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Thought leader, Pioneer or Market spin?

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In January 2015, in a Blog Where are the thought leaders?  I questioned the absence of business thought leaders in Australia. It was a “cry for business leadership in Australia”! More recently I published a Blog called “The Messiah is Us” proposing that maybe “it is us” who should stand up! Being a Thought Leader is everybody’s responsibility

As an emerging consultant, I first read the term thought leaders in a document written by David Tierno, National Director Management Consulting group, Arthur Young. (later to become Ernst and Young). In 1986, I had been consulting for 8 years as an internal consultant with the Public Sector. I was headhunted by Arthur Young in a move by the Big 8 to establish themselves in the Management Consulting market. I was dismissive of the “arrogance” I believed it demonstrated.  It was just another buzz word from the US!

“Yet it is not enough to be highly regarded by our clients. We must be visible to a potential client and to the business community. This involves taking an active role in making people aware of our fine reputation.  We have to write influential articles and books; participate in university research and become spokespeople in the media and in professional AND industry groups. In short, we have to be viewed as thought leaders in our profession.”

David A Tierno, National Director Management Consulting group (MCG86-1195b)

How could we be thought leaders? This was the realm of academics and/or the people who write the books and articles. In the Consulting world, I was developing modest competence but..….a thought leader?  There were real thought leaders in a body of knowledge called Organisation Development out there and I had read their work:

  • Kurt Lewin (Groups and Group process)
  • Malcolm Knowles (Adult Learning)
  • Emery and Trist (Socio-Technical Systems)
  • Douglas MacGregor (Motivation)
  • Blake and Mouton (Social Systems and leadership)
  • Edgar Schein (Process Consultation)
  • Warren Bennis (Leadership)
  • Chris Argyris (Learning Organisations)

There was also an emerging body of work on management with Peter Drucker as “high priest”. This was really thought leadership! The Australian Institute of Management was the emerging professional body for Managers and was considered a hub of Management education. This was before Business Schools and MBA’s became the currency. Anything done by management consultants was an implementation of someone else’s thoughts. Typically, it was driven by the accounting profession. In the 1970’s there were very few Management Consultants in Australia – and fewer thought leaders. Professor Dexter Dunphy stands out as iconic.

It is hard to imagine now, but there was little management taught at a tertiary level and Business Administration degrees were in their very early stages (a few subjects in a commerce degree.)

Early Days

It was in this environment I started my consulting career. In those early days, it was the very inexperienced being led by very little and by very few.

One of the very first projects (1976) I worked on was the measurement of workload for the purposes of allocating people to work units. The data was recorded in work units and forwarded to the computer EDP department. The data was entered into the system and a major print out was delivered every week.  Each request for more resources was evaluated after reviewing these results. The reviews assessed each work unit with a plus or minus in terms of the appropriateness of the resources. It was the early days of computers.  This was regarded as a very sophisticated system. The first in Australia! My role was to read the computer reports and present the report to the managers. Information technology was barely a concept then and it was all very new. It had never been done before in this organisation. Thought leader?

Following this, I was one of the early Staff Development people appointed in the Public Sector. This was genuine pioneering.  When I started it was a “green field” site and a huge struggle for me to work out what I was supposed to do. From there I was appointed to the newly established Personnel Department in a large Statutory Authority.  A pioneer? This was the cusp of a ‘new’ profession.

Any further projects I worked on in that era were based on the work of ‘thought leaders.’ Some of these projects included:

  • Performance Appraisal Systems
  • Work Performance Measurement Systems
  • Management and Leadership Development Programs
  • Career Development Programs
  • Socio-Technical Systems Projects – Job design, Self-Managed Work Systems and:
  • Team Building

In 1980, I worked with a genuine thought leader. He was the leader who helped me understand how to convert the work of thought leaders into action. It was a large project in a  Statutory Authority. A Management Consulting firm had conducted an organisational review and left a voluminous report with many recommendations. Our role was to work with the management to implement the recommendations and assist with the implementation of a major commuter installation. The consulting model we were learning about was Process Consultation

The brief for the project became:

  1. The development of Management systems and
  2. the development of management and operational information systems
  3. It was linked with the introduction of a major mainframe computer installation – the whole business was to be transformed by this major technology investment! It was pioneering stuff – thought leader?

We used a range of tools: Work System Analysis, Project Planning Frameworks – Job Design combined with Team Building, Role Clarification, Conflict Resolution – one on one and group on group.  Management and Leadership Training was an integral part of the strategy. We certainly saw our work as pioneering! But thought leaders? As we worked with these interventions our colleague (a thought leader) used to say “just have a go!  there are no mistakes because no one here knows what you should be doing!”

One intervention which was the anchor for it all was Strategic Planning. This was before Michael Porter has published his definitive work “Competitive Strategy”. Ackoff and Ansoff were thought leaders that we were reading plus a range of writers (mentioned above) on Organisation Development and Change Management.The work of Reg Revans on Action Learning was influential in our thinking.

My thinking then and now was influenced by this Organisation Development movement which is well documented in the work of Art Kleiner “The Age of Heretics”. How human beings reached their potential (the human potential movement) was a form of thought leadership which I was passionate about.

A perspective – 40 years

It is interesting to reflect now from the vantage point of 40 years, from where thought leaders emerged and who are the thought leaders who have guided my work over that time. In the 90’s Michael Porter, Peter Senge, Gary Hamel in the area of strategy and learning stand out. In other areas, there are many others.

In the early 80’s I remember sitting with some colleague consultants and pondering what the next major shift/fad would be. In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters (a McKinsey Consultant) was published. It was one of the very early empirical studies on a business organisation. The consulting world was a buzz with packages and workshops proselytising the nine principles articulated in Part III Back to Basics. (I still have my original copy!)

  1. Managing Ambiguity and Paradox
  2. A Bias for Action
  3. Close to the Customer
  4. Autonomy and Entrepreneurship
  5. Productivity through People
  6. Hands-on Value Driven
  7. Stick to the Knitting
  8. Simple Form, Lean Staff
  9. Simultaneous Loose-Tight Properties

This was one of the very first popular management texts and would have been sold in the Business Section of airport bookstores if there had been any.

In conjunction with this concept, of organisation culture became the ‘fad’ of the mid 80’s – the whole culture of organisations in Australia needed to be changed? Fred Hilmer(a former McKinsey Managing Partner) talked about a new mindset for Australian Business in “When the Luck Runs Out”: Copyright 1985  Harper Row (Aus) Pty Ltd.

He highlighted:

  • A trusting environment
  • Widespread experimenting
  • A driving purpose
  • A positive approach
  • Real Jobs
  • A network of teams

At least one major Government body spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a program called Vision 2000 to educate their staff on the changes coming and how to respond. Thought leadership?

The late 80’s and the 90’s produced a plethora of ideas thoughts and concepts. The associated consulting firms – large, small and solo practitioners – ‘selling’ – proselytising a concept or business idea. It was a period of economic reform and restructuring in Australia so there were many changes occurring.

Micro Economic reform was the buzz:

  • Award Restructuring
  • Corporatisation and Commercialisation of many Statutory Bodies
  • Amalgamation of Tertiary Institutions

It was in these areas I led projects.

As my work (management consulting) evolved over 40 years it was common for me to work with clients over extended periods of time in what now is called coaching and/or mentoring.  For me, it was a natural extension of my consulting work.  It did not occur to me as it evolved, that just doing it was a way of being thought leader.  When coaching and mentoring emerged in popular usage as distinct products, I suspected it was just another fad.  How wrong I was!

Now a search on the web will produce millions of references.  In saying that, it occurs to me that in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s thought leaders were few.  Hearing about the ‘thought’ by word of mouth, buying the book or attending a Conference were obvious sources.  I can remember discovering the internet in the early 90’s and being completely overwhelmed.  It certainly changed the way I worked and lived. There are now 72,000,000 references to thought leadership!

Since 1990 there has been a tsunami of business literature from serious researchers in universities (eg Jim Collins), retired CEO’s telling ‘war stories” (eg Lee Iacocca as one of the first), authors who have written about great CEOs and businesses, management consulting firms and a range of no names claiming to be thought leaders.

What is does it mean to be a Thought Leader?

In writing this Blog I am pondering the issues: what is thought leader?

More recently in a newsletter of the International Institute of Directors and Managers, I read a short article ‘Demystifying Thought Leadership’ by Gabrielle Dolan.

She says:

“The term thought leadership was first coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, then the editor-in-chief of the magazine Strategy and Business. It was he who said, “Thought leaders are those people who possess a distinctively original idea, a unique point of view, or an unprecedented insight into their industry.”

In some industries, the term is tarnished because of the number of individuals and companies self-proclaiming they are thought leaders.  In truth, how many can hold themselves accountable to Kurtzman’s definition?

Many companies often think they already have thought leaders when in fact, what they have, is subject matter experts (SMEs). The stepping-stone or solid foundation for someone to become a thought leader is an authority in a particular area or topic. However, SMEs are only known within your company, whereas a thought leader will be known throughout your industry and even beyond.

It is interesting that she attributes the term to Joel Kurzman.  It maybe that he was responsible for its popularisation. I certainly had seen it and experienced it in the mid 80’s.

There are some interesting questions for me to ponder? Am I a thought leader? Or am I a social technology pioneer – a thoughtful person who can ingest ideas and thoughts and work out how to apply them on the ground in a chaotic and challenging business world.

It seems to me being a thought leader imposes many obligations.  One is “the unique point of view”. As we are all born unique necessarily our points of view are unique so that is manageable! BUT the primary one for me is represented by the words of  St Francis:

Preach the gospel often and if you must use words!

I do wonder about this?




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