Thinking Strategically, Leading Effectively
Interview with – B. K. Simerson, EdD
Interview by – Laura Oswald (Partner, St. Charles Consulting Group)
In late Spring 2014, St. Charles Partner Laura Oswald sat down with B. K. Simerson to talk about learning and leadership and his newest book, which addresses them both: Leading with Strategic Thinking (Wiley, 2015; written with Aaron Olson). Over the course of his career, B. K. has worked in public service, private industry, and academia, and he has consulted with dozens of different organizations in the U.S. and across the globe. Thus, he not only brings an amazing amount of contextual experience, but he also brings broad, well-grounded perspectives that help cut through the “noise” that vastly complicates today’s unprecedented leadership challenges. We are honored that B. K. has served as a St. Charles Consultant on a number of different occasions, and we are grateful to B. K. for taking the time out of his schedule to share the views that he has so thoughtfully developed, in many contexts, over many years. Thank you, B. K.
When you reflect on your career and the stops along the way, what is one of the most significant learning experiences that you have had and what makes it so significant?
When I think back on my career … when I think about concepts, principles, and tools that I apply today, the origin for many of them go back to the basic training that I received as a police officer in North Carolina.
North Carolina’s basic training for police officers is considered to be a model – in fact, many other states send their high-potential officers through the North Carolina program. When I went through, its multi-dimensional design was ahead of its time – in the classroom, we spent significant time in role play exercises and simulations. We had to work through cases. We conducted problem solving analysis. All of the content was integrated and focused on preparing us not only to survive, but to thrive on the streets.
Perhaps most long-lasting, the experience taught me the importance of personal, as well as situational, awareness – not only the importance of it, but also what it takes to develop the skill and apply it effectively.
When you think about the training and learning and performance development in general that’s happening now in our business world, what are some of the biggest mistakes you think that organizations are making currently?
I see two big mistakes that organizations make when it comes to learning.
The first big mistake is that many organizations seem to be acting on a blind spot. The blind spot is evident in the belief that performance and capability development primarily occurs through training and learning. They fail to realize that capability development occurs best with a more encompassing strategy. In addition to training and learning, you have to consider the organization structure and context – how do systems, how do processes, how does technology impact the ability for employees to be successful? In organizations that have this blind spot, you often see an over-emphasis on one aspect of the development environment and an under-emphasis in another.
This brings me to the second big mistake that organizations make when it comes to learning and, that, is many organizations act on distinct biases. I have worked with organizations that exhibit a strong bias toward technology, for example …They feel that, regardless of the challenge or opportunity you have or face, the solution has to be a technology-driven solution. Whereas, in my view, the solution really does need to be more systemic and systematic. In a similar way, many organizations are biased to traditional in-classroom training … That is what their senior-most leaders know and feel contributed to their success. Therefore, that’s what would be good for developing the next generation of leaders. Whereas, in my view, a smart blend of action learning, case studies, role play exercises, simulations, everything to make it one step closer to reality – that’s the most impactful. That’s the most effective training and learning.
Taking a look at the flip side, what are some of the great success stories that you’ve seen, situations in the workplace where learning has been exceptionally well implemented and has make a real difference in performance?
Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago has given me authorization to share their success story …
When Lurie Children’s Hospital recently had to relocate its main base of operations from a facility in one area of Chicago to a brand new facility in Chicago’s Michigan Avenue district, it posed a major disruption.
When you think about it, transfer of a hospital is not like transfer of an airport, for example, where you can postpone, re-route, and delay flights. With Children’s Hospital, there was a population of young patients very needy of assistance and support – before, during, and after the move. Now in retrospect, the move went exceedingly well! Here are some success considerations:
They started preparing for their move almost five years in advance.
Over that period, they created a consolidated suite of workshops, courses, and other programs to support the change. They were well aware that many of the health care professionals, staff employees, patients, and members of the community were committed to the old facility, and their goal was to help individuals work through the transition.
They created 3-D models that employees, staff, physicians, nurses, and ancillary care folks could come in and see – 3-D models of what the new facility would look like.
They created virtual reality (VR) systems where, after connecting to the VR platform, a physician, nurse, or technician could enter the building, walk down the hall, enter the unit that they’d be working in. You could even open and close cabinet drawers. With this ability to explore, individuals developed an understanding of what they were going to experience in the new building.
They did lots of other creative things, too, but this is a great example of what I suggested earlier about taking a systemic, strategic approach. Lurie Children’s Hospital been recognized in numerous journals and magazines for the work they did around that particular move. The kudos are much deserved.
Shifting more to leadership topics now … In your opinion, are we in the midst of a leadership crisis? If so, how do you characterize that crisis?
Personally, I don’t think we are in the midst of a leadership crisis. I do think that there are challenges, but I do not think that the magnitude of challenge justifies referring to it as a crisis.
We are working with leaders who are under a tremendous amount of pressure, pressure coming from inside the organization as well as from outside the organization. We are working with a generation of leaders who, in many cases, have not been tested in this kind of environment. Because of this intensifying pressure situation, some leaders are doing things that they perhaps would not normally do, and they’re failing to do things that they typically would do. Along with that, they are sending mixed messages, and the influence that these leaders exert on their stakeholder groups is proving to be suboptimal at best. I do not think it’s intentional … or un-fixable. I think it is simply the natural result of the current demands of the business environment.
What are some of your ideas on what leaders can do to become more adept at handling pressure situations?
Today’s leaders have considerable opportunity to bolster their personal and situational awareness, and I think this would make a meaningful difference. In my conversations with leaders, I suggest they draw from three disciplines.
The first discipline is cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology is about thinking and creativity. It’s about the questions you ask and the problems you try to solve. Leveraging cognitive psychology, leaders can become alert to their blind spots and biases and sharpen their problem-solving skills.
The second discipline is systems thinking. Systems thinking is all about how organizations behave, and it is quite complex as its rules are based on ever-shifting inter-relationships and inter-dependencies. With better mastery of systems thinking, leaders can begin to understand and anticipate how, when they change one element, there can be important effects on other parts of the system.
The third discipline is game theory. Game theory basically reinforces that decisions are not made in a vacuum, and no action is isolated. In competitive situations, with greatly conflicting priorities, a well-developed understanding of game theory fundamentals will enhance the effectiveness of scenario-based contingency planning and the ability to make strategic decisions.
You and Aaron Olson have recently come out with your book, Leading With Strategic Thinking. Can you describe the approach to strategic leadership that you are espousing in the book, and what specifically makes it distinctive and actionable?
In five years of research, analysis, and writing, Aaron and I created an approach that, if you were to use one word, it’s “contextual” in nature. Our approach basically says that, if you are a strategic leader, you will be keenly aware of your context, and there are certain things that you will do to be effective.
We found that strategic leaders constantly monitor the environment. They seek to identify patterns and trends that need to be taken into consideration in drawing their conclusions, making their decisions, and helping their teams proceed forward toward a particular place or point in time.
We also found that effective leaders make decisions. As they do so, they do all that they can to involve others, so that others feel that the decisions that they make are right, just, and credible.
Finally, we found that successful leaders take action to mitigate, reduce, and avoid risk. In analyzing the environment and in making business decisions, they are always mindful of risk conditions.
Can you briefly describe the four types of leadership that you have identified in your book, and what an organization can do to ensure that they have the right types of leaders for their needs and aspirations?
In our work, we first identified the variety of different contexts in which leaders work and operate, think and function. Then, on the basis of the research, we identified those leadership types that are most appropriate for those various contexts, those various situations.
There are four types of strategic leaders: Visionary, Director, Incubator, and Collaborator.
For Visionary, think Walt Disney, the person as well as the organization. Walt Disney and all that it now represents is based on a big vision and an passionate drive to change the world. Unwavering tenacity – commitment to the dream – is what resulted in Disney’s phenomenal success.
For Director, think GE – General Electric – the organization. GE is about structure, discipline, governance, responsibility, accountability – it is very sophisticated in systems and processes, and they’re constantly focusing on continuous improvement. That’s one of the reasons GE is considered to be the CEO factory of the world.
For Incubator, think 3M, the organization. 3M highly values innovation, encouraging people to work individually and together in teams to develop new, actionable product concepts. To attain a revenue goal of 30% from new products, they have created a culture that is highly creative and experimental, reinforced by systems designed specifically to support the innovation process.
Finally, for Collaborator, think Nelson Mandela. Mandela realized that, in order to create a different society – one that is more inclusive and just – you cannot do it simple with good intentions and great ideas. Instead, you have to institutionalize it through actions – and he created a mechanism – the Truth and Reconciliation Council – that required individuals to come together and work through issues together.
With your expertise in leadership, what do you think should be top priorities in any serious effort to improve the quality of leadership in an organization?
I think the effort should be aimed to position leadership in two fundamental ways:
One, the organization’s environment needs to encourage the followers in an organization to ask three questions and to have leaders who are able to give cogent answers to all three: 1) Where are you trying to take me? 2) Why should I follow you? 3) How are you going to help me get to that final destination?
Two, leaders must be accountable and take responsibility for how they lead … When a challenge or opportunity surfaces, before leaders respond, they need to assess: 1) given the prevailing situation and context, what leadership roles/attributes should I be emphasizing? What aspects/activities should I be focusing on? As the context shifts, am I prepared to shift my attention and emphasis?
Now that the book that you co-authored on leadership is published and available, what is next for you? Is there anything special coming up on the horizon that you have planned?
Right now, Aaron and I plan to create an electronic-based simulation (with assessment) that complements the book by giving individuals the opportunity to learn more about themselves as strategic thinkers and strategic leaders, then to put an action plan together for increasing agility along those dimensions.
I could also foresee additional writing with Aaron in the future. Writing a book with someone else is very challenging, but we got through the process – characterized by difficult editor directions and very aggressive timelines (and deadlines) – with even higher regard for each other than when we began. As colleagues on the faculty in the Master of Leadership and Organizational Change (MSLOC) program at Northwestern University, we were building on an already very good working relationship.
If you could give a piece of advice to an individual leader … Someone reading this interview or listening to it who is a leader and knows that he or she could be a better leader than currently. What would be your single piece of advice to start that person off on a journey of getting better?
My distilled advice would be this: Become more self-reflective, and follow through with action. Also, part of that action should involve pulling in others. Leaders need to recognize that they cannot do it alone. Effective leadership requires a team.
It is important to be honest, authentic, and realistic in your assessment of both your organization as well as yourself. In this, it is also important to admit that none of us is all-knowing, that we are operating under a lot of pressure, and that we’re having to manage numerous, conflicting priorities. Share the challenge, and bring others into your circle of trust.
Biography: B. K. Simerson, EdD
B. Keith (B. K.) Simerson has more than two decades of experience working for and providing consultation to corporations, privately held companies, professional services firms, and government agencies. B. K. helps organizations develop and execute enterprise-wide and business unit-level strategic plans and provides consultation, executive coaching, and leadership development in the areas of strategy formulation and execution. In addition to consulting, B. K. is: 1) a member of the graduate faculty of Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, where he focuses on strategic thinking, strategy formulation, strategic planning, and strategy execution, and 2) on the Corporate Board of Directors of USCorp, a Nevada company.
B. K. earned his EdD with emphasis in management and organization development from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He earned an MA with emphasis in administration, supervision, and higher education from Appalachian State University. B. K. also holds BA and AAS degrees and specialty certifications.