Jim Dewald on “Entrepreneurial Thinking”: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

DewaldJim Dewald is the dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary and an associate professor in the strategy and entrepreneurship. A business leader who can provide an effective bridge between strategy theory and on-the-ground practice, his research interests are related to the micro-foundations of strategy formulation and implementation. Specifically, his work has contributed to the constructs of cognitive resilience, entrepreneurial thinking and strategic response to disruptive innovations.

Jim has three books, two book chapters, and over 50 business and academic articles to his credit. His new book, Achieving Longevity: How Great Firms Prosper Through Entrepreneurial Thinking, was published by the University of Toronto Press.

Jim holds a BSc (Eng) and MBA from the University of Alberta, and a PhD from the University of Calgary. Prior to entering academe, he was active in the Calgary business community as the CEO of two major real estate development companies, an engineering consulting practice, and a tech-based real estate brokerage company. He was named Calgary Citizen of the Year and is on the boards of Boardwalk REIT, Innovate Calgary, the West Campus Development Trust, Junior Achievement Southern Alberta, CPA Alberta, and the School of Public Policy.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Jim.

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Morris: Before discussing Achieving Longevity, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Dewald: The person who most influenced me was definitely my father. He was an entrepreneur, and in fact he and every one of his 7 siblings were all entrepreneurs – quite remarkable. However, while my Dad only completed High School, he encouraged me to see education as the key path to freedom of choice. He taught me that you could be educated to be a lawyer, and then choose to be a singer – education is about providing more options and broadening a person’s horizons.

In my MBA education, I was heavily influenced by the faculty, most notably Dr. Ted Chambers and Dr. Bob Hinings. They treated their students like very capable researchers and leaders ready to take on more, and able to face full responsibility for our own actions. This was a real growing up experience that prepared me for leadership roles.

At the same time, I feel that I may have benefitted more from adverse situations than from strong role models. Following my MBA education, I was hired as a corporate accounts manager at a major national bank. This was a fairly senior role, and I was assigned to a journeyman banker who worked incredibly hard for 30 years to get to his position. He was very unimpressed with this 27 year-old fresh MBA graduate as his new key employee. He made it clear to me that my education was no match for his experience, and I would be wise to focus on making sure his calendar was in order, and his coffee was hot –and not get in his way. I had to earn my position, and that was a tough, but very important time in my life. I learned perseverance and he became a great friend and mentor to me, helping to promote my career whenever he could help.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Dewald: When I first became a CEO, I was in my mid-30’s, and remember the tremendous responsibility I felt walking the halls and getting to know the people who depended on me to bring in the work that would keep them busy and able to feed their families. At the same time, because it was me who was new to an old company, everyone expected me to just assume the personality of the recently retired president, which was not a fit for me. How could I make this work for me and for everyone else, and how could I bring in the work we needed to keep the engineering company thriving and growing? I turned to a friend of mine, Wade Gibbs, who simply advised me to be myself and accept that some staff will leave, some clients may leave, but new ones will like my way of doing things, and in time we will all be happier with the natural fit than trying to be something that doesn’t work for me. He also encouraged me to read, which is where my passion for books and research started.

One of the early books I came across was Max de Pree’s brilliant short book, Leadership is an Art. Suddenly, I got it – treating your team members like volunteers, having a covenantal relationship of mutual respect and support is where the magic lives. Being open, inviting, and welcoming of new ideas, innovation, and entrepreneurial thinking – this is where I wanted to be. My professional development jumped to a more compassionate and rewarding level when I learned these lessons of being myself, being understanding of others, and welcoming of adopting new ideas and ways of doing things.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Dewald: Most of my career was in business, but the last 10 years I have worked to build a career as an academic. On the teaching side, there are many rewards, and the memorable ones are the students who have those “aha” moments. Honestly, you can’t beat that feeling. At the same time, I have to admit that feeling that you are on track as a researcher and knowledge creator is high anxiety. It is easy for others to tear-down new thoughts. Whenever you develop a new theory or construct, there is a line-up of people ready to tear it down. I have not achieved what I want to in academics, and am in many ways looking for that epiphany, knowing full well that it will be as fragile as the next challenge. I guess I must be comfortable with that challenge, or in denial. Time will tell.

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

Dewald: It is pretty simple for me – I could not have accomplished anything I have done without my formal education. First as a professional engineer, then as a leader/manager, and finally as an academic. My career is diverse, but each component has relied very heavily on formal education – my dad was 100% correct: education provides both a step-up, and more importantly options for anyone’s career career.

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

Dewald: The most important thing that I did not know coming out of engineering school was that there are infinite ways to solve virtually every problem, and you learn more by listening to other people’s ideas than if you always do things your own way. Knowledge development is both vertical and horizontal. Vertical learning requires education and experience (well, actually, practice), but horizontal learning draws from the distinctions between how you approach problems, in comparison to others. Only through listening and learning from others can you grow horizontally in your skills and knowledge. There is rarely a one best way, but there are better ways, and diverse perspectives are critical in expanding ones ability to see better ways.

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Here is a direct link to the complete Part 1.

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

His Haskayne Business School profile link

The Achieving Longevity link at Amazon

His LinkedIn link

His Twitter link

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