A Professor's Secret

In this posting, I discuss management education with one of the leaders in the field, Robert Rosenfeld. Robert is CEO of the Centre for Organizational Excellence, an Associate Fellow at Warwick Business School, and holds Visiting Professorships at the School of International Management at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts & Chaussées (Paris), Tong Ji University (Shanghai), and Ecole Hassania des Transports Publiques (Casablanca).

Jake Breeden: What have you learned about teaching managers that you wish you knew when you started? Is there anything that makes you cringe a little as you think back about the way you "used to do it"?

Robert Rosenfeld: I have been involved in leadership and management development for what seems to be a VERY long time, and I have certainly made my fair share of gaffes!  Looking back, one assumption I regret is thinking that my role was to disseminate knowledge. What I mean is that I assumed that managers had an innate desire to learn ‘best practice’ and adopt the prescribed actions.  I learned pretty quickly that managers come to any situation be it classroom based or otherwise with a wealth of valuable knowledge that is much more relevant than anything Jack Welch may have done.  What I have learned is that my role is to help managers understand their own ‘data’ or experience and to help them reflect on it.  So I suppose, the good news is that I talk a lot less than I used to!

JB: But don't some managers come to a classroom education event expecting to hear smart things from a smart person? I mean don't we have a responsibility to have some subject matter expertise, or is it OK to just be good at helping participants understand their own data? And, what's your secret for that? How do you "help them reflect on it"? What do you mean by that?

RR: I shall try not to be a smart-aleck in my response! My answer to your question is to consider what might possibly be construed as ‘smart things’.  A simple, but insufficient answer is to point to the Socratic Method - which focused on the ‘teacher’ only asking questions that build on the learner’s prior answers rather than present new concepts or tools.  There is certainly a place for it in management and leadership development – just take a look at how executive coaching operates.  At the other end of the scale is the highly respected ‘guru’ who ‘professes’ by indicating their cumulative wisdom – sometimes with excessive PowerPoint slide decks!  As I have engaged with more and more senior and experienced learners, I have realized that individually as well as collectively, they have themselves an extensive ‘data set’ of experience and perceptions that guide their actions.  The buzz I get is to learn how their ‘data’ has led them to certain conclusions about the organizational actions that are appropriate or necessary. Where my ‘data’ (smart things) becomes relevant is to present contrast that challenges and, ultimately, integrates with a learner.  The volume of ‘smart things’ that may be necessary varies tremendously and is, I suppose, the ‘secret sauce’ that we use to engage people in the learning process.

JB: So to your way of thinking, teaching management means knowing when to teach, when to learn and when to help make new meaning in the moment. Sounds like a big challenge.

RR: My greatest challenge today as a management teacher is to engender enthusiasm and confidence to lead change.  I recall a group of senior partners in one of the large global accounting firms.  These individuals were highly regarded within the firm, as well as by their clients.  They were exceptionally well-rewarded and, judging by their performance, deserved it all.  Yet, the Managing Partner was extremely frustrated with them and deeply concerned about the future of the firm.  His rationale was that the collective record of past success of this group meant that they could not foresee potential threats in their business.  In short, the group had minimized the ability to question themselves.  Instead, they focused their energies on questioning alternatives.  I would love to say that by the skill of my intervention, the individuals enhanced their own abilities to challenges themselves, their colleagues and their clients. I would like to think I was, perhaps, part of the solution, but at the time, there was little evidence of that.  The workshops we had were challenging and, at times, acrimonious.  I stayed in touch with the Managing Partner for a few years beyond that period, and we often chatted about this senior leadership challenge.  His view was that he was aware that I was being thrown into the lion's den – but he kind of knew that the experience would be valuable for the Partners – who were rarely challenged on their ‘theory-in-use’.  Looking back, I now see that was merely one small element of a larger organizational development initiative that involved substantial re-structuring, including acquisitions and bringing in ‘new blood’.  If I compare the senior leadership team of that organization now, seven or eight years later, quite a few of the faces remain!  However, the ones that remain are those that were willing to challenge me, their colleagues, and, most importantly, themselves.  They are the true learners, and, to be fair, I also learned much from them as well.