Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lessons on [not] Running a School

Recently one of my son's mentors was awarded the opportunity to "run" a [medical] school in a far-away location; what a great opportunity! I once had a similar opportunity and from that I reflected on a number of lessons that I think might be of value to my son's mentor, and maybe others as well. In the spirit of sharing and being candid, here are my personal reflections on my own performance"

1. After 20+ years of working diligently at a classical academic career, and playing by the rules, I gave up an endowed chair, tenure (a life-long appointment), and the familiarity of a [really, two] long-lived-in communities to move to a completely foreign environment on a temporary basis; it was the best thing that I ever did! I wholeheartedly recommend a fling with "big change" in your early 50's. My father had me, and I had this new job, at approximately the same age; both of us were rejuvenated by the disruption to our routine [at least, I like to think that my father was renewed by my arrival; I certainly was by my new responsibilities]. We are all creatures of the familiar, and change restores our need for personal growth.

2. In retrospect, I never "ran" the school, and, in fact, I hope that I never tried to. While many people spoke about "running" their organizations, if I'm honest and candid I tried my best to keep up with the changes created by the smart, energetic, young people who were constantly trying-out new things. Any "running" that I did was more like "running" after them and their boundless energy. Insisting on being an omnipresent strong leader would have only slowed them down and sapped their enthusiasm. My job, in truth, was to be the sponsor, the cheerleader, and the supporter. I'm told that people take on administrative positions in academia because they want a chance to "run" or "build" an organization. I now think that this is the wrong way to look at this. "Enable", "license", or "unleash", are probably much more suitable aspirations for leadership.

3. The value of what we do: frameworks work!

Business schools are “low-theory” neighborhoods. Unlike physics, or even economics, the practice of business administration is still as much “art” as it is “science.” Frequently, the heroes of our case-studies came upon the preferred solution by instinct as much as by hunch. Our professional contribution as educators, however, is to create generalisable lessons from such experiences. In some instances we have theories, but in most it is frameworks that are our best tools for doing this, and one of the first phone calls I made back to IMD from CEIBS was to inform my close colleague Andy Boynton that our frameworks really worked! We had taught them many times, to be sure, but to use them personally to help manage an organization was personally thrilling. We used Porter’s five forces, and Andy’s strategy-transformation framework, as well as a variety of other frameworks to understand the market in which CEIBS was competing and how best to craft a strategy and a vision for our school. That they worked well and provided relief from the overwhelming complexity of the milieu of management responsibility was one of the most reassuring lessons that I learned. Trust the frameworks: they work!

4. The criticality of trust

To be honest, one of the principle attractions of joining CEIBS for me was the opportunity to see a joint-venture from the inside. After teaching about joint-ventures for twenty-some years, I immodestly believed that I knew their ins and outs. I was wrong. What I, and my colleagues, had been stressing in our classes about jvs was typically big-picture, "strategy," sorts of things. What I found as a manager on the ground, was that those issues, while important, were not what you spent your time on from day-to-day. Instead, I believe that my principle responsibility became that of “building trust” between the partners. Without trust, nothing else is possible. At CEIBS, we were fortunate to have great partners. But, even with great partners, trust had to be built and rebuilt on a daily basis. In many ways, trust and values are the major part of what I now believe to be the job of senior management. There are plenty of people in an organization like CEIBS who can do the important daily operations much better than top management can. What they need, however, that only top management can establish, is vision, trust, and values. Conversely, if top management is involved in doing the daily operational work, then who is taking care of vision, trust, and values?

5. The balance between too-much and too-little involvement

When I was at CEIBS, virtually all of our staff were university graduates. These were extremely talented people, and because they were young they had incredible energy. I believe that the most difficult thing for me as a manager to do was to find the balance between too-much and too-little involvement in their daily work. I make no claims about mastering this balance, but I believe that a lot of it is about trust – that the team will deliver – and, also, that some of it is also personal and cultural, as well. A CEIBS alum once lectured me on the need for senior management to follow the teachings of the ancient Chinese legalist philosopher Han Feize. In his mind: "Only by strictly establishing and reinforcing the role of the leader, could discipline be achieved." My time at CEIBS pushed me in an entirely opposite direction, however. I found that my own personal philosophy of management was that the role of the leader is to create situations where the talent of the people in the organization can reach its’ highest individual potential. The leader’s job is to help others achieve all that they are possible of achieving, within the parameters of the organization’s strategic goals. Too often, this can be interpreted as aloofness and disinterest, but I am convinced that as a leader the talent that surrounds you is on loan to you only temporarily, and your responsibility is to enlarge and enrich it so that it can move on to higher aspirations. The challenge for senior management is to get the best people, give them energizing challenges, and then get out of their way; but, stay informed and be engaged, without interfering.

Of course, when prized employees decided to leave, I took it as a personal failure, but my sense now is that this is a natural progression in a talent-rich organization and that I should have been spending much more time on succession preparation and then celebrating the good fortunes of those who had decided to move on.

6. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Essential to building trust, and destroying any suspicions that you are not engaged, is the very act of communication. I am convinced that it is hard for top management to over-communicate. In other words, no matter how frequently you believe that you are communicating with your organization, the truth is that it’s probably not enough. And, of course, the compliment to communication is listening.

7. Listening, Listening, Listening

If you surround yourself with bright people, who know more than you do about certain important things – and that surely was the case at CEIBS, from the staff, to the faculty, to the students – listen to what they have to say. Create opportunities to listen. Actively listen. Listen all the time, everywhere. This is the only way to learn, and as a knowledge professional leading knowledge professionals, this is essential to both your and your organization’s growth. One of the best things that I learned in this regard was to turn off my email for long-periods during the working day. The real “action” of the school was not on my screen, but out in the halls and classrooms. For too long, I was a hostage to the next email message, and that is probably the last thing an organization is looking for from its leaders.

8. The importance of how you gain and maintain influence

Status is important in all societies, but I was not adequately prepared for what it meant to be President and Dean of China’s leading business school. I was invited everywhere; interviewed by the press continually; flattered that people actually listened to what I had to say; I hobnobbed with the rich and famous on a regular basis, and dined with royalty, ambassadors, luminaries and stars. It was all dazzling! But, there was an associated challenge that haunted me; how, as a knowledge professional, could I continue to grow intellectually in the face of the social and administrative demands of the job? Afterall, I was presumably chosen for the position on the basis of whatever influence I had achieved based on what I knew and wrote about doing business in China. Yet, how to keep that expertise current? How to refresh my personal knowledge pool so that I’d still be attractive for the next opportunity? Actually doing business in China proved not to be enough. The luxury of the “theory class” is that we get to talk to enough people so that the idiosyncrasies of their individual experiences are overwhelmed by the common messages from the multiple experiences. Learning on my own could not be enough. My conclusion, which ultimately led me to return to a faculty position, was that the intoxication of a leadership position, as enjoyable as it was, could be a professionally fatal, or at best limiting situation.

The lesson here was brought home to me it the writings of Warren Bennis: It is too easy as a leader, particularly of a high-visibility organization, to believe that your influence is based on something other than your position. At the end of the day, I wanted my personal professional influence to be based on what was going on in my mind [Bennis calls this voice power], rather than in my office [Bennis calls this position power]. In my case, for me, that ultimately meant giving-up the position in order to keep on learning.

9. The importance of the Board

One of the many things that still wakes me up in the middle of the night, is how I failed to work effectively with our board of directors. What I learned from CEIBS is that the effective leader must know and master the details of the governance structure, from the board down; and to move the interaction with the oversight bodies from episodic ones, where there are periodic reviews and big-issues on the agenda, to more continuous dialog, so that there are no surprises and the board becomes a collaborator rather than solely an evaluator. Also, to the extent possible, it is beneficial to get to know the board members on an individual and personal basis. At the end of the day, “the board” are people too, and the leader’s influence is typically greater on an individual level than on a group level.

10. Speed is essential

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, had “speed” installed as one of the core values of GE because he believed that “speed wins.” Moving a complex organization, that is a 50/50 joint-venture to boot, in any direction is difficult. Add “fast” as a requirement and it becomes daunting. Nonetheless, I am now convinced, as a result of my tenure at CEIBS, that speed matters, big-time. Fast, in fact, may be the ultimate objective, because if you’re fast and successful, you are way ahead of the rest, and if you are fast and you fail, you might have the chance to recover. Slow, on the other hand, is a bad way to move in any situation. But, “fast,” of course, means “trust” because you as the leader cannot be involved in everything if the organization is to move fast. And, so, establishing, reinforcing, and demonstrating “trust” again and again is a key objective of leadership.

11. The importance of knowing who you are

To be the sole American on the European leadership team of a joint-venture school in China is a sobering experience. One’s nationality is naturally an essential part of who we are and how we respond to the world around us, but I confess that I was startled by the implicit assumptions [stereotypes] that preceded and accompanied my national origins. For better and for worse, there was little doubt that my being an American affected how I and my “messages” were anticipated and received. The fact that I had lived in Europe for several years, or felt Shanghainese, mattered less to some people than where I was born [New York]. In the end, what I learned, is that “I am who I am.” I could not be Chinese in my management style, nor should I have tried. Han Feize simply would not have worked for me. The genius of a joint-venture is not in each side trying to be like the other, but in fact just the opposite: “how do we get the most out of two very different world-views?” The goal is to make more from our differences than to try to reduce them: there are real powerful strengths in these differences; if only we can take advantage of them. I think that we did this at CEIBS, not perfectly perhaps, but that it is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the school, and the educational environment that it offers.

11. What being in the knowledge business means

There has never been any doubt that business schools are in the knowledge business, but too often the character of an educational institution – with its degrees and professors – led everyone to think that it meant that “we had the knowledge.” The truth is, in a fast-moving complex environment such as China, nobody has a monopoly on knowledge. For me, an illuminating moment came in a conversation with one of our corporate sponsors, who told me that the knowledge that they really wanted from us was “the questions that our EMBA students were asking,” not the professors’ answers; because those were probably well-known already. What they didn’t know, and were looking for a measure of, was what was on the mind of the Chinese manager, and what better forum to listen to this mind than CEIBS, where managers from State-owned enterprises mingled with managers from fies, wofes and private firms? Being able to learn as much from questions, as from answers, was to me, a keen insight into what “knowledge” is all about.

So, eleven fairly modest learnings, particularly when I think of all the energy and effort that went into earning them, but for me the opportunity to serve as the president of a leading business school was really more of an education than "another line on the cv;" and it was truly more about "following" than about "running."

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