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How to get the executives of the future to listen to academia

We were delighted to welcome researchers from all over the world to Passau to discuss the following question: How do we develop executives who are able to manage in an increasingly unstable world? By Prof. Dr. Andreas König and Dr. Lorenz Graf-Vlachy

In June we invited the world’s leading academics from the field of top management research to visit us at the University of Passau to attend the 10th “EIASM Workshop on Top Management Teams and Business Strategy Research”. We organised the workshop along with the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management (EIASM), a research network based in Brussels.  

Great start today of the 10th anniversary edition of the EIASM Workshop on Top Management Teams and Business Strategy Research. We are happy to be in Passau, Germany. #TMTresearch #eiasm #10yearsold

This year’s workshop focused primarily on the question of what management might look like in an unstable world and how we as researchers can make our findings more visible to practitioners. A very personal compilation of findings from our panel discussion, talks and presentations:

Rejoice at plagiarism. This piece of advice comes from Donald  C. Hambrick. He is the founder of upper echelons research, arguably one of the most important areas of research in management studies, and therefore one of the “superstars” in the field. His name is less well-known outside of academia, but his management theories are very well-established. In Passau he revealed to us that he constantly finds his ideas in the offices of CEOs, but not necessarily with his own name credited to them. Rather, other authors take up his ideas without making it clear where they originate from. He once even recognised charts from one of his lectures in a presentation. In such cases, Hambrick’s advice is to remain calm and take delight in the situation. Ultimately, all this goes to show how widespread your own ideas have become.

Video-impressions of the workshop

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Confront scepticism towards academia with clear language. Our panellists all agreed that clarity of our communication is key. Donald Hambrick also serves as a role model in this domain, the clarity of his language that is indeed rare in the world of academia. “Narcissistic executives in particular boast today that they don't read,” he noted in our discussion, and he emphasized that this is why it is all the more important to find a language that gets through to practitioners. Of course, it is a delicate balancing act because information is lost if language is simplified too much – which in turn increases the level of skepticism towards academia. Hambrick’s conclusion: “We must endeavour to get our research across. But we must not overdo it.”

Appreciate the impact of theories. Our keynote speaker Tim Quigley, Associate Professor at the University of Georgia, made it clear how much the current zeitgeist shapes executives. For instance, greed was celebrated in the 1980s, whereas today the zeitgeist condemns greed (even though that could to be changing again). Quigley explained that we researchers needed to appreciate the importance of theories. Ultimately, we are not only describing reality, but we help shape it, too. 

„Over time, theories shape realities. Students will think: this is supposed to be how we should act as CEOs“ - ⁦⁦@tim_quigley⁩ in his striking keynote at #EIASMworkshop@UniPassau⁩, showing how greed was celebrated in the 80s. #TMTresearch #leadership

In the future, we will need executives who do not make decisions simply to deliver short-term profits, but who take into account the resulting social and ecological costs. We need new theories that initiate this change in thinking. In our video, Tim provides a vivid example which he uses to prepare his students for this new way of thinking.

Don't be afraid to express crazy ideas. Panellist Tine Buyl, Assistant Professor of Organization Studies at the University of Tilburg, reveals in our video that in our workshop she was particularly fascinated by the participants’ ideas. These also included ideas which initially appeared crazy but were advanced in discussions with other participants. At any rate, the researchers taking part in our workshop were not afraid to express such ideas. We undoubtedly need more events like this in which there is such an open culture of discussion.

Stimulate an enthusiasm for academia among students. Albrecht Enders, Professor of Strategy and Innovation and Dean of Programs and Innovation at IMD, a leading business school in Lausanne, Switzerland, puts top executives through a three-week program in which he also teaches them the basic principles and language of academia. The goal is to spark executives' interest in and appreciation of our work and see the parallels between their ways of thinking and our ways of thinking. “For example, I ask my participants: How would you measure the narcissism of executives? This is a real eureka moment: It's interesting, but not that straightforward.” 

From our perspective, this is a key qualification in the digital age: A basic appreciation of academic work helps to determine the success and failure of executives. For academia provides skills to help steer companies through the digital revolution and help them draw the right conclusions from data. Decisions which are taken merely based on a gut feeling often do not help.

During the course of a celebratory, musical event held at Neuburg Castle, Professor Donald C. Hambrick received the honorary doctorate from the School of Business, Economics and Information Systems. 

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