James M. Kerr: An interview by Bob Morris

KerrJames M. Kerr is a management consultant and organizational behaviorist. He specializes in strategic planning, corporate transformation and project & program development. For over 20 years, Jim has forged a different type of consulting practice – one that does its engagements “with” its clients, instead of “to” them. Whether helping larger organizations, like The Home Depot re-imagine its store operations, or advising smaller firms, like specialty insurer Jewelers Mutual open up new markets, Jim has a reputation of making a difference.

A recognized thought leader, Jim continues to provide cutting edge solutions to his clients through a strong dedication to research and study. The Executive Checklist: A Guide for Setting Direction and Managing Change is Jim’s fourth business strategy book and was published by Palgrave Macmillan (January 2014). It is a testament to his commitment to helping leaders improve the ways in which they guide and shape their organizations. A graduate of Bentley University located in Waltham, Massachusetts, Jim earned an M.S. degree in Management Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — where he continues to teach graduate-level Strategic Planning courses in its Lally School of Management.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of him. To read the complete interview, please click here.

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Before discussing The Executive Checklist, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

I’ve had some great mentors that have guided me and influenced the path that I have followed professionally. There are two in particular that I should call out. The first person that I reported to after graduation from college was Doc Schilke. He inspired me to begin my business writing by suggesting that I write about my point of view regarding some work we were doing with a consultant. It was a turning point for me in that the article was published by a leading magazine at the time and it gave me some terrific exposure as a thought leader at a very early age – which brought me to know Jim Johnson, another key mentor who offered me an executive position at a major life insurance company. I was 24 years old!

Both of these men took a risk on me and, by so doing, helped me to develop into the professional I am today.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Kerr: Not to sound like an advertisement, Bentley University prides itself at turning out well-rounded, liberally educated business professionals. They do that by placing an emphasis on liberal arts as well as the business specialties that are its bread and butter courses. While there, I took many courses on philosophy and I think that those courses inform some of the business philosophies that I have helped to develop through my writing and have practiced through work with my clients.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Kerr: You don’t have to have it all figured out by the time you start your career. You have time to get your legs under you and explore different opportunities as they arise. If you’re willing to work hard are open to new ideas and taking some risks, you’ll find and will receive what you need to get to where you want to go.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Kerr: Homer’s epic, The Odyssey – While Odysseus’ journeys were not mine, I did travel some distance along those lines!

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Kerr: This is one that I’ve certainly learned to take to heart. In fact, it has been reinterpreted as one of the important tag lines of my management consulting practice. As we often say to our clients, “we do it with you, not to you!”

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Kerr: I’m not sure about this one. There’s a lot of ideas being stolen in the world of business authors. I’ve had some ideas for articles that I’ve submitted to leading magazines and rejected only to find them repurposed under a staff writer’s name. Sorry, but, it is a pet peeve!

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Kerr: Indeed! Every paradigm shift in thinking began as being characterized as a heretic’s mad raving by those with the most to lose. Why? People who have been successful within whatever prevailing paradigm will naturally resist any idea that threatens their status quo. That said, great changes happen by outsiders with nothing to lose and much to gain by shifting the current paradigm in their favor.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Kerr: Seeing or experiencing the unexpected is the beginning of the work required to figure out why that “odd” thing happens. It’s that type of discovery that sparks much of the work of the management consultant.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Kerr: True, true! Paving over the cow paths isn’t going to lead to the breakthrough thinking required to be successful in the early 21st Century business world. Indeed, we must start by re-imagining what is and how it can be done better in the future.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”:organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Kerr: That’s one of the goals of a holacracy – which is the concept behind flatter, more team-based organization structures. I wrote a piece recently about Zappos commitment to institute this way of managing work and the flatter organization structure that comes with this way of managing a business. I think that it just makes sense. Eliminate bureaucracies by eliminating bureaucratic thinking – the very way of thin king that led to the “Great Man” theory to begin with!

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Kerr: I would view as an idea derived from the Learning Organization concept introduced in The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge many years ago. Clearly, the concept has merit and it is how organizations can learn from experience and mistakes. The key is to ensure that those empowered to try new things are equipped with the requisite skills and experience to carefully execute in an informed way so to minimize risk, recognize value and manage through difficulties encountered in a controlled fashion.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Kerr: Micro-management is a leadership style that hinders delegation and empowerment. I’ve written quite often about Leadership Styles in, both, my books and my articles. Fortunately, this style of leadership is not that widespread among C-level leaders. In fact, narcissistic leadership styles – one where credit is seldom shared – is far more prevalent in my experience. Nonetheless, the prevailing thought that inspires the micro-management behavior is one where the leader believes that no one else is as competent as he or she. Clearly, this behavior can be changed. But, it’s difficult because change can only come when the leader recognizes it as a problem and, most importantly, wants to change it.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Kerr: I couldn’t agree more! In fact, we begin every strategic planning engagement with Vision Story work. I believe that vision stories must be compelling and vivid in order to attract staff members to do the work needed to realize the leader’s vision for the future. So, yes, the best leaders can tell a gripping story.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Kerr: Surely, it’s part of the human condition to remain in one’s comfort zone. There are two ways to encourage people to move on from their comfort zones. 1) show them a better future – through a vivid and compelling Vision Story – one that is even more comfortable than the one that they’re currently living in, and, 2) identify a threat that must be overcome in order to continue to survive comfortably. Either one, can motivate people to stretch and achieve new things.

* * *

To read the complete interview, please click here.

To read my review of The Executive Checklist, please click here.

Jim cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Media link
Articles link
Services link
Contact: jkerr@executive-checklist.com
Twitter link

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