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Farewell to a visionary dean with an eye for detail

A person in perpetual dialogue, also with himself. A leader who is clear and present – with the exception of social media. A man who gives himself time and backs his employees. These are some of the characteristics of Lars Bo Nielsen, who is now leaving the position of dean to become director general of the Danish Medicines Agency.

2021.06.17 | Ulla Krag Jespersen

After just over four years as dean at Health, Lars Bo Nielsen is moving back to Copenhagen, where he will take up a new job as director general of the Danish Medicines Agency. Photo: Lars Kruse, AU Foto

After just over four years as dean at Health, Lars Bo Nielsen is moving back to Copenhagen, where he will take up a new job as director general of the Danish Medicines Agency. Photo: Lars Kruse, AU Foto

There was no information about the content or purpose of the meeting when the faculty management team received a meeting invitation from the dean over the Whit Sunday weekend with the heading "Brief important Information". It was therefore something of a bombshell when the Teams meeting on Tuesday 25 May at 07:45 begun with Lars Bo Nielsen saying:

"I'm sorry to bring you together so early. I must inform you that I am leaving my position at Aarhus University. I’ve got a new job and will resign here on 1 August".

After just over four years in the post, Lars Bo Nielsen is moving back to Copenhagen, where he will take up a new job as director general of the Danish Medicines Agency.

"When my wife and I moved to Aarhus a little more than four years ago, we made an agreement that if one of us wanted to return to Copenhagen for some reason, then we’d both move back there. And that day arrived at Christmas when we found out that we were to be grandparents. Not that there was any great rush to move back, but then this opportunity at the Danish Medicines Agency turned up," explains Lars Bo Nielsen.

Not enough happening in the old offices

One of the first things Lars Bo Nielsen did as dean was to move himself and his entourage to the former maternity unit, the Victor Albeck building, in the University Park. There was simply too little happening in the low, yellow brick building on the corner of the ring road, where the Rector's Office and part of the senior management team are based.

And this sense of things happening is something that Lars Bo Nielsen has strived to create in everything he has done at Health.

"Lars Bo’s ambition has been to make the faculty more international, and he’s succeeded in doing that," says Jørgen Frøkiær, department head at Clinical Medicine.

As examples he refers to is the appointment of fifty Skou professors from universities all over the world, the collaboration with the Circle U universities in Europe and the Noble Laureate Talks lecture series, which features Nobel Prize winners visiting the faculty and talking about the path to the Nobel Prize.

Thomas G. Jensen, department head at Biomedicine, emphases Lars Bo Nielsen's prioritisation of broad job advertisements, which opens up for a larger and stronger field of external applicants:

"Lars Bo is a visionary leader who has succeeded in further developing the faculty over a short period of time, making it more international and competitive, and also succeeding in attracting several good, international researchers, among other things because we are now doing more recruitment via open job advertisements and using search committees."

According to Thomas G. Jensen, his many ideas and ability to create relationships have made it relatively easy for Lars Bo Nielsen to implement major changes in a short period of time:

"He started his time as dean with an intense listening phase, where he took time to talk to all the professors at the faculty and later also many of the junior researchers. He understands how to create relationships. Then came the good ideas about how we could make progress, and because he had established the necessary trust, he also received support for the major changes," he says.

The intense listening phase combined with a memory like an elephant also means that he knows his facts.

"Despite the fact that he’s placed a long way from the academic environments, he really understands all the details. He can recall that there’s a person at department X who could be relevant as a collaborative partner for someone else at department Y. He’s mastered processes and budgets, and he’s really good at making strategy accessible and relevant to us at the departments," says Christian Lindholst, head of the Department of Forensic Medicine.

In perpetual dialogue, also with himself

Even though Lars Bo Nielsen has big visions and a clear agenda, he is not known for making hasty decisions. He needs to deliberate over things and is more comfortable discussing – also with himself – up until the deadline. And sometimes even after it has passed. Was it the right decision? Can we do even better?

"He’s always asking good, relevant and important questions. He also challenges you, because he’s constantly striving to reach a higher level. That’s why he’s constantly in dialogue with himself and with the people around him. He would prefer to be in brainstorm mode all the time, simply to achieve the best result," says Head of Secretariat Nete Herskind Ramlau-Hansen.

Administrative Centre Manager Nikolaj Harbjerg has the same analysis:

"He doesn’t send out unconsidered commands. He wants to create a forum where you can have a discussion, and where he can test things and listen to what others have to offer. And it’s okay to disagree."

Symptomatic of this is the way in which Lars Bo Nielsen very rarely takes the head of the table at meetings he leads.

"His style is very receptive and inclusive. He is attentive, appreciative and very good at collaborating, and he has succeeded in creating cohesion among the faculty management team. Our meetings are really good and inspiring," says Jørgen Frøkiær.

A man with clear agendas

Everyone who has worked closely with Lars Bo Nielsen can attest that he has a clear agenda and knows what he wants:

“He’s very ambitious. For example, over the past four years the faculty has almost tripled the amount of external funding it’s secured. He wants to change things – and not just what he’s in the middle of now, but also what’s coming in five and ten years. He has the ability to create a narrative and get people onside with him. Coming to work has been a bit like taking a vitamin pill," says Administrative Centre Manager Nikolaj Harbjerg.

Associate Professor Agnete Larsen, who is union representative and vice-chair of the faculty’s liaison committee, recognizes the description of a dean who is visible and guiding:

"Lars Bo is extremely professional and dedicated. He’s also a very friendly, open and humorous person with a pragmatic approach. But he has his own clear agendas. For example, there’s no doubt that internationalisation is close to his heart. This may have a cost on other agendas. So we have a discussion. That's also what we have a liaison committee for," says Agnete Larsen.

Beginner on social media

As a leader, Lars Bo Nielsen is described as empathetic, inspirational and a good sparring partner.

"As department head I’ve had a lot of freedom to act. He’s good at delegating and a leader you can always contact – almost day and night. I find that he’s been very loyal towards those of us who refer directly to him. He has had our back," says Thomas G. Jensen.

This is a description that Christian Lindholst agrees with:

"He’s a person you can quickly have a very trusting relationship with. He gives something of himself. At meetings, we often get side tracked. It seems that he’s enjoying himself and has plenty of time, even though his calendar is crazy with the job he has."

Lars Bo Nielsen has sometimes invited a large group of department heads, heads of department secretariats and line managers home to his stylish but relatively small apartment on the Aarhus Docklands for some recreation with food, wine and traditional songs on the guitar.

"He’s a leader who has never recognised the distinction between academic and non-academic staff at the university. He sees us as one cohesive organization. For example, he doesn’t like the word 'support functions' when it comes to the administration. We’re an equally important collaborative partner,” says Nikolaj Harbjerg.

Nete Herskind Ramlau-Hansen agrees:

"He stands for a collaborative culture. He has the respect of all professional groups and is loyal towards the system. You know where you’ve got him."

There is also broad agreement that Lars Bo Nielsen is a good speaker, and his energy and enthusiasm can convince most people. But his strength is clearly in the analogue world, and he admits that he’s not much more than a beginner when it comes to social media. So the traffic in creating contacts on LinkedIn and Twitter is therefore also very one-way.

"He doesn’t want to hog the limelight, that’s really not him at all. He doesn’t need to see himself in the media, and the public part of being dean has perhaps been his biggest challenge. I’ve got a TikTok account now and I’m ready for his big entrance on that platform. It will be an exciting journey for him," says Nete Herskind Ramlau-Hansen.

There will be a farewell reception for Lars Bo Nielsen on Thursday 1 July.

Read the article Hans Erik Bøtker to become acting dean at Health.

Read Five quickfire questions for Lars Bo Nielsen

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