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Sloan’s Ideal Manager: Wicked Humble!

September 23, 2011

In “My Years with General Motors”, Alfred Sloan defines his vision of an ideal manager: rational, data-driven, analytic. One might suspect that  Sloan’s scientific approach to management finds its roots in his undergraduate education at MIT. They would be right.

My own experiences at the MIT EMBA Orientation strongly reinforced that suspicion and then, unexpectedly, my classmates put a new, and very human spin on Alfred’s original vision, complete with improbable philosophical ties to Ghandi. It became one of the most memorable and educational orientation weekends I’ve ever attended, setting the bar for what I now believe will be a truly outstanding educational experience. Sloan does not disappoint.

Orientation begins with the study of the principles upon which MIT was founded 150 years ago. Its mission, as a  pragmatic institute of higher learning, dedicated to the production of educated workers appropriate to the needs of the newly industrialized world, was a radical innovation in the 1860’s.

MIT arose as a counterpoint to Harvard, shaped in its shadow in nearly diametric opposition to its system of education.  In post Civil War America, with Harvard already some 200 years old and, according to Dr. John Van Maanen, still consumed with the production of erudite clergymen skilled in Greek and Latin, MIT’s founder, William Barton Rogers, proposed a very different educational thesis: pragmatic education, based upon the scientific approach.

Today, MIT is the standard against which all other technical schools rate themselves. Except, of course, for Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, which is astoundingly superior to MIT’s robotics programs in every imaginable respect and has almost completely forgotten that MIT even exists, except during the holiday season when RI graduate students send boxes of Legos to their poor counterparts at MIT to provide them with at least some basic building materials for their thesis projects… but I digress. The point here is that in the 1860’s Rogers’ concept of a pragmatic education based upon a scientific approach was still a radical and unproven idea.

I certainly expected to find at MIT a pervasive passion for science and a scientific approach, but even I was a little surprised at how deeply ingrained it really is. Dr. Van Maanen, who eerily bears far more than a passing resemblance to William Barton Rogers, applies data-driven analytics to the traditional team building exercises common to orientation. At MIT, the objective is not merely to break-the-ice and meet your fellow team members. Team building is an active experiment in which both individual and group decision making performance is measured.  The results convincingly demonstrate that groups generate statistically better decision making outcomes than individuals, with a few notable exceptions where, for example, deep domain expertise is required.

At Sloan, team building exercises conclude with 70 senior executives pouring over scatter and line plots (rather than pouring beer), correlating scores against decision-making timelines, tying process to outcome, and studying when and how improved performance is generated.

Are you getting this? At Sloan, orientation is a controlled experiment. Orientation. Or-i-en-ta-tion. Any b-school willing to turn a meet-and-greet into a scientific experiment is pretty serious about bringing analytical rigor to management education.

The success of the session  also provided early evidence that Sloan’s admission process yielded admits well aligned to this approach.  Senior executives threw themselves wholeheartedly into the analysis of decision-making outcomes and were joyful (yes, joyful) in discovering a new way to scientifically explore a topic that is far more often debated than analyzed.

This is where I fell in love with Sloan… truly in love, with that glazed-over, I can’t keep my eyes from the beauty of your dimpled cheek, I hope your parents will be out of town this weekend, teen-aged sigh filled anxious mental stupor. It was all so clear! Measure, don’t debate. Test and analyze… don’t argue. Science, not rhetoric. MIT, not Harvard.

But think not that one may simply pen a “Coldly Quant” label on Sloan… Sloan is a world in which “Or” yields to “And” for there are poets living within these quants…

At one point in orientation, we broke off into small teams to get to know one another and to discuss what constitutes a Learning Community. Like many other teams, the storytelling consumed the vast majority of the allotted time. This is probably a good time for me to apologize to my team. I enjoy telling stories and talked waaaayyyy too long… brevity is not my greatest virtue.

As storytelling wound down, one of my team members noted that although Dr. Van Maanen had several times discussed MIT’s reputation for ego, he hadn’t yet met anyone in the cohort that he actually considered egotistical or arrogant. Two of the other team members quickly agreed and further noted that when they had interviewed, they had each sat in the waiting area with other candidates who they considered quite arrogant. In one case the candidate had been loudly and rudely talking on his or her cell phone, oblivious to the impact it was having on others around them.  These people were so arrogant that both of my team members stated that they had been looking for them during orientation and noticed (perhaps were relieved to notice?) that the arrogant candidates hadn’t been admitted.

70 senior executives with no egomaniacs? Far more probable that a choir of angels should fly… well, you get the point. Statistically improbable.

The poet in our group expressed a rather beautiful notion. That the act of applying to Sloan is, in and of itself, an act of humility, an implicit recognition of one’s own limitations and desire for help. Our stories had all the same common elements of successes intermingled with frustrations, failures, shortcomings, and a general recognition that whatever each of us was doing just didn’t measure up to our vision of what could be done. Interestingly, we each had decided that we needed to improve rather than deciding that something out in the world had been to blame.

Our poet’s point is also interesting to contrast with Jonathan Lehrich’s assertion that the EMBA’s are already successful executives. Certainly, when I read the bios of my classmates, I absolutely have to agree with Jonathan. What an incredibly talented group of people. It’s dizzying to imagine what I might learn from this group if only time were no object. But while Jonathan has the luxury of evaluating each of us objectively, we do not so objectively evaluate ourselves. Success is a rather slippery creature, difficult to capture, tame, or even describe. I will be the first to admit that I’ve been entirely unsatisfied with past companies. I keep building new ones because the old ones  just didn’t meet my expectations. I don’t feel successful and neither do many of my teammates. That, universally, drove us to apply.

I was also delighted by our poet’s assertion: application as a first act of humility. It has vaguely spiritual or even religious tones. The word “humility” itself commonly defines the relationship between the mortal and the divine, the imperfect and the perfect, Man and his Creator. The humility of the imperfect applicant before his or her vision of a future, ideal self is an interesting and perhaps fitting metaphor for this journey to Sloan.

Ghandi once said, “I have humility enough to admit my errors and retrace my steps.” The folks here in Boston might say, in all sincerity and with great admiration, “That Ghandi, he was wicked humble”. Perhaps that is what many of us have come to Sloan to do. Retrace our steps. Admit our errors. Be wicked humble. But, importantly, do so within a community where someone can likely teach us how to avoid the error so that we may walk a little further down the path toward that ideal successful self.

At Sloan, the wicked humble assemble that we may diligently work together within the framework of modern science to become Alfred Sloan’s ideal manager.


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