Sir Ken Robinson, PhD, is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources. He has worked with governments in Europe, Asia and the USA, with international agencies, Fortune 500 companies, not-for-profit corporations and some of the world’s leading cultural organizations. He is in wide demand as an inspirational speaker with a unique talent for conveying profoundly serious messages with enormous humour, passion and wit. He speaks to audiences throughout the world on the changing needs of business, education and organizations in the new global economies. In 2005 he was named one of Time/Fortune/CNN’s ‘Principal Voices’. In 2003 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to the arts. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.
Q: Ken, it’s wonderful to get to talk to you after hearing you speak at various conferences. I was very much struck by the broad scale approach you’re taking to the challenges of education in the future, and thought that they might have some implications for leadership. Perhaps, though, we might begin by finding out the major thrust of your work these days?
A: Most of my work is focused on creativity and innovation. I’ve spent many years in education and have been particularly interested in the need for a complete reorientation of national education system. I have worked in a number of them to try and press for a different approach to education reform. I also work with cultural and commercial organizations.
One of the great problems facing us is that these three sectors—cultural, commercial and educational have operated separately from each other, almost in isolation. For the future, it’s essential that they recognize the challenges they have in common and the ways they can collaborate. For example, I feel that education has to be enlivened and enriched by cultural practices, beyond traditional schooling. Also, for generations there has been a tacit compact between the economy and education. That compact is now breaking down seriously. The way forward has to be through increased dialogue and collaboration. My work is focused in promoting ideas about innovation and creativity, and also methods and strategies of implementation in and between those three sectors.
Q: The breakdown you’re speaking of has to do with increasing complexity—the role of technology, the impact of globalization, the breaking down of barriers, the challenges that are being created in more traditional approaches and some of the conflict that arises out of that. What is your strategy for trying to address those kinds of challenges, not just in education, but in trying to bridge those different domains?
A: Let me start with education. The core issue for me is that our education systems—the dominant forms of education both in the Western developed economies and the ones that derive from those systems—are rooted in a particular view of utility that has its origins in the 18th and 19th centuries. This view of education has really permeated every aspect of how we think about and apply educational practices. Most public systems of education were created specifically in response to the growing demands of industrialism. The nature of the curriculum was deeply influenced by issues of economic utility and by assumption about which subjects were most useful for getting a job or contributing to economic development.
The second influence was a particular view of intelligence that was derived from the enlightenment—a view of intelligence that is rooted specifically in certain types of verbal and mathematical reasoning, deductive logic, etc. As I travel around the world, our systems of education are modeled in the image of industrialism and the enlightenment. They still operate in the interests of them and there are some powerful features. Education happens mainly to young people. It’s still an exotic idea for education to be seen as a lifelong process. We still think that we should educate children in batches; that the most significant thing that children have in common is how old they are. This has always struck me as a ludicrous idea, that for educational purposes the thing that matters most about our children is their age of manufacture. Also, we educate them in separate facilities that have a factory ethos to them.
To me, the issue for educational reform is not about small incremental changes. The issue is about transformation, not improvement. Many senior-level policy makers seem to believe that the real challenge for education is simply improving what we did previously. They believe that the problem at the heart of education is just that standards are falling and we have to improve them, return to traditional ideas of education, cut away the modern nonsense and return to the core. I believe that’s a bankrupt proposition.
The problem of education is not that we’re doing it less well than we used to; it’s that what we are doing now is not adequate to meet the current challenges. We have to think differently about it. I have worked in Europe, primarily in the U.K. and Northern Ireland, and now in America, in promoting a different view of education—one that’s based on lifelong learning, synergies between different interest groups in business and education and culture. It looks for more innovative culture within schools themselves, which is based on a different view of intelligence. I think we have thrown away many of the talents we’re all born with in the interest of this industrial model of education. For the future, we’ll need to think differently: to be flexible, to think across borders, make connections and see opportunities. These things aren’t incidental to education, but at the heart of it.
Q: As I understand it, you’re seeing educational systems in other countries beyond those that you mentioned that are tending to this phenomenon. They see it as being one of the factors that has been so critical in American success in the world—the ability to innovate and create. More traditional societies are beginning to re-examine their educational systems and create the types of changes you’re talking about. The example I remember was China.
A: China has a very steep hill to climb in this regard, because it is a very structured and ordered society. But they have recognized that to meet the real challenges and opportunities they face with a hugely vigorous economy and the impending global opportunity, they have to think differently about how they educate their people to create and take opportunities. In China they are talking seriously about programs to promote creative thinking. It’s easier said than done, but they’ve at least made the commitment to promoting that idea.
If you look at America, the situation is very different. America has achieved its preeminence through innovation, entrepreneurship, creative thinking and self-confidence. It is generally understood that education is in the frontline for America to retain and improve its position in the world. But the response here has been to look backwards in education, not to look forward. No Child Left Behind which is the dominant national legislation for educational improvement. It’s really completely inadequate to the challenges that America now faces.
A lot of the school districts are deeply concerned that the impact of this high-stakes assessment culture—the growing emphasis on grades, numerical testing and on sacrificing everything in the interest of improving university entrance rates—is demoralizing many teachers and school principals and actually stifling innovation and creativity. Some seem to think that promoting creative thinking is the opposite of achieving high standards in education. It’s actually a way of achieving it.
Q: You gave a presentation last year at the National Governor’s Association Conference and it sounded as though there were a number of governors around the country that are paying attention to the issues you’re bringing up. Some are actually working with you.
A: Yes. I’m working closely with the State of Oklahoma. They are committing themselves to promoting creativity across the state through education, commercial development and improvements through cultural provisions. It’s a complex proposition, but there’s a strong consensus in business, the legislature and across the communities that this is something the state has to engage in. Oklahoma is just reaching its centennial as a state. As it looks at its achievement in its first hundred years, we’re now focusing on what the next hundred years might hold. They know that it will depend on how well they cultivate the imaginations and capabilities of the whole community.
Other states are also engaged deep in this. Arizona’s Governor Napolitano and Chairperson of the National Governor’s Association has introduced a new program called Innovation America. Arkansas’ former Governor, Mike Huckabee, was deeply committed to promoting a broader approach to education. I know that in Kansas, Nevada and Virginia they are all working on this. Many governors individually are recognizing the challenge they face.
I would like to think that the Federal government is genuinely trying to address the serious challenges facing education. But to take this on, we have to recognize that the present systems of education, right up to universities, were conceived at the height of industrialism to meet the challenges they faced then. The original architects of public education in America had a view of how education was central to cultural life, to community development and economic growth. They recognized that it was the most important investment in their futures. We need a comparable sense of vision for the 21st century. Those people weren’t planning the 21st century; they were planning the 19th century. We have to meet the new challenges we face.
Many companies I know are now deeply concerned that people coming through formal education don’t have the aptitudes, skills or dispositions they’re looking for. There was a time when a university degree meant you’d have a job for life. That’s not true now. Most employers aren’t impressed by a degree. They want to know what else you can do. How we develop our unique talents is both a personal matter for individuals and a huge national issue—not just in America, but in most major economies now. How can we best conceive of and cultivate not just our young people’s talents, but the talents of all people in the community? That to me is a revolutionary challenge.
Q: It strikes me that in your discussion of 19th century America or Europe and England during the industrial revolution that there was a strategic alliance between the governments that were creating public or private educational institutions, industry, and political leadership. Political leadership is very much concerned with the capacities of people to engage with the changing nature of the world, and how the world will continue to change.
A: Absolutely. I was in Belfast recently and was speaking at the Belfast Institute, which is in a wonderful 19th century building. As you know, Belfast was at the heart of the industrial revolution. It’s where Harland Wolff had its great shipyard. The Titanic was built there. It was a tremendous center of world trade and engineering expertise. It was interesting that this building was one of the citadels of the Industrial Revolution. It was not dedicated only to science. There were images of science and technology in the stained glass windows, but also of drama and music. To meet the needs of the industrial revolution, there was a strong recognition of the need to promote a broad alliance between education, business, science, technology and the arts. All of these were part of the process.
As we’ve gone on and public education has proliferated, much of that richness of conception has been drained from the system. We now have systems of education where there are very clear hierarchies of subjects in schools. We have math and literacy at the top along with a version of science. The humanities follow behind and the arts are at the bottom—at least that’s true for all the developed economies. In secondary or high schools, there are strong lines of division between different disciplines, so subjects rarely collaborate and the effects are startling.
The talents of very many people are neither recognized nor promoted in schools because a preoccupation with certain types of academic ability. The opportunities for innovative thinking are stifled by a regime of standardized testing and by the separation of discipline specialists. You do find great schools within school districts that are rising up against this, but this is a real issue in the U.S. I’m not saying every other country is doing this right except for America. That’s far from the truth. When I was working in England, I felt there were deep problems. There is a considerable gap between the rhetoric of public policy on education and practice on the ground. When you talk about strategies for change, you need to work from both sides. It’s important to work with policy-makers. They bear a huge burden of issues and often don’t have time to consider each one adequately. We must focus their attention on the need for a different view of education at the state and national policy levels. In the end, though, education happens in the classroom. So change is also about supporting innovative initiatives on the ground and having some sense of how theories of change work out in practice.
Q: It seems that one of the contributions you’ve provided is to create a framework to help people begin to understand that more comprehensive perspective that you’re suggesting. Each of these are in Around the Challenges in Education. The reason these are important in our conversation is that each represents a quadrant that is used by some in integral theory to talk about the internal/external/individual/collective aspects of any situation. For example, when we look at creative potential, which is the first one on the list, we’re really talking about the internal capacities of individuals. That’s one of the key areas of your work’s focus, isn’t it?
A: I think of this as a process with three elements: personal, group and corporate. I often ask individuals how creative they think they are. People generally have a low opinion of their own creativity. I also ask them how intelligent they are and they are similarly guarded in their assessment of their intelligence. When people are asked if they assess their creative and intellectual capacities differently, most people do. This is usually because most people see creativity and intelligence as two separate things. That’s the heart of the problem. We need to reconnect creativity with intelligence.
Creativity is one of the highest forms of intelligent activity. The heart of creativity is imagination, which is the capacity to bring to mind things that aren’t present to our senses. Imagination is the defining feature of human intelligence. I think of creativity as the application of imagination. It’s the process of having original ideas that have value.
Being creative is a practical process. If you’re doing something creative, you have to be working in a medium. My experience is that the most creative people love the medium that they work in. Musicians love the sounds they make. Writers love words. Mathematicians love the abstractions that numbers make possible. Engineers and architects love building things. The issue for education for companies is that we often displace people from their natural medium. I know people who are brilliant musicians, but never knew that in school because music was never encouraged or valued, and people who came to love mathematics who never discovered that at school because of the way mathematics was taught.
Q: I love the story about the choreographer for Cats and Phantom of the Opera. Can you share that with us?
A: I’m doing a book about it called Epiphany. Gillian Lynne was the choreographer for Cats, Phantom of the Opera and many others. I asked how she got to be a dancer and she said it almost didn’t happen. When she was in school in England in the 1930s, she was a very poor student. Her handwriting was poor, she was constantly fidgeting, staring out the window and couldn’t concentrate. It didn’t trouble her very much, but it troubled the school. Eventually, they wrote to her parents and said that they believed that Gillian had some type of learning disorder and that maybe she should be in a special education program.
Jillian said that her parents were concerned and they arranged a psychological assessment. She went to this doctor’s office—she was probably eight or nine at the time—and was led into this oak-lined study. The doctor took her to the far end of the room and sat her down on a leather sofa. She was so little that her feet didn’t touch the ground. Then he went and sat at his desk and spoke with her mother. They spoke for about 20 minutes about the problems Gillian was having and causing at school. All this time, she said that he was staring at her. She felt mortified with embarrassment. After the end of this interminable period, he came and sat next to her and said, “Gillian, thank you. You’ve been really patient, but you need to be patient for a few more minutes, because I have to speak to your mother privately. We’re going to leave the room, but we’ll be back shortly. We won’t be gone for long.” Gillian said, “Okay.”
As they left, the doctor walked past his desk and turned on the radio. As the two of them stood in the corridor, the doctor turned to the mother and said, “Just stand here for a moment and watch her. Watch what she does.” There was a window back into the room and Gillian’s mother stood where she couldn’t be seen. The minute the adults were out of the room, Gillian was on her feet, moving to the music, all around the room. The adults watched for a few minutes and the doctor turned to the mother and said, “You know, Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick. She’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”
Q: That is so wonderful! It illustrates the diversity that is a part of any population in relation to their creativity. How do you see that diversity? Developmental psychologists might see it in terms of ego development or worldview; how do you characterize the diversity of people in terms of creative capabilities?
A: To me, it’s about recognizing that there is a much richer conception of intelligence and ability available to us than is promoted by conventional education. For the most part, education promotes the idea that real intelligence is the capacity for academic work, which is essentially work that’s based on verbal propositions and a certain type of mathematical reasoning. I say a certain type because math can be tremendously creative—but the focus is on a certain type of mathematical ability, and it’s also about short-term memory and information retention. They are all thought to be the main hallmarks of high intelligence.
Organizations like MENSA are celebrated as the organization for the most intelligent people on earth, but I have some real doubts about that. I’m sure people in MENSA are terrifically good at the things they do, which is mainly IQ tests, but IQ is far from being an exhaustive account of intelligence.
There are three things that we know about intelligence:
1) Intelligence is inherently diverse. We think visually, in sound, in movement, aesthetically; we think in abstractions, words, numbers, and in a great number of ways. The evidence of that is the huge range of human culture and human achievement. If human intelligence could be reduced only to the things we can test in IQ tests and standardized tests, much of human culture would never have happened. What we have in schools is a particular view of intelligence, which has been mediated through a number of specific historical movements. The upshot is that many brilliant people go to schools and come out the other end having never discovered what they were good at. I know brilliant people who think they’re stupid; brilliant musicians who think they’re not very bright; brilliant scientists who think they’re incapable of singing. We’re focusing in education on particular types of intellectual capability rather than the full diversity of it.
2) Intelligence is incredibly dynamic. The human brain is intensely interactive. Real innovation comes by people making connections, by seeing how ideas in one discipline might illuminate problems in another. Real creative thinking is often by analogy, by metaphor, by induction rather than by deduction.
3) As a consequence, our own intellectual profiles are unique and distinct to us. We think differently from one another partly because of our genetic make up and because of our unique biographies. We are unique moments in history. What education and companies often look for are not diversity and creativity but conformity and linearity. There was something to be said for that in the context of the industrial economy, because actually, a lot of people were going to be called upon to do fairly routine work at a low level of creative operation. You could justify it in economic and social engineering terms, if not in humanitarian terms, but there’s little to be said for it now.
You’ve only got to look at the huge dropout rates among children, and not just kids from lower income families, but all children. We live on the west side of Los Angeles, which is a very affluent part of the world. There’s as much disaffection to be found amongst schoolchildren here as there is amongst children living in South Central. People are being disaffected and turned off by education. They’re not excited by it. It’s not because they’re bad kids or they don’t have abilities. It’s because the system isn’t looking for things they can do. Diversity to me is absolutely fundamental. It starts with a different conception of intelligence and what people have by way of natural endowment. What we need now are systems of education that celebrate difference, rather than promoting conformity. I don’t mean that we want anarchy; real creativity comes within a framework of discipline and structure. But it also comes through the celebration of difference rather than the promotion of sameness.
Q: One of the challenges in an environment of innovation and change, increasing complexity and even chaos is that the individual needs to translate these domains of intelligence that you’ve been talking about in a creative way into being innovative in their own personal lives and their own behaviors. I’m wondering if there’s an aspect of your work that addresses that challenge.
A: The book I’m currently writing, Epiphany, is about exactly that. It starts on that premise—how can you help people discover their talents and then promote them? I see developing innovation and creativity, in three areas:
(1) The personal;
(2) Groups—most learning, creative thinking and innovative achievement comes through well-thought out group processes. The reason is that a great group can really model those features of the mind. A great group is dynamic and diverse and distinct.
(3) Culture. You need cultural settings where these processes are actively encouraged and promoted.
The key to developing human resources is to see the challenge as an ecological process. We’ve become used to understanding ecology in the natural environment—although we’re still not very good about acting on it. There is diversity in the natural environment and synergies and mutual dependence between the different elements of the natural world, many of which we have violated during the course of industrial development. We have to get back to recognizing this interdependence and mutuality.
I believe we must act the same in the field of human resources. We’ve tended to focus on particular aspects of our ability at the expense of others. We’ve not seen the ways in which these things are dependent and synergistic. You find in education that people whose talents are marginalized tend to become demoralized. In contrast, kids who discover something they’re good at tend to get better at everything. What I’m trying to do withEpiphany is set out what that model is and what can be done. Part of it is helping people assess what their capacities are, beyond IQ tests, and getting a sense of how they think. We all learn differently. Schools can do a lot by reorganizing the curriculum so that there’s an equal balance given to different types of ability and by adopting methods of teaching that are based on learning styles and cognitive preferences rather than just on the transmission of information, which the testing culture tends to promote.
We need to move too from understanding our own talents to making connections with other people’s abilities. Part of it is how to find your tribe—how to find people that have compatible interests and are equally excited about your ways of thinking. Musicians need the company of other musicians; chess players need to find other chess players. It’s easy to say that, but difficult for people to network themselves into communities that can help nurture their own talent.
I think there are powerful roles here for mentors—parents, friends, and work colleagues—who have critical roles in seeing other people’s talents and putting them in touch with them. Epiphany will include stories about people whose talents were facilitated by other people. What I’m trying to do with the book is to talk about how you cultivate and connect talents. The ecology metaphor is interesting because if you’re trying to develop other people’s talents, the analogy with gardening and farming is strong. A gardener doesn’t make a plant grow; the plant grows itself. What a good gardener does is to provide the optimum conditions in which it will grow itself, and that’s about having the right climate, nutrients and the right opportunities. In poor conditions, plants shrivel and die.
I believe that the skill of leaders in organizations—whether schools, commercial organizations, symphonies or theaters—is knowing what conditions are necessary for people to develop their talents and for good ideas to propagate. That means moving beyond the industrial model of command and control and being much more in the process of understanding how organic cultures work. Successful organisms grow synergistically with the environment. There’s a mutual strength derived from a plant enriching its environment as it grows. This is about moving away from a mechanistic industrial model of organizational development towards one that is based on the idea of cultural processes and synergy.
Q: You have predictably touched on the four aspects of any situation I planned to ask you about: individual capability and behavior, as well as culture and the systems we create from it. I say “predictably” because it seems you’re thinking in terms of that kind of perspective, of bringing awareness of all these different dimensions to the challenge: individual and collective. I find your work exciting as a result.
You’ve raised the question of leadership. There are two aspects of this that I would like to explore. One is the development of leaders who have the capacity to approach the challenges in their industry through the kind of lens that you’re talking about, and the second is how do we develop those leaders in the first place?
A: I am very interested in the issue of leadership. All great leaders that I know share three certain capacities.
The first is to inspire people with a vision, and I think that’s absolutely essential. You have to give people a sense of direction and purpose. That is a role of leadership that is distinct from management. Managers should also be good leaders, but often management is about the means, the checks and balances. A great, creative leader is one that gives people a vision. The second capacity they have is to give people is the sense that they can actually do this—not just that there is a vision, but that they are capable of achieving it. I think that’s true whether you’re talking about a rock band or General Electric. It’s the same purpose.
Great leaders also recognize that their job is to facilitate those achievements and ambitions rather than to control them. I have great confidence in people’s natural capacities to rise to a challenge if they’re given the room to move into it, rather than to respond to command and control methods.
In education reform in America, the command and control system that you have in No Child Left Behind is so misconceived. Education is not a mechanical process; it’s a human process. People need to feel inspired and to feel that something is achievable. All the great institutions I know have great leaders at the helm. I don’t know of any great schools that have poor school principals. I don’t know of any school that thrives in the absence of leadership at the top.
If you look at Apple, Steve Jobs is an inspirational person, internally and externally. He’s clearly a person with a strong sense of what the company should do, of what’s right for the direction of the company. He’s someone who applies rigorous standards of accountability and scrutiny, but he also seems to create a lot of space within that framework for people to come up with their best thinking and their best ideas. It’s not the only model, but his achievements have been pretty striking. I think that wherever you get a highly successful company like that, you have someone at the top that provides both inspiration and opportunity. It has to be that way if you’re interested in innovation and creativity.
Q: Let me challenge you a bit. It seems to me that what you’ve been talking about—in terms of the needs of the education system and the kinds of contexts that will foster the diversity and dynamism of bringing distinct personalities to bear—has to do with more of a broad-scale development of the creative capabilities and innovative activities of the individuals. These capabilities in some sense apply to the subject of leadership. In Apple or any other highly successful company, we have that inspirational leader at the top. Sometimes we find quiet leaders at the top who are not obviously inspirational—but we find there is leadership throughout the rank and file of the organization. Such a spread of the leadership function fosters success within the entire organization. I’m interested in your perspective on leadership that goes beyond that symbolic leader at the top.
A: I completely agree with that. It’s not just leadership that’s focused in one place, but one that allows multiple points of leadership within the organization; latitudes for people to work in their own different ways. A strong planet doesn’t only grow at the top, but through every pore and leaf.
Q: I noticed that recently, one of your supporters, the former Governor of Arkansas, has announced that he’s running for President. Do you have hopes of becoming Secretary of Education?
A: (Laughter) No, I don’t. I do think that Mike Huckabee’s position on education is admirable. He’s achieved a lot in Arkansas, particularly in the field of promoting a broad approach to the elementary curriculum for the arts and it’s really that issue that we gathered together on. He’s spoken on the record about the importance of the arts in education, and I feel very strongly about the arts as part of the broader curriculum.
Q: One of the things that is interesting in your work, in addition to the work on creativity in education, is you’re branching off onto the subject of leadership. What has led you there?
A: As I have said, I tend now to work in three broad areas—education, the corporate sector and the cultural sector. I think these three areas are, and should be, closely connected. Education has suffered, and continues to suffer by its being dislocated through what’s happening in the broader economy. It’s subject to all sorts of pressures and presumptions on the part of people, who are trying to influence economic growth and development and are concerned about what the right form of education is to achieve that. It’s one of the reasons that we have such a mass focus now in schools on standardized testing and academic ability. Part of my interest is to show connections between these areas and how there should be synergies between them.
I’ve also been drawn to work with companies and organizations, because the issue I keep pressing for in education is that we should have a different approach to promoting creative thinking and talent. Companies are suffering considerably from the long-term impact of the narrow focus in education. McKinsey wrote a few years ago about the war for talent— how developing talent in business and enterprise in America is now one of the biggest challenges. I get asked to speak with organizations about developing talent and promoting creativity. For me it comes down to leadership issues. It comes down to the kinds of organizations that are being cultivated and the expectations that leaders have of the people who work within the organization. To me, it’s a natural connection.
Q: Are you arguing for a heroic view of leadership?
A: No. I’m arguing for a few things. The world is changing so quickly now—it’s always changed at a fast rate—but it’s really taking us now into directions that no one can predict. Look at the impact of the Internet and information systems over the past ten years and how that’s accelerated. No organization can hope to survive long in these circumstances with an inflexible, linear plan.
One of the key ideas is that of organic growth. I did some work recently with GE and I was talking to them about organic growth. It’s interesting that Jeff Immelt, in taking over from Jack Welch, has started to use this term. It’s a suggestive term. The idea of organic growth in the natural world is that an organism grows in certain environments by drawing strength, the nutrients and resources it needs to survive, from the environment. It does it in a way that is reciprocally enriching for the environment, so it also strengthens the environment. That’s the whole principle of ecology and of mutual growth and benefit.
There are two challenges here for businesses and organizations. One is to understand what the external environment is like these days, how it’s changing and what the climate is. The second is to evolve internal cultures that can reciprocate with it, so there is a mutual benefit. Organic growth is a key idea for organizations. If you want to achieve organic growth in an organization, it is not just about conventional forms of heroic leadership—it’s about climate control. How do you create a culture in the organic and social sense that encourages growth and development for people who work within the organization?
Q: What you’re saying is that if we’re going to talk about leadership, we can’t just focus on the individual, albeit that the individual leader(s) play a very significant role. We have to focus on them in the context of the culture and the systems that they are a part of.
A: Correct. My point is that for some sorts of tasks, you may want to have a style of leading from the front so you’re just giving instructions. But if you’re interested in innovation and organic growth, it’s a different leadership challenge. You can’t make people be creative. You can’t force them to be innovative. What you have to do is create the conditions for it. Leaders are interested in producing organizations that will grow synergistically with the environment, and help to strengthen and change it in some ways. Great leaders create optimum conditions in organizations in which people will do their best, and they include giving people a very clear sense of direction and vision, but it includes other things, too.
Q: What do you see as being the critical elements in developing the capacity of current and future generations in exercising the kind of leadership you’re talking about?
A: It doesn’t matter if it’s a university or a non-profit, part of the task is to give people a clear sense of vision, confidence that they can achieve their goals, and that they are capable of meeting the challenges. Then it’s about focusing on three different things. The first is individual development and what individuals have to offer. It concerns me that people’s individual talents are often lost in organizations because they’re either too locked in their own résumé or job description. A great leader provides opportunities for individuals to grow and to recognize their talents and provides assignments that will help them stretch and develop.
The second is about collaboration and groups, and how great creative teams work. The innovation in most organizations is done through great creative teams. The third is about climate control. It’s about developing a climate in the organization in both the organic and the organizational sense which meets certain criteria. Among those is that ideas generally travel horizontally across organization. The great risk as companies get bigger is that they become segmented and compartmentalized. Really good organizations remain supple and flexible, and that happens in a practical way by ideas traveling across the organization. The other is creating an environment in which people are rewarded for risk-taking and trying new things in an atmosphere where it’s encouraged and not stigmatized if it goes wrong. That means having a more supple sense of hierarchy, of having ideas travel up and down the organization as well as across it.
For me it’s really about those three things. If you’re looking for people with great ability, they need to have a good value proposition in the organization. They need to know that they can make their way in the organization and that their ideas will be cultivated. That to me is all about the internal culture of the organization.
Q: When you’re talking about climate control, you’re not only talking about the capacity for information and ideas to travel across boundaries and to be accessible to those who might leverage them, but also having systems in place that include reward systems, selection systems, developmental systems, and that sort of thing. Is that correct?
Q: Let’s take individual development for a moment. What are the components of individual development that you feel are important?
A: There are two challenges—understanding the external environment and creating internal cultures that can reciprocate properly. One aspect of that is diversity. I’ve been working with a number of organizations on issues of diversity; one of them is a major bank that is now global in character. We’ve been focusing on the idea that diversity is not just an issue of political correctness; diversity is really a bottom line issue for many organizations. Companies that work in global markets have to evolve the internal workforce in a way that is sensitive to the way the environment is changing culturally. On one level, that means broadening the gender and age and cultural base in a more traditional sense—ethnicity and national background.
Diversity is a big issue and it has several factors. One of them is recruiting people from different backgrounds or recognizing at the recruitment point that you need to draw on a range of talents in organizations these days. Recruitment is only a piece of it. Once you get people into organizations you have to have a good value proposition to keep them there. There is a lot of turnover, particularly amongst women if you look at the banking sector. Many women go in and leave shortly thereafter. That’s true, too, with people from different ethnic backgrounds.
So it is firstly about recruitment and secondly about retention. Retention is giving people opportunities to stretch beyond their original role. It’s certainly giving them routine opportunities for professional development, but it’s also recognizing that the culture of the organization has to adapt itself. There is a great tendency within organizations to mirror its own interests and background at the point of recruitment. I’m just giving that as one issue, but it goes back to the bigger question: If you’re talking about talent, how do you define talent in the first place? To me, diversity is a big piece of how you define talent.
Q: The kinds of things you’re talking about could be said for developing any kind of talent in an organization. For example, I would imagine you would applaud Google for the 20% of time that they ask all employees to just do with what they will. This is a time to step aside from the way they focus and the way they direct their energies to create opportunities for fresh perspectives and hopefully creative opportunities.
A: I do applaud organizations that are looking for more supple forms of internal organization. Google and Pixar are good examples. I was with a design organization in New York that has an internal university. They run the place much like a campus; people can move between job functions through a process of internal credit accumulation. Big organizations like SAS have always wanted to see that there’s an intimate relationship for people between the image of themselves at work and the image of themselves outside work. It’s reaching for some model of organizational structure that is synergistic with our post-industrial cultures in the way that we became used to industrialized models of organizations in schools and corporate organizations.
Q: How can we more effectively develop the capacities of individuals in organizations to take on leadership roles? Clearly when you talk about working in teams, there is a lot of on-the-job experience that people can gain. There are things that were used by Shell, better in the past, like using scenarios to help people develop their capacity to look at complex situations and develop their skills to respond to that complexity in more effective ways. I’m wondering when you think about individual development if there’s anything beyond that cognitive experiential kind of activity that you think is critical for developing leaders.
A: Jeff Immelt, in a nuanced way, has tried to move GE beyond the Six Sigma culture that was so successful during Jack Welch’s leadership. All of that was about increasing efficiencies and quantification, making it more scientific, having fine margins shaved and monitoring performance tightly. Jeff Immelt isn’t dropping all of that, but he’s trying to evolve away from it by recognizing that managing margins, accountability, quantitative control, etc., are all deeply important, but what will make organizations flourish in the future is their ability to be flexible and innovative, to ride with changes and to take opportunities as they come up. In a big organization that’s a very big challenge because big organizations always run the risk of becoming set in their ways.
It is about individual development and all the things that you mentioned, but I think it’s also recognizing that it’s not just the leadership at the top that matters. It’s the leadership structures throughout the organization that everybody has to become open to becoming more practiced in those three areas of managing individual talent, to forming, reforming and deforming creative teams, and at looking at the cultural obstacles and opportunities that encourage innovation and a sense of personal fulfillment in the job. I don’t think there’s any formula for that and that’s the whole point. It depends on the company and where it is.
Companies are made up of people; people are more complicated than mechanical systems. They have motives and drives and interests and more talent than is apparent. We need to recognize that leadership is about people development and all that goes with that. This seems to be an important starting point. That’s why people are commenting that the MFA is the new MBA. There’s an understanding of creative processes that is encouraged through artistic forms of practice that is absent from the traditional forms of training you get in business school. There’s already a shift in that way. It is a different blend of skills that is needed.
Q: Are you suggesting that by making the distinction with the knowledge economy that there are types of organizations where the kind of creativity and capacity for dynamism and diversity are not as important?
A: No, I’m not saying that. It’s easy to caricature what actually happened in the industrial revolution. I think what we’re dealing with now is a long-term legacy. I’m a fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts in the United Kingdom. There was a time when people saw very clear connections between sciences, arts and humanities. Some of the great early companies like Cadburys in the U.K. built great villages and had systems of social welfare and social security. They had orchestras and theater companies that were organized by and for the workforce. Somewhere along the way we’ve lost that balance, so what I’m arguing is that as we push ahead into the 21st century, we have to get back to some of those ideas of balance, both internally in the way an organization operates in the lives of individuals that make up the organization and between the organization and the broader culture. Major corporations now have a huge investment in terms of global development, not just corporate development. It’s about balance and synergy.
Q: Thanks very much. I welcome the connections you are making and hope they bring out the artists in all of us, no matter what our work.
A: Thank you.