Interview with Gerard Seijts

IBR talks with Ivey's foremost expert on leadership about organizational change, culture, and the benefits of diversity

GS bioIBR: How do leaders, when assuming a new and challenging role, ensure that they demonstrate cross-enterprise leadership?

GS: Any person stepping into a leadership position must bring an integrated view of the organization or department in order to be successful in his or her role. Good leaders – whether it’s in academia or business – understand the important and unique contribution that each function in the organization has to offer: marketing, accounting, operations, finance, etc. They have to because there typically are no finance problems; there are only business problems, which oftentimes require solutions that touch on the various functional disciplines. Leaders must therefore take the time to learn about each element of the organization if they are not already familiar with those. When making a transition into a new role or new organization, leaders must spend the time to listen first – to many different voices, and then slowly start to tackle the issues with a truly cross-enterprise perspective in mind.

IBR: What is the benefit of diversity within an organization?

GS: Look, if six people on your senior executive team continually agree on issues, then five people are redundant. Diversity is a good thing – in terms of gender, age, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, functional background, and so forth. As a leader, you not only need to create a diverse environment, but also leverage diversity. You need to be able to create a culture where people feel free to challenge you, raise concerns, and speak with candor. In the financial crisis, there were too many organizations where that simply wasn’t the case – there was no culture of constructive dissent. Think about it … how often do people come storming into your office saying “we have a hell of a problem here!”. People may be reluctant to do that. People often tell the leader what he or she wants to hear, not what they need to hear. In some organizations you become the problem if you raise a problem.

Leaders therefore must go out on the floor and learn to listen to the whispers and get information first-hand from diverse sources. My point is simply this – you can create a diverse workforce, but as a leader you also need to learn to take advantage of it. Learning to listen to the whispers is crucial for leaders aiming to pick up the signals necessary to make informed decisions.

IBR: What ability does a leader have to change a culture that may have predated their tenure?

GS: I believe that leaders who are new to the organization and who are asked to bring change should understand the organization and its core values but, at the same time, should never be afraid to put those values up for discussion. For example, when Jack Welch stepped back [from CEO of General Electric], Jeffrey Immelt took the top job. However, the two other candidates to succeed Welch went to different organizations where they did not do well and their tenure was short-lived. As industry experts observed, both may have fallen for the belief that what had worked at GE could be readily transplanted to 3M and Home Depot. What both examples showed, however, is that culture can be very resilient. There are many examples of people stepping into leadership in an organization, who eventually derailed the firm because they didn’t fully appreciate the culture. Ivey has a culture, or a set of expectations, and I think both students and faculty must understand that culture in order to do well.

IBR: As we go into Ivey’s leadership transition, how can the new Dean best adjust to the challenges associated with a transition?

GS: Job or leadership transitions are challenging. Michael Watkins from IMD wrote about two challenges that any leader must master when transitioning into a new role, both equally important. First, the organizational change challenge; what must you do to transform the organization or department to achieve high performance? Second, the personal adaptive challenge; what must you do in terms of adjusting your style and building competencies to be successful in the new role? Personally, I think that for most people the second challenge is the most difficult to master. Of course, we can help any leader by giving the full support that is needed to set him or her up for success.