In 2017, John Chambers (who was then CEO of Cisco Systems) was the guest speaker in an executive education class at Harvard Business School, where he delivered the following message: “A decade or two ago, CEOs could be in their offices with spreadsheets, executing on strategy. Now, if you’re not out listening to the market and catching market transitions, […] if you’re not understanding that you need to constantly reinvent yourself every three to five years, you as a CEO will not survive.”
The ability to evolve with the market, he posited, was the key to success, and it wasn’t just for CEOs of tech companies. Society and work had begun to reflect the tenets of digital culture, and even if organisations didn’t consider themselves as being principally in technology, the expectations being placed on leadership were such that leaders required more versatility. Chambers noted that leading executives had confided, in a 2017 survey, that their skills were depreciating at a significant rate (B. Groysberg, S. Abbot, K. Connolly Baden, “Resolving to Stay Relevant in 2018”) The Official Board, January 2018. www.theofficialboard.com). Those executives knew that they needed to stay relevant, but they didn’t necessarily know how. That’s a great difference. Chambers, for instance, spent more time with start-ups than with any other group within the Cisco customer base. Why? “They think exponentially, as opposed to linearly.” (Quotes from Chambers are cited as ‘class sessions and after-class interviews, Executive Education Sessions for CEOs, Harvard Business School, Boston, Feb 1 2017 and Mar 17 2017’ in special section of MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter 2020, “Frontiers: (Re)Learn to Lead” article by Boris Groysberg and Tricia Gregg).
Exponential vs linear: there is an important distinction. As I read and cogitated on this article and class-visit scenario, I couldn’t help but think about educational leadership. We’ve codified it well: witness the myriad programmes in educational leadership. It seems that everyone offers a master’s or doctorate in educational leadership. Codification into a programme that can be structured and offered across a spectrum of education providers (universities, qualifications bodies, and so forth) is possible when we are linear. But what if we need to be exponential? Can that be codified?
Aforementioned co-authors Groysberg and Gregg (both at Harvard Business School) engaged in a study to identify a set of commonalities in leaders that were/have been highly regarded for their abilities to shift their organisations in exponential ways, and came up with one key similarity: “all of them were directly involved in inventing and producing offerings, even as they steered their respective ships.” They acknowledge that this approach “sounds like a distraction from strategic thinking,” which is where most [school] leaders would draw the line. Yet, this is their very argument. The leader needs to engage in strategic thinking and be an actor in inventing/producing because the latter is where the exponential nature of leadership can occur; it is here where leaders remain relevant. In their research, they call these kinds of leaders PELMs, or Producer-Expert-Leader-Managers. The authors explain, “They understand their products intuitively because, to no small degree, they helped create them. They impress their customers with their technical prowess. And they inspire their staff because they work not just above but also beside them.” Further, they propose that “this is the future for CEOs across many sectors–and that this future is already upon us.”
Were this the desirable approach in schools, we’d have to consider redefinition not only of the top leadership position, the spectrum of senior leadership positions (e.g. division heads, etc.) would require redefinition as well…in terms of relationships and responsibilities, if nothing else. Would the perception be that the head of school (HoS) would be in everyone else’s business, all the time? One could view it that way. Or one could view it as a new way of working with an expert (a PELM, to use the earlier acronym), which could serve to propel a senior leader toward the top leadership position in a school, in the very near future. Such an approach might well require us to redefine the notion of the senior leadership team altogether, and it would have profound implications for leadership development (as a paradigm).
The implications are not limited to the senior leadership team alone, however. Let’s consider a board responsibility: succession planning. If a school has a PELM as its leader, the board will have come to see that style of leadership as normative behaviour, from a cultural perspective. Although boards always seem to have a certain number of trustees/governors/directors who might like things to revert to the way “they used to be,” the reality is more likely that the school is already on a certain trajectory, and the board will want that trajectory to continue. As such, say the co-authors, boards (their search committees) “should consider a candidate’s track record as a producer and expert […].” If these elements were valued as part of succession planning, then executive search firms would need to become far more expert at what they say they do: matching candidates with the school. Individual search consultants would need to up-skill in order to be sufficiently fluent in different types of expertise, in order to convince boards that they (the consultants) understand exactly the type of expertise/production the board is seeking, so that the board will hire their firm for the search. You can begin to appreciate the concentric circles of change that would have to occur in the worldwide education sector, were such a redefinition to take place.
One wonders whether this redefinition has already begun in education? Or perhaps whether we’ve always had PELMs among us? For my part, I think it’s both. I think we’ve always had PELMs among us, arguably as a smaller percentage of the overall leadership cadre; yet, with rising competition in so many school markets, schools (boards and ownership groups) are seeking greater differentiation, often in the form of a particular specialism/strength. It is perhaps only natural that the push toward differentiation will begin to manifest itself in the leadership position, which in turn will cause a ripple effect of the kind mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
Watch this space.