An academic in business school, and being a better dad

I’d never had formal management or leadership training, never been schooled in negotiation or influencing, and never run a business. I have now, and consequently have enhanced ability and confidence to lead teams, to navigate them through uncertain times, and, perhaps most importantly, to be a better dad.

During spring 2016 took part in the Fast Track Advanced Management Programme of Ashridge Executive Education. The Programme has two modules, each involves a one-week residential course at Ashridge, near Berkhamstead, just outside London.

Wicked problems in a VUCA world

The industrial revolution led to times characterised by relative predictability. Design a television, make TVs, sell TVs, redesign TVs, make TVs, sell TVs. Manage the business to do that. That worked for at least half a century.

A foundation of leadership education at Ashridge is that we now live a VUCA world of wicked problems. VUCA is volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous. Things will change, and we can´t predict how or when. Wicked problems have no single solution. Even the challenges we foresee will escape any single simple solution.

In such a world, leaders must draw on and nurture creativity. Team members need the high intrinsic motivation that comes from autonomy, from purpose, and from seeking mastery. Extrinsic motivation (e.g., performance related pay) and command-and-control leadership extinguish intrinsic motivation and the high levels of creativity arising.

The research team I lead tackles wicked problems; in particular how can we more accurately forecast ecological dynamics, such as fish stocks ten years from now. So while I was familiar with the territory, I hadn’t connected it to leadership. Ashridge helped make that connection, and in doing so helped crystalise in me a personal leadership style that resonates with my research, that will bring out the best in team members, and which I understand and can develop.

Running a business

The programme included a business simulation taking place at the rate of one simulated year every real hour. My small team of classmates competed against four teams of other classmates. We designed, marketed, advertised, and sold retail products. The presence of the other teams created uncertainties about the outcome of our actions. We didn´t know what types of product they might produce, how hard they would advertise, the state of their finances. It’s a great testament to the programme that I played a key role in our company winning the competition (there were only four of us in the company, so we all played a key role).

While I’m happy that my team won, I think more often about the mistakes we made, about how we were successful, and what other teams did differently to us. As it turned out, we’d been making a rather serious mistake for the entire simulation, and had it continued longer, we probably would not have won.

The most significant meta-lesson I took from the simulation was about what drives me. After we won, a classmate commented to me that I was probably highly competitive. I realised I don’t care about whether I am or not, because it is unimportant. Instead, I care about learning new things so that I can perform better than I could, about being creative, and about seeing others (and myself) attack the hardest problems we can find. It is nice, but for me relatively unimportant, that such behaviour often creates the greatest chance of winning.

Collaborating and challenging

Perhaps my greatest concern was how I would get on with my classmates. Almost all were from the business world: managing director, development director, strategy director, vice president, financial controller, from a diversity of business sectors. How would I compare to them, would I make a fool of myself, what would they think of me? I was stepping way out of my familiar ivory tower.

I was challenged again and again. I had to ask what were P&L, KPIs, and B2B / B2C*. I probably said some stupid things. But I never felt any judgement from instructors or classmates. Quite the opposite. They were enthusiastic, supportive, open, observant, creative, and fun. The outstanding learning experience created by the excellent instructors was highly collaborative and challenged us all. We learned at least as much from each other as we did from the instructors. It gives me great optimism that these leaders in the business world focus on success through building supportive, safe, and authentic relationships.

That sounds rather too warm and fluffy for business folk. True, none of my classmates were bankers, though one was a lawyer. Joking aside, all were highly driven, ambitious, and at times challenging. My optimism comes from seeing so many folk showing, believing, and demonstrating that giving is a powerful and probably necessary partner of drive, ambition, and disruption.

Being a better dad

Before kids, life was relatively predictable and controllable. Get up at 7am, make breakfast, eat breakfast, read the paper, walk to work, work, go home, sleep, repeat. Now, none of those are certain: the arrival of my kids created volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. There are no simple or single obvious solutions to the challenges they create. And they themselves will grow up, live, and, with the leadership I may give, thrive in a VUCA world of wicked problems.

– Owen Petchey, April 2016

Owen Petchey
Professor of Integrative Ecology

Interested in ecology, diversity, prediction, quantitative methods, a bit of programming, and making beer.