage Guttmacher staff on APHRC’s current investigations on the impact and cost-effectiveness of the free maternal healthcare program in Kenya. The icing on the cake was to add my voice and support in a Guttmacher-led campaign to raise funds to collect and analyze data, to deepen my understanding of the status of sexuality education policies and curricula in developing countries.

I was also given the tremendous opportunity to attend the annual meeting of the Oral Contraceptives/Over-the-Counter coalition in Washington, DC and witness policy evidence and communication in action out of the African context!

Since returning to APHRC in Nairobi, I have had further opportunities to develop my leadership skills thanks to a decision by the Center to provide one-on-one sessions with a personal leadership training coach. This visionary endeavor is helping us nurture our relationships with colleagues in order to collaboratively produce the strongest research we can to help effect change in Africa. The session helped me to gain perspective into how I see myself as a leader, how colleagues and other collaborators view me as a leader and to lay down strategies for effective leadership.

These new skills are truly helping me with my work at APHRC. I can now manage projects more efficiently and model the way forward on issues related to family planning and maternal health, which I think will serve not only my goals but also the Center’s own vision: that the people of Africa enjoy the highest possible quality of life through policies and practies informed by robust scientific evidence.

As a social scientist with a passion for empirical evidence, I am rather amazed at how enthusiastically I embraced the ‘soft skills’ of leadership, and how valuable these new skills will support my efforts to effect real change with my work in the field of reproductive health and population demographics. It’s exactly this blend of leadership and evidence that we need to change the conversations about reproductive health in sub-Saharan Africa – and it is right, and good, that it is African scientists who are working to change those conversations.

My responsibility, now, is to share those skills with my colleagues at APHRC, and help to nurture them to join me as a research leader for Africa. Only by sharing these skills can we mold and shape the next generation of research leaders, and create space at research institutions for that kind of mentorship. Not a bad goal for someone who used to hide behind her spreadsheets.