A Special Interview with Professor Paul Ingram, Faculty Director of the Advanced Management Programme at Columbia Business School Executive Education
Located in one of the world’s most dynamic business hubs – New York City, Columbia Business School Executive Education has an unparalleled environment for advanced business education. It poses great opportunities and offers experiential learning for top executives and aspiring leaders from across the world to learn, to network and to develop capabilities to stay ahead of the business curve.
The programme also benefits from the diversity of its participants and has been particularly popular with Japanese executives. As Japan is known to be a powerhouse country for socio-economic development, the demand for leaders who have strong business acumen and far-reaching vision is urgently needed to meet the challenges of the country’s cultural transformation and hyper-competitive business world.
As part of our special report “How to Lead the Changing Japan,” we had the pleasure of an interview with Professor Paul Ingram, Faculty Director of the Advanced Management Programme at Columbia Business School Executive Education. He shared with us the high ROI one can receive from participating in this programme, the valuable contributions of the Japanese executives, and how the fusion of Western and Japanese business cultures has shaped the dynamics of the cultural and intellectual discourse within the course. The intent is that the programme will inevitably steer these leaders and their companies to long-term success.
Good day, Professor Ingram! Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. Let’s start this interview by giving us a glimpse of what a day looks like for an academic leader like you?
I spend a large portion of my time teaching, so most days, I’m in the classroom – or teaching in other locations. Yesterday, I taught a group of associates at a global law firm; today, I’ll be in meetings about a new way to bring leadership tools online. This evening, I’ll be travelling to Morocco where I’m teaching Executive MBA students as part of a great partnership programme that Columbia Business School runs with the African Business School. And I’m a scholar, so ideally there’s also time for some research, maybe some analysis of data and some writing, which is how I like to spend the extra hours that I can eek out.
Columbia Business School is known for being strategically positioned at the very center of business in various aspects, and the Advanced Management Programme is Columbia’s flagship residential programme for senior executives. Can you tell us more about what sets this particular programme apart from other executive education courses?
I don’t think there’s another executive education programme in the world like ours. Our programme is different from the other Advanced Management Programmes at other universities. We’re dedicated to experiential learning where the participants are actually doing things as a way of learning. We may have a presentation of important new research, a case study, or a framework, but every day the participants are going to be putting ideas into action, trying them out in unique ways. For doing that, we have New York City as our laboratory. We will learn about presence on the stage of a Broadway theatre. We’ll learn about new organisational designs with a startup company. We will learn about shaping culture in one of the world’s great museums. We’ll learn about teamwork in a jazz club interacting with a jazz band. These are ways to deliver a lesson that you can’t get any other way – and the learnings stick. That’s the pedagogy and the methodology. Then we aim the content of the programme at what’s most important to the senior executives who have joined us, which is strategy and leadership. We may have a session that touches on the latest ideas from branding or consumer behaviour, but it’s different – and designed differently – from what an MBA student might learn in a marketing class. It’s designed for a leader of an organisation, a potential Executive Director or CEO, through the lense of what they need to know about using these ideas strategically. And finally, the participant pool is incredibly diverse, and I can rely on the fact that it is going to have a massive impact on me, just as it does on everybody else in the programme.
Columbia Business School’s Advanced Management Programme is particularly popular amongst executives from Japan. Can you tell us what features of the programme appeal to them the most and what is some of the best feedback you have received from Japanese participants?
The Advanced Management Programme appeals to Japanese executives particularly because it pushes them outside of the boundaries and familiarity of their education and executive development up to that point. As I just mentioned, our programme is very experiential – practicing and engaging in simulations and exercises in order to help leaders better understand themselves. It encourages them to do things that they might not have done otherwise, pushing them outside of their comfort zone. But it’s these exercises and moments, combined with the preparation, experience and education that the Japanese executives bring to the programme, that help to give them new capabilities. It’s this combination that creates something special.
How do you make sure that the participants and their organisations will gain the highest return on their investment in terms of knowledge acquisition, career advancement, long-term profitability for business, and other measures of ROI for an executive education?
Based on research and decades of experience, our programme has a system for helping participants extract learnings and think about how they’re going to apply them. Research has confirmed how important 20 or 30 minutes for reflection at the end of a programme day are to the long-term impact of ideas. It’s now a proven practice for learning, but we were ahead of the curve with how carefully we attend to helping the participants with this reflection. We also think about every element of the programme in terms of its return on investment. We are a unique programme that has actually measured that systemically. We’ve done pre- and post-programme tests on the leaders’ capability, and we’ve demonstrated that they have improved in the course of the programme.
What’s the most challenging when addressing the needs of your participants? And how do you meet their expectations?
The biggest challenge is the biggest opportunity: diversity. The participants in the programme are all highly experienced and capable leaders, but they’re diverse in terms of the countries they’re coming from, their backgrounds, the industries which they work in, the organisations they lead or serve, and the paths their careers have taken. This creates challenges of understanding and communication. They have to find ways to relate their organisations to each others’ so they can share learnings that cross between an insurance company in Nigeria, for example, and a financial services firm in the UK. During the first few days of the programme, a lot of time is spent bumping into each other as they’re encountering these differences. But then there’s a shift. It usually happens by the end of the first week after we’ve given people with different perspectives the opportunity to shine and add value. People start to say, “The first day of the programme, I couldn’t have anticipated how I would have learned from this person sitting next to me. And now I can’t believe the lessons I’m taking back to my business from them.” This is almost guaranteed to happen, by design, because if you really want to be an effective senior leader, you must look outside your company, your country, your industry, your area of functional expertise and by seeking out learnings and lessons from unexpected places. The diversity in our class is an incredible resource for this.
Japan is known to have a unique business and work culture, characterised by, among other things, long working hours, group mentality, respect for seniority, and an indirect, high-context communication style. Do these cultural attributes still continue to distinguish the Japanese style of business and how does the Advanced Management Programme take measures to address their needs?
During each Advanced Management Programme, not only do we see the strengths of Japanese culture in business, we rely on them in our programme. We experience great contributions from our Japanese participants that reflect some of the beautiful things about Japanese culture that persist today, such as the importance of the individual as part of a team and part of a context. We experience the impact that the Japanese executives make to our western culture because of their great skill and respect.
We see that, like leaders from around the world, Japanese executives are also struggling to change as the world is changing and managing through the idea that organisations have to become increasingly more dynamic. The preparation for change – for dynamism, for reorganisation, and improvisation – may be the biggest challenge that Japanese organisations and leaders, like others, bring to the programme. And at the same time, they have some important resources for dealing with that challenge in terms of managing cultures and collaboration. They however bring a combination of strengths from their business culture and their society to their careers and lives, and then we help add new ideas, experiences, and practices from Columbia Business School and from the other leaders from around the world who are a part of our programme to generate new capacities to help deal with the dynamic business environment that they’re operating within.
Over the years, the Advanced Management Programme has created positive impact on leadership development and bottom lines results. Can you share with us an example of a Japanese executive’s career progression after attending the Advanced Management Programme?
Recently, one of the executives who attended from a global Japanese company received a significant promotion during the programme. He took part in our modular “2×2” option where executives attend the first two weeks, return to work for six months, and then come back and complete the final two weeks of the programme. He received this promotion during the time when he was back at work and before coming back to the programme. His organisation had gone through some substantial challenges. It was trying to change the way it operated globally, and he found that he was emerging as someone who was being given the opportunities to make a real difference in the organisation’s transition. When he came back to us, he shared energising stories about how he’d been able to apply insights from the first module of the programme to the early stages of his job and then how he was able to use the learnings that we developed together in the programme to be a leader in and make an impact on one of Japan’s most important companies during a critical, transitional time for the company.
One of your current research projects focusses on the structure and efficacy of managers’ professional networks. Can you share with us your research findings so far? And what is your advice for the participants of the Advanced Management Programme in terms of network development?
That’s a research topic I’ve studied for a career. We have evidence that your set of professional relationships impacts the bottom line, your capacity to get things done, your access to ideas, your advancement in your career, and the efficacy in the performance of your organisation. What I’ve been working on uniquely is the navigation between the idea that we get economic benefits from our relationships and at the same time have a drive that if there’s something that we call a personal relationship or friendship, it should be authentic. That it really should be personal, and it can’t simply be somebody who fits the box in terms of the kind of knowledge or help you need and therefore they become part of your network. How do you navigate between the fact that these are social relationships, but they have economic interests? I have been looking at how leaders navigate this, and the conclusion I have reached is that economically useful network relationships are also authentic – socially and personally. Leaders can’t look around the world and say, “This person would be useful, so I’m going to add them to my network.” Instead, you have to go around the world, build authentic connections to the places you’re going to make investments to reach your professional goals. But your sincerity, your authenticity, the personal connection actually is the foundation for an effective network. In the Advanced Management Programme, we examine and teach practical ways based on research of helping leaders do this. We help them understand their values, what they really stand for as a leader, and how to express that to others.
What do you think are the important qualities a business leader must have in order to drive organisations successfully into the future?
I think the two qualities that are defining successful leaders at this moment are a capacity for ongoing learning and the ability to lead cultures. Learning, because business is evolving and organisations are only going to be more dynamic in the future. From the Advanced Management Programme, the executives who have been the most successful over time have been great learners. Of course, we try to cultivate learning, but there’s also the intrinsic capacity like their curiosity or their openness that they bring with them. Then there’s the capacity to lead cultures. Culture and strategy are the defining inputs, the differentiators, that determine whether organisations succeed or fail. They’re both critically important, however strategy is easier to learn. And while leading the culture is learnable, it’s also an art that takes practice. It takes looking at examples, understanding yourself, and probably some painful failures. It’s the rarer skill, and I think the best leaders of the next generation are going to be great learners who will be artful leaders of the culture.
How do you make sure your programme has a lasting impact for the professional development of your participants?
It’s in the ways we address those two necessary capabilities of great leaders, learning and culture. Our programme invests a lot of time in the leader as a learner. Our opening session in the programme is about the why and how of learning, and then we continue to introduce tools of great learners throughout the programme. And we spend a lot of time focussing on this art of leading the culture, particularly in the second half of our programme. We spend a lot of time – especially during the two weeks of the programme, that take place in Manhattan – looking at original organisations, looking at organisational change and transformation where culture is always critical, where CEOs and the participants who have great leadership experience share their learnings on careers engaging with culture. We’ve seen that it’s a differentiator for what the people who go through the programme need to be successful after that. We focus on what the leaders need, the process and capacity to be a great learner throughout their career, and being effective with the difficult demand of organisational culture.
Japan is known for some of the world’s most extraordinary ideas and cutting-edge inventions, from supercomputers, flying cars and industrial robots to earthquake-proof buildings. What lessons or inspirations have you gained from working with Japanese people?
The Japanese people have incredible capabilities about how to work together and collaborate, and they have a lot to teach the world – about respect and about how an individual’s understanding of him or herself in the context of teams, organisations, nations, and global citizenship leads to effective interactions and productivity. Their innovation capabilities stem from their ability to make the most of combining the insights from different types of people and different ways of thinking. No one genius creates the world’s great works of art, or the world’s great technologies. They’re collective efforts. And, we rely on them in the Advanced Management Programme. They become leaders of our culture; they are generous in terms of their contributions to their classmates, and they’re part of the magic that makes the programme so rewarding for everybody.
On a lighter note, what does success mean to you?
I think about this a lot – because I have a professional investment in a programme that is aimed at helping people reach their success. I pay attention to how participants view success. I look at the people who seem successful and satisfied, and I think about the inputs there. I’ve learned a lot about that through the Advanced Management Programme.
One of the great eye-openers for me has been revising my own ideas about success over the last 10+ years. The conclusion I have reached is that success is a function of constant learning. The people who have opened my eyes and excited me from the early days of the programme were great learners. I’ve seen over time as people finish the programme and go on, the difference their trajectory for learning makes, which has some personal characteristics – openness, humility, curiosity – but what it means is that success is not a moment in time. It’s not about where you stand in terms of your achievements or your relative status in your field or in your organisation at any one moment. It’s about your trajectory over time. The people who have affected me most are the ones who are focussed on the trajectory. Over time with my engagement in the programme, I’ve come to adopt more of that perspective myself. I don’t know if I could have said it 12 years ago, but now my own definition of success is about my constant learning. If I have a failure that I learn from, I’m usually happy, satisfied, and excited for the future.
Thank you very much, Professor Ingram. It was a great pleasure speaking with you.
About the Interviewee
Paul Ingram is the Kravis Professor of Business at Columbia Business School and faculty director of the Advanced Management Programme. His PhD is from Cornell University, and he was on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University before coming to Columbia. He has held visiting professorships at Tel Aviv University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the University of Toronto. The courses he teaches on management and strategy benefit from his research on organisations in the United States, Canada, Israel, Scotland, China, Korea and Australia, and his research has been published in more than 60 articles, book chapters, and books.
Ingram’s current research project examines the intersection between culture and social networks. Recent papers investigate questions such as the role of value similarity to foster business networks, determinants and outcomes of individuals’ fit in organizational cultures, and influences on ethical decision making.