Lucy Gilson, PhD 2000, began her journey into academia by accident – after getting hit in the head with a tennis ball.
A former member of Georgetown University’s championship-winning crew team, she’d been playing tennis with the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association (ALTA) while wearing a crew t-shirt. The man who’d dealt the blow with the ball took notice and told her the Georgia Tech Rowing Club needed a new coach.
While the job as head coach for this club sport didn’t pay, she was able to negotiate a free ride in Georgia Tech’s master of science in management (now MBA) program. One of her professors took note of her potential and encouraged her to later enter the PhD Program.
“I realized early on that PhD levels of study didn’t allow for three to four hours a day on the river, so I had to give up coaching crew,” she says. “But I had a lot of fun helping the team grow during those early years.”
Gilson’s background as a team player has greatly influenced her research path. Now a professor at the University of Connecticut, she studies workplace creativity within a team context.
Her interest in creativity stems partly from her parents (her mother is an artist who ran an art gallery with her father) and also from her professional background as a marketer for the drinks division of the Mars candy and food company.
“I became fascinated with how you get good ideas to be successful,” she says. “We assume that creativity will help performance. But when does it and why does it?”
Some of her early research focused on how creativity can be key to even seemingly routine jobs. Gilson has since examined an incremental approach to workplace creativity (making small tweaks) versus a more radical approach (innovating with big ideas). The incentives for creativity can lie along a continuum, she found, ranging from financial rewards to an environment like Apple, where the fun and excitement of innovation may outweigh monetary motives.
During her career, she has continued to collaborate regularly with her two faculty advisors at Tech, organizational behavior professors Terry Blum and Christina Shalley, who were wonderfully supportive during her time at Tech, especially as she had her first child during her PhD studies, Gilson says.
Her research – which examines topics ranging from creativity and leadership to diversity and employee empowerment – has been published in many leading journals, including the Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Management, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Applied Psychology, and the Journal of Creative Behavior.
Gilson is now conducting a study of how teams communicate in “virtual” contexts. It involves teams of undergraduates with members from different schools. “Students will say that face-to-face communication is so yesterday, but when you give them a virtual team project, they tend to get really frustrated. We tend to be quick to criticize people at a distance and cut more slack for team members nearby,” she explains.
Journey to Connecticut
Though she was born in Portugal and raised in Brazil, Gilson’s family hails from England. But she’d never called it home until after graduating from Georgetown in 1987 and working for Mars in London, where she met her husband.
His job as an accountant presented international opportunities, and they decided on living in Atlanta because it satisfied their desire for pro sports teams and a warmer climate.
Today, they enjoy their life in Connecticut, with their two children, and regular outdoor activities include hiking, kayaking, and snowshoeing.
Gilson says she was drawn to work at the University of Connecticut because of its strong reputation, faculty, and the opportunity to work closely with PhD students. She serves as a mentor to PhD students and junior faculty not only in Connecticut, but also at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa where she is a visiting international faculty member.
“I’m a really passionate person, so I try to tell them to pursue what they’re passionate about,” she says. “If you enjoy something, you’ll do well at it and carve out your niche.”
In 2013, Gilson founded the Geno Auriemma UConn Leadership Conference, bringing together top leaders in their fields to discuss best practices is leadership.