This blog post is an excerpt of an article Rebecca Dohrman, a senior lecturer in management communication at Olin, wrote for “Real Leaders.”
For emerging leaders, there’s a lot to focus on. Avoid getting overwhelmed by all of the potential options, which will only hinder your progress or lead to early burnout. Instead, focus on building and expanding on these three specific skills:
1. Accurately draw conclusions from data.
A tremendous amount of data is available to leaders. Next-generation leaders need to create systems—dashboards, automated reports, or live data pipelines—where they can instantly access meaningful, purposeful data and accurately draw conclusions. This kind of data goes beyond quick performance indicators. Instead, it allows the leader to study long-term trends and competitive strengths and weaknesses so that each can be handled appropriately.
2. Practice genuine empathy.
Thanks to technology, we know more about one another than ever, and we expect to get a sense of the humanity of one another. Likewise, we expect empathy in business leadership. Modern professionals want leaders who don’t see a binary split between running a business that is strong financially and respecting the diverse group of people who work there. They want both. The leaders we most admire achieve core business goals while also treating people well and building a culture that attracts and retains talent.
3. Master interpersonal communication.
Good leaders are strong communicators. People in leadership positions must be able to speak well on a public stage and communicate effectively with professionals at every level of their company—from the new hire right out of college to the senior executive they have worked with for a decade. The strongest leaders will specialize in strong interpersonal communication and will galvanize a culture behind their leadership style as a result.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.