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Michael Roberto is Professor of Management, Bryant University , Smithfield, RI, where he teaches leadership, managerial decision-making, and business strategy. He joined the tenured faculty at Bryant after serving for six years on the faculty at Harvard Business School. Prof Roberto is the co-creator of the award-winning simulation, “Leadership and Team Simulation: Everest V2”, that uses a Mount Everest climb to teach leadership and team dynamics. Professor Roberto is the author of “Know What You Don’t Know” and “Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes For an Answer.”
MO: How do you use non-traditional business failures to teach leadership, team dynamics and how to avoid failures to executives?
Mike: I examine incidents like the Columbia Space Shuttle accident and the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy because individuals in those situations are trying to make high-stakes decisions in a dynamic environment – something business executives absolutely must do. My experience shows that executives often find these non-business cases to be some of the most memorable, compelling, and thought-provoking topics that they have studied. Moreover, research shows that novelty and variety often helps to disrupt such habitual – and potentially dysfunctional – routines that develop in work groups. Novelty and variety may prove to be effective tools for business educators as well. The use of non-traditional cases about catastrophic failures in the military, mountain-climbing, firefighting, and other disparate settings can offer students an opportunity to examine leadership behavior in unfamiliar situations. Consequently, these cases may spur novel patterns of inquiry, discussion, and analysis.
MO: Why do you think it’s essential for leaders to spark debate in their organizations?
Mike: If you want to take advantage of the diverse experience, knowledge, and expertise in an organization, you have to create a climate conducive to candid dialogue. You have to make it a welcoming environment where people are comfortable sharing their ideas. Vigorous debate spurs the generation and evaluation of more alternatives, surfaces and tests key assumptions, and uncovers hidden risks. In short, it leads to higher quality decisions, provided you keep the conflict constructive.
MO: What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs who are putting together their business strategy? What tips would you offer and what pitfalls should they avoid?
Mike: Entrepreneurs must be passionate about their idea, but they must avoid falling in love with their idea to the point that they stop adapting and evolving in response to market and customer feedback. Great entrepreneurs maintain an incredible focus on the overarching vision, but they adapt as circumstances change. They constantly monitor market reaction. The wrong approach is to plan endlessly, then take action, and then become entrenched in that particular course of action. The better approach is to take some action, experiment, and then adapt based on the results of that disciplined experimentation.
MO: You argue in your newest book, ‘Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen’ that leaders at all levels must hone their skills as problem-finders. What are some ways that leaders can develop and implement this skill in their management approach?
Mike: Here are two ideas. First, leaders can learn to regularly “circumvent the gatekeepers.” There are gatekeepers in every organization that filter information as it moves up the hierarchy. Leaders need to go around those filters from time to time, and listen directly to the people on the front lines. They need to connect with young people in the organization to hear fresh perspectives, and they should talk to those customers who have rejected doing business with the firm for some reason – not just the core customers who are incredibly loyal. Second, leaders can cultivate a different attitude toward failure in the organization. They have to create an environment where certain types of failures are tolerated. Specifically, they must encourage low cost, low risk, fast experimentation. That means prototypes, small tests, and the like. Some of those innovative tests, but people should not be punished if the experiment was well-designed and conducted.
MO: What leaders, living or dead, are you most inspired by or find the most compelling?
Mike: I love reading history. I read about leaders from different eras and countries. I’m very intrigued by Lincoln, of course, because he took the country through such a challenging, tumultuous time. He had many failures in his life prior to the presidency, and he kept bouncing back. His resiliency and determination turned out to be great assets during the Civil War. He also was not afraid to surround himself with those who disagreed with him strongly at times. I’m also intrigued by Eisenhower, because he did such a masterful job as Supreme Allied Commander. His ability to lead a team of such strong characters and personalities leading up to D-Day is quite interesting.
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