Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Predictive Nature of Leadership (II)

See Part I below

So, what else to look into or look for? When I was doing those interviews, I would ask about personal and professional aspirations. We would also discuss that person’s vision of his/her environment. How does s/he see the world around him/her? Asking about aspirations was a good way to check for a combination of realism and ambition, which I consider to be a telling leadership trait. The thing with the vision of one’s world is that it gives a sense of how self-aware the person is and also how broad or narrow his/her universe is. I find it quite fascinating to hear how someone defines his/her universe – where to place boundaries? Should those be geographic, sectoral, topical, or generational? Self-awareness is indeed an important leadership trait and I am also biased towards breadth (not having a narrow definition of one’s world) – actually for that matter, a definition that is different (someone who is all about cars for example, and community of car aficionados, new technology around cars, etc.) would strike me as interesting as well.

I also found that the few that I interviewed or with whom I worked like Brian and Abby (whose organizations I discussed in earlier posts) who were clearly off the charts had a lot of charisma, and in particular had just incredible grace. I am not sure whether grace is an innate trait and I know it is certainly not a requirement for leadership, but seeing those young folks show so much grace I knew right away they would go do great things.

I probably did not do enough of those interviews nor have I spent enough time thinking about this question of whether and how leadership can be predicted - but I always felt that this is more an art than a science. Think about the various leadership traits or ingredients that I have mentioned. It would be nice to look for a combination but what’s the minimum threshold for each of them – or is there a minimum overall level to target? This does not seem much practical.

And intuition played a role too, and not an insignificant one. Again, this is related to my own bias. While knowing that I am quite analytical I am also quite intuitive and I trust my instincts. I saw this at play when I was interviewing folks and I would be convinced that those guys would be community leaders. What community leadership means essentially is that students may play leadership positions on campus but above all, they are outstanding members on campus, always being there to help others and being a resource to their classmates whenever they can.

I had that type of intuition a couple of times. That could seem odd because today for a candidate to convey that s/he is a going to be an outstanding member of his/her community is among the requirements. You know the short program in skating and whatever figures skaters have to do – that’s the same for anything related to community in a business school application and interview. Despite the fact that I heard dozens of times folks telling me that they would be engaged from day one, I knew listening to some of them and observing their body language (the sparkle in their eyes, their excitement when I brought up the subject) that they would very likely be truly outstanding classmates.

The funny thing is that coincidentally after some got admitted I caught a glimpse of them doing exactly that: I saw one of my students helping another student in Finance in her classroom and I also heard about another one who was working hard to help his fellow ex-military classmates to think about possible jobs in the corporate world.

In sum, I don’t have a secret formula for predicting whether young folks can become leaders in their own right. Past leadership experience counts. Personality traits such as humility, self-awareness, ambition, selflessness all matter as well. Those are the ingredients. But we also know that leadership is often expressed in challenging times and thus, the true test may very well come only whenever life throws a curve ball at those folks and they have to step up to the plate and react quickly - without having the time to think about the stuff they learned in school or the good intentions they swore they would have no matter what.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Predictive Nature of Leadership (I)

[This is the first of two installments.]

When I was doing business school admissions work, one of the big questions that I grappled with was how to tell if a candidate was going to be a future leader. Leadership potential is a key component of any successful business school graduate, so it is legitimate that it would constitute one of the main criteria for admission into business school.

Looking for evidence of past leadership would seem the first thing to do when considering the potential of a candidate – even though the track record of any 25-year old can be slim and also, like in the stock market, past performance does not help predict future one…

For those educated in the US, extracurricular activities give them an opportunity to take on leadership positions in their teen years (e.g. captain of a sports team, class leadership position in high school) and then in college. Moreover, the notion of leadership is one that is understood, well developed, and valued in this country whereas in others – and I am thinking of Europe and Latin America which are regions I know a bit – it is either considered fuzzy (what does leadership mean exactly?) or even despicable in some more egalitarian societies (if someone leads, others will have to follow – but aren’t we all equal?).

In my reflections and discussions with my colleagues about leadership, the very nature of leadership was addressed. What dos it mean to be a leader and how can one lead? The stereotypical nature of the “quarterback leader”, i.e. charismatic figure (often a man) who inspires and awes his colleagues and gets them to work like dogs and do anything they can to please him and reach the organization’s goals, is far from reflecting the full range of what leadership is or should be. Other forms of leadership, such as thought leadership (which is about producing breakthrough concepts rather than leading others) or quiet leadership (which characterizes a more subdued management style), are also now considered legitimate.

However, broadening the definition of leadership does not fundamentally change the question of predicting whether anyone will be a leader. Past evidence does matter. Exposure to leadership positions is valuable because it will guarantee that the person will have learned some skills from that experience, however easy or difficult, successful or tedious. I think it does say something about a young person’s motivation as well even though a lot of young folks seek those leadership positions as “resume builders” because they know that higher education institutions or employers will be looking for those experiences when scanning resumes or going through applications.

So, what else to look into or look for?

Feel free to share your thoughts on the subject… Thanks!!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Comic Relief – Who Speaks Legalese??

One of my students sent me a job posting the other day for me to review it in preparation for an interview with a potential employer. The position was a very typical post-MBA product management job in a tech company – nothing unusual that far. But them upon reading the posting I stumbled across the following paragraph:

“PHYSICAL DEMANDS: While performing the duties of the job, the employee is regularly required to use hands and arms and talk or hear. The employee requires dexterity in using telephone, computer keyboard, mouse and calculator while seated at a desk. The employee is frequently required to stand, walk and sit. The employee may frequently move to interact with fellow employees and/or clients. Specific vision abilities required by this job include close vision, depth perception and ability to adjust focus.”

I am not making this up… The employee is required to use hands and arms and hear and talk – well, duh… The employee requires dexterity in using telephone – wow, why not virtuosity? And oh yes, the employee is required to stand, walk, and sit – good thing that he/she is not expected to crawl or swim…

When I shared my disbelief with my student, she sort of smiled and said, oh yeah, this is very standard now… So, to those of you who work in Corporate America or Corporate Somewhere Else and are not surprised by this either, I am telling you, wake up, people!! We are talking about an extreme case of Legalese here…

In this world of absurd political correctness, we should pause for a minute and think about what extremity of ridicule we’ve let things reach without reacting…

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Global Citizen Year – Shaping the next generation of young Americans

I wrote about Brian, a former student who started The Right Side of History Campaign, in an earlier post. Another ex-student of mine who is just brilliant, Abby Falik (Abby was one of the speakers at the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference this weekend), created a compelling organization right out of business school, Global Citizen Year. The idea behind Global Citizen Year is to engage a bunch of young Americans in a 9-month program, after they graduate from high school and before they start college, in order for them to get immersed in developing countries where they work for 6 months with local NGOs.

Abby came to business school with the seeds of that project in mind as she had been struck by the lack of international exposure of Americans in general while realizing also that the younger generation was probably different, namely much keener to get connected to the rest of the world. Being one of the so-called Millennials, she also knew that those folks constituted the most socially-conscious generation in history for which doing well does not come without doing good.

There is a long tradition of service (i.e. volunteering) in the US, dating back to the 30’s and the Civilian Conservation Corps created by President Roosevelt and the Peace Corps in the 60’s. Then AmericaCorps was founded in the 90’s during Bill Clinton’s first term and today thousands of young people spend a year doing service as part of organizations like YouthBuild or City Year.

Global Citizen Year draws upon this tradition and adds an international flavor, also targeting slightly younger folks and integrating some component of learning.

Abby who is an extraordinary young woman (by her smarts, grace, and determination) has been successful at getting her organization off the ground quickly and has managed to gather a “heavy-hitting” Advisory Council in particular, with the likes of Wendy Kopp, Teach for America’s founder, HBS professor and “leadership guru” Rosabeth Moss Kanter, or Matthew Flannery,’s founder and CEO.

Abby’s vision is for her organization to count 20,000 alumni, have reached out to 10,000 “host communities”, and have 5,000 projects implemented thanks in part to the GCY Fellows by 2020. This is an ambitious target for a program that costs over $25k per Fellow but GCY is already active in Senegal and Guatemala and is looking to expand to other countries in 2010.

More importantly, Abby knows that her nonprofit cannot do it all by itself and have a truly significant impact – there are about 75m of 18- to 34-year olds in the US alone after all... She has to create a movement so to speak, 1) to institutionalize a gap year between high school and college (that is what she wants) or to make it standard for young people to include a year of service in their education in the US, and 2) hopefully inspire similar initiatives around the world that would have young folks from northern and southern countries go spend several months abroad working on projects having social impact.

I am proud of you, Abby.