Kathleen Slaughter is associate dean of the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business in Hong Kong. She has taught management communications at Ivey since 1983 in the full-time MBA program, the EMBA program and in the school’s executive programs worldwide. Before her academic career, Slaughter worked for seven years in market support and sales at IBM Canada (IBM.NYSE). Her research specialties focus on communicating in the global environment and developing case teaching expertise at leading international schools. Slaughter spoke with China Economic Review about Ivey’s manifesto on leadership development, “Leadership on Trial”, and how its recommendations can be applied in China’s business environment.
Q: There have been a lot of analyses of the global financial crisis. What do you think has been missing from this dialogue in terms of leadership?
A: I think that’s the question that hasn’t been addressed enough: What part did leadership play in this global financial crisis? Yes, there were policies and procedures that were not in place. But when you look at the failures, you can see that it was in great part a failing of leadership.
Q: But hasn’t there been considerable attention on business leaders’ unethical decisions?
A: Yes, but unfortunately what it’s amounted to is people jumping on the bandwagon, saying that it was about greed and a lack of integrity. But I think it’s much broader than that. Of course there are questions about leadership: What were they thinking? How could they have done this? But when you really look at the problems, you see that leaders weren’t asking the right questions. They weren’t probing people. Another problem is that institutions were hiring the same kinds of people. And if you continue to hire people who all think the same way, you end up with “groupthink.” You freeze out people who have diverse points of views, and you don’t encourage the kind of dissent that is necessary for good consultation. A lot of research has been about how managers can manage risk effectively, but more has to be done in terms of what a good leader looks like, how they lead and what their character is.
Q: How did Ivey conduct its research for “Leadership on Trial”?
A: The faculty who conducted this study were from different areas; people who are experts on leadership, strategy, the global environment and so on. They interviewed more than 300 C-level people from North America, Europe and Asia, and talked to them about what went wrong, what the issues were, whether the issues were confined to just a few organizations, and what could have been done differently. It was a varied study that looked at different areas – such as marketing and finance – because we recognize that CEOs are involved with all of that.
Q: The study also makes recommendations for the future. What is the overall lesson that needs to be taken from the global economic downturn?
A: We issued a “call to action” to five groups: boards of directors, current and future business leaders, leadership and organization development specialists, and management educators. The overarching theme was the need for anticipatory leadership and leaders who are in touch with their values. Boards must improve their understanding of the strategic, operational, reputational and financial risks in which the organization is engaged. Leaders must create and sustain cultures of constructive dissent within their organizations. Leadership development executives need to develop leadership profiles that capture the key competencies, character and commitment their organizations want to see in its leaders. Business schools should encourage students to consider values and virtues as part of management decisions in all fields of business.
Q: How is this relevant to China?
A: Our calls to action are especially relevant to China, where corporate governance is in its early stages. In fact, in many organizations, ownership and management are one and the same. Business leadership in China tends to be centralized and authoritarian, which discourages dissenting points of views – and this can lead to disastrous business decisions. Organization and leadership development are relatively new to Chinese enterprises, and therefore not always aligned with the needs of a business. Finally, many business schools in China often focus on functional areas – such as accounting or marketing – so there’s a general weakness in teaching leadership and organizational behavior.
Q: You’ve taught management communications at Ivey for 28 years. What do you think is the most important issue in this field today?
A: I would say the biggest issue is how to manage new media, and understanding how it works and what its impact will be. Sometimes I’m surprised when I look at Facebook pages and see what’s on there. They think employers, future employers and headhunters wouldn’t look at that stuff? There are communication issues on that level, but we’re also not using new media to our advantage as a marketing tool and staying in touch with customers, suppliers and all sorts of other people. It’s already a very important business tool, as we have a whole generation of people who are accustomed to having instant access to information.
Q: How is Ivey trying to stay abreast of what’s happening in new media?
A: One of the things we’re doing is talking to more people in the field and bringing in guest speakers who are working in new media. We are also recruiting students who are working in the field, which means our classes will have insight from people with frontline experience and deal with new media issues on a day-to-day basis. This technology is changing so quickly and dramatically, that even technically-competent people are having trouble keeping up.