Tag: leadership



Data+Design event by the Koch Center for Family Business

Peter Boumgarden, Koch Center’s director and Olin’s Koch Professor of Practice of Family Enterprise, wrote this for the Olin Blog.

When it comes to our mission of supporting family business leaders as they pursue new ways to thrive in the emerging economy, we can learn a great deal by looking at WashU Olin’s model of being data-driven and values-based. But living this theory in practice means flexing a muscle that is often under-developed in many organizations, family businesses notwithstanding.

So what does it mean to have an eye toward relevant data while simultaneously being shaped by a guiding set of values? At the Koch Center, one way that we do this is in our unique approach to combining data and design in our engagement with the broader business community.

Inaugural data+design dession: Balancing continuity and change

On October 29, the Koch Center hosted the first of our new “data+design” series. Each of these sessions is organized around a particular strategic challenge for organizations. Our first event focused on how family and private enterprise balance a commitment to continuity with the past alongside the need to change to match any number of emerging realities.

Approximately 50 leaders from around the region participated in a session designed to leverage some of the university’s best offerings, particularly a rigorous approach to data built upon a strong research foundation. Unique to this model, we asked each participating leader to fill out an assessment that mapped their organization across several distinct dimensions before our time together. This battery of assessments included a modified version of the “World Management Survey,” a measure of business uncertainty, and an evaluation of how much they have changed over the past year and must change over the year ahead.

While it can be helpful to get objective numbers on these items, the data+design format enabled us to provide each attendee with a customized report that contrasted their self-assessment with all other attendees. Indeed, much of the value can come through this comparison. It is one thing to know you self-assessed at a “3.5” out of “5” when it comes to your company’s talent strategy, but a whole different level of insight if you know others in your organization scored this same item lower, and the average across a set of peer institutions was closer to 4.

Sample Participant Result from the Data+Design October 29 Event

With comparative data in hand, the group came together on October 29 and heard me present a set of research-backed framings on what kind of balance is especially high-performing. One study in particular from McKinsey & Company indicated that firms that maintain a relatively robust refresh rate in their product/service portfolio outperform those who do not change enough and those who change too frequently. This refresh rate of approximately 10-30% change over a decade they called “rivers” in contrast to the static “ponds” (less than 10% refresh) or overly dynamic “rapids” (over 30% change). Simultaneously presented with data about where their organization stands alongside a guiding framework to guide our discussion, and we were off to the races.

Extending rigorous measures with design and values

But back to Olin’s guiding framing, even rigorous data without a precise understanding of values runs into limits. After all, it is one thing to know your organization’s metrics compared to your peers, but the leader still has to make clear tradeoffs on what they are optimizing toward and why.

For example, core value commitments will inevitably shape whether one prioritizes progress on this dimension and how one goes about operationalizing this commitment. For example, how do leaders balance accountability with grace? What kind of patience is required as people move to aspirational performance standards? Critical considerations for building this into practice are not always easily captured in the data alone.

And so, the discussion pushed forward with designing potential futures with data in one hand and a set of guiding values in mind. The “design” part of “data+design” came in by our use of forcing mechanisms to have those present consider more than one potential future for these design challenges. “Want to professionalize your approach to growth and innovation? Let’s see if you can identify four different routes in this direction.”

In this approach, we used a modified version of the “Crazy 8’s” design prompt to push people to generate four different alternative futures. In doing so, we encouraged leaders to expand the number of strategic options too many of us consider—which Dan and Chip Heath have found is unfortunately often only one.

Generating progress through the power of data and design

Generating creative routes forward for family businesses will require creativity. In so much as this ownership form is commonplace across the country and globe, approaching questions of strategy and structure with fresh eyes holds the potential for a transformative effect for the families who lead the operations and the broader global economy.

As a university, one of our goals is to support this creativity by bringing elucidating frameworks and the precision of empirical work while at the same point leveraging the teaching function to push our thinking in ways we would not have considered previously. For us, this work requires leveraging the power of data while also operating up to the generative power of design fueled by close attention to both leader and firm values.

We look forward to walking this journey together.




The goal of any new leader is to quickly establish a high level of trust and credibility with the team. After all, numerous studies have shown that trust in leadership is linked to higher individual and team performance. However, that might not be the best strategy for long-term success, according to a new study from Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis.

That’s because trust is dynamic by nature, and it is particularly susceptible to change early in the leader’s tenure with a team when the leader is under greater scrutiny.

Researchers found that employees’ initial expectations for a new leader were an indicator of how trust levels would change over time. The higher the initial level of follower expectations, the greater the potential to experience a decline.

However, leaders who started with low or moderate levels of initial trust were more likely to experience a steep increase in trust over time, particularly when engaging in particular behaviors. That’s important because leaders who experienced increases in trust were, in turn, consistently rated more effective by their supervisors. 

“Our findings depart from conventional wisdom, which seeks to maximize the level of trust in the leader from day one,” said Kurt Dirks, vice chancellor for international affairs and the Bank of America Professor of Leadership at Olin Business School.

Dirks

“Although having a high level of employee trust in a leader is associated with effectiveness, we found that it is even more effective to start at a moderate level of trust and increase to a high level over the first several months. This approach allows leaders to build a sustainable foundation of trust and create a sense of positive momentum.”

While previous studies have looked at the relationship between team performance and trust in leadership at a particular point in time, Dirk’s research — published recently in the Journal of Business Ethics — is the first to show how changes in trust over time affect leader and team performance from the start of a relationship. 

The study also revealed a set of behaviors that were particularly effective at accelerating the development of trust. Leaders that engaged in behaviors referred to as transformational leadership, an ethics-based leadership style, experienced faster rates of trust development. Key to this approach were the focus on values and on taking time to develop the relationship with individuals. 

Patrick Sweeney of Wake Forest University, Nikolaos Dimotakis of Oklahoma State University and Todd Woodruff of the United States Military Academy are co-authors of the study.

The study took place at the United States Military Academy. Dirks and team surveyed cadets who attended the academy to simultaneously earn college degrees and gain officer commissions in the U.S. Army upon graduation.

To assess how trust developed and changed over time, data were collected over four time points from more than 500 individuals organized into 130 squads, beginning during the first week of the program and continuing approximately every five weeks. Squad members reported on their trust in their direct leader. Additionally, leadership one level above the unit leader responded about unit effectiveness.

How employee expectations, leadership styles impact trust

Even before the new leader joins the team, companies frequently create high expectations by touting the person’s credentials and high goals. Employees also use social connections, situational contexts and personal attributes — such as age, race, gender, body language or presence — to measure up the new leader, Dirks said.

“Some leaders are able to establish a high level of trust immediately, while other leaders — particularly minorities — may start with low levels of trust and need to build trust over time,” he said.

However, the research shows there could be advantages to earning employees’ trust rather than starting off with it.

In the study group, leaders one standard deviation above the mean on expectations experienced a decline in followers’ trust over time, while those leaders one standard deviation below the mean experienced an increase in trust.  

“Our analysis suggests that this is not just a regression to the mean phenomenon but rather is based on psychological factors,” Dirks said.

Another consistent pattern emerged from the data: Transformational leaders were more trusted by their employees by the end of the study. According to Dirks, transformational leaders are those who exemplify moral standards and foster an ethical work environment. They also encourage development of their employees and emphasize cooperation and open communication, he said.

Leaders who began with low expectations were able to quickly overcome the initial trust deficit if they displayed high levels of transformational leadership, Dirks said. And leaders who began with high expectations were able to maintain a high level of trust with subordinates if they displayed high levels of transformational leadership.

By comparison, leaders who began with high expectations experienced a sharp negative rate of change in their followers’ trust if they displayed low levels of transformational leadership.

“This study suggests that leaders may establish trust most quickly by managing expectations for how they will be an effective leader, and subsequently engaging in a particular set of behaviors that earn trust,” Dirks said.  




Anne He, BSBA ’22, wrote this for the Olin Blog. She is studying finance and sociology.

In business, we face rejection all the time. We may be rejected from a job, a customer may reject our product, the list goes on. Entrepreneurs famously tell stories about the hundreds of rejections that lead up to a single success. It’s clear that dealing with rejection and coming out on top is not only important but necessary to excel in business.

Even knowing this, I am still afraid of rejection. When someone tells me, “No,” my first instinct is to immediately nod, say, “No worries, I understand,” and try to forget about it as soon as possible.

During my freshman year, after making it all the way to the last round of interviews for my dream summer internship, I was rejected. I did not get the job. I quickly became frustrated with my lack of assertion, and my inability to turn rejection into something positive.

Inspiration from a Ted Talk

That’s when I stumbled across what has become one of my favorite Ted Talks, Jia Jiang’s “What I Learned from 100 Days of Rejection.” The idea was simple: overcome the fear of rejection by completing a list of tasks that would be certain to face rejection. Sleep at Mattress Firm, take pictures with strangers, borrow $100 from a stranger, etc. When told “no,” the goal was to question the rejection and find ways to circumvent it. 

I embarked on this challenge last summer by creating my own list of tasks based on my experiences. Thus began a summer of asking the barista if I could come around the counter and make my own coffee, trying on a stranger’s stylish jacket and asking time after time if I could have a phone call with random professionals.

Practicing rejection

The first time, I had to have a friend physically push me toward the confused barista. Over time, my thought process started to shift toward, “What can I lose?” The more tasks I accomplished, the less hesitant I became to complete the next one.

It’s a silly challenge and I had lots of laughs while doing it, but it’s made a monumental impact on the way I respond to rejection. If I meet an Uber driver who has had an interesting career path, my first instinct is to ask for advice and a future phone call. If a recruiter says “no” to my application, my response is no longer “I understand,” but rather “How can I improve?” 

Fear of rejection has prevented me from taking opportunities that could be the start of new passions and journeys. When I returned to WashU in the fall, I was ready to apply myself to new roles like joining Bear Studios, LLC or becoming executive vice president of Student Union.

These experiences seemed like a far-reaching dream only a year ago and are now a reality. Rejection should never be feared but used as an opportunity for exploration and growth. 




The Center for Experiential Learning fellows program works to shape great business students into great business leaders. The CEL fellows, an impressive group of MBAs, just met for their second Captain’s Table, where they discussed the challenges and setbacks that come with leading a team.

The group split up to discuss a case that depicts a team leader dealing with a team member who is smart, but unmotivated and disrespectful. Looking to open up the fictional teammate’s untapped potential, the fellows debriefed with Kurt Dirks, vice chancellor of international affairs and Bank of America Professor of Leadership, and drew out the following lessons that focus on values-based leadership.

Communicate expectations early

CEL Director Daniel Bentle quoted George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

It’s important to set expectations and set a tone from the beginning. The team leader in the case did set expectations from the start, but she made the grave mistake of not including the team. If you build expectations with your team instead of alone, the expectations will feel more like an agreed-upon team contract than a set of rules to break.

In addition to setting expectations, the team leader should facilitate an understanding of each teammate’s motivation in the project. For example, the disrespectful team member was mainly focused on job searching. If the team lead had capitalized on this information early on, she could have worked to use this information to motivate him. Explaining how the project could be a great conversation topic in interviews or good content for his resume would be a great way to get this team member on board.

Build trust with your team

Building trust with each individual teammate is an essential step toward team success. Conn Davis, MBA ’17, said, “The key to business is personal relationships.”

Following Davis’s advice, the fellows agreed it was important to set up one-on-one meetings with each teammate to get to know them. Showing interest in your team on a personal level helps to build trust and works to reinforce the expectations you’ve previously set.

Listen and adapt

Even if you follow the above lessons, road bumps are bound to happen. For example, the teammate focused on recruiting may come in late to every meeting. Using lines of communication, you might find out that it’s because he has a meeting right before that he’s running from.

Listening to his reasoning and adapting to shift the meeting 15 minutes later will increase team efficiency. As a successful team leader, you have to be ready to adapt to produce the greatest results.




Tanya Yatzeck and, at right, David Moons.

My first impression walking into the event “60 ideas in 60 minutes,” presented by alumni of Olin’s Executive MBA program on January 9, was that the six panelists mingling among the attendees were EMBA graduates.

That information was on the event invitation, but it didn’t hit home until I overheard them reminiscing about their classes and the fun that they’d had getting together in the years since graduation—just like me and my former classmates. The panelists were us.

Sixty ideas in one hour sounds daunting, but the simplicity of the format made it possible to absorb every single one of them. Each of the six panelists had 10 minutes to present their 10 ideas. Each had a theme, which kept the content fresh from speaker to speaker.

Gene Dobbs Bradford, president and CEO of Jazz St. Louis, used his musical training as a theme, while Jennifer Labit, founder and CEO of Cotton Babies, emphasized her experience in entrepreneurship. Eric Benting, owner and operator of Chik-fil-A, shared his  insights about working with very young employees.

Attendees at the EMBA-sponsored “60 ideas in 60 minutes” event.

Don Halpin spoke of pivoting from a military career to medical innovation, and Ken Yamaguchi about straddling both corporate and university surgical responsibilities. Jan Alonzo, an attorney, provided a practical tool box of tips, including counting good days, blessings, helping others, and the legal and business necessities of becoming informed about the problem of sexual harassment.

While I was there, I was surprised and pleased to run into my classmate from EMBA 43, David Moons, president at his family’s business, Anji Mountain. I asked him why he attends Olin events.

“When you work in a small business, it’s very easy to get focused on just what you’re doing and ignore some of the external factors that are influencing your business,” he said. “WashU events provide me with the opportunity to stay in touch with what other companies are doing and, more importantly, how some global macro factors can be affecting my business and my people.”

I asked David to distill the 60 ideas into his top three:

1. Pull multiple levers. Find your idea and make sure all of your resources support it.

David: “We have a major initiative this year with some patented innovation. I’m cherry-picking different things that we’ll likely do to support that launch, but we’re now thinking more of, “Let’s just pull all the levers.” We don’t really know what’s going to work, and we might as well go full stop as opposed to limit our financial exposure, because we want to make sure this thing is a success.”

2. If you think you know what you’re doing, you’re likely in decline.

David: “That is something that will likely keep me up and still does keep me up on a nightly basis. I think that level of focus—on continuous improvement and not resting on your laurels—is about trying to drive your company and your vision and what you’re doing to improve. It’s something that’s critical. We can’t be successful if we don’t do that.”

3. Use mission to inspire people.

David: “When I think about mission inspiring people, it’s not just my people that I work with at Anji Mountain. It’s more about using our mission as a company to inspire our customers to get further engaged with our business. We compete in a hyper-competitive market. There are a lot of major players that are established. We need to continually find ways to differentiate, and using and leveraging our mission to better position ourselves with our customers is something we’re going to continue to focus on.”

David added, “I’m going to take probably the top 30 and bring it back to my company and my people, and hopefully they can get something out of it and it starts a bigger dialogue.”

I spied another EMBA classmate, Ken Franklin, running out of the event before it was over. I talked to him by phone later in the day.

“I’ve always felt that I have a moral compass guiding tough decisions, but I didn’t realize that it’s a skill,” he said. “At the end of the day, you want to do the right thing, be honest, have integrity, and build character. That’s what leaders do. My big takeaway—big ideas come from the heart.”

Read more about the event and find a list of all 60 ideas.