You might have heard Margaret MacMillan give the Reith Lectures about war on BBC Radio 4 in 2018. You might have read one of her many prize-winning history books. But the current Professor of History at the University of Toronto also has senior leadership experience in higher education. She is a former Warden of St. Antony's College at the University of Oxford and a former Provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto. She has sat on many distinguished academic boards and is currently a Trustee of the Imperial War Museum and the Central European University in Budapest. Here she passes on her key learnings from her boardroom career
What’s the difference between running a college and running a university?
A college is much smaller and you have the chance of getting to know all the people, which I liked. I got to know the staff, I got to know the students, I got to know the Fellows. I liked the sense that I was pretty familiar with everything that was happening. I had to spend some time on fundraising, but it wasn’t as consuming as it is for Vice-Chancellors or university Presidents. I was asked a couple of times if I’d put my name in for university positions and I just thought, “No, I really don’t want to do it.” I wouldn’t have had time for my own research. You really give up a lot in those jobs, I think.
An Oxford college is a complicated institution to run, isn’t it? You’re first among equals, you’re not a CEO, and the governing body is big. Tell me more about that.
Because I came from an academic background, I understood how academics worked. I know that sometimes heads of colleges run into trouble when they come from business or government, because you cannot run them like you’d run an embassy or a business. It’s just a different style.
They are interesting communities, because there are often people who’ve been members of them for a very long time. You get people who are very invested in the community but are sometimes nostalgic for the way things were and they don’t want things to change, and that can be tricky. You get people who’ve been at loggerheads for 30 years, and you have to deal with that. I sometimes think they’re a bit like medieval monasteries must have been.
On my first governing body [Trinity College, University of Toronto], about a third of its members were people from outside; alumni, people from business, representatives of the Anglican Church of Canada, staff and students. And it could be tricky because it had very different sorts of people on it. But you learn who are the people you need to get onside if you want to do something, and I learned it was always a good idea to consult with them beforehand. There were certain people who were influential and whose judgment I valued. There were some who were merely obstructive, but you tried to deal with them.
St Antony’s was self-governing, so we didn’t have external appointees. It was just fellows plus a student representative. Ours was about 40 people, and that was manageable. If something caused a lot of controversy, I tended to say, “Let’s take all these opinions and we’ll come back to you with a different proposal.” I just learned that you can’t get everything through that you want and you have to find a compromise. And often if you brought something back, people would go along with it because they felt they’d been heard. You have to allow people time to talk and they have to feel engaged.
How useful was it to have people from business on the Trinity board?
It depended very much on the person. One of my friends, who was a very successful businessman, came on, and he was terrific. He knew the limits of what he could do. He was the ideal person from outside who valued the institution, understood how it worked, and brought a very useful perspective. He eventually became Chair of the Trustees and did a really good job.
So I think people from outside can be extremely useful. What isn’t helpful is when you get someone from business saying, “Why don’t you just fire that person?” and you have to explain that they’ve got tenure.
What other types of outsiders did you have on the board?
We always had someone from the Anglican Church, because it was an Anglican college. I got a wonderful woman who was a priest at a church in Toronto, came from the West Indies, was black, and brought some really interesting perspectives. Her church was very white: a friend of mine used to call it St Michael’s and all the Stockbrokers! She was very warm and practical and helpful.
Our Chancellor was a very nice Canadian politician who’d been our Finance Minister, and was very good and very supportive. I liked him very much because he’d tell me if he disagreed with me, so I knew where I was. He was extremely helpful and very good with fundraising.
Is there anything you’ve learned from sitting on other boards that’s been helpful for dealing with universities?
The general thing that I’ve learned from other boards is you have to know what you should be doing and what you shouldn’t be doing. You have to understand your responsibilities. Board governance and board training are very important because people don’t always understand what the framework is and what you’re expected to do. You also need to know when you shouldn’t interfere. Board members sometimes get close to members of staff and members of staff will sometimes use board members to push agendas and that can be tricky. Board members mustn’t blindly support the CEO, but they have to understand the limits of what they should be doing. Meddling in day-to-day stuff is wrong.
What was the best piece of advice that you were given for either of your college boards?
Before my first one, I’d only run a very small history department, and I talked to one of my brothers, who’s a banker, and he said, “You’ve got to understand the finances.” He sat down with me and taught me how to read a balance sheet and what to look for. The other piece of advice was from a friend who said, “When you take on a job, you should only have about three things you really want to do. You can’t do everything, so decide what you really want to accomplish and focus on that.”
What would be your top tips for a new head of college?
Get to know people as quickly as you can. Be visible. I went around a lot and talked to all the different people and staff. People like the head chef and head porter know a lot of what’s going on and they’re very important to the life of the college.
You need to understand the informal power structures as well as the formal ones: who you call to get something done. It’s a question of learning whose advice is useful and who you can trust.
And now for some quick-fire questions…
What was your biggest break?
I wrote a book on the Paris Peace Conference, which I’d been working on for about 15 years. No one wanted to publish it, but it finally found a publisher at the end of the 90s and it did very well. That was just when the job at Trinity came up, and that really helped me.
What are you reading?
I’ve just finished Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi. I’ve just started a memoir, Single Journey Only, by the Virago founder Ursula Owen. And I’m halfway through Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, which is wonderful, but I can only read so much at a time!
What’s your favourite quote?
Voltaire on his deathbed, when a priest asked him, “Will you renounce Satan?” and he replied, “Now, my good man, this is no time to be making new enemies!”
What’s your favourite holiday destination?
I love skiing, hiking and exploring cities.
What do you do to have fun?
I see friends and family. I go to movies and go to the opera.
What’s your favourite app?
When does your alarm go off and how many hours’ sleep do you get?
The nice thing about being retired is I don’t set my alarm every morning. But when I was working full-time, I got up at 6.30 or 7. I tried for 8 hours’ sleep, but if I got 7, that was OK.
Mary Ann Sieghart is a journalist and broadcaster. She also sits on the boards of Pantheon International and The Merchants Trust and chairs the cross-party Social Market Foundation think thank.
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