Expert Interview Series: Roddy Millar Helps Business Leaders Translate Academic Research to Innovative Leadership

Everyone’s heard of fight or flight.

The idea that in moments of duress– say bumping into a grizzly bear during a walk in the woods– animals are wired for two responses: They’ll either stick around and fight the bear or run like hell to escape becoming grizzly bear lunch.

But it’s not every day you hear about the fight or flight response being studied in business school.

Roddy Millar, co-founder of Ideas for Leaders, recently came across a study from Ashridge Executive Education, that took a closer look at this exact phenomenon. And what researchers at the U.K.-based business school found, was that people work best under an optimal amount of stress.

Millar distilled the research:

There’s a physiological response in your body as your brain is deciding whether to fight or flee during moments of stress. If you decide to fight, more blood is pushed to your brain so that it’s better able to absorb information and solve problems.

“Alternatively, if your brain makes the call that it’s a really bad situation, it pumps blood away from your brain and legs so you can run jolly fast,” Millar said.

The research shows that if organizations want to design impactful, emotionally contextual learning events for their employees, they need to create situations that turn up the level of brain awareness. This doesn’t mean terrorizing participants, but rather putting them in situations of uncertainty– situations where they don’t know what’s happening next, but they still feel safe enough that they don’t want to flee. That’s the most effective way to embed real learning and growth.

Academia Provides a Wealth of Research on Effective Leadership

Millar has made it his business to know about cutting-edge research like this that can help organizations survive in a rapidly evolving business climate.

He’s the founder and Managing Editor for IEDP– covering the global executive development sector– and cofounder of IEDP’s sister organization, Ideas for Leaders, which reviews, distills and shares the latest research on business leadership coming out of universities and business schools around the globe.

The concept for Ideas for Leaders came about as Millar and his colleagues at IEDP were doing research on the leading business schools around the globe, hoping to discern the specialties at each schools in order to help their business clients access more niche expertise. They were impressed by the sheer volume of peer-reviewed research being produced at each of these institutions– research that takes multiple faculty members years to complete, write about and submit for peer review in a process that could cost upwards of $1 million. Once these thoroughly researched, evidence-based papers were published in an academic journal, Millar estimated six people on average might read them.

“It’s a dreadful waste of research,” Millar said. “Nothing valuable was being done with that information.”

So Millar decided to put it to use. He and his colleagues at Ideas for Leaders review as many of these papers as they’re able, targeting those that use evidence-based research rather than desk-based research or literature reviews and those that offer a real-world business application.

Then, they “squeeze the juice” out of the papers and revise the turgid style the papers are written in, creating 850-word summaries that get to the core of the research.

How Business Leaders Can Put Research Into Practice

Millar’s gleaned plenty of useful information in his years of studying research and advising organizations on the best resources for developing leaders.

For instance, that the primary challenge facing business leaders today is the speed at which innovation is occurring.

“The velocity of transaction that goes out in the world and the amount of information that flows around is so wildly different from my parent’s generation and it’s extraordinarily difficult for anyone to make sense of it,” he said.

The only way to sort through continually emerging, evolving situations is to be open to a whole lot of different inputs and to have the breadth of awareness that allows you to draw on perspective and awareness and cherry pick the ones that are the most useful at the time. For leaders, this means devolving your responsibility to people closer to the ground, he said. This starts by being clear about what the objective is and trusting the people below you to respond.

For leaders in particular, reviewing articles on sites like Ideas for Leaders can help stimulate thinking around management behavior and management practice.

“It’s a question of exposing oneself to as many of these relevant ideas as you can,” Millar said. “And as you sleep on those ideas – sleep plays a critical part of creating coherent solutions- then you can start coming up with interesting solutions, alternative solutions that may not have been created before.”

Beyond just exposing themselves to new ideas, leaders within organizations need to start creative discussions around those ideas either one on one or in small groups. The key is to break down the barriers that would prevent people from expressing their own ideas freely and openly.

“Being able to create a space where you can say, ‘let’s stop and think is the best way possible’– It’s very valuable and powerful thing to do.”

Having these discussions in small groups is critical Millar says, because adults learn best by articulating their thinking– literally speaking about it. It embeds the thought process more clearly in our minds. In groups of more than five, there tends to be one person who is deemed the expert who the rest of the group defers too. Fewer than that though, the conversation can flow freely.

While it might be easy to get small groups together at different levels of an organization to start conversations about new ideas and innovations, it can be extremely challenging for organizations to reimagine the way they lead these innovations. That starts by shifting the culture of an organization, and that has to come from the top down.

“It has to be expressly and authentically communicated from the CEO: We are an innovative company or organization,” Millar said.

That means encouraging experimentation, encouraging the exchange of ideas and views and not punishing failure, which is a natural result of genuine endeavor.

This can be tricky to do in management positions, Millar says. Failure is easier when you’re on the fringes of an organization or when there’s less at stake for your bottom line. But if you’re in management and you have a mortgage and a desire to climb the corporate ladder, you don’t want to be seen as the one who messes up.

“Trying to break that culture is really hard,” Millar says.

He relayed a story he heard from a former CEO at American Express. The CEO was having a conversation with an employee who’d met all his targets, considered himself to have done exemplary work and expected to receive a large bonus as a result. But, in looking at the bigger picture of this employee’s performance, the CEO found that he was intolerable to work with and had virtually no team support. The CEO told the employee he’d get just half of the bonus he had been expected; the other half would come if he could turn around his people skills.

In doing this the CEO sent a message: Just hitting a number is not sufficient.

How Organizations Can Prepare to Lead Innovation

Shifting company culture to accommodate the rapid pace of change in business today is daunting. And it takes sound leadership at the top.

Improving how these leaders address and adapt to innovation, has to start well before they go into leadership positions, Millar says.

“We all need to focus on leadership as a skill that needs to be acquired and learned from a very early age.”

Too often, individuals don’t think about themselves as leaders or about their leadership skills until they’re already in a leadership positions.

Ideally, Millar would like to see leadership training incorporated into schooling from an early age. He likes the model used by the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst- the British equivalent of West Point. Cadets arrive to be trained as an officer; all of the training is toward shaping them into leaders with horizon-scanning views. The technical skills– whether the soldier would drive tanks, fix helicopters, become a marksman– are all secondary.

Training in the commercial world tends to focus on the specific skills first– accounting, marketing, etc.

“Only when you’ve gotten to a certain level are you exposed to a wider leadership view,” Millar says. “By that time it’s too late.”

Rather than focusing on the front-end learning, there should be smaller bites of learning throughout a career. This can come in the form of workshops and development programs.

In the future, Millar would love to see companies with a Chief Learning Officer who served as the cultural nerve center for an organization. He envisions a place where all sides of the organization could come and speak and interact with different parts of the organization.

“I think having sort of that cultural learning hub is an opportunity for organizations to remain highly connected.”

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