An Interview With Rich Lyons, Dean of the Haas School of Business

Haas Business School Dean Rich Lyons

What do you think are the big changes that firms will need to adopt in the way they teach or conduct learning within their firms, particularly as they bring on board more next-generation leaders?

I think one thing implicit in your question that I agree with is that part of the deal in attracting talent and winning the ‘talent war’ is providing a road map of professional development that people can see, that they understand, and that they want. This is absolutely fundamental.

Let me just take the examples that I gave: problem framing and experimentation. Why are there so few problem-framing skills? If business leaders are saying they want it, why don’t they just develop it? Why isn’t it happening? I think that’s a very important question.

And I think that question helps to answer your questions. My best answer is in a lot of these organizations, the norms and values, the culture, for want of better words, don’t consciously and deliberately recognize and compensate people for doing the problem framing and for doing the hard thinking. CEOs and business leaders can say, ‘I need people who can disengage and can think hard and spend a few hours on a few sentences,’ but in reality we keep such a transaction-oriented rewards system. I think the firm needs to ask, ‘And why do we have too little of this? And how deeply into ourselves do we have to look in order to change the context so we can get more of it?’ And some of those are actually going to require changes in things like culture, norms, and values.

On a more philosophical level, can leadership and ethics be taught? How do you think business schools and corporations should be teaching these?

It’s a fundamental question. First of all, can leadership be taught? I have to ask the question, to whom? Because we have to recognize that particularly at the top business schools, we are seeing a remarkable slice of human capital. This is a group of people whoa re in the top percentile of leadership potential. We select for that. And can we develop their leadership capacity when we’re working in that segment? Absolutely, because their potential is so large. The crucible that we can fill is so big. I think the question, ‘Can business schools teach leadership?,’ is very different from the question, ‘Can leadership be taught in some very abstract sense to a representative person?’ I believe business schools can teach leadership.

Some people say, ‘You can’t teach ethics, Rich. These people are all adults. That had to happen when they were five, seven, or twelve. It’s way too late.’ A lot of people put that view forward.

I think that view is not correct. Here’s why. Suppose I’m the CEO of a company, and I say that all of my employees are 27 or older and I cannot influence their ethical judgment. That would be a terrible thing to say, and it would be a terrible thing to think. What should a CEO say? No CEO should say, ‘Don’t worry about ethical behavior in my firm because every one of my people has taken a 30-hour ethics training course.’ Bad answer, right? That’s kind of the equivalent of, ‘Do you have ethics in your core curriculum?’ Ethics in the core curriculum is a very good thing, but that in and of itself is a bad answer to the question.

What would a CEO say and how do we think about this in a business school perspective? I think a CEO should say this: ‘Ethics is in everything we do. It’s in the norms and values that guide every judgment call that’s made in this firm; it’s in our culture. We look for, we hire for it. We drill it into every business process. It’s in everything I do.’ I think that’s the right answer. Leadership in many ways is a state of mind. Have we created the culture, an expectation among these students? Leadership is not being the CEO; leadership is influencing outcomes. Leadership is often without formal authority. I think that for a lot of these folks, there are the skills of leadership but there’s also the mind-set. It’s not about me.

When a lot of people get to that point, they’re ready to be followed. I usually put it this way to our students. I say, how many of you have been in an organization where somebody one or two levels above you did something that was in his or her best interest, but not in the best interest of the organization? Did you notice? Did anybody not notice? Will you ever forget it?

Leadership is not made from authority. It’s made from trust and followership and the idea that it is really not about you. Once you start to get that, then people will start to want to follow. And you will start to have influence even if you don’t have the authority.

That’s certainly part of what we try to do, on top of building skills among students. Those are all important skills. But ultimately, I think it’s about providing somebody a mind-set that they can understand why a leadership example is working so beautifully and what world-view is behind it.

An excerpt from Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders, published by Harvard Business Review Press. The book can be ordered through Amazon.


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