Guest blog: Apollo 11, the NFL and being afraid of Gen Z

Curium | 20 Jun 2019 | News | General News

Guest blog: Apollo 11, the NFL and being afraid of Gen Z

Andy Newnham, Deputy Director of Business Engagement at the University of Birmingham, shares his approach to leadership: collaboration, process and urgency

A few weeks ago, Professor Kiran Trehan asked me to sit on a “young professionals” panel at her ‘Making Inclusive Leadership Our Business’ event, where we were treated to great keynotes by Andy Street, Karl Edge and Katie Fulcher, among others.

Firstly, it was lovely of Kiran to ask me, and secondly, a good time to reflect on my own leadership approach and what this may say about the needs of emerging leaders.

Three things characterise my approach to leading teams, people and initiatives: collaboration, process and urgency. These are things I’ve learned about formally, informally and through a variety of good and bad experiences.


Michael Collins is by far the least famous of the Apollo 11 astronauts because he had the least glamorous role on that mission. But, without him ‘taking one for the team’, the lunar landing would never have taken place.

Michael Collins’ job was to pilot the Command Module alone as it orbited the moon, while Neil and Buzz had a jolly* on the surface. He didn’t get the glory; he went all that way and never set foot on the moon. Without him, there would have been no way back home for any of them.

His story is not only one of sacrifice, but also that in any team there are so many hidden and important roles. Of course, there were also the hundreds of those down at Mission Control and in Florida.)

I often think of Michael Collins when I’m in roles where I need to ‘do the dirty work’ or when I’ve been a cog in a machine to enable success. I’ve also been lucky enough to work with and for leaders who’ve said a simple “thank you” or “well done”, and I hope I’ve always said please and thank you to those who’ve played a ‘Michael Collins’ role in any of my perceived successes.


Bill Walsh is another American you may not have heard of but, hopefully, some will have come across his record as coach of the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s and his book The Score Takes Care of Itself.

This book and his approach to leadership show us how, if you get the basics and the process right, the score really does care of itself.

I was recommended his book years ago and it’s been really helpful in how I’ve set up projects, programmes and initiatives at work. I’m a believer in goals, but more as a way to dictate process. If you want to reach the moon, what will get you there: what behaviours, what values, what ways of working?

Get these right and you’ll make progress. I think if you get the best team working in the best way, it doesn’t matter what the target or goal is as they can accomplish anything.


Finally, I’m very scared of Generation Z, I’ll be honest. I’m a millennial and I want everything yesterday. I’ve grown up a digital native and I use a lot of my millennial traits in my work. In fact, I’d say there’s very little difference between ‘work Andy’ and ‘home Andy’ (classic millennial trait that).

I expect to be able to Google something and the results to show in half a second., I expect someone to ‘tb asap’ and, if you say you’ll do something, I expect you to have done it by tomorrow.

I was once asked what my USP is and I said I didn’t have a clue as I’m not a qualified anything really and all I do all day is chat to people, attempt to solve their problems and try and be empathetic. I asked a couple of ex-bosses this question and they said, “You get sh!t done,”… and, apparently, that’s a useful quality?!

So yes, I get sh!t done (and quickly). But as much as it’s supposedly a good time to be a millennial, I’m really scared I’ll become obsolete tomorrow as all these Gen Z people enter the workforce and can do things quicker and better than me.

However, as I’ve learned in my football career outside of work where I’m now a 32 year-old playing against 17 and 18 year olds, fear’s a good thing because it keeps you honest and keeps you looking for areas to improve… even if I’m not going to get any quicker over 20 yards (but maybe over 10?)

At the University of Birmingham, we’re in the process of setting up The Leadership Institute, which will support leaders across sectors and levels of experience to be more collaborative and inclusive, and to act more sustainably.

I’m proud to say that I’ve been able to share my (potentially privileged) experiences of leadership as we create initiatives that will help emerging leaders to fulfil their potential.


(* not a jolly)

One year on from the launch of WMCA Leadership Commission’s ‘Leaders Like You’ report into the lack of diversity among Midlands leaders, the University of Birmingham Business School hosted its ‘Making inclusive leadership our business’ conference. Curium went along and we share our reflections in this blog.

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