"I’m not a traditional academic, so I’m blissfully immune to the institutionalized thinking."
That's a quote from Wendy York, dean of the Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business at Clemson University. She was heavily recruited to this position of academic dean, even though she doesn't have a Ph.D.—which is typically required of a dean. She served as an associate dean in Stanford's Graduate School of Business, and then in July 2018, became dean and first female to lead business education at Clemson University.
Business is actually her background: she held executive-level positions in small and large non-profit and for-profit organizations, including employment with Bechtel Power Corporation and Bank of America. She's started and/or ran four early-stage technology and internet companies and also co-managed a venture capital fund for more than five years.
Hiring someone who doesn't have the traditional credentials for the role, or comes from a different sector altogether, is one of the most effective ways to interrupt the standardized thinking holding people back in your organization.
Why? Because we become trapped in what we think we already know.
- We've already tried that and it didn't work.
- That's not the right audience for our products.
- This is how you're supposed to accomplish that task.
- Here's our list of vendors we've been happy with in the past.
- Here's a copy of last year's plan, all you have to do is update it.
Those might sound helpful. But beware the helpful input that makes it all too easy to maintain a status quo, rather than challenge you or your team to think new thoughts and have new ideas.
Institutional knowledge is valuable but needs to be balanced with a healthy dose of institutional ignorance—otherwise we get stuck in our old ways and we suppress individuality without knowing it.
This was one of the insights shared in a strategy session that included people from multiple industries representing various functions and roles. These emerging and senior leaders recognize that they and their peers fall into standardization traps that suppress individuals, and they are looking for ways to interrupt those patterns and unleash people.
In one conversation, two healthcare leaders (Teri Fontenot, CEO emeritus of Women's Hospital; and Rich Miller-Murphy, executive director of Laboratory and Medical Services at New York Blood Center Enterprises) talked about how institutional knowledge can keep an organization from disrupting themselves from the inside—putting them at risk of being disrupted from the outside.
They both agreed that since members of executive teams often have the longest tenure in an organization, they can be unintended roadblocks to new ideas. This is true especially if the organization already tried an idea in the past and it didn't work, or considered that idea but ultimately decided against it.
When people give those excuses ("We already tried that"), don't accept that as proof that it won't work today. Instead, Fontenot and Miller-Murphy suggest asking some questions to gain more context:
- Who tried it and why?
- Were they given proper resources?
- Did they have an incentive to succeed?
- Or were they just trying to appease someone else?
- What did the world look like then? Maybe it's changed.
Case in point: telemedicine. If you tried it a few years ago, you might not have succeeded (for plenty of reasons that have nothing to do with the viability of the idea). But during the pandemic, telemedicine was literally a life-saver.
Back to Wendy York. Her business school has made some changes that might not have been considered in the past. Thanks to her business background, she sees the need for every student—no matter their major—to finish their degrees with skills in leadership. She wants students to come out of college as thoughtful mission-driven leaders who think about other people, and think about how to impact the culture to include more people.
She led the college to develop and offer a Certificate in Leadership. The result will be students graduating with the sense of responsibility and confidence to individually make a difference wherever they are in an organization.
In your quest to find where you might be suppressing individuality, consider how you can unleash leaders who are blissfully immune enough to help you see past your own outdated standards and entrenched perspectives.
Learn more at my organization's third annual Leadership in the Age of Personalization Virtual Summit to learn how unleash individuality that will address these five critical questions:
- Who do you let in?
- How do you see those you let in?
- Who do you let them be?
- What do you let them do?
- How do you let them do it?
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