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On Person-Centered Leadership in Research: An Interview with Helena Rutherford

February 14, 2024

For the latest post of the Yale Child Study Center (YCSC) “On Leadership” blog and newsletter column, Daryn David, PhD spoke with Helena Rutherford, PhD, an associate professor at the YCSC whose research lab investigates periods of neural plasticity in adulthood, including how the mind and brain change during pregnancy and the postpartum period. In the interview, she talks about how her person-centered, compassionate approach to leadership helps to unleash the potential of those she trains. The transcription from the recorded interview has been edited and summarized as follows.

Daryn David (DD): What is your background?

Helena Rutherford (HR): My background is experimental psychology. I completed my PhD in the UK where I studied visual cognition and visual attention more generally, in a college age population. I was very mechanisms focused and really grew a passion through neuroscience and taught myself EEG with a friend there. We figured it out and played around with an EEG lab and managed to get an experiment up and running. And then it was very much that I wanted to integrate neuroscience and cognition, but in more of an applied setting. And so that's why I came here, to really get more social neuroscience training.

DD: How do you foster other people's development through teaching?

HR: I think that that is something that really motivates me every day. I obviously love the research, but I really love mentorship and watching and contributing to people's growth and development whilst they're at the Child Study Center, whether they're here as one of the master's students in the UCL program or whether they're a member of my lab, that’s something that brings me joy to see how they grow over time.

For me it's helping them make connections to people as well to help foster that development, because I know my own limitations. My commitment is to that person, to recognize what I can do and how I can help, but then also make connections so that they feel supported.

I'm a big advocate of this mentorship team approach, that instead of relying on one person to give all the guidance and advice, forming a team of mentors who can complement training and development is really important.

DD: Where do you think that joy of fostering and supporting others comes from?

HR: I just like to see other people succeed. I like to see people do well and anything that I can do, even if it's just a cheerleader, I take great pride in other people's successes. I want to help them get to a point that really builds the foundation for the rest of their career going forward. I think that’s part of the drive for me, to really give them the best possible starting point.

I don't go into meetings with an agenda. I’m there to listen, to hear where people are and meet them where they're at. And I think that being a good listener is helpful because people know that they have a voice and that they're not coming in telling me something and now I'm just going to go with my own agenda. It’s really important to me that people know that I value them more as a person than I do as a worker in the lab.

DD: How about being grateful? Does that play any role in your style of leadership?

HR: For me, it really comes down to being grateful and appreciative, of everybody around me and everything that I have in life, professionally and personally. It’s something that I’m working on still, it is something that is powerful and sets a model for those around you.

I'm very transparent and very explicit in my appreciation to those around me. Whether it’s on the group or individual level, I let everybody know when they're doing great, when they are where they need to be, and that it's really an opportunity for us to all grow and learn together.

I created a gratitude slack channel for the lab so that we can pass on their sentiments of appreciation. I’m very verbose in terms of expressing gratitude for people who I work with. I do say thank you to them, and that I wouldn't have a lab working and being as successful as it is, if it wasn't for everybody there.

DD: Did you always have this sense of gratitude?

HR: It has been gradual. I've never wanted to take anybody for granted. I don't run the lab hierarchically. I put us all on the same playing field, that we all have equal voices. I'm as happy to dig in the trenches as everybody else, so I wouldn't ever ask anybody to do something that I wouldn't do or haven't done in terms of research studies. That’s part of my mindset, too- I appreciate you and I'm willing to do what you're willing to do. We do this together as a team in that way.

It's very easy to get caught up in the critique and the negative aspects of life. And I've been trying to work really hard to shift more to thinking about the positive and who's advocating for me and supporting me. And I want to be that person for other people as well.

DD: But in academia, we are in an environment that rewards critical thinking, rewards being incisive and critical. So how do you balance that with cultivating gratitude?

HR: It’s tough. The feedback I've had from people in my lab is that [my approach] is atypical. I've grown up in academia, so I've seen the critique and obviously everybody has experienced that, myself included, and knows what that feels like. I draw the line in terms of how I think about critique and criticism, about a way of doing it that's balanced and fair and nurturing. And I really come from a perspective of what can you do to grow, rather than what did you do wrong. It’s more motivating to help people in [this] way. It doesn’t demoralize and it doesn't lead them to turn it in on themselves. It's more about what your potential is, not where you've been going wrong.

Within academia, given how fast everything works and how merit focused everything is, it's very hard to maintain this.

DD: So what do you do to sustain this approach?

HR: I think words are just so powerful. I really try and frame [academic] interactions to ensure that they're ones around growth rather than criticism. It takes longer and it's more of a conscious process, but I find it more effective, that people are more likely to learn more, engage, and they're going to come back and want to learn more in that kind of structured environment of growth rather than criticism.

DD: How do you practice this approach day in and day out in your lab?

HR: Everybody has their own niche in terms of the work that they're doing on the lab. There’s conceptual overlap, but everybody can develop their own identity in terms of the projects that they're working on, the strengths, the skills that they bring to the group. Folks can learn from each other. I want everybody to be able to flourish in their own area as well as work together as a team.

I'm very careful as to who I pick. I spend a lot of time interviewing people when they first express an interest in the lab; I have other people in the lab also interview them. [It] becomes a collective discussion.

I also spend a lot of time with the people in the lab just one to one. Either I keep a meeting with everybody every week or every other week just to find out where they're at, what they're thinking about. We do review meetings every 6 to 12 months about what’s been going well and what have been some challenges, and then [I] really try to lean into what they are excited about.

DD: I could see someone who's cynical saying, “That's great, you're developing everybody, and everybody's got their own niche. But how are you making sure that papers are getting published and that you are building a body of work?”

HR: Yeah, definitely. I think [it] comes back to who I choose to come into the lab to begin with, that there are obviously key themes in the lab and those are themes that I will hire people into. I'm very careful to be sure that the person who I'm hiring has an interest that aligns with the lab. And I'm very careful to be sure that I'm not hiring two people who have the same interest in prenatal emotion regulation [for example], because right now [the lab] requires one person.

Likewise, we're really interested in how we can integrate neuroscience with other technologies. And so I was able to do bring in a postdoc with great experience in neuroscience and virtual reality.

I hear the cynicism, but I think there's a way of doing it in terms of what my program of research is, what are the areas that I want to grow in the lab. And then finding people that have that shared interest and making that happen.

It just takes time. I spent a lot of time planning and it [has] paid off really well. We are an incredibly productive lab, but it does take that time at the beginning.

DD: It sounds like you have to have a little bit of faith that when someone leaps in, given that there's enough overlap, that something productive and something generative will come.

HR: Yeah, exactly. I think that there's a lot of faith and there's a little bit of luck, but then the planning really helps, too. And we do a lot of discussions about expectations at the beginning and through that process, what I think your niche could be.

I think it's really helped people that they can work with each other collaboratively, that there are core themes across multiple studies, but they have an area they have defined by themselves.

DD: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced to this type of leadership?

HR: It’s probably just my own ability to keep up with everybody, just making sure that when people are sending me manuscripts, for instance, that I'm quick to turn them around and get them out the door, or being on top of helping edit grants.

It does require a lot of my time, but it’s a challenge and a commitment I've made, so I don't mind doing that. I just wish I could multiply myself, so that I could keep up with everybody.

DD: This is incredible. You’re leading in such a beautifully developmental way. It just sounds so aligned and in tune.

HR: It’s thinking about when I was a trainee, what I would have appreciated. It’s being mindful that people know they have a space here. If they want to share, they can, and we'll celebrate or commiserate with them alongside discussions about grants and papers as well.

DD: I could ask you a million more questions about your approach! But it’s getting time to close. So final question: Let’s say someone reads this column and thinks, “Wow, I want to lead like Helena.” What would be a few steps they could take?

HR: Recognizing everybody in your group, whether it's a lab group or a clinical group, where they're at as a starting point. Working out where they're at developmentally and career wise, but then also where they're at in terms of their interests and experiences and just spending some time with them. Even if it's once a month to sit down with somebody and just have a conversation and spend time with that person getting to know them. But then thinking through with them: where do they see themselves going? Where are they at now? Why do they want to grow? And then revisiting those conversations as well. Recognizing people as an individual and taking the time to be mindful of a person's needs.

The On Leadership blog was launched to address the importance of connection, collaboration, and embodying a service leadership mindset in professional and personal contexts. YCSC Assistant Professor Daryn H. David, PhD directs the column and serves as associate director for leadership development in the Yale School of Medicine (YSM) Offices of Academic and Professional Development and Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion.

Submitted by Crista Marchesseault on February 09, 2024