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Professor James Crabbe, Emeritus Professor - Starter for 10

19 January 2018

Professor James Crabbe, Emeritus Professor - Starter for 10

Professor James Crabbe is an emeritus professor of Biochemistry, a supernumerary fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford University, and honorary professor at Changchun University of Science and Technology, China. From 2014-2017 he was a senior research associate in the Department of Zoology, Oxford University.

He is a vice-president of the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology, chair of the Education Committee of the International Society for Reef Studies, and committee member of the International Year of the Reef (IYOR) 2018. In 2006 he won the 6th Aviva / Earthwatch International Award for Climate Change Research, and in 2008 the Award of Outstanding International Contribution to the Creative Industry of China. He has been professor and executive dean of Creative Arts, Technologies and Science at the University of Bedfordshire, professor and head of the School of Animal and Microbial Sciences at the University of Reading, and governing body fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford University.

James attended the Top Management Programme 22, which took place between June 2010 and January 2011.

Here is James Crabbe's Starter for 10:

1. What is the best piece of management/leadership advice you have ever been given?
I’m going to give three:

  • ‘You are your diary!’, given as part of the excellent ‘Leading Change and Organisational Renewal’ Executive Education Program at Harvard Business School I attended in 2012 after my TMP, where you are and what you are doing is crucial to your staff – your PA is a key player in this;
  • ‘Knowing is not doing’, from James Wolfensohn, former President of the World Bank;
  • ‘Culture eats strategy for Breakfast’, attributed to Peter Drucker. The big question that relates these three is ‘How do you facilitate culture change in an organisation?’

2. Who would you have liked to have worked with?
Oscar Wilde for his wit and for his critical faculties, not least of our criminal justice system, as I’m a JP.

3. What is the biggest change you have seen in management/leadership approaches?
Moving from an academic-centred approach to a managerial approach, where senior managers/leaders at many universities no longer undertake research. An excuse? ‘There’s no time’. But we all have the same time. Accountability is important, but over what time scale?

4. Who has inspired you most in your working life?
I’ve worked with some wonderful colleagues and leaders at all levels in my career, and they have helped me enormously to facilitate culture change; in research, in teaching, learning & assessment, and in leadership & management. Most recently, Professor Yang Zhong, Dean of the Graduate School at Fudan University, Shanghai, with whom I’ve been working for 10 years. Tragically killed in a car accident on September 25th 2017, when I was flying from Shanghai to Hong Kong, just after we’d been discussing future joint projects. The Chinese Department for Education has just posthumously awarded him the title of ‘National Excellent Teacher’.

5. What comes naturally to you as a leader? And what do you feel you have to work on?
As an academic, I’m naturally a ’primus inter pares’ leader; a ‘first among equals’. Over the years I’ve honed my skills in other ways, particularly in winning over so-called ‘difficult’ colleagues. Tears have no effect!

6. Who would you choose to be stranded on a desert island with?
My other half, Margaret; my partner, lover, friend and companion for ever. She is a potter who works with porcelain and light. At one London gallery when she was setting up a complex exhibition of her work, the gallery owner said ‘Margaret, you’d be great to be stranded on a desert island with’. How true!

7. What will you remember most about Top Management Programme?
Building a seaplane with a part missing! It provided a fascinating and very challenging insight into the importance of flexibility and quick thinking in leadership. And don’t neglect the foot soldiers!

8. What will be the most enduring learning point?
That leaders and managers in all disciplines and areas have broadly similar issues to tackle. You are not on your own!

9. Thinking about your career and experiences, what advice would you give to people early in their career?
Always try and appoint people better than yourself! I was fortunate in that early on I had some outstanding research students who then made great careers for themselves. I learned a lot from them. This advice applies equally to leadership and management appointments.

10. What one thing would make your job easier?
Greater trust. Trust is not high generally in education, and we need to trust people to fail, as well as to succeed. Evidence-based trust is priceless.

11. What’s been your biggest professional challenge and how did you overcome it?
Merging departments. It took a lot of work, time, and people-centred skills. Well worth it in the long run, though.

12. If you could get tickets to any event in the world what would it be?
The Ring Cycle in Bayreuth.

13. What can’t you live without?
As a former Wine Steward in my Oxford College, I’d be sorry to live without wine. But what I really couldn’t live without is music!

14. What would you be if you weren’t a…. ?
When I was five I wanted to be a writer - of fiction, and my parents gave me an Oxford Dictionary for my birthday present. I still have it. Perhaps it’s not too late…….?

15. What’s your favourite leadership book and why?
Over the last 10 years I’ve been working with universities in China. I find the four classic Chinese novels, ‘Dream of Red Mansions’, ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’, ‘Monkey’s Journey to the West’ and ‘The Three Kingdoms’ provide great insight into China and the Chinese; well worth reading in our multicultural society even if you don’t work closely with China.

16. And….?
I used to be a freelance recording engineer and producer, working with the BBC, RCA, and other record labels. My recording of ‘The Sound of the Georgian Piano’ won an award for best recording of the month when it was released. My recording of the Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, performing music by Bernard Rose, is still available on
‘The Gift of Music’ label. You can buy it on Amazon – I don’t get royalties!

To find out more on the Top Management Programme, please click here.

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