Nancy Hayter

Getting to know our leaders: Q & A with Nancy Hayter

Nancy Hayter, Executive Director, Research Services (Nick Pearce photo)

"Getting to know our leaders" is a series of monthly profiles featuring Dalhousie University leaders on progress toward goals, upcoming challenges and opportunities, and insights on leadership

Nancy Hayter came to Dalhousie as a student in the late 1980s and has worked here ever since, most of it in support of Dalhousie’s research community. After spending many years in the International Unit (now International Research and Development), she moved to Research Services where, starting last fall, she was promoted to the Executive Director of Research Services. In her role, she provides strategic direction and coordinates the activities of the five units that make up Dalhousie Research Services: Grants and Contracts, Institutional Programs; International Research and Development, Industry Liaison and Innovation, and Ethics.

You’ve worked at Dal for almost 25 years now. How has the work of research support at Dal changed in that time?

Dalhousie Research Services (DRS) was a much smaller office when I joined. We’re now organized as five units under the DRS umbrella, and under that we have more specialists and expertise because we have the five units working together. The other thing I’ve seen change is that by the nature of what’s happening with the funding agencies in terms of accountability, a lot of the scrutiny they’re under has been downloaded to the universities. And the university has also taken a lot more of a risk-management approach in research support, especially for larger-scale initiatives. Together, that means more work but also a different way we work. We’re much more conscious now about what we submit, if it’s funded, can we implement, and are we exposing the university to risk.

Being organized like we are allows us to go after some really large-scale applications. What’s great about the culture we have right now is we believe, as a research-intensive university, that we can compete for those big grants and have had real success in going after them. Sometimes, it just takes one or two to make you realize, ‘Yes, we can play in this game too.’ And when they get funded, it’s pretty exciting.

What role does your new position play in that dynamic? How does it help support the research operation?

We’re trying to work more and more in teams across our five units, and to redeploy staff when necessary. So, for example, when Grants and Contracts has huge deadlines during intense periods in the fall and spring, we move people from other units to help with application review. And when we form our teams for large-scale applications, we also draw on people from all the units to help with those. That’s something we weren’t doing a few years ago, and it helps to have an individual looking at how we do that effectively.

What are some of the challenges you see in coordinating the research function at Dal?

The challenges of the office are volume and the constant deadlines. This office sees over 1,000 applications a year that get submitted and we’re required to look at each of them. That’s a fast-paced environment, and there can be stress in that. We’re also dealing with researchers who are, working hard — often under stress, understandably — to get these applications in. And at the same time, we’re also trying to protect the university and satisfy the funding agency. That’s three groups, at least, that we have to keep in mind when we’re getting these applications out the door.

How would you assess your leadership style?

For me, it’s about teamwork. It’s not any one person.  We draw on each other’s areas of expertise and we discuss issues. We have people who take ownership of their work, but their work is dependent on others as well. You never are just doing something either totally on your own or without consideration to others.

It’s also not just about how we work in the office, but with other central units. Over the years we have really increased our communication with those units and have regular meetings with Facilities, Financial Services, Procurement — all the key units for us involved in research. It is about communication, sharing information, trying to resolve issues together.

What do you think it takes to be an effective leader at Dalhousie?

I think collaboration is key, having great relationships so you know who to talk to and get advice from. As I get older, I see it’s so much about communication. For me, two other really important things are respect and attitude.

I also learned a lot during my years with the International Unit.When I worked there, I started as a student initially and ended up doing the outreach program for a number of years. I met people from all over the world: different cultures, different expectations, different views. It was really fascinating to deal with those people, to present Dalhousie to them, and learn from them. I think that’s helped because I deal with a lot of different people, and hopefully I can see both sides or try and understand their perspective on where they’re coming from.

You mentioned about how the work in Research Services can be stressful at times. How do you help manage that stress?

I’ve learned that, for the team, we should all be really clear on what our roles are. We assign tasks and I’ve learned you have to trust that people will follow through on them. It’s not possible for one person to do it all, and the team members, too, rely on the others to deliver. And I think that’s the wonderful part of working on a team. When everyone pulls together and does deliver, you’ve got some pretty excellent work happening. It means if one person gets overwhelmed, there are other team members to lean on or bring in to help with something.

Finally, what might people be surprised to know about you?

I used to write radio commercials. I worked for a radio station in Truro and then I moved to Calgary and I worked there for seven years in radio. I wrote commercials before I moved into promotions. Radio is a lot of fun, and at that time it was a happening place to be.

I didn’t have a degree, though, and realized that if I wanted to do something more, I really needed one. I was originally from Halifax and only ever wanted to go to Dal, so I moved back here to go to school to get a degree quickly and get back to the working world. But as soon as I got here, I loved the environment so much. I did my BA here in English and then upgraded to an honours certificate. Then I went on and did a masters in social anthropology while I worked. I still see professors on campus here who taught me! It’s a great community to be a part of, and I feel lucky to be part of it.


By Ryan McNutt
February 2014