Sheila Porter is the founder and CEO of SciFest, an innovative, all-inclusive programme of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) fairs at local, regional and national levels. Following a science degree in University College Dublin (UCD) Sheila went on to qualify as a post-primary teacher. She taught in a Dublin girls’ school for a number of years before taking time out to raise her three children. She subsequently returned to teaching and, in 2006, established the first SciFest STEM fair on a pilot basis in the Institute of Technology Tallaght in Dublin.
Sheila had always recognised the importance of STEM fair participation in encouraging in students a love of the STEM subjects and in generating a spirit of inquiry, innovation and entrepreneurship. Her vision for SciFest was of a national STEM fair programme that would be inclusive, accessible, free to enter and open to all second-level students. SciFest was launched nationwide in collaboration with the Institutes of Technology in 2008. SciFest is now managed by a not-for-profit company, SciFest CLG, funded primarily by the SFI Discover Programme, Intel Ireland and Boston Scientific. The project has grown rapidly, with 10,000 students from 300 schools presenting over 4,000 projects at local, regional and national level in 2018. In 1998, 2000 and 2004 Sheila received the Intel Ireland Educator of Excellence Award at the Esat (now BT) Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition and in 2004 she was also awarded the British Council Science Travel Award. More recently, in 2015, she was awarded the PharmaChemical Ireland Science Educator of the Year Award by the Irish Science Teachers’ Association.
Can leadership be taught? If so, how?
Leadership skills include the ability to organise, delegate, reflect, and adapt to change. It is also important to be able to see the bigger picture while being mindful of the details at the same time. These skills can be taught. However, I believe that one cannot be a leader without passion because it is passion that drives you to achieve your vision for the future and to keep going in the face of challenge. Can passion be taught? I think maybe not taught but nurtured in the same way that SciFest nurtures a love of STEM and encourages students to attempt to solve real-world problems by coming up with innovative solutions. I also believe that participating in SciFest helps develop leadership skills. Leaders, like scientists and students presenting projects at SciFest, learn by closely observing the world around them, trying out new ways of doing things, testing and retesting and being prepared to change their approach in order to find out what works and what doesn’t work.
What do you think is the difference between management and leadership?
It is, I would imagine, possible to be an effective manager without leadership skills but to be a truly dynamic manager leadership skills are essential. A leader may not be a manager but can just be a person who is charismatic and leads the way while inspiring other people to follow. In this case, they need to work closely with a manager who will manage the delivery of the vision. A person with leadership qualities is one who motivates and inspires others to become leaders in their own right. It’s about legacy and being aware that when they’re no longer in the role, someone else will carry the torch. This is something that I have been thinking about in relation to SciFest: it is hugely important to me that the project will continue after I step down. I believe that for a project to be successful it needs a champion. At each of the 16 regional SciFest@College venues, there is a champion who is a leader in their own right. Each of these people inspires and motivates their colleagues each year to deliver the SciFest vision.
The world around us is changing faster than at any time in human history and we need more leaders to emerge. How do we make this happen?
Success in the global marketplace depends on innovation, research and creativity. It also depends on self-confidence and the ability to set and achieve goals. Initiatives like SciFest give young people the opportunity to develop these skills through identifying and solving problems, often in innovative and creative ways. This boosts their confidence and whether they apply this way of thinking in STEM or something completely different, they are empowered to act like leaders in their own domain. SciFest encourages independent thinking and in a world saturated by fake news it is essential to teach students how to become more critical and reflective, i.e. to ask what and why rather than how and when. We need to equip young people with the skills they need to examine the evidence, to see what needs to be changed, to come up with creative and innovative solutions that will inspire others to follow.
In this rapidly changing world, we particularly need to encourage more females into leadership roles. SciFest, being open to all and free-to-enter, actively encourages a culture of inclusion and diversity. Students are given an equal opportunity to participate in a local, stereotype-free, non-threatening environment which is particularly supportive of female students. Currently, female participation in SciFest is around 60%. Gradually, a cohort of positive female role models and potential mentors is being built up. These alumni will serve to inspire and motivate future generations of second-level students, particularly females. Their support and mentorship and the continued success of girls at SciFest can make a major contribution to changing attitudes and encouraging girls to recognise their potential and the opportunities that are open to them.
What is the one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?
I think leaders – particularly ones who are well-established – can be susceptible to believing that they’re always right! When something has worked well for an extended period of time it can be hard to accept that there might be a better way of doing things. A good leader must be willing to listen to other people’s opinions and be prepared to accept that there may be a better way of doing something. They need to trust and believe in those that they are working with and to be adaptive and flexible. We are living in an ever-changing world and what worked yesterday might not work today.
What advice would you give to someone dealing with a high-pressure situation in their life or work?
Talk to others rather than trying to deal with the situation all by yourself. An objective opinion can help you see the bigger picture more clearly. Create an action plan by making a to-do list. Prioritise the tasks on the list and tick them off as each one is accomplished. Breaking up the task into smaller more manageable challenges that can be accomplished, promotes a feeling of control and confidence. If the to-do list still appears too onerous it is time to enlist the help of a colleague. Remember that you cannot do everything yourself; delegate, and trust in the abilities of the people you work with. Don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed with the minutiae; step back and re-focus.
In an ongoing situation, it is important to take short breaks and to get sufficient exercise. Exercise has been proven to reduce stress levels. It also helps you to sleep and boosts your energy, mood and wellbeing. Having a hobby is a good way to take your mind off a high-pressure situation. Whether it be art, golf or yoga it will help you to switch off and relax. It is even better if the hobby is something that you enjoy immensely but requires intense concentration. This is good as it clears the mind and allows you to step away from a high-pressure situation and look at the problem with a new perspective.
What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?
I would definitely recommend taking the time to visit YouTube and learn from the wide variety of TED Talks available, each with a different perspective on what makes a great leader. One of my favourites is given by Simon Sinek on how great leaders inspire action. I have also learned a lot about what makes a good leader through observation of the people I have met, worked with and admired over the years. Those that I would consider successful leaders have a number of qualities in common: commitment and passion, an ability to communicate ideas and inspire others to follow, confidence to deal with failure and setbacks and to delegate when necessary. Take any opportunity to learn from successful leaders who have demonstrated these qualities. For example, I recently had the opportunity to listen to, and be inspired by, Martin Naughton, Founder of Glen Dimplex, as he related how he developed a small manufacturing company with 10 employees to the billion-dollar enterprise it is today. The Business Excellence Institute recognises the achievements of people like Martin Naughton and some of their inspirational stories can be read on the Institute’s website, http://businessexcellence.org/excellence-hall-of-fame.