P&Q: In business, whatever gets measured tends to get done. Looking at this, what does success look like? What will you measure to ensure your outcomes are met and you’ve produced a successful result?
BB: First, it will be behavioral feedback. It will be the feedback that we receive from our various stakeholders is the change of behaviors being demonstrated by our students is consistent with what we told them they should expect from them. That’s one indicator of success.
If students identify that their behaviors have been influenced over time and have become congruent with the behaviors associated with our core values, that is another indicator of success.
All leader development is behavioral in its orientation. The best way you can determine success is to measure the behaviors illustrated by the individual on a daily basis. If, in fact, those behaviors begin to cluster around a set of behaviors that are associated in a positive way with your core values and those competencies that you’ve identified in advance, then you know that you’re successful.
Measuring actual behavior and comparing it to espoused behaviors is an important part of evaluating the efficacy of our leader development efforts. Examining “how” someone derived results matters just as much as the outcome they produced. It is most certainly important for them to derive financial outcomes that are consistent with organization aims. But how they go about deriving those financial outcomes must be consistent with positive enduring values and with taking a rigorous approach to their activities. So we always come back to this notion of the best indication of what someone believes is how someone behaves. So we must measure behavior in service of determining, ‘Are we successful in creating the identity and the type of outcomes that we seek to produce in the graduate school of business?’
P&Q: Most MBAs are looking to become leaders. That means, at some point in their careers, they will either lead or implement an organizational change or transformation effort. From your experience and research, what are 2-3 areas they must absolutely get right (given that up to three-fourths of such efforts fail)?
BB: If we go back to the science, science says the hardest part of any change effort is establishing the need for change. It is also the thing that most often is not accomplished properly. Organizations routinely say they are going to undertake this change initiative — and they use as justifications statements made by the senior leadership team. They fail to understand that while those statements might have validity, they might also be insufficient to get people to really understand why change is necessary. So they have to be able to concretely establish why change is necessary, apply that understanding throughout the organization, and be able to accurately assess how the actual need for change must be properly communicated and understood. They routinely fail to do that.
Leaders, primarily on a daily basis, lead change. It’s leading transformational change — creating that burning platform — is the most critical step. They have to be able to do that well.
Second, they have to be able to think systemically. They can’t just think in isolation because if you move one thing, five other things could change. If you look at the change models, they all have interconnected parts. One of the models that I am very familiar with — and I am fond of employing in my activities as a leader — is the Burke-Litwin Model of Organizational Performance Change. It has 11 or 12 different components that a leader has to think about when enacting organizational activities. You have to be able to think systemically, not just about what transpires within your organization, but how external forces can also influence the things what transpire within your organization. The need to think systemically goes back to this whole notion of how you foster critical thinking, which is a big topic in all schools and organizations.
Along with thinking systemically and establishing why change is necessary, the last thing is the change leader has to demonstrate the tenacity required to pull people through that chaotic and emotion-filled process. The number one reason why change efforts fail is lack of tenacity on behalf of the leader according to the research. To possess the wherewithal to stay with it is important. Also, can you create that same wherewithal in others so they can withstand the assault that happens as transformational change is enacted?
In summary, I think of these three things. First, being really able to establish why change is necessary; understanding systemically what will be required to enact change well; and demonstrating the tenacity and resilience necessary to work through this equilibrium so you can get to your desired end state.
P&Q: One of the major changes in leadership has been its increasingly global and cross-cultural nature, something that the U.S. Army has grappled with for over two centuries. You had a command in South Korea and experienced this dynamic directly. What are the most common mistakes you’ve seen made in cross-cultural communication? What practices can MBAs apply to build an esprit de corps with people very different from themselves?
BB: Some of the worst things would be, one, assuming that others think like you do. Two, mandating before understanding. Three, assuming everyone operates on the same timeline that you do.
The best things I’ve seen is, one, learning how to ask good questions. Two, not seeking to judge, but seeking to understand. And three, demonstrating patience.
P&Q: Outside the classroom, you’ve had a chance to do consulting and hold trainings with firms as Procter & Gamble, IBM, and General Electric. Looking at civilian organizations (as a whole), What lessons could civilian organizations gain from military? What wrinkles have you seen in the civilian sector that would benefit military leadership?
BB: The military is a place that understands the importance of introducing risk and assessing risk. When it comes to risk, as it pertains to the development of one’s people, the military thinks about it differently than industry in many respects.
In industry, there is an overwhelming emphasis placed on day-to-day operation. In the military, there is an overall emphasis placed on ensuring that you are preparing for tomorrow while enacting today’s activities. Even in the midst of combat operations, the military will create all scenarios and run individuals through those activities in service of building capacity. It’s not so much preparing specifically for a particular threat as it is elevating the capabilities that will allow us to respond to any threat well because we’re helping to expand how people think and react, not just telling them what to think or more specifically how to react.
Be aware that you don’t know who your next adversary is going to be, so you must always prepare, create agility and enhance your ability to think critically. In the military, this is more important than merely refining one’s current competency set. This is very different than what you see in industry where individuals tend to operate based on a model where you know who our competitor set is and you try to counter their activities on a daily basis and ensure that you execute to the best of your ability on a daily basis. The shortcoming here, however, is not sufficiently investing in what will be required to thrive in the future. So the military is really about building capacity and, many times, private sector companies are about building operational excellence. It’s not to say the two don’t go hand-in-hand, they’re just different approaches.
P&Q: Everyone loves stories. Tell us about your rite of passage or defining moment — that event when you fell short or exceeded what you thought you were capable of — where you truly internalized a leadership maxim that you follow today?
BB: There is a story that I am fond of telling. It goes back to my undergraduate experience. I was privileged to attend West Point for my graduate studies. It is fair to say that I had led a pretty charmed life up until my college years. I was blessed to have two wonderful parents who loved me. I had lived in some wonderful locations. I had a tremendous set of friends and relationships. And I was a fairly accomplished athlete.
When I got to West Point, I kept doing what I had always worked for me with the expectation that things would always work out. At West Point, when you are selecting your career field for what you will do in the army after graduation, it’s all about the order of merit. They will determine your position in your graduating class based on your academic, military, and physical performances. They will rank order every cadet from number one to number 1000-whatever. They announce, in advance, how many slots exist in each career field for your graduating class as well.
When I went to West Point, my desire was to be a pilot. Historically, in order to become a pilot, you had to have a class rank that was pretty good. It is now my senior year and I knew that I was going to be right on the bubble for getting a pilot position. Once again, I thought, ‘Ha, it will all turn out well!’ I’d done very well militarily and physically, but I had done subpar academically. I had never failed anything, but I like to say, ‘I never made neither the good nor the bad; I was in the middle.’ So it comes to the night when they are announcing everyone’s career field. They bring you down to a big auditorium. They give you an envelope that has the insignia associated with the career field that you will be going into. And everyone knew that all I wanted was to be a pilot. So the staff member who was responsible for the cluster of cadets that I lived with handed me the envelope and said, “Well Bernie, I hope you have ear plugs.” I knew in that moment that I hadn’t got into aviation. I had probably gotten my number two choice, which was field artillery.
So I opened the envelope and sure enough I see the insignia for field artillery and suddenly my world just went numb. I was like, ‘This just can’t be happening.’ I had literally said that everything I wanted to be was an army aviator because my father was. My father was an army helicopter pilot who’d flown in Vietnam. I had been exposed to aviation at a young age. I was privileged to experience my father and his colleagues as they went about their work with aircraft. Consequently, I developed a desire to follow in their footsteps at a young age. So I was just stunned. A few days later, I found out that I had missed getting a slot by one person — and there was no way to rectify it. I was beside myself. You discover that first there is denial and then anger — I went through all of those phases of grief. I could not believe this had happened. Ultimately, what I was able to discern was I had no one to blame but me. Bottom line: I hadn’t worked hard enough. Knowing how important it was to me, it wasn’t enough to govern my behavior on a daily basis because I always believed things would work their way out.