Breadth of Experience vs. Depth of Knowledge

Spring 2014

By Kevin J. Ruth

In 2011, the Media Lab at MIT was seeking a new director. Yet while the lab attracted hundreds of candidates, it was having trouble finding the right person. So the members of the search committee rethought their search process. Instead of trying to replicate the characteristics and skills of the outgoing director, they began to look for candidates with the qualities they now realized the next director would need in the changing cultural, technological, and business landscape. These skills include an ability to connect to high-level contacts around the world, to be thoughtfully spontaneous, to take calculated risks to better understand a given topic, and to be a lateral thinker.

In the end, the Media Lab tapped Joichi Ito — an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and savvy director on multiple boards — as its new leader. A man with a talent for lateral thinking, Ito sees the big picture, and, with the support of the Media Lab’s founder, Nicholas Negraponte, he is not afraid to pursue it... to the point of creating an internal movement against interdisciplinary work. This nascent movement is being labeled “antidisciplinary.” As Ito explains it, “Interdisciplinary [means] you have a biologist talking to a chemist. Antidisciplinary means you don’t get to say you’re a biologist. If what you’re doing fits within a single discipline, you shouldn’t be here.”1

Independent schools should find it interesting that Ito doesn’t think in terms of individual disciplines, but rather in terms of “one big cognitive model.... We have tremendous depth and it may look random if you just walk through, but there are consistent narratives here.”2

The lesson here for schools, search committees, and search consultants is the growing importance of seeking specific qualities and characteristics in a candidate rather than identifying template candidates who will simply full the shoes of the predecessor. Of equal significance is how the perspective of a talent generalist, as opposed to a specialist, is a real strength when it comes to leading a complex organization that generates value today.

Schools have tended toward template specialists when it comes to hiring leadership talent. But it may be time to think and act differently. In 2005, shortly before the advent of the financial crisis, Philip E. Tetlock, the Leonore Annenberg University Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, published Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? in which he detailed his findings from a 20-year study of 284 professionals who made over 28,000 predictions of future events. In essence, he found that the predictions of these “experts” were hardly better than chance. What’s more, basic computer algorithms resulted in more accurate predictions than the experts. As if that weren’t enough to make us question the reliability of specialists, it turns out that nonexperts (in a given field) are even better predictors than the experts.3 It should come as no surprise, then, that the most accurate predictions come from individuals with good judgment and broad perspective, not from specialization.

Vikram Mansharamani, lecturer at Yale University, posited in a recent Harvard Business Review blog that increased specialization limits agility, which is the very characteristic in talent development that we should be striving for today.4 The school leaders we now require are those who can be flexible, efficient, and rapidly adaptive in an environment that looks vastly different from the siloed, turf-conscious, traditional schools. For more than a decade, much of the world has been working in teams and across functional boundaries, yet that is not how most schools work. For one, we tend to favor specialists over generalists, and that choice leads us to structure ourselves in silos of knowledge and ability, which in turn limits our ability to be agile institutions. If you harbor any doubt in this regard, consider the structure of your school’s organizational chart.

One of the Korn/Ferry Briefings on Talent & Leadership articles on the comeback of generalist managers underscores the insights in Mansharamani’s post. “Specialists are great at working well-defined problems within constrained domains, but because they ‘toil within a singular tradition,’ they also try to ‘apply formulaic solutions to situations that are rarely well-defined.’ Generalists, on the other hand, are great at making connections across domains and working on problems for which the parameters are not clear.”5 In Mansharamani’s own words, “In today’s uncertain environment, breadth of experience trumps depth of knowledge.”6

The notion that specialists tend to “apply formulaic solutions to situations that are rarely well-defined” is one that Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, had the prescience to identify at almost the exact moment that schools began to focus myopically on survivability. In his compelling and accessible tome, The Design of Business, Martin, who knows nonprofits as well as for-profits, contends that the cognitive and behavioral norms of an organization act against it when it comes to forging ahead with innovative solutions to pressing challenges.7 Why? When encountering new challenges and trying to make sense of them, the overwhelming majority of organizations exhibit a knowledge culture that derives from an overt concentration on deductive and inductive reasoning (the way our schools have trained us to think). Organizations tend to force these new challenges into what Martin calls the “knowledge funnel,” eventually simplifying the information into an easily replicated algorithm whose structure makes sense to organizational leaders. What they have neglected, he posits, is the application of abductive reasoning, which allows them to consider what might be. It takes a mind with broad perspective to begin to move an organization — especially a school — in this direction.

Martin’s work on pushing the limits of how we think in organizations is persuasive, and other researchers and practitioners are providing even more context that allows us to see it better. Francesca Gino, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, writes, “Research indicates that a broader attentional span and diverse knowledge foster the generation of new connections.”8 Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka, gives a nod to Martin and Gino both, noting that the organizational model [of silos], while still dominant, is failing because of increasingly specialized repetition:

We are moving rapidly into a world defined by change, which is the opposite of repetition. Whereas repeating parts fit together with repetition reinforcing repetition, we are now tipping into an equally coherent world where change begets and accelerates change. When one system changes, it bumps all those around it, and then they bump all those around them.... Value in this world comes not from providing the same thing over and over to a client, but from managing kaleidoscopic change processes that are busily bumping one another. Because one now needs to see and seize ever-changing opportunities, the new organizational model must be a fluid, open team of teams.... You cannot afford to have anyone without the skills to spot and help develop change opportunities. That is where the value lies. [emphasis mine.]9

In many ways, then, hiring talent for independent schools is akin to seeking a data scientist who is able to spot and decipher patterns among myriad interactions, thereby identifying new areas of growth and value creation. That view is supported by research from the Korn/Ferry Institute, highlighted in Briefings on Talent & Leadership’s feature The Latest Thinking, in which the author suggests that talent is the real engine of growth.10 “We have entered the era of ‘smart growth,’ in which growth is slow but change is fast. [...] A resounding number of CEOs believe these conditions will last for the rest of the decade, if not longer [...].”11

That observation has an immediate effect on leadership teams, since existing leadership teams (the ones that operate in Roger Martin’s knowledge funnel) may still be wired for what is termed ‘easy growth,’ the period when, more so than ever before in history, it was easy to gain access to money (ever-higher tuitions, boundary-pushing fund-raising, etc.). For many independent school leaders, including a number of those who might have been defined as aspiring heads just five to ten years ago, ‘easy growth’ was ubiquitous in independent schools. When the financial crisis began to be felt in late 2007, folks believed that if they “could just hold on to [the] basics [of how we do school] long enough, the tide would turn.”12 As one CEO from Asia explained in this Briefings article, “My team is still waiting for the tide.” So, one might argue, are a number of independent school boards and teams.

The thrust of the Briefings article is that organizations “must make a mental leap, moving away [from old notions of markets] toward the idea that growth emerges from certain leaders. In fact, it is increasingly hard to find markets that grow at a double-digit annual pace. Instead, organizations must look for a leadership team that can carve out growth where others may see no hope.”13

Which leaders can do such a thing? As Korn/Ferry points out, “Those who drove high performance in easy growth will not automatically excel in smart growth.”14 This statement is most curious, in light of search committees’ conservative nature when it comes to selecting a new head of school; they tend to favor candidates who are most familiar with the easy-growth model, because they feel that such candidates represent the safe path forward. The traditional notion of a “safe path” forward, however, has been disrupted, as Dan Pink underscores in A Whole New Mind.

Korn/Ferry promotes a slightly different approach, based on its research that shows two sets of characteristics that indicate smart-growth readiness: leadership maturity and learning agility. The former is defined as “an individual leader’s ability to operate effectively at high levels of complexity, ambiguity, and scale.”15 Another way to think of leadership maturity is to consider “someone with experience in complex situations who handles challenges with grace.”16 

The next 20 to 25 years in the world of independent schools promise to be full of iteration, excitement, and challenge. Knowing that, shouldn’t we be attentive to the cultivation of leaders who can handle what those years will bring with deep insight, aplomb, and grace? The present and the future require leadership of a kind that we have not nurtured intentionally in recent years. To do so will require systemic change, though not of an insurmountable magnitude. Following are two realms in which we might make shifts that, in a short time, will result in the talent pool we need.

Talent Development

Talent development starts at home. Knowing that aspiring heads of school need broad exposure within the life of a school, sitting heads would do well to consider how they might provide that exposure in ways that are meaningful, rather than superficial. For instance, instead of inviting the aspirant to sit on the development committee, why not ask him or her to assist the director of development by undertaking a project that brings him or her into contact with the trustees who sit on that committee? When the project has been completed, why not identify a way that he or she might become involved in the work of philanthropy, even if it involves making just one annual fund solicitation in-person? We can envision the duplication of that scenario across the school, making for a truly vibrant, in-house professional development program for the aspiring head. Eventually, after two or three years, the person will have gained rich experience in all areas of the school and a more complete picture of the myriad moving parts of a complex organization.

Outside of one’s own school, there are numerous leadership programs from which to choose. In their current guises, though, they fall short of preparing aspirants for the role. For example, based on research I conducted with search consultants in late 2012, governance issues play a role in 75 percent of headship failures. With such a staggeringly high correlation between headship failure and governance, it should stand to reason that leadership development programs would include a fair amount of work in the area of governance, from familiarization with board life and responsibilities to experiential weekends that are meant to expose aspirants to the kinds of governance issues that can arise in schools. Yet they don’t. We talk about preparing our students for entry into the real world, but what about independent school talent? We owe it to ourselves, now and in the future, to redesign such programming to be far more impactful and relevant.

Talent Management

We all know who the high performers are in our respective schools. The typical characteristics of today’s high performers, whether they aspire to headship or to other emerging senior leadership roles, are:

  • driven to excel; 
  • can catalyze learning into action; 
  • comfortable with taking risks; and 
  • know how and where to spend their time. 

Sitting heads would do well to consider how to retain their high performers, so that they might cultivate them purposefully and diligently for leadership. Many do, but the independent school community as a while could be more consistent and intentional. In that vein, then, heads need to help high performers understand that membership in this group requires three things:

  1. the ability to deliver strong results in a credible manner; 
  2. the ability to continue to master new types of expertise (technical excellence, for example, fades in value relative to strategic thinking and motivational skills; and 
  3. the ability to recognize that behavior counts) performance gets a high performers noticed, but behavior keeps him/her on the radar.17

In other words, it is the responsibility of heads (as talent managers, in this case) to alert talent to the challenges ahead by helping them to balance transactional leadership (delivering strong results) with transformational leadership (strategic thinking and motivational skills).

In addition to schools nurturing leadership talent, boards of trustees and executive coaches should exhort sitting heads to learn and exercise the skill sets needed to meet the present and future demands and needs. If boards haven’t allocated a meaningful professional development budget exclusively for the head, they should do so. An investment in managing the head’s talent is equal to an investment in the institution itself. It is no different from endowment investing, in which the purpose is to provide intergenerational equity — the notion that future generations will benefit from their educational experience to the same degree as the current generation.

The ecosystem containing the experiences of, by, and for educational leaders has changed. A good analogy is the desktop computer in the age of mobile devices. Desktops are still around and still in use, but their production has declined precipitously over the past 10 years. Mobile device production, on the other hand, has increased dramatically. Among other things, this pole reversal has affected the design of the Internet itself. Anyone worth his or her salt now designs for mobile platforms first, then for desktops. The latter have become specialized and will continue to fade in the face of the broader utility of mobile platforms. To quote Sherlock Holmes, “The parallel is exact.”18

Why, in the work that is involves nurturing broad, agile talent, do we continue to design for desktops? Schools that seek template candidates to fill crucial and influential positions are seeking talent that the world of the present and immediate future no longer needs.

Notes

1. Lawrence M. Fisher, “A Renegade in the Lab” Briefings on Talent & Leadership 4.14 (2013) 50.

2. Fisher, 51.

3. Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 54.

4. For Mansharamani’s June 2012 blog, please see http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/06/all_hail_the_generalist.html. He refers to the work of Thomas Malone (MIT Sloan School of Management) work in the July 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review, in which the latter talks about the “age of hyperspecialization,” a term that refers to a time of a growing number of individuals who will perform very specialized tasks and work in complex networks. While Malone’s assertion carries serious merit, Mansharamani argues that individuals with agile minds will be needed to see the concatenations among the various networks.

5. “Generalist Managers Make a Comeback” Korn/Ferry Briefings on Talent & Leadership 4.13 (2012) 11. This article is part of a regular feature in this publication, The Latest Thinking.

6. http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/06/all_hail_the_generalist.html

7. Roger Martin, The Design of Business. (Harvard: Harvard Business School Press, 2009).

8. “Paradoxical Frames and Creative Sparks: Enhancing Individual Creativity Through Conflict and Integration” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 116.2 (2011) 229-240.

9. Bill Drayton, “A Team of Teams World” Stanford Social Innovation Review 11.2 (2013) 34. Ashoka is an organization that identifies and invests in leading social entrepreneurs. See ashoka.org.

10. “Growth Now: Focus on Minds, Not Markets” Briefings on Talent & Leadership 4.14 (2013) 8-10. This feature is a synopsis of a recent report on smart growth by Korn/Ferry leadership and talent consulting managing director Indronil Roy.

11. “Growth Now” 9.

12. “Growth Now” 9.

13. “Growth Now” 9.

14. “Growth Now” 9.

15. “Growth Now” 10.

16. “Growth Now” 10.

17. A summation of Douglas Read, “Navigating the Realm of the High-Potential Employee” Rotman Magazine (Winter 2013) 29-32.

18. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Empty House” in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1903).

Author
Kevin J. Ruth

Kevin J. Ruth is a contributor Independent School Magazine.