Kiechel is the author of The Lords of Strategy. The book reflects much of what he has learned in three decades of reporting and writing on business, including over 100 interviews—a few stretching over days—for this work alone. In recent years he combined research on The Lords with occasional part-time jaunts as an editor at large for Harvard Business Publishing, helping the company in its perpetual quest for new ideas, authors, and business opportunities. Until January, 2003, Kiechel served as editorial director of Harvard Business Publishing and senior vice president in charge of its publishing division, with responsibility for the Harvard Business Review; HBS Press, the company’s book-publishing arm; the newsletter unit (which he helped start in 1996) as well as HBP’s video, reprints, and conference businesses. From early 1997 until his appointment as editorial director in March, 1998, he was publisher of HBR.
Kiechel spent most of his early career at Fortune magazine, where generally he had a wonderful time. After beginning at the magazine as a reporter in 1977, he rose to become its managing editor, the top editorial position, in 1994. As assistant managing editor (1988), executive editor (1992), and finally M.E., he crafted a strategy for the magazine as a journal of “ideas, strategies, and solutions for decision makers.” Through most of the 1980s, Kiechel was editor in charge of Fortune‘s coverage of management. Now and then he’d take a break to write cover stories including “Corporate Strategy for the 1990s” (1988), “The Workaholic Generation” (1989), and “How We Will Work In the Year 2000″ (1993). For 12 years he also wrote a regular column, “Office Hours,” on managerial technique, psychology, and sociology. In 1988, a collection of these pieces was published by Little Brown as a book titled Office Hours: A Guide to the Managerial Life. He has done daily broadcasts on “The New Economy” for the CBS Radio Network and hosted the not-much-lamented Fortune Week television program on CNBC.
Kiechel received JD and MBA degrees from Harvard University, and is a member of the New York bar. He got his undergraduate education at Harvard University as well, where he was awarded an AB degree with honors and elected to Phi Beta Kappa. From 1968 to 1973, he served as an officer in the U.S. Navy, spending most of the time on sea duty aboard destroyers, an adventure he still relishes.
Morris: Before discussing The Lords of Strategy, a few general questions. First, I am curious to know what you consider to be the most significant changes, during the last decade, in business education at institutions such as HBS, Kellogg, Wharton, Ross, and Haas.
Kiechel: The most important change, and it’s been going on for at least three decades, is the increasing “professionalization,” if that’s a word, of the faculty. By professionalization I mean the tendency of faculty members to have Ph.D.’s in their academic specialties, and for these specialties to be ever more narrowly defined. The higher-rated schools may have chief executives in residence or retired execs on three-year teaching fellowships, but the days when most faculty members had considerable prior experience as businessmen or women—those days are mostly over.
This has made for faculty members that have a lot of intellectual candlepower, often to the point of being able to command the respect of professors of economics or psychology elsewhere in their universities. It’s not as clear that the new-style faculty are as in touch with people and companies out there actually doing business. One thing I heard in the reporting for my book, from practitioners, consultants, and academics alike, was that practitioners were finding less and less useful what the business schools were doing by way of cutting-edge thinking of strategy.
At Harvard Business Publishing, at least when I was there through about 2002, we heard from junior faculty at Harvard Business School that their faculty mentors were discouraging them from publishing in Harvard Business Review, which is aimed at practitioners, until they had achieved tenure. Before then it was more important for them to publish in scholarly journals — The North Frisian Journal of Marketing Stochastics, to take a completely made-up example. How many marketing executives do you suspect read the North Frisian Journal?
Morris: In your opinion, what is the one area of business education at these and other institutions in which there remains the greatest need for improvement? Why?
Kiechel: The business schools could do a better job teaching face-to-face management, the actual work of organizing and helping along the efforts of others in the organization. The more quantitative disciplines—finance, even strategy—have gotten more attention, often more research dollars. Areas like organizational science or, even mushier, leadership have had more trouble settling on what it’s important to teach, and how. It’s rather like strategy itself, which as I argue in the book, has had trouble through most of its history figuring out how to incorporate people, their motivation and ability, into its calculations.
Morris: In an issue of Fortune magazine (March 22, 2010), there is an article in which Brian O’Keefe examines the ferocious competition to hire military officers whom he characterizes as “a new elite generation of business leaders.” As someone who once served on active duty as an officer in the U.S. Navy, how do you explain why companies such as Walmart*, PepsiCo, and GE are so eager to hire these men and women?
Kiechel: Companies are always looking for screening devices to use in making their selection processes more efficient—“Does Candidate X have an MBA? An accounting degree?” Service in the military is obviously one such screen.
But I think the reasons outfits like PepsiCo and GE have adopted this particular screen go deeper than that. The literature on leadership is all over the map. You can read the entirety of Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership, which covers most of the research on the subject since the 19th century, and come away thinking that nobody in the field agrees on anything. But one practical point many experts will attest to is that if you want to develop someone as a leader, give them lots of responsibility early in their lives and careers. The military does that. I can remember being officer of the deck on a destroyer, on watch and in charge at two in the morning as we plowed through the Mediterranean while 300 shipmates slept below decks. I was 25 at the time. I don’t know how much of a leader I ever became, but the experience certainly brought home to me a sense of responsibility for others.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.