Kravis Chaired Professor of Leadership Studies, Claremont McKenna College, and Senior Research Scientist, Center for Effective Organizations, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California
Jay Conger is recognized throughout the world as an expert on leadership development, executive leadership, organizational change, and boards of directors. He is a prolific writer, having written or co-written more than 100 articles and 14 books, including The Practice of Leadership and Growing Your Company's Leaders.
Conger is a member of the Academy of Management and has served on the editorial board of the Academy of Management Learning and Education journal. He also was an associate editor of Leadership Quarterly. He is the recipient of the Smith Richardson Fellowship, awarded in 2000 by the Center for Creative Leadership, and was ranked number five among the world's top 10 management educators by the Financial Times and the best business school professor to teach leadership to executives by BusinessWeek.
How did you initially become interested in the field of business management and leadership?
I can trace it all the way back to when I was 10 years old. My father was the deputy chief of protocol for the U.S. State Department. He was host to all of the foreign dignitaries who came to America in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. From Nehru, to Khrushchev, to Queen Elizabeth, he met them all and served as their host to the United States.
He would come home and tell us stories about these very influential people on the world stage. I started thinking, "Leadership is really important. You can do amazing things as a leader in terms of influencing quality of life and the outcomes of a nation or organization." My father also would tell us about their human sides—while to me they were bigger than life, I learned that they had foibles and flaws. I understood that you could be the head of an entire nation but still be very human. Leadership became very accessible to me. There was no mystique to it.
I'm also a product of the era of John F. Kennedy and was very inspired by that era. So at age 10, I decided I wanted to go into politics and be a leader. I ran for and won just about every office in school. I ran youth political campaigns for a president and for congressmen and senators, and really just immersed myself in the world of politics.
I began to learn, however, that politics was not as much about leadership as I thought it was. It had more to do with the pleasure of power, networking, and deal-making. I learned that many politicians were people who just needed public adoration. As a result, they could not always be courageous out of fear they would lose the adoration. I realized there were a few politicians who really did have an agenda to make the world better, but many of them enjoyed the "rugby" dynamic of politics.
By my early 20s, I had become quite disillusioned by politics and decided that it wasn't my calling. So I decided to get an MBA, and during my second year I took a course called group dynamics. I learned about the importance of leadership in small groups, how groups operate, and the importance of interpersonal behavior. It was during that course that I decided to get a doctorate one day and become a professor. I also decided that leadership would be the subject that I would teach.
My plan was to do this in my 40s after I'd established a career as a business leader. Five years into my business career, however, I decided not to wait until I was 40. I gave up a career as an international marketing manager and headed back to school in my late 20s to pursue a doctorate.
As a doctoral student, I had the honor of working for two outstanding academics at the Harvard Business School: John Kotter, who was my thesis advisor, and Jack Gabarro. These two individuals really encouraged me to develop my academic career around leadership. And that's how I got started in this field of leadership development.
How has the practice of leadership evolved during the past decade and how do you anticipate it evolving within the next 10 years?
One of the biggest trends shaping leadership is the global dimension, which has become very powerful. Related to this trend is the acceleration of competition because companies now have to operate across the globe against powerful competitors from outside their home countries. As a result, leadership talent that can operate across the globe has become a hot commodity. It is a scarce commodity and one that few companies are skillful at developing.
Then there's the power of the digital world, and related to that is the rise of social media. I think executives today have to worry more about how they lead effectively in this virtual environment.
For example, how do we lead global teams when we are not able to see the faces and expressions of people located in other countries? Leaders have to pick up on a lot more subtle clues than in the past. Given cultural differences, it is far easier to misread information and for misunderstandings to arise.
Also, more and more managers are consumed by the race to get all of their emails answered each day. While many managers had a problem prioritizing in the past, I think it's become even more extreme. In a strange way, these information technologies are fostering an "attention deficit" among managers and executives.
For the next 10 years, I think social media will continue to be a powerful force. It's being harnessed to do all sorts of both wonderful and unnerving things. For example, if an employee doesn't like a particular leader, he can make a humorous video about that leader and post it on YouTube. If someone doesn't like a particular company, he can do the same thing.
Finally, I think leaders have to be much more masterful about leading change because of the acceleration of competition and globalization. I always am amazed at how rarely managers and executives think about change beyond altering structures and systems. They consistently underestimate the importance of the new skills that may be required, the impact of their company cultures, and the shifts in leadership style that need to accompany significant change.
That said, some of the basics of leadership remain absolutely pivotal, like the importance of building relationships, clear communication about goals, and clear expectations around performance and behavior. The need to cultivate and develop talent continues to be absolutely critical. Addressing conflict quickly and effectively remains a fundamental leadership task.
The issue of employee loyalty and retention will continue to grow as well: Why should I stay with your organization? I think the youngest generation coming into the workforce is the product of many "soccer trophies" and grade inflation. So their expectations are high that they are deserving of great responsibilities early on in their careers. They're also a generation for which everything was team-based, so they are seeking a team-based orientation to their jobs. And then they're dipped in social entrepreneurship, and they are going to bring a "community contribution" mindset to their workplaces.
What insights have you gained from your rich experience teaching executive education?
I've learned the importance of really understanding your audience. I spend a great deal of time before conducting an executive education program to understand my audience and their concerns and needs. I want to know what they're cynical about, and on what topics they really want help.
I've also learned that adults are "mercenary learners." If they don't see an immediate utility for what you're teaching them, they quickly will become disinterested. As a result, I teach them tools, techniques, and frameworks that they can apply both in the classroom and tomorrow at their workplaces.
People today have very short attention spans, and information technology is encouraging this. Research on short-term memory shows that generally we work in 10- to 15-minute cycles where we're paying attention, and then we drift away for two or three minutes.
When I am teaching, everything's built around these 10- to 15-minute windows. At the 10-minute mark, I change the experience for them. I might go to a video-based case experience. At the next 10-minute transition, they may go into a reflective exercise. At the next transition, they may do a small-group exercise. I don't try to get learners' attention spans to come to me; I go to them.
Describe your work with the Kravis Leadership Institute and the Center for Effective Organizations.
I'm the chairman of the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College. Our mandate is to develop undergraduate leadership. We essentially inspire young people to become leaders and develop what we can at the undergraduate level of their leadership capacity. In addition to offering courses on leadership, we provide workshops, experiences, and 360-degree feedback for undergraduates on our campus. We also emphasize business entrepreneurial and social entrepreneurial leadership.
The Center for Effective Organizations is dedicated to helping human resource officers become more influential. At the center, my work is research and executive education. The executive education programs are focused on how HR officers become more influential by teaching them influence skills and leadership skills. The research I conduct with the center is in three areas: global leadership, boardroom leadership, and leadership development initiatives and interventions.
Are you working on any new books or special projects?
One of the issues you see today is that we are flooded with information, and it's overwhelming. I am fascinated by how leaders can leave more lasting impressions about their priorities through certain forms of communications. I also am always doing research on leadership development, looking specifically at some aspect of executive leadership development.
What do you like to do for relaxation or fun?
I have a young family, so my number one priority is spending time with them, doing things they like to do. We are big travelers—I must've gotten that from my father. We love to travel the world, and we try to do so as much as we can. I also love photography and I enjoy weight-training. Another pleasure is reading—especially books on leadership.