Robin Wensley: An appreciation of his work as Dean of WBS, and as a friend



I first met Robin in 1988 in George Bain’s study in the (then) School of Industrial and Business Studies (SIBS), when they were encouraging me to transfer from Birmingham University to set up a Local Government Research Centre at Warwick. George allocated 50 minutes to negotiating one of his seductive, magnificent deals (“We’ll welcome you to Warwick and give you active support within the University, but you’ll have to raise all the funding to set up LGC as a self-financing research centre, from day 1 “). Robin was suffering from a bad cold/nasal congestion that day, so he didn’t say much, but I found that George trusted Robin implicitly as his deputy dean, and left him to implement this deal. And over the next 20 + years at Warwick I came to understand why.

When George moved to London Business School, and Robin was elected to succeed him as Dean, I began to appreciate Robin’s qualities as an academic leader not just as an implementer. This deepened into a closer working relationship when later Robin (and Robert Dyson) put themselves on the line personally to create within WBS, the Institute of Governance and Public Management (IGPM) and launched the Warwick MPA (as a separate post-graduate/post-experience course alongside the modular MBA, to take account of the distinctive characteristics of the public and not for profit sectors).

The first of Robin’s qualities could be called “convivial collegiality”. Robin chaired the monthly WBS Professorial board as a full day meeting which no Professor wanted to miss. Under his leadership, every strategic and operational issue facing WBS was debated thoroughly; and once a year every single member of WBS staff’s annual appraisal was discussed one by one, with decisions on each person agreed by the whole professorial board. Robin clearly saw WBS as a holistic community of researchers, teachers and administrative staff. The meetings were long and often appeared indecisive ( Zadie Smith captured the rambling style of academic decision-making exactly in her 2005 novel On Beauty ). But this similarity was deceptive. Robin refused to  search for decisions based on majority voting in the professional board (as I often innocently urged, coming as I did from 20 years prior experience as a manager in the public and voluntary sectors). Instead Robin padded the corridors after the meeting to drop in on colleagues for one-to-one conversations, where he listened carefully to differing points of view and then tried to find the basis for a sensible way forward.  This sometimes frustrated Jenny Hocking who found he had disappeared from the Dean’s  office at crucial times. But I and many others loved Robin’s collegial leadership style – an early pioneer of what Tom Peters later called “management by walking about”. The adjective “convivial” tries to convey Robin’s quality of genial conversation between colleagues rather than the abrasive sometime domineering language and behaviour which sadly came to dominate other parts of the business academic world.

The second of Robin’s qualities for me was his courageous commitment to truth and honesty. Robin was politically astute and well aware of the complex machinations of University and academic life. However, he would not collude with deceptions, half-truths or lies in his work. He had a set of personal and moral values, which depended on trust and integrity. This moral compass gave his organisational leadership and his life a sense of purpose and a quiet authority. I suspect that much of this came from his home life,  with Sue and his children.  Indeed I suspect that Sue’s plain speaking often provided the grit in Robin’s oyster. (The OED describes “grit as  the passion, perseverance, and stamina that we must channel in order to stick with our dreams until they become a reality”).

I remember Sue speaking out with this kind of grit at a dinner we’d organised to introduce Harvard Professor Mark Moore to the then VC David van der Linde (RIP). David and his wife hosted this dinner at their house on campus, and Robin and Sue, and Howard Thomas, Jean Hartley and I all attended. Surprisingly, David used the occasion not to discuss Mark Moore’s work on public value, but to attack Mark’s sympathy with USA democrats in contrast to his own support for the Republican party. David and Mark went at it like hammer and tongs leaving no space for any of the rest of us to get a word in edgeways. In an awkward pause in the pugilism, Sue asked if it was too late to rescue this embarrassing dinner and to talk about something that included other people round the table. She told me bluntly afterwards that it was the worst example of male machismo  that she had experienced for many years, and that she would never come again to anything which I or IGPM organised !

However, we did do it again. Robin and Sue, and Mark Moore and Martha, Jean Hartley and I all met up in Dorset for a weekend of walking and talking (this time not around the corridors of WBS but on the footpaths of the Jurassic coast). This led to a good conversation and a joint chapter by Robin and Mark Moore on Choice and Marketing in Public Management : The Creation of Public Value (in Benington and Moore eds Public Value : Theory and Practice 2011, Palgrave Macmillan). And I hope Sue has forgiven me for the worst dinner of her life.

The third quality I came to value about Robin was his modesty.  His manner was self-effacing and often self-deprecating, both at work and socially.  He had a probing intellect, often posing sharp questions coming from the left field. But he didn’t boast, brag or bray like less secure Alpha males. Robin never put more junior people down, but listened and encouraged their ideas to flourish.  He was at his best with PhD students, who found him attentive to their ideas and their foibles. Indeed I remember one professorial board when Robin’s own annual appraisal was being discussed, when  the clear advice from colleagues was that he had to prune his group of 30 or so devoted PhD students, so that WBS could improve its completion rates, and so that he could put more time into his own publications record which at that time was lagging behind. Robin often  preferred writing with other colleagues, but the mishap of a surname late in the alphabet, meant that he often came as the second author. He did take up the challenge of writing a single authored book on Effective Management in Practice : Analytical Insights and Critical Questions (Sage 2013) but (modestly) did not self-promote it widely, so it remains under-recognised.

It was also modesty perhaps which led Robin to choose to stay at Warwick for so many years rather than climbing the greasy pole of moving from University to University every few years to gain increases in pay and status.  This continuity of leadership allowed Robin to create at Warwick an organisational culture with deep roots. Robin used his base at Warwick to branch out horizontally into interesting arenas (e.g chairing the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations; IGPM’s partnership with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Washington’s Georgetown University; Wits University in Johannesburg/Guateng (from which we visited Soweto and other townships); the Sustainability Institute at the University of Stellenbosch (from which we visited and stayed in shacks in the informal black settlements with no water or electricity) and the summer school held at Krakow in Poland (from which MPA students went to visit Auschwitz for a day)

Once again I think his commitment to one organisational base (Warwick) draws a lot on his commitment to his home and family in Leamington. Robin had a group of friends in Leamington who valued him as a person; who did not know or care too much about his status as a global academic guru, but who shared his convivial collegiality, his commitment to honest questioning, trust and integrity, and his self-effacing and self-deprecating humour.

My favourite photo in the lovely collection assembled by Warwick is the one of Robin wearing shorts and T-shirt, making sand-castles on the beach !  Sue and Helen and the whole family you can be very proud of this very special Man for All Seasons, and you have kept him rooted.

I feel very privileged to have worked with Robin as an inspiring leader for over 20 years at Warwick, and to have become a friend. Robin, you are greatly missed by many.

John Benington, Professor of Public Policy and Management, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick

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