Allan Cohen is the Distinguished Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College since 1982, currently in residence San Francisco campus. Includes seven years as VP Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty, leading major curriculum and organizational changes. Co-author of several widely read books: Effective Behavior in Organizations (7 editions); Managing for Excellence; Power Up: Transforming Organizations through Shared Leadership; Influence without Authority (third edition in press); and Entrepreneurship in Every Generation. Has consulted on a variety of leadership and change projects for entrepreneurial to major organizations, including GE and IBM. Non-profit Boards. AB Amherst College, MBA, DBA Harvard Business School.
How did you get into the industry?
I backed in. Every job I looked at after getting an MBA seemed lethally boring, conventional and repetitive. I found that I could spend a year in the Philippines, writing teaching cases for a possible management institute, in affiliation with Harvard Business School. And if I registered in the HBS doctoral program, I could fulfill one requirement. Not only that, I would be able to travel around the world and live in another culture. I wasn’t focused on a career in higher education, but enjoyed the field work in different organizations, learning another culture, and doing some free-lance teaching. On the way back to the US I traveled through India and was totally captivated. To my delight, the first day back at Harvard, I discovered a new project to help begin the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. I said, “sign me up.” That led to two years creating teaching materials, and getting immersed in everything involved in a startup business school. In the process, I decided on a dissertation topic and collected all the complex case data needed for it, on Indian family business. I loved everything about the two years there, and was hooked. I realized that I could help make a dent in the vast economic and social problems of an overwhelmingly challenging place by finding ways to develop the managerial, leadership and entrepreneurial talents of people there.
Any emerging industry trends?
Partly as a response to the constantly increasing costs of higher education, one major trend is online education, in various forms. At its most extreme are MOOCS, Massive Open Online Courses, offered to anyone with an internet connection, free if no college credit is given, or for a modest fee if credit is granted. Early romanticism about making education available to everyone everywhere has diminished somewhat, as it turns out that most such courses are completed by those who already have some higher education, but the proportion of education delivered using distance technology has been increasing dramatically, even in residential institutions. Blended models, where some of a course is face to face and some online (and a portion of the online may be asynchronous while a portion is synchronous, with or without video) have become much more common. Considerable experimentation is underway to find ways of making this kind of delivery more engaging and involving.
Another emerging trend is towards making higher education more experiential, utilizing variations of what has been called the flipped classroom, where content is delivered ahead of time and classroom time is more discussion or experience based. Experimentation has been going on for a long time, but there appears to be greater acceptance that education is more than telling, and more interest in how to more fully engage students. There is still a long way to go, however.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
There is still plenty to be examined and explored. Central to a considerable amount of actual work in almost every field already, and much more in the future, will be the need for coping with complexity, great ambiguity and uncertainty; tackling challenges for which there are no known answers; becoming comfortable working collaboratively with people whose expertise is not always clear due to barriers of language, distance and expertise; and where leadership is mostly about artful influence not conventional authority.
Far too few universities/business schools are designed to help students learn to be comfortable or skilled in this kind of territory, except in a small number of elective or experimental courses.Further, think of the extraordinary challenges of getting faculty in discipline-centric universities and business schools to genuinely collaborate, to integrate their disciplines to create courses where there are not predetermined answers to closed ended questions, where they are not preoccupied with control, where fieldwork and experience based activities are central to the education rather than add-ons that sometimes do not even carry “credit.”
How can the occasional experiential course be documented and used as evidence of imparting something transformative in helping students learn to embrace the thrill of not knowing, of being plunged into messiness and unorganized data, of figuring out how to work with “strangers” and rapidly generating trust and understanding, of being willing to confront a colleague who isn’t carrying his or her share of the work and not wait for the boss, who may be in a remote location, to do something about it, and so on.
Then, how can these skills be balanced with the acquisition of necessary information, theory, analytical capacity, in an age where information is increasingly available on a just in time basis? How does core knowledge get selected as the ground on which the higher order skills are acquired, not just as an end in itself? And how do we assure that domain expertise is possessed as a result of sophisticated educational processes that insure high capacity for future learning under incredible uncertainty?
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
Ironically, the inspiration for all of this is the success so far of Babson’s successful innovation. A relatively small college with modest resources, in the 80s Babson was forced to become more
student-centered in its curriculum to remain competitive. We (painfully) underwent radical curriculum reform, inventing a thoroughly integrated curriculum that gained national attention, much better students, higher rankings, and new sources of funds. Employers noticed the difference in our students’ adaptability and readiness to learn. A second major innovation about 15 years later was the agreement to infuse the entire curriculum with what we called Entrepreneurial Thought and Action,® designed to inspire students and executives who have a passion for creating economic value while incorporating concerns for people and planet, learning to be agile thinkers who create and capitalize on opportunities to make a difference. Again, the results are very positive, but we see how much farther we can go.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
We are working to deepen student experiences in more parts of the curricula (undergraduate and graduate). We want to make our blended MBA even more convenient for the experienced students working full time while taking full advantage of their ongoing work experiences and opportunities to be using what they learn as they go (and teaching each other). At the same time we are encouraging faculty to push themselves to utilize student experience more, thereby giving up some predictability in the classroom. Since none of this can be mandated, skilled leadership, using the very influence skills needed for work outside of higher education institutions, must be utilized.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
When I was VP for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty, I had overall responsibility for all academic activities and faculty during the period that we radically integrated the MBA curriculum, and subsequently much of the undergraduate curriculum. Dozens of related changes were necessary to make those changes possible, including criteria for hiring, developing and promoting faculty, timing of courses, development of teaching materials and so on. I worked with remarkable deans and faculty directors, division (department) chairs, individual faculty, the president, the board, and many others to coax, push, support, plead for, make some decisions on behalf of, and keep articulating the value of the changes. Sometimes what I did was visible, often behind the scenes, and reasonably often opposed by a significant subset of faculty members. I had the full support of the (non-academic) president, some good fortune in external recognition for our accomplishments and financial contributions, and patience from an academic and consulting understanding of major change processes. And as a long time faculty member, I have often been involved in curriculum design issues, such as in the original blended MBA experiments.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
It has never been about one moment. As mentioned, major change takes time in the academic world. For some, my willingness to keep things open-ended was maddeningly slow, because they had been frustrated by resistant traditionalists who had many times in the past killed change initiatives. I believed that a long “softening up” period was necessary, with considerable exposure to external competition and threats. For others, my insistence on changing the way we determined “load” was irritating, because they knew well how to game the traditional system -- that didn’t fit the new “not all courses are the same length” system. On the undergraduate side, where mandated by accreditation half the curriculum was business but the other half was liberal arts, differing faculty cultures and values slowed cooperation even more. Probably my biggest learning was that faculty resisted early attempts by anyone in an administrative role – even a previously respected colleague – who tried to (vigorously) propose a vision for education, but were deeply critical of anyone in such a role who tried to lead without a vision. The secret was to push working on true educational dilemmas in a reality-based context, and only offer a broad overarching vision later on, when it could be seen as resolving some of the dilemmas in an inclusive way. And related to that, the process of arriving at final decisions has to be open and perceived as fair, but must eventually be brought to a vote, rather than derailed by a strong few dissenting so that it appears that most are against what is being proposed, and all original ideas dropped too soon. We also learned to find the most simpatico faculty and help them get together for planning and pilot programs, so that we oculd develop proof of concept and deep relationships. Integrated executive programs, for example, where no academic credit is granted so no departmental silos were in control, allowed for experimentation and development of innovative teaching materials that could be adapted into degree programs.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
In education for the future, this is paradoxical. If the world is becoming as uncertain as I have claimed, the ideal educational experiences will necessarily involve considerable discomfort. Learning to embrace the discomfort on behalf of working through it to be creative under ambiguity will be at the core of appropriate education. And learning to create the right amount of discomfort – and sell students on its value – will be part of the process. Some time ago a colleague adapted learning theory and declared the Cohen-Bradford 15% rule: to get maximum learning, push others 15% past where they are comfortable. Too uncomfortable and they will freeze or give up, too comfortable and there is no reason to change. (We didn’t create a hard measure of this; in organizational life, you tell by feel). But you can manage it. And I confess, I still don’t always get it right.
How do you motivate others?
Having written several books on this subject, I will try to be concise. In Influence without Authority, (the third edition of which will be out in Oct. 2017) Bradford and I built a model based on reciprocity and exchange. People allow themselves to be influenced because they believe that in some way, they will be paid back for their cooperation. Reciprocity appears to be a universal principle in every culture. Although simple in concept, and rather automatic among people who know and trust one another, in organizational life this can become quite complicated. What is equivalent value for what is given? When does it have to be paid back? What if the relationship is not a good one, a poor one, or non-existent? What if the stakes are high? What if the power between the two parties is highly unequal? And so on?
Because exchange is involved we adopted the metaphor of currencies for what people value. This is a useful way for thinking about what the person to be influenced (motivated) might want, and for what you might be able to offer. The exchange can be explicit or implicit, immediate or subsequent, but as long as the other party is satisfied, motivation is accomplished, and generally, the relationship is strengthened.
Motivating others, then, requires paying attention to what they care about and finding a way to offer that. Since the person or group you want to motivate may not want to tell you what they care about, listening carefully, noticing their language, spending time building the relationship, giving something valued before being asked to help, all can help create trust and feelings of reciprocity. The core principle is to know enough about the other to give something valued.
It turns out those in organizations who acquire the most influence have the most relationships, and often find ways to be helpful to others long before they know that they will need something back. Further, those who are seen as only trading in their own personal interests earn distrust, which eventually diminishes their ability to gain cooperation. Reciprocity works positively and negatively; authenticity matters.
I not only write about this but have always tried to practice it, and have found that it works.
Career advice to those in your industry?
Since a research track record will be the license for doing anything else, I will start there. Most important, begin by deciding on important questions to which you really want to know the answers, and the answers to which will matter. Don’t start with a technique or tool in search of a problem, even if it makes producing research outcomes easier. You will do better work if you are driven by passionate curiosity rather than checking off the boxes for career success.
If the view I have offered of the distance between the current and future state of higher education is correct, there are exciting opportunities for transformation. If you can find a way to become involved with attempts to address the challenges—needs for helping educate for complexity, coping with ambiguity and uncertainty, analytical complexity, influence skills, collaboration across disciplines – do it. Get on task forces and committees, aggravating as they can be, and get to know as many people as you can. Work to understand the others and their views, assumptions, backgrounds, languages, concerns – currencies – building connections that will be helpful, or just satisfying, in the future. Go to conferences and do the same. Do visiting stints abroad in interesting institutions to increase your perspectives. But only get into administrative roles to work on making important changes that make a difference, not just for higher pay or to gain prestige or affection. As I wrote once, if you get into administration to be liked, you are looking for love in all the wrong places. Aim high. Eventually, if you help make significant changes, you may be appreciated, but it will be long afterwards, after many slings and arrows have come your way. Focus on the difference you have made for students and those they touch.