Tag Archives: Schulich School of Business

All I really need to know I learned in… Business School?

Every once in a while you will see the “Everything important I learned in Kindergarten” claims that list insights like: clean up after yourself, share everything, be nice to others and wash your hands before you eat. I find myself thinking about the responsibility of business schools (especially at the graduate level) to encourage business-ready behaviours in addition to business-ready thinking. A big part of this, in my opinion, is dialling down the teacher-student dynamic whereby the latter is extremely attentive to discerning what the former wants to hear and restricts all commentary accordingly. There is an interesting transition from “what are your expectations for a deliverable?” to “what should I write for the deliverable?” I know managers face the same challenge in dealing with some direct reports.

School can be an exciting and stressful time for students and any instructor has to deal with a wide range of behaviours. As an instructor in an MBA program, I frequently use the litmus test of “would this be tolerated/encouraged in an effective workplace?” to determine my responses to some of the more notable cases. Consistent with this, in my opinion, an effective workplace would not have employees pandering in the aforementioned manner to the “bosses,” although I know that such corporate cultures and managerial styles do exist.

There are two big buckets of behaviours that catch my focus:

  1. Surprise and delight – e.g. Wow! I didn’t even ask you to / tell you to do that.
  2. Jaw dropping – e.g. Wow! Someone has to ask you / tell you to do (not to do) that?

The contents of Bucket #1 often shed a light on areas where I could have been much more clearer with my instructions. As I find myself with dozens of downloaded files with the title “mid term,” the file stands out when it includes the student’s name and other identifying information (e.g. chris_irwin_mid-term_ WED class). People often talk about little things making a big difference, but the impact of that alone is huge. Perhaps those who include it have received guidance in the past (e.g. please include your name and section number in the file name). Perhaps they have been in a similar multiple-file-receiving situation themselves. I can’t help but draw the assumption that this is an example of someone thinking “My professor will get a lot of these. What can I do to make their life a little easier?” (Note: I am fully aware that any future student, having read this,  may engage in that specific practice because they know that is what I want.)

The agonizingly opposing actions (destined for Bucket #2) is the response: “You didn’t tell us we had to…” Understandably, this is most often in response to students losing marks for things… and usually the student is “right” in that I could have told them. (Equating “grades” and “performance evaluations” is a topic for another time.) Invoking my earlier litmus test, should someone at a Masters level of education be expecting to be told everything they need to do? My answer to this is, “No,” but I am sure there are differing responses that are completely reasonable. In some work contexts, it is reasonable to be prescriptive about the tasks involved. I have heard many a manager complain that their team members are too quick to say “just tell me what to do,” rather than be reasonably pro-active… maybe thinking “I do have some questions, but my boss is really busy; can I do anything to make my bosses life easier?”

In addition to analysis tools and skills, in addition to practical conceptual frameworks, I think that business schools have a responsibility to promote behaviours that will lead to success in the workplace (and discourage behaviours that won’t). Idealistic as this may be, if we go back to the litmus test, we are looking for behaviours that align with an “effective workplace.” Whether these behaviours are the cause or the effect of business success is an academic question (that could be kicked around a business school!).

Learning fast and slow – Educating and Credentialing

Earlier this month the Financial Post magazine did its feature on MBA programs part of which was MBA alumni commenting on how their education contributed to their success. Ellis Jacob (CEO of Cineplex) and Jennifer Reynolds (CEO of Women in Capital Markets) both provided excellent reinforcement of the benefits of getting a grounding in business education. From my perspective as an instructor in an MBA program, this is  heartening reinforcement from the real world.

An additional common theme was a little less comforting to me: both of these leaders talked about the drive to complete the program as quickly as possible. I understand this urgency, and my discomfort is not so much in a student being anxious to get on with their career, but in the temptation to see the gaining of a credential as the secret to success rather than the rigour and thinking skills that one should develop in such a program.

Given their impressive accomplishments, I am convinced that neither of these CEOs think that learning to run a businesses comes in the form of a crash course. Ms. Reynold heads an organization that advocates for women in a sector that is heavily male-dominated for reasons that can’t easily be explained in this day and age. Mr. Jacob has to deal with an entertainment industry that has seen “Silver Screen” experiences shift from IMAX to iPhone. Likely, the most tangible learning from their respective business programs was in understanding fundamental drivers and how to adapt to change. (This means that an MBA circa 1977 or 1998 sets you up to remain current.)

In the Nobel-prize-winning work Think Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shares how ill equipped we are to make reasoned decisions because the part of our brain that houses this competency is lazy and is quick to defer to our automatic but less thoughtful brain. Rushing through an MBA program may feel like speed meditating for quick enlightenment.

The somewhat clichéd description of higher education can be “learning how to think.” From my experience with business education (on both sides of the chalk), the real world is a wonderful, yet unforgiving forum to test your thinking and your credentials. As MBAs become more pervasive in the workplace, my hope is that the “slow learning” at the school of the real world further strengthens the educational grounding and helps this particular credential to improve with experience.

Leadership and decision-making

Earlier this winter I had the good fortune to spend 2 days with a group involved in development and education on Leadership as part of the professional certification offered by the Supply Chain Management Association of Canada. Any discussion of Leadership brings forward a philosophy, whether spoken or unspoken, and the approach in this context was “leadership can come from anywhere in the organization.” This orientation is fitting because this program includes people at many different career stages. Through the program, we spend time gaining a better understanding of characteristics of leadership and, as a follow-up assignment, participants determine the characteristics that are most important to them, and use these to build a personal development plan.

Grading can be one of the more tedious activities for any educator, but these are often extremely interesting and insightful. Some commonalities in these papers struck me. Many selected “communication” as a core component of leadership and went on to identify that as an area for improvement. As a rule, I think we often admire the gifts of speech making and communication exhibited by leadership role models who speak eloquently, exude confidence, and excel at getting ‘buy-in” from important constituencies. Another grouping of characteristic that garnered attention were those attached to “honesty,” “integrity,” and “authenticity.” By contrast, none chose this as an area of development and several offered this up as a personal strength. (In addition to causing me to ponder, I had a laugh-out-loud as one paper listed “humility” among key attributes, going on to self assess this at 10/10.)

I will confess to having difficulty with the stark distinction between making the decision (with integrity, etc.) and communicating that decision. A disingenuous leadership metaphor would be “putting lipstick on a pig,” but is it not equally disingenuous to allow a bad situation to continue because we are “picking out battles” or “not rocking the boat” or in some other way rationalizing a decision to let something slide?

This is not my areas of expertise, but the realms of critical thinking and ethics would, I believe, provide some guidance as to how to make decisions. Many situations faced by leaders are ambiguous and they may not even know what to believe. Outwardly, they must convey confidence, but determining if that confidence is warranted is a different issue. I will lay a great deal of responsibility in this area on leadership to not only communicate, but also engage in the thinking that deserves trust.

As a further comment on the connection between “the decision” and “the support of that decision,” I spoke with a colleague of mine regarding the subjectivity of some business courses (e.g. mine in management) compared to others (e.g hers in corporate finance). We concluded that Finance’s rigourous and specific tools bring a common language to “make the case” to various constituencies so as to predict future scenarios and be ready with contingencies if things fail to go as planned. We must have faith in leadership (or decision makers) that the original decision is indeed sound. I can’t help but think that this misses a very important moment in leadership when you decide what you are going to do, especially if you have (1) the authority, (2) the personal communication gifts to sell anything and (3) a team of financial experts ready to make your case.

Minds and Hearts: A Schulich Connection

This week, we were lucky enough to spend a morning interacting with others in the Schulich community. As alumni and faculty of the Schulich School of Business, it was novel to find ourselves at Sunnybrook Hospital, home of the Schulich Heart Centre.

The discussion that we lead was under the admittedly wide banner of commercializing medical technology. The impetus for these monthly forums is to connect the business school and medical practitioners to enable good ideas to become feasible in a commercial forum. Apparently, Seymour himself had a hand in this collaboration!

Consistent with our survey results from this past summer, we spent some time discussing the importance of “what’s in it for you” (WIIFY is the less celebrated cousin of persuasive communication’s “What is in it for me?/WIIFM”). Our premise for the self-centred look is reasoned: if you are going to put the work into, for example, developing a new medical device, the late night workbench tinkering is only part of the effort. You will need to figure out a model, look at numerous regulations, find funding, protect IP, explore international markets, network, pitch, present, draw up business plans… lather, rinse and repeat.

A little fire in the belly will be required to follow through. Such questions as, “What part of the status quo is intolerable to you?” and “What difference will you make and how will you make it?” can help to stoke those flames.

The other more practical questions we covered were: (1) are you solving a problem that others actually have? and (2) how will you get funding for your business?

Our friends at Maple Leaf Angels will provide clear insights on the latter in an event next month.

All of these questions are worth some thought, which is a good thing because one can only tinker for so long…

It’s clearer at the top (Survey Insights Part 1)

NOTE: This is the first in a series of insight pieces drawn from the Measure of Success Alignment Survey (Summer 2013). We will be sharing others over the coming weeks and months. 

You can envision the metaphor: a mountaintop whose snowy peak juts above the cloud line. From base camp, the summit is shrouded, but we all know it is up there somewhere. The journey to the top will take some skillful navigation through cloud and fog. As you burst through the other side of the clouds en route to the summit, it all becomes crystal clear.

Not surprisingly, our survey revealed that those in executive positions report the highest instance of clarity with respect to the organization’s ultimate direction. Fully 60% selected “it’s tattooed on the inside of my eyelids” to the question “how easily can you relay the spirit of the organization’s stated mission?”

Senior management’s eyelids are unblemished by tattoos, and this group reported lower levels of clarity than middle managers. Two in three of this latter group said they would be “pretty close.”

At the lower levels of the organization, almost 40% of those “well down the org chart” confessed that the overall direction was not at all clear. Across all levels of the organization, comparatively fewer people said they would “have to check,” which could suggest that the spirit of the orientation is seen as more important than the actual wording of the formal policy statements (or tattoos).

Insight #1 Chart 1

A few things jumped out at us after looking at these results:

1 – Why is it clearer at the top?

Picture your boss (or even better, your boss’ boss) coming by and asking if you needed any clarification on organizational direction. The path of least resistance and minimal downside is to answer: “No worries here, Boss. I get it.” The dynamic is often such that suggesting that you are not clear poses risks in two areas: (1) you are seen as simply not “getting it,” and (2) you are forced to overtly challenge longstanding assumptions. For those with even a modicum of political savvy, neither is a smart move.

2 – For overall direction, is “pretty close” close enough?

The overall direction of the organization comes from a collection of efforts rather than from a pithy bumper sticker statement or rigourous “how-to” protocol. Since so few people needed “to check,” the uncertainty for overall priorities appear to stem from conflicting agendas rather than from not being able to recall. The group that we surveyed contained capable and employable people who can fully contribute to an organization’s success. This was not a group of people screaming: “Just tell me what to do!”

3 – Are the trade-offs apparent outside the trenches?

One of the classic trade-offs in servicing clients is: do we give people what they want or what they need? Obviously the salesperson’s role is to bridge those worlds, but what if we can’t do both? If we are in the business of exceeding customers expectations and our customers have unreasonable expectations (or are not willing to pay to have their expectations exceeded) the objective becomes untenable. One may not see this disconnect from the heights of the executive suites.

We isolated some implications from these areas of misalignment (This is the “so what?” part.)

For Collaboration with External Stakeholders:

If the overall aims of the organization are overly fuzzy, so will the means to achieve them. Establishing the connections that drive performance is vital, otherwise in the spirit of reaching a workable solution with an external partner, we risk unknowingly compromising on something that is fundamentally important. Often in such collaborations, something has to give. Let’s make sure it’s not a fundamental attribute of performance.

For Internal Collaboration:

In working across divisions, the nuances of what takes priority can get lost when  “everything is mission critical” and there is no time to think. Subtle differences in focus on what it takes to be successful can cause drag on performance. To a large extent, this drag is avoidable if we can get clear on what really drives the organization’s success.

For Poised-for-Growth Organizations:

New organizations work extremely hard to build the foundation for their success. This is largely through securing investors. Just like a strong foundation helps to support a structure, it is easier to adjust the structure before the building gets to high. Before an organization has a chance to necessarily split the ranks too much (Executive Leadership, Senior Managers, Middle Managers, etc.) there is a unique opportunity to clarify the direction and the spirit of performance. This can be framed as follows: “We all want fantastic business/financial success. What do we think we have to do to achieve that?”

Rather than an eyelid tattoo, we can create a shared focus for the talents and energies of those driving your success.

Click here for more information on this survey and the services we provide.

Finding Good “Measures of Success”

I had the good fortune to attend the “Measuring Performance in the Social Sector: Essential or Impossible?”  panel discussion called hosted by the Schulich School of Business last month. Forums such as this one truly demonstrate the value of the “Schulich Community.” Brenda Gainer curated a fascinating panel of practitioners in socially-minded organizations. The well-attended evening also featured Dr. Alnoor Ebrahim, a former Torontonian, who is an Associate Professor at Harvard Business School.

The following are my big “take-aways” from the discussion.

As a consultant to practitioners, I found the discussion on selecting measures most applicable to client situations that I have seen. Dr. Ebrahim suggested that there are two fundamental questions to consider in selecting an appropriate measurement by which to judge your organization:

  1. How certain isf the causality you assign to your activities achieving the desired impact?
  2. What are the limits of your control in affecting that impact?

These are not easy questions to answer, but, if addressed sincerely, will spur a valuable discussion in any organizational context.

The “limit of control” part of the model mirrors the elements present in a logic model: inputs, outputs, outcomes and impact. For example: If the impact I am after is a cleaner environment in an urban centre, I could pursue an outcome of less landfill waste by running blue box programs (outputs). For this I would need money (inputs) to buy boxes, to promote use and enable distribution.

That example is oversimplified to illustrate the components. There could be violent disagreement as to whether something is an “outcome” or an “impact,” which transitions us into the “causal uncertainty” discussion. This is where the “theory of change” thinking is reflected. For example, Plan Canada’s “Because I am a girl” initiative links providing education for females in the developing world to a myriad of issues. According to The Public Health Agency of Canada, there is a strong link between “childhood vaccination” and “reduction of certain preventable illnesses.” If I understand the approach correctly, asking the question is not disputing the assumptions, but merely illustrating that some links have more empirical backing than others. Again, you can imagine the type of colourful conversation that could ensue with different stakeholder groups or even within one organization.

Once the dust settles on these discussions, you many find your organization “fits” in one of four general areas.

General Area #1 – Raise awareness to the problem even though there’s no clear solution

  • Grid position:        HIGH causal uncertainty/Control stops at Input and Output
  • Description:          “We can’t be sure that it works directly, but we think it is worth doing what we are doing to get the impact we want.”
  • Useful measure:   Measure your degree of influence over powerful stakeholders

General Area #2 – We will do more good by better doing what we do

  • Grid position:           LOW causal uncertainty/Control stops at Input and Output
  • Description:             “We know what we are doing works in delivering the impact that we want. We control how the resources are deployed.”
  • Useful measure:      Measure your output and your efficiency.

General Area #3 – Share information to figure out our impact

  • Grid position:            HIGH causal uncertainty/Control continues to Outcomes
  • Description:             “We have the means to control outcomes, but connecting what we do to the final impact is difficult.”
  • Useful measure:       Collaborate with others to find meaningful measures of impact.

General Area #4 – The goal is clear and we need to establish a common scoreboard

  • Grid position:            LOW causal uncertainty/Control continues to Outcomes
  • Description:             “The impact is clear. There are others involved in helping us get there.”
  • Useful measure:       Use integrated measures and an integrated approach.

CAUTION: In reading this article you are getting my thoughts on a framework that is currently under development. That said, the conversations about causality and control are very good to have. I will suggest that they may also be difficult to have because the questions challenge what might be institutional truths. Don’t be shy about asking for help!