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.

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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.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Dewald: I love going to the movies and can find good lessons for business in virtually every movie I see (just ask my wife – she thinks I am crazy). One scene that stands out was when Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman, Edward Lewis, discovers for the first time the potential for businesses to build and create something great. The ability to make people’s lives better – a lot of people’s lives. He sees that it is not just about his bank account, and it is not about finding clever ways to tear down and break apart what others have struggled to create. He sees the truth, that business organizations are more than anything else insanely powerful social levers that routinely, but dramatically change people’s lives.

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

“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.”

Dewald: Let me say simply that I am a fan of these quotes. Leadership is all about people. Sure, the leader needs to understand the business operations, but that is more important to be able to converse effectively with the team, than not making the right decisions. Building a team, creating a trusting environment, leveraging the strengths of your particular team members – these are very much the hallmarks of great leadership and fulfilling careers.

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Dewald: Michael Porter is the undisputed guru of modern business strategy, and this concise quote capture the core of his theory. No person, and no organization can be all things to all people. Choices must be made, and choosing to say no can most clearly help define the boundaries of resource engagement.

If it’s OK with you, I’d like to expand my response to this question a bit. In my first CEO job, which was an engineering consulting firm, I found that actually “firing” a client was the most powerful action I had ever taken in my business career. Most in the service industry would say I must have been nuts, or something like, the customer is always right. But I felt as we were providing professional services, if we had a client who did not respect us to the level I felt was appropriate for a professional firm, then they had to find another engineer. The day we fired one client, word spread like wildfire through the industry, which brought the top clients to our door, and the best engineers in the industry knocking on my door wondering if we might want new employees, partners, etc. I

I might be taking unintended license with the Porter quote, but I think this is such an important point for young people, particularly when it comes to ethics or respect – be prepared to say no, even to a paying client/customer.

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….’”

Dewald: This is another great quote that I link to the wisdom and advice I often hear from Mac Van Wielingen, founder of ARC Financial and ARC Resources. Mac always encourages people to “turn toward discomfort”. I actually believe, and what to test, that this could be the key differentiator that identifies exceptional leadership. I suggest that leaders daily experience discomfort – something doesn’t seem right here, I can’t put my finger on it, maybe I don’t understand it, etc. For many leaders, the decision is to say “no”, for others, it is delegation, “handle it yourself, but don’t screw it up”, but for Mac it is, “that’s interesting, but I want to learn more and better understand what you are suggesting”. In other words, it is the “that’s odd” observation that can lead to new knowledge, growth, and learning.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Dewald: This is a fascinating quote because it appears highly trivial, but encompassed within this simple statement is a mountain of complexity and idiosyncratic mystery that perplexes the most brilliant people on earth. Even so, execution without vision is unlikely to accomplish anything. Easy to say – hard to deliver on.

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

Dewald: Not only am I a huge fan of Peter Drucker, but this particular quote fits perfectly with my thesis in Achieving Longevity – in other words, pursuing efficiency can become a ends in itself, which ultimately can become, to quote Drucker, “useless”.

Morris: Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be closely associated for an extended period of time? Why?

Dewald: One of the great things about being a business school dean is that I have plenty of opportunities to learn from great leaders. There are many great leaders in our communities. Like Jim Collins discovered in researching his book Good to Great, these leaders do not seek the spotlight, they are not the bombastic draconian drivers we see in the movies, they are quiet and humble, while also having determination, will, and drive. If I were to look through history, Gandhi stands out as a leader who would be at the pinnacle of what Collins spoke of as level 5 qualities. I think it would be amazing to have spent time with such a leader, but honestly, I am very privileged to be around many great leaders already.

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.”

Dewald: Resistance to change is one of the most powerful forces on earth. I address this particular topic in my book, Achieving Longevity, because corporate entrepreneurship faces a tremendous challenge in established larger companies who essentially feel ‘above’ different approaches to products, services, or business models. The resistance is rooted in what O’Toole calls the ideology of comfort, and overcoming this resistance takes serious thought and planning – unfortunately a huge undertaking for the average manager.

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

Dewald: There is no quick fix to this, and in fact pushing too hard will only make it harder to accomplish change. Be aware, be strategic, be purposeful, be thoughtful, be observant, be caring, be sensitive, be persistent, be thoughtful – I think you can see how challenging it can be to confront the ideology of comfort.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Dewald: We are entering a very mature phase in our industrial development, and this is causing intense strains on many parts of our economy. Robert Gordon of Northwestern University writes extensively on this topic in his new book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth. Dr. Gordon identifies four “headwinds” to slow growth, which I believe represent areas of major concern for all CEO’s.

These are, (1) inequality – which is fueling a growing angst and rage within the general population, (2) education – which is causing North America to fall behind in the global race for talent, (3) demographics – with the aging baby boom our underfunded social systems will not keep pace with demand, and immigration concerns exacerbate the challenge, and (4) government debt that devalues our economies and threatens to limit our growth potential. My recommendation is for organizations to be nimble and entrepreneurial when facing these strong headwinds.

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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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