Leaders That Inspire: Dugan O'Neil

August 12, 2022

Dugan O’Neil is SFU’s Associate Vice-President, Research.  He’s been at SFU for 16 years, and is a particle physicist by background.  We sat down with Dugan to ask about being a leader, and this is what he shared.

What are some of the influences that have shaped you as a leader?

I’m very lucky because I feel that I am always surrounded by mentors.  From the moment I joined the physics department, I had a lot of people who helped me along the way.

Now I’m part of the Senior Leadership team and I’m learning things every day from the other leaders.  I’ve watched the way they handle difficult situations and tough questions.  I’m also learning from people who report to me, and have always learned from students I supervise.

As a particle physicist, a lot of my focus was on difficult physics challenges.  As an administrator, it’s ALL about people.  It’s a much more complex system with many factors behind the scenes that you can’t see.  I had to learn a lot moving into an administrator role, and still have a lot to learn.

How does your background inform your role as a leader?

In my role in particle physics, I have worked extensively with others on complex projects over long periods of time.  We share a lab with a number of other institutions, with many people working together on projects. Although particle physicists have similar goals, they can have very different approaches.  There is no formal hierarchy, so to make it work, we have to have a consultative style of working and decision-making.  This has influenced me as a leader.

What does being a leader mean to you?

For me, being a leader involves tackling complex, multi-part problems.  If every problem you were trying to tackle was easy and there was an obvious solution, then there wouldn’t be much need for a leader.

It’s about defining the problem, taking in a lot of input, figuring out the root causes, listening to people, and then bringing everybody on board to row the boat in the same direction to come up with a solution.

Leadership is also about defining a shared vision and translating it into milestones and then trusting that your team can implement all the individual components that go into making that vision happen over time.  As a leader I have to look at a longer term time scale, and broader impacts on the organization.

Even when everyone is rowing in the same direction, and we take our best shot to reach a goal, we won’t always succeed. When something doesn’t go the way we hoped it would, I need to “own it” and take responsibility. Afterwards it’s also my responsibility to look back and consider what I could’ve done differently.  I think this is part of leadership, reflecting, and continually learning along the way.

What’s something you’ve learned as a leader?

When working through a problem or decision, I find that sometimes you need to take the conversation out of the details and up to the level of principles.  What are our core principles or goals that we’re trying to accomplish?  What do we all agree on?  It’s important to ensure we have those principles in common, and to remind ourselves of those when things get challenging.  Once you have shared goals or principles, you can look at the multiple ways to get there, and pick one.

What advice would you give to newer leaders?

I have found that when people don’t understand the rationale for a decision, they often assume or create one, which might have nothing to do with what I had in mind when making the decision. If you’re as open as you can be at every step and communicate well with the people on the team, it helps build the needed trust. Trust is a leap of faith. When you make a decision without explaining the rationale, it may be a leap too far.

Also, if you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, then you’re not motivated in the same way as when you really understand the ‘why’.  I think it’s the role of the leader to explain as best they can why a decision has been made or change is happening, to give the context.  However, I also encourage people to come forward and ask the ‘why’ when they’re unsure.

I have to admit though, we work in a hectic environment and effective communication is time-consuming. I am still working on taking my own advice….

What do you hope comes of SFU’s efforts to develop leaders?

I would hope that it gives people an opportunity to see a diversity of perspectives that they may not get in their position at the university.  I also hope people get an opportunity to see a career path here at SFU instead of them having to go outside of SFU because they don’t see the opportunity.

What are your thoughts about leading change?

I’m very open to change, this is something that defines me as a leader.  However, I have to be conscious that other people may not be as open to change.  Sometimes there are reasons why things were set up the way they were, and even if those reasons no longer apply, there’s a well-establish workplace culture in place. Changing culture is hard.

In my experience, when you take the time to explain the reason and the logic behind a change, then people may still disagree but at least they appreciate why it’s being done. The change is not arbitrary, and not made on a whim. There have been times when I had to make decisions or a change quickly, but paid the price afterwards for the lack of communication!  I try to plan ahead and avoid that kind of situation.

What do you love about being a leader?

I like the challenge of difficult problems.  In my position, I get exposed to a lot of difficult problems that I wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise.  Of course, it is possible to be able to identify a problem but not be in a position to effect change.  Now I have the opportunity to tackle the problems I have experienced as a faculty member, and also to hear about and address the problems others are facing.  I’m able to mobilize the forces that are needed to solve a problem that could affect a lot of people.

I really like working with people as a leader.  I like understanding their points of view and trying to come to a solution together.  Most of the problems worth solving can’t be solved alone.  I really appreciate it when people go beyond what’s expected, and come up with their own ideas and solutions, and are willing to bring them forward.  I’m grateful for their interest, initiative and passion.