Q: How did you develop this course?
It grew out of a conversation I had with Al Osborne, who wondered if I could teach a course rooted in what I’d learned throughout my career. So I developed a course that operated at the intersection of the global mobile industry and leadership and strategy. The course, in essence, looks at the 35-year history of the industry — how did that industry grow over time and what were the leadership imperatives along the way?
It’s tempting to just look at current developments such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing or image recognition — a variety of things that are very cool. But if you don’t look at the “horizontal” leadership imperatives accompanying these technologies — how these technologies create growth opportunities, create disruption threats; how they drive different organizational capabilities and how leaders must interface effectively with a growing set of stakeholders, including society — you haven’t helped the students at all. Because every business goes through a lifecycle. Each technology-based business has its own set of opportunities and threats and each leader must develop strategies that ensure broad, long-term success for the company and shareholders, employees, government and community. In technology, you want to create the biggest growth pattern, the longest life of the company and the industry possible, as well as a sense of shared success.
Q: Are there broader lessons that students can glean from this course that apply to other businesses? Because not every student ends up working in the global mobile industry.
Absolutely, yes, the learnings should be applicable across many companies and industries. Spotting promising growth opportunities, dealing with challenges successfully, repurposing an organization for a changing landscape and working effectively with a variety of stakeholders: these learnings should apply to all industries and all environments.
Q: What are the assignments like?
Every week they’re preparing a case that aligns with a different theme. The theme of the week may be effectively operating in an ecosystem, and we’ll do the Android case. Every week, students are doing a case analysis, and three times during the quarter they have to do a brief case write-up and complete a longer case analysis for the midterm. So, they have to actually put their analysis on paper.
My classes are heavily participation-based, roughly 35% of the grade is based on in-class participation. I find that by the end of the term, almost all students appreciate it because that ability to think about a problem, advocate a solution and be able to do it in written and oral form all correlate to key requirements in a leadership role.
In Weeks 10 and 11 they have to do a team presentation on a promising area of innovation. This is future-looking; they can’t do what I call a book report, where they look at something that’s already been developed and analyze it. Instead, they have to pitch a brand new technology-based product or service. It can be based on artificial intelligence, cloud computing or high-speed mobile networks and their application in areas such as health care or transportation. They have to pitch to a group of student VCs who have a million dollars in play money to allocate among all the teams that present. It forces the teams to really see who has something compelling that someone would put money in.
Q: You’ve been around Anderson a long time and you know we have our research faculty and we have our practitioner faculty. How do you bring your executive experience into the classroom in a practical way?
Sometimes practitioners, including me, start out by telling war stories in class, and that’s a terrible misunderstanding of what teaching is about.
Teaching is a difficult, complex and incredibly important pursuit professionally. You have to extrapolate all of your learning and experiences into what’s relevant to students. If I got up there and spent 10 weeks talking about my glory days at Vodafone, people would be asleep by week two. So you have to decide what you’re trying to teach them — what are the themes, what are the cases? After that, say, “Okay, here are some of my observations from my industry experience.” Because if you do the opposite, you run the risk that you’re teaching something that’s not going to have a lot of relevance.
Q: Yet, you have all this experience that I would think is of interest. You have a point of view that you can bring to the course, right?
What I bring to the course is the case method. Cases in general are applied business, they’re not theory-based. It’s actually seeing what’s happening to a company in a specific industry and timeframe, then living the role of the case protagonist, often the CEO, and deciding what to do in the case. I try to use pattern recognition, assessing the case problem clearly and accurately, looking at context. The other thing is, when students raise certain issues I remember from my Vodafone days, [I realize] they are sometimes the wrong issue or the wrong approach.
I joke with my students occasionally when they make comments that I call “MBA truisms.” They’ll say, “Well, the company needs to think about how can it innovate successfully.” But that’s something every company does. I’ll call them out and I’ll ask, “Really? Is this what you’re going to say to your boss? Because your boss is going to tell you to get out of their office.” I remember saying those same things. I remember presenting lots of data to my boss and my boss asking, “So, what?” You get flooded with all this information and you’ve got to distill it and say, “This is the essence of what I heard and this is the essence of what I would recommend.” The inability to do this can cap people in their careers.
Q: If there were a few things that you would love your students to come away with — whether life lessons, business lessons or something very specific — what do you hope they could take with them when they’re done with the class?
The first thing I would say is that technology is affecting every single industry, company and country and that your ability to understand technology — how it’s used, how it can create advantage, how it can create a threat — is fundamental to any leadership role you take.
The second thing is, your ability to be able to define strategy and understand the “whats” are absolutely essential. If you can distill information and say, “This is what I would do,” you’re going to have an opportunity to take on more senior leadership roles in an organization.
The third thing is somewhat philosophical. People, industry and the world itself are complex, and decisions are not easy and require trade-offs. There’s no better example today than the issue of technology in society. Technology today could potentially help drive lower cost and greater access in health care and education [in ways] that are truly transformational. On the other side, technology, if not well managed, could destroy jobs. It could misuse data and it could exacerbate the digital and income divides.
Understand the real benefits and disadvantages, avoid getting ideological. This is why you come to a great business school: to look at these trade-offs and figure out how you’re going to go lead. Ultimately, the opportunities and challenges are greater, and these require great leadership. This is what makes being a part of the Anderson community so important and exciting.