IWF UK Leadership Stories: Dr Sawsan Khuri

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Scientist and communicator Sawsan Khuri is the subject of this month’s Leadership Story. Sawsan started out gaining a PhD in biological sciences. She then moved into the computational sciences and progressed to leadership roles at the University of Miami. She shares her resilience and reinvention as she has relocated several times across the globe.

What does being a leader mean to you?

Being a leader means having the confidence to act.

Whether at a large organisation or a small team, in that large corner office or on the spot solving a spontaneous problem in a pub, from top down, bottom up or from within, leadership is about stepping up and doing something.

Leaders act when they identify a gap and initiate a way of closing it. By bringing others into the game and keeping an eye on the bigger picture, they ensure a lasting legacy to their actions. At this point leadership becomes about sitting back, watching it grow, and smiling, knowing you made that happen.

Identifying gaps and acting to close them takes courage, and courage begins with confidence.

What have been the one or two biggest challenges in your life and how have you overcome them?

1. Frequent relocation

I have been a trailing spouse for most of our 21 years of married life, moving for my husband’s career and figuring it out when I get there. I was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and immigrated to the UK with my family when I entered university. Eventually I got married and since then we’ve lived in Kaua’i (Hawaii), Miami (Florida), Abu Dhabi, Miami again, and finally back to the UK. Through these moves, before and with the children, I would no sooner build something cool and fulfilling than we’d be on the move again.

My last move in 2016, from a high-profile, high-energy position in Miami, Florida, to a blank slate in Exeter, Devon, with two teenagers was particularly hard. Convinced as I was about our repatriation, I sought the promise that we were not going to move again, and set about taking stock. I had no network to speak of in England, no clearly delineated career path, and I wasn’t even sure I knew any more what I wanted to be when I grew up.

First, I recruited expert help from a career coach, who made me recognise that the common threads of my professional existence were about collaboration and education. Next, I worked at building a network, finding mentors and defining a purpose.

Within 15 months, I had established my business enhancing collaborative capacities in the academic and business sectors, become affiliated with the University of Exeter College of Medicine and Health, and gained memberships at Kaleider, a science/art production studio in Exeter, and IWF UK. Now, two years later, we are fully settled and business is picking up. I’m back on track again. Phew.

2. Stigma of titles

The hardest thing through all of this was letting go of my childhood dream of following in my father’s footsteps and becoming a Professor.

As soon as we began to move, I re-trained as a computational scientist from having been a lab scientist, because I could carry a laptop around much more easily than a laboratory… but this was not enough and I needed to move sideways in order to keep moving forward.

It took very many, too many, years for me to feel OK about not having a high-ranking academic title. It was almost a physical effort to be happy with titles like Director of Engagement, or Collaboration Consultant…and you know what made the difference in the end? It was the fact that I had made up those titles myself.

Let me rephrase that: I had learned to have the confidence to understand the importance of communication, management and leadership skills in academia, to translate them into business, and to request and use titles that were new to these domains.

If the cookie cutter don’t fit, cut a new cookie.

What do you regard as your greatest successes, and why?

My students who have gone on to win awards, every schoolgirl I talked to who has gone fearlessly into STEM, and all those whose outlook and/or mindset shifted as a result of an initiative that I developed. And maybe a programme or two that I established which continue to run years after I left those organisations.

But deep down, it’s my children.

Living across and between different cultures and education systems the world over, our kids have managed to make strong friendships and stay on top of their academic performance. Now at 17 and 14 they remain secure, confident, nice kids. I really respect them, and maybe I did something good as I tried to maintain a comfortable, pragmatic yet loving home for them.

How has your leadership style changed over time, and why?

More empathic; I have learned to listen. Among other benefits, this has allowed me to include the team members’ professional development and personal ambitions into project planning, which in turn increased their productivity and engagement.

More farsighted; I plan objectives according to the bigger picture. Focusing on the ultimate goals, even a culture change where appropriate, allows more freedom of expression, which ultimately leads to more innovation and growth.

More empowering; I give my team the confidence to develop. As a young leader, I had trouble delegating, always feeling I can get the thing done better and quicker. Then one day a senior manager gave me an enormous task to perform, and amid all the self-doubt was the feeling that if he thinks I can do this, then maybe I can actually do this. I felt empowered, I learned the secret of delegating, and am now paying it forward by empowering others in the same way.

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?

Find your courage, channel it into calm confidence and keep looking progressively forward.

I felt empowered, I learned the secret of delegating, and am now paying it forward by empowering others in the same way

Dr Sawsan Khuri

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