‘YOUNG PUNKS IN OUR TWENTIES’
When Martin was approached in 1998, he was in his 13th year as a director at Monitor Co., the global strategy consulting firm in Cambridge, MA. The Canadian, who earned his MBA from Harvard in 1981, had served as co-head of the firm for two years. “Not only was he very comfortable in Boston, but he had an extremely lucrative situation at Monitor,” recalls Rotman.
The president of the University of Toronto had been on the board of a company that had hired Monitor. Martin ended up working closely with the university president because he sat on the board’s strategy committee. Though it was an opportunity that Martin was not looking for, he came to believe that he could make a contribution to the school if he was allowed the chance to transform it around some key ideas that had surfaced in his consulting work. In the early 1990s, Martin grew increasingly curious about why his firm was hired by clients.
“We were young punks in our twenties when we got going,” he recalls. “I was 27, and I kept asking, ‘Why don’t they hire the big, gigantic firms that have done this 100 times?’ What is it about these problems that doesn’t allow really bright people in these companies to solve them? I came to the conclusion that we were usually hired for unique bespoke problems that no one ever saw before. If you were thinking within the context of one model, you couldn’t solve this new problem. But if you examined it through multiple models at the same time, you could find a solution. So we pulled problems apart using many models, whether they were discipline-based, like marketing and manufacturing, or the stay small or grow big model, or being low-end focused or high-end focused.”
HOW ‘INTEGRATIVE THINKING’ CAME TO BE A STRATEGIC GAME CHANGER FOR ROTMAN
Martin thought he could bring this “integrative thinking” approach to a business school. It was, he profoundly believed, highly valuable for leaders of business organizations, but he also knew it would differentiate the school. “I was of the view then and 15 years later that the only real place you don’t want to be in the modern MBA business is the mainstream business school,” he says. “Change is happening more slowly than I thought. But all of the criticism of MBA education from within, I buy completely. I think it is going to get way worse because mainstream MBAs are being taught a damaging perspective on a bunch of things. It’s self-satisfied. That is why I do not want the Rotman School to be a mainstream school. I wanted people to recognize that we are doing something different.”
Of course, the job of a dean has often been compared to herding cats. So when Martin met the selection committee of six faculty members, he put his cards on the table. “I very clearly told the committee, ‘I am going to do this integrative thinking thing. If you don’t like it, do not hire me because I’ll just make you mad. This is just a course you could go on. If you come back and say ‘no,’ I’ll go back to Boston and won’t have to fly my family up here, and I get to keep making vastly more money than this ijob pays. But I am warning you: I am going to do this.” The six faculty members voted unanimously to offer Martin the job.
During his three consecutive five-year terms, including a rare third term as dean, Martin put his chips on three big initiatives: integrative thinking, business design, and expansion. “As I look back on it,” he says, “it does feel as though you make a set of investments and you never know with an investment whether it’s a dumb idea or a smart idea. I think I can look back over the 15 years and say that most of the big investments we made were smarter rather than dumber ideas.”
MARTIN PUT HIS PERSONAL CREDIBILITY ON THE LINE
Martin was able to get integrative thinking into the core MBA curriculum so students are taught how to take opposing ideas or models, and instead of choosing one or the other, to create a new model that is better than both.
Unlike most deans lead and orchestrate change, Martin put himself at the center of his single biggest initiative in integrative thinking. He has written fifteen Harvard Business Review articles and published eight books. In the just released Thinkers50 list of the most influential management gurus, Martin is third behind Harvard’s Clayton Christensen and the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy. “I invested an enormous amount of my personal time and personal credibility in it,” says Martin, who raised $40 million from Marcel Desautels, a leading Canadian businessman and philanthropist, for the initiative. Desautels has a center for integrative thinking at Rotman named after him.