Cultivating Leaders

Providing the Environment for Leadership to Grow

Sunday, September 1, 2013

By Kevin Moe


For the most part, leadership cannot be boiled down into a set of traits or specific behaviors. Rather, it tends to spring organically, and for this to happen, it needs nurturing. The Carlson School prides itself in providing the right environment for leadership to root and blossom.


Leadership as a concept is easy to grasp, but coming up with a concrete definition is more elusive. To Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship Professor Myles Shaver, it’s akin to answering what makes a good recipe. “It depends a lot on what you are trying to accomplish and what the resources are at your disposal,” he says. “For example, the type of leadership that is required in a battlefield situation is quite different to finding an approach to mitigate environmental damage.”

To former Carlson Chairman and CEO Marilyn Carlson Nelson, who is now teaching a class on corporate responsibility at the Carlson School, leadership is about the public good. “I’ve heard it defined as taking full responsibility for something and changing it for the better. I like that one,” she says.

Moreover, the school also is an advocate of integrative leadership, the brand of leadership that brings people and ideas together to solve the world’s great challenges.

"It is essential that we explore to understand better the science of coming together so that we might reinvent our institutions, synthesize our knowledge, and arrive at more successful collaborations."

Marilyn Carlson Nelson

The Center for Integrative Leadership

Leadership is discussed and analyzed in a multitude of ways throughout the Carlson School, but probably nowhere as extensively as at the Center for Integrative Leadership (CIL). A University-wide initiative of the Carlson School, the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, the School of Public Health, and the College of Education and Human Development, CIL is charged with discovering and disseminating knowledge about the nature and practice of leadership across a spectrum of society, including business and government.

“I truly believe it is one of the most important initiatives here at the University,” says Carlson Nelson, who was one of the key figures in the center’s creation. “The cross-pollination of ideas is no less important to solving society’s grand challenges than the major breakthroughs we herald in technology, medicine, or any other discipline. It is essential that we explore to understand better the science of coming together so that we might reinvent our institutions, synthesize our knowledge, and arrive at more successful collaborations.”

Myles Shaver, who serves as the CIL’s academic co-director, agrees. “The focus of the CIL is on ‘integrative leadership’ versus leadership per se,” he says. “This is an important distinction because we view integrative leadership as deploying multiple tools and resources to foster collective action across boundaries to advance the common good and fuel change that addresses the grand challenges of our time. Leadership within any organization is important, but integrative leadership takes on the additional complexity of working across boundaries.”

This cross-sectional fluency has an added benefit, as it builds and deepens trust, Carlson Nelson says. “I don’t think we take enough time thinking about that,” she says. As businesses continue to embrace social and environmental responsibility, trust is seen as an integral asset for leaders to acquire and wield.

Paul Vaaler

"Current CIL initiatives are addressing integrative leadership issues affecting regional economic development, food safety, and the art of hosting diverse groups."

Paul Vaaler

The CIL was founded in the mid-2000s out of conversations with Carlson Nelson, former President Bill Clinton, then-University President Robert Bruininks, and Provost Tom Sullivan. “They all agreed that there was a gap in our academic and practical understanding of how leaders and organizations in business, government, and civil society could work together to address big problems and opportunities in the 21st century,” says Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship Associate Professor Paul Vaaler, a former CIL co-director.

Initially, the CIL was a partnership between the Carlson and Humphrey Schools. The Provost provided initial financial support and created two tenure-track positions – one at the Carlson School and one at Humphrey – to hire scholars who would contribute to CIL’s work. Vaaler was hired by the Carlson School in 2007 and was CIL academic co-director from 2008 to 2012.

Having the Carlson School support the center reflects the important role that businesses can play in helping resolve grand challenges, Shaver says. “It also reflects the importance to businesses that we find solutions to grand challenges and develop skills among leaders to work across boundaries,” he adds.

There are many spokes to CIL’s hub. Throughout the year, it hosts numerous forums and roundtables, offers courses in integrative leadership, and funds research by faculty, students, and practitioners worldwide. Its Executive Leadership Fellows Program brings in four accomplished leaders each year to share their expertise through conducting original research, consulting with students, engaging with faculty, and teaching graduate courses.

Since its founding, the CIL’s distinct mission and basic ideas haven’t changed. What has developed, however, has been the agenda of specific problems and opportunities to address. “That agenda has developed based on the interests and engagement capacity of CIL-affiliated faculty, staff, students, and University community members,” Vaaler says. “Current CIL initiatives are addressing integrative leadership issues affecting regional economic development, food safety, and the art of hosting diverse groups.”

Myles Shaver

"Leadership within any organization is important, but integrative leadership takes on the additional complexity of working across boundaries."

Myles Shaver

Another development has been the introduction of a graduate-level academic minor in the field of integrative leadership, approved by the Board of Regents in the summer of 2012. This minor has been developed to train future leaders to bridge institutional, geographical, and national boundaries to address social, economic, and political difficulties and advance the common good. “The grand challenges that face business and society are complex,” Shaver says. “For that reason, they defy simple or intuitive solutions. This is exactly why leadership is important as we search for solutions.”


Leadership in the Classroom

When it comes to the classroom, leadership develops through action at the Carlson School. “Functional skill, including management and leadership theory, is taught through the Carlson School curriculum,” says Ventures Enterprise Director Toby Nord. “The difference is the practical application of these skills through experiential coursework that focuses on teams and problem-solving in real time, which accelerates learning and reinforces the curriculum. It is truly a situation of ‘learn and apply,’ and the Enterprise program embodies this.”

The Carlson School’s four Enterprises – Ventures, Brand, Consulting, and Funds–provide students an environment in which leadership can grow. In the Enterprises, students work on real problems with real clients where decisions need to be made in the gray without a lot of supporting evidence. “There is often no right or apparent answer and all of this work is done in teams where leadership skills must emerge,” Nord says. “Real work facilitates tremendous growth in our students’ adaptive and behavioral approaches to problem solving. They become eminently practical.”

These real-world projects give students an opportunity to develop many types of leadership, says Sarah Gisser, director of the Consulting Enterprise. “Thought, process, client, and team leadership are all integral parts of the equation to delivering our clients new insights and solutions,” she says. “Our students gain invaluable skills and experience, as well as the grit they’ll need to be effective leaders throughout their future careers.”

In the Funds Enterprise, as students are managing a $40 million investment portfolio, they gain valuable leadership credibility by creating and presenting new investment recommendations to a board of outside professionals. “Students learn through leading and initiating engaged discussions with their peers regarding individual stock and bond holdings,” says Director Gerald Caruso. And in the Brand Enterprise, student leadership teams are managing and leveraging brand assets to provide the best value for client companies.

Courses offered through the Carlson School’s Medical Industry Leadership Institute (MILI) gives students the experience to become leaders across the spectrum of the medical industry–from insurance, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology to the delivery of care. “Our graduates are some of the most intensively trained candidates for leadership positions in healthcare. The field is evolving so quickly, but MILI gives its students experience in every aspect of healthcare, from seeing how policy works in Washington to evaluating the market for new medical devices and competing in case competitions,” says MILI Assistant Director Jessica Haupt.

MILI further fosters and recognizes student potential in the Carl N. Platou Leadership Competition. Named for a visionary healthcare executive, the competition bestows annual awards to elite students who rise to the top of their cohorts with innovative, integrative thinking. Platou winners are seen as future leaders of the medical industry.

In general, classroom leadership at the Carlson School tends to be self-organized and managed, says Professor Carl Adams, who teaches a New Product Design and Business Development class. In the class, students are divided into teams that work with sponsoring companies to help create a design and business plan for their new idea. “Each team has a faculty coach, but they organize themselves,” he says. “If a team is in trouble, it has to figure its way out of it.”

Made up of a mix of technical and managerial leaders, each team is tasked to deliver a viable product at the end of two semesters. Not only are the team members picking up leadership skills from each other, they are getting feedback from other teams and seeing their styles through numerous class presentations throughout the course.

The bottom line is that leadership is not really taught, but acquired. Says Adams, “The goal is in finding yourself in an environment where you face the problems that leaders face and ask ‘how will I handle something like this?’”


Transitioning to the Workplace

Another way the Carlson School helps prepare students–as well as alumni–for leadership roles is through the business career centers. “We work very holistically with students. It isn’t about simply coaching them on internship opportunities or on how to interview,” says Mindy Deardurff, director of the Undergraduate Business Career Center (UBCC). “Our job as a career center is to also connect them to leadership opportunities within the larger school, University, and community, so they have hands-on opportunities to lead.”

In addition to referring students to clubs, student worker positions, and the University leadership minor, the career centers can rely on being positioned right next to a thriving metropolitan community that offers distinct opportunities to students. “Those experiences are simply a five-minute bus ride away for our students, and I think they help them stand out from their competition in the recruitment process,” Deardurff says.

She emphasizes that the career centers do the unique work of helping students learn how to best communicate their leadership skills during recruitment. “We begin these conversations in our required career skills class where we teach students how to answer interview questions with a specific example with tangible results,” she says. “We help students to see that companies don’t hire based on what students would do in a leadership role, but instead, what they have done.” Students hone these skills further with a mock interview program, a mock marathon where the Carlson School partners with top recruiters to do mock interviews, and individual coaching.

As technology changes, the career centers see a corresponding change in leadership behavior. “Students must be able to handle ambiguity, be flexible, and learn how to adapt and lead in brand new situations. We work to help students understand this and be open to change,” Deardurff says. “We also try to stay on top of major workplace trends by having a high-touch strategy with our corporate partners. Across-generation leadership and communication skills seem to be very talked about ideas right now.”

For recruiters, identifying individuals with leadership skills is integral. “Those we hire directly out of school will be handed a great deal of responsibility and will be expected to take the lead in functional capacities,” says Gesta Lexen, a People Supervisor at Anheuser-Busch, which frequently recruits at the Carlson School. “We want people who will not only step up to this and meet goals and deadlines placed in front of them, but will also add new perspectives, insights, and suggestions as well as build and drive tangible manifestations of these traits,” he says. “People skills are essential to a degree, but we strive to build a culture where credibility and respect are earned through performance and competence. When gauging leadership potential in recruiting, we are looking closely at candidates’ technical and functional utility as well as versatility.”

Gesta Lexen

"When gauging 'leadership potential' in recruiting, we are looking closely at candidates' technical and functional utility as well as versatility."

Gesta Lexen, Anheuser Busch

And, recruitment methods have changed following the advance of technology. “Technology has enabled our ability to formulate relationships and learn from experts in our organization,” says Lauren Piggush, another Anheuser-Busch People Supervisor. “We have an open layout format to promote cross-departmental communication and enable various levels of leadership interactions. As a result, when we are sourcing candidates, we search for those who are comfortable working with industry experts in various functions.”

Lexen also notes that a sense of informality is driving other changes in organizations, especially at Anheuser-Busch, which has implemented an informal dress code and a first-name basis across all departments and levels of the organization. “This exemplifies trends that other companies are adopting as well; the idea that performance, improvement, communication, and seamless operations are far more important than superficial formalities and high power distances,” he says. “While this can come in many forms depending on company culture and the industry, new and prospective business leaders can expect to experience and drive this type of mindset.”