Michael Roberto: An interview by Bob Morris

RobertoMichael Roberto is the Trustee Professor of Management at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI. He has written two books: Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes For An Answer and Know What You Don’t Know. He has created two best-selling audio/video courses for The Teaching Company (The Art of Critical Decision Making and Transformational Leadership).

Roberto’s Everest Leadership and Team Simulation earned the top prize in the eLearning category at the MITX Interactive Awards. His multimedia case study about the 2003 space shuttle accident, titled Columbia’s Final Mission, earned the software industry’s prestigious Codie Award in 2006. On the teaching front, Roberto is a seven-time winner of the Outstanding MBA Teaching Award at Bryant University. He also has won Harvard’s Allyn Young Prize for Teaching in Economics on two occasions.

Roberto has taught in the leadership development programs and consulted at a number of firms including Target, Apple, FedEx, Disney, Morgan Stanley, Gannett, Mars, Wal-Mart, and Union Pacific. Over the past ten years, he has served on the faculty at the Nomura School of Advanced Management in Tokyo, where he teaches in an executive program each summer. Roberto received an A.B. with honors from Harvard College. He earned an M.B.A. with High Distinction and his doctoral degree from Harvard Business School.

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Morris: Before discussing and Know What You Don’t Know and then the new edition of Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes For An Answer, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Roberto: My parents. They left Italy in 1966 and came to America in seek of a better life for their children. My brother was 7 years old at the time. I was born shortly after their arrival in the United States. Their sacrifices and their work ethic have had a profound influence on me.

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

Roberto: The faculty at Harvard Business School. My time there as an MBA student, doctoral student, and faculty member has had a profound influence on my professional development. Working with, and learning from, professors such as Amy Edmondson and Jan Rivkin was a true privilege.

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.

Roberto: In the second year of my MBA program, I decided to go back and work for one of my old professors teaching undergraduate economics. I taught two semesters (one micro, one macro). That’s when I truly fell in love with teaching. I finished my MBA and went to work in the corporate world for a bit, but I returned soon to get my doctorate. I knew that teaching and scholarship were my true calling.

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

Roberto: Absolutely invaluable. I have been blessed with the opportunity to spend 10 years studying at Harvard from my freshman year of college through the achievement of my doctorate. I learned from some of the greatest minds in the world. Truly blessed.

Morris: 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?

Roberto: I wish that I had been more savvy about the non-economic/non-financial factors that influence key decisions. I was an economics major working in corporate finance when I left college. I had to learn that it was about much more than the numbers.

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

Roberto: I actually think that there are several great films that help teach about leadership in business or any other field… to name a few, Remember the Titans, Twelve O’clock High, Path to War….

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

Roberto: Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. What a tremendous book about Lincoln’s leadership, including the way he built and led his senior team.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’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.”

Roberto: You definitely want your people to feel as though they own a decision or project. If they feel a sense of collective ownership, they will work harder, be more motivated, and achieve greater results.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Roberto: Be careful of those who become too wedded to certain dogma or conventional wisdom. Smart people often become rigid after they have achieved some recognition for their ideas.

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Roberto: Learn from a wide variety of leaders, but don’t try to imitate any one of them. Take bits from lots of great leaders, and blend that with how you work best.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Roberto: We have to be flexible, and we must constantly seek to welcome new ideas. We can’t become rigid in our thinking.

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

Roberto: Sometimes, we forget to ask the big questions, such as: Is this the right strategy? Should we cut our losses? What options are out there? WE get so caught up in optimizing short run profit that we forget to ask whether we are on the right path overall.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, 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?

Roberto: I think that decisions are often not the product of a single individual. Great leaders do marshal the collective intellect of their organizations. They use the knowledge and expertise of those around them. They welcome dissenting views. Still, leaders matter a great deal. In fact, recent research by Timothy Quigley and Donald Hambrick shows CEOs have more of an impact on firm performance today than they ever have.

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?

Roberto: Sometimes, in the words of IDEO’s David Kelley, we have to fail early to succeed sooner. Intelligent, purposeful trial and error is often key to innovation. We don’t achieve breakthrough innovation by sitting in an office for months conjuring up a detailed plan. Instead, we go out and experiment, fail, and learn quickly.

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

Roberto: They often don’t trust the people around them. They are afraid that it won’t be done the way that they would like. I think fear and mistrust are at the heart of it. More deeply, the issue is that they haven’t truly made the transition from individual performer to leader. They have not realized that the most important part of their job is selecting the right people, developing them, and using them wisely.

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

Roberto: Absolutely. If you want to persuade and influence others, a story is much more effective than data or bullet points.

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?

Roberto: You have to focus on small wins. Sure, you want to articulate a grand vision. However, to win allies, build momentum, and gather support… you have to find some small, quick victories. These small wins can demonstrate that a new way of working is both necessary and effective. In short, you won’t persuade people to change simply through words. You need to show them through actions.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the great need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Roberto: The bottom line is that we reward professors for scholarship, and in many schools, we pay scant attention to teaching quality when it comes to tenure and promotion. As long as those incentives are in place, we will have questions about the quality of MBA programs. The other issue is that we are rewarding scholarship that is often highly esoteric and without clear lessons for managerial practice.

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

Roberto: CEOs will face a serious talent challenge. Millenials have a very different way of thinking about work and the role that work plays in their lives. They also have skeptical views about large corporations. Attracting, developing, and retaining talented young people will be the biggest challenge for CEOs… far more than dealing with Wall Street, or coping with new technology.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Know What You Don’t Know. When and why did you decide to write it?

Roberto: I chose to write it based on a conversation with Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense for John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. McNamara mentioned that the biggest challenge leaders face is not solving problems; rather, determining where the most serious problems are in their organizations. He argued that problems often remain hidden from executives until it is far too late. That led me to begin investigating what I called the “problem finding capabilities and processes” of effective leaders.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Roberto: I’m not sure it was head-snapping, but I think that surfacing bad news is clearly a problem for even the very best of organizations. The problem was far more pervasive than I thought.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Roberto: It definitely changed as I conducted the research. I didn’t expect to spend as much time writing about failure and how to learn from it. That became a major portion of the book.

Morris: As I began to read the book years ago, I was reminded of Derek Bok’s response when the then president of Harvard was reviled by parents after a substantial tuition increase: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Presumably you agree with him.

Roberto: Derek Bok was President of Harvard when I was an undergraduate. He was a tremendous scholar and academic leader. I agree with him. Having said that, we do have a serious problem in higher education. The price tag is enormous. We are in a bubble that cannot be sustained. At some point, a shake-out will take place in higher education. I think you will see many colleges get into financial difficulty in the years ahead. Big changes are coming, as the tuition increases of the past will not be sustainable at the less prestigious schools.

Morris: I was also reminded of a book co-authored by Carla O’dell and Grayson Kirk, If Only We Knew What We Know. In your opinion, how best to establish a workplace culture within which knowledge transfers are most likely to be successful?

Roberto: You have to break down silos and barriers. You have to build a learning culture, where everyone is always trying to improve and help others improve. You have to build in systematic processes to facilitate learning and continuous improvement. You have to create opportunities for cross-silo collaboration. Rotating key people so that they are exposed to different areas, and so that they build relationships in different areas, is also essential.

Morris: You cite one of my favorite observations by G.K. Chesterton, “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.” Please explain its relevance to the book.

Roberto: Senior leaders often are kept in the dark, or keep themselves in the dark, when it comes to key problems. People don’t want to share bad news with the boss, and the boss often makes it uncomfortable for people to come forward with bad news.

Morris: Who are today’s “gatekeepers”? Why circumvent them? How best to do that?

Roberto: Gatekeepers are the people who surround senior leaders and often filter information. They don’t necessarily mean any harm, but that filtering can often mean that bad news does not rise to the top of the organization. Gatekeepers can be people with formal titles such as chief of staff or chief operating officer, or they may simply be folks who have come to informally occupy this role in the organization.

Morris: Why become an ethnographer? Which skills must be mastered? How best to do that?

Roberto: Becoming an ethnographer means getting out there and observing for yourself how employees, customers, and suppliers are behaving. People often say one thing and do another. Therefore, surveys and focus groups can be misleading. Leaders need to actually go look for themselves at times. It’s hard to do. You have to learn to build trust, so that people don’t think you are spying on them. You have to put aside your own biases and pre-existing views, so that you can see clearly.

Morris: Obviously, Paul Schoemaker agrees with you about the value of “useful failures,” what he characterizes as “brilliant mistakes.” In your opinion, how best to create the context within which they can occur? Any especially important do’s and don’ts to keep in mind meanwhile?

Roberto: You have to encourage small experiments, and focus on the process not the results of those experiments. Do not simply reward people for successful experiments. Sometimes, a great experiment is a failed one that led to great learning. You have to focus on the process and reward those who are learning, and then sharing what they learned.

Morris: Why are many (most?) supervisors’ listening skills so poor? How best to strengthen?

Roberto: People listen poorly because they are often multi-tasking. Moreover, they listen poorly because they have a hard time putting aside their biases and predispositions. You can only become a good listener if you truly put yourself in the shoes of the other person. What do they stand for, what are their goals, why do they believe that they do? To listen means understanding where they are coming from and trying to get behind their arguments and positions.

Morris: I share your high regard for what I characterize as Problem-Finders. Here’s what you point out: “They do not wait for problems to come to them. They behave much more proactively. They seek out problems. They embrace them…The very best leaders know that speed is critical. The earlier you discover a problem, the more likely you can contain the damage, and the more likely you can solve it readily. Most important of all, successful leaders do not see problems as threats. They see every problem as an opportunity to learn and improve.”

Here’s my question: In your opinion, why are leaders of many (most?) organizations reluctant to encourage and reward Problem-Finders at least as much as they do Problem-Solvers?

Roberto: We like the quick fix. We like the hero who can patch a problem and get things moving again. We are less likely to reward those who study a situation and dig deeper to understand the root causes of a situation. We also tend to want to point to the person who is to blame for a failure, rather than looking systemically for the broader causes of a failure. As a result, we overlook key problems.

Morris: On Pages 189-193), you discuss “Three Dimensions of a New Mindset.” Here’s a two-part question: Why is a new one needed? What are the defining characteristics of the one you propose?

Roberto: We need a new mindset, because we tend to always think the biggest job for a leader is to make bold decisions (bold and fast in many cases). We need people to realize that we can be decisive, but acting on the wrong issues. Decisiveness is only effective if we are working on the right problems.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to the new edition of Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes For An Answer. For those who have not as yet read either edition, why don’t great leaders accept “yes” for an answer?

Roberto: Great leaders recognize that their people are often reluctant to share dissenting views. Thus, they don’t accept that initial concurrence from their advisers. They push a little bit, and they dig deeper. They encourage those dissenting views. They make sure that people really mean “yes” when they say that they agree with a proposed course of action.

Morris: Is that refusal to accept “yes” for an answer more true, less true, or about the same today as it was when the book was first published in June, 2005? Please explain.

Roberto: More true! Despite all that has been written about welcoming dissent, leaders seem to still falter in this area. I think most leaders think that they are open to dissenting views. They don’t recognize how hard it is for subordinates to come forward and express an opposing position. Some leaders look at a person who did not come forward with dissent or bad news in some famous disaster, and they think that person is an exception. They say to themselves, “Oh, that person should have had the courage to come forward.” What they don’t realize is that the dissenter who remains silent is the norm, not the exception, in most organizations. Leaders have the responsibility to seek out those dissenting views.

Morris: Why a new edition?

Roberto: Over the past eight years, I have worked with many companies and many leaders trying to improve the way decisions are made. I’ve learned a great deal during that time, and so I wanted to incorporate some of those lessons in the book.

Morris: Of all that you have learned about great leaders [begin italics] since the first edition was published [end italics], what do you consider to be most significant? Why?

Roberto: I wrote an entire new chapter on the topic of how to become a better devil’s advocate. In the first edition, I talked about the value of assigning someone to play the role of devil’s advocate. Yet, I learned over the past eight years that some teams are much better in deploying this technique than others. I compared and contrasted those that were effective with those that were not. I wanted to share those ideas about how to play the role of devil’s advocate more effectively. It’s a tough job to get right, but it can be such a valuable technique if done well.

Morris: Leaders who know what they don’t know obviously depend on others to provide the knowledge needed. By what process do great leaders tend to determine which sources of such knowledge to trust?

Roberto: They have to ask lots of questions. They need to not simply take opinions or proposals at face value, but dig deeper to understand the person’s track record, agenda, underlying goals and interests, and the like. In so doing, they can determine why and how people feel as they do. Then they can determine the extent to which they can trust the conclusions being brought to them.

Morris: You observe, “This new edition includes the findings from new research by me and other scholars around the world.” Which of those findings, in your opinion, will be of greatest interest and value to those who read this book? Please explain.

Roberto: Let’s start with the topic of becoming a better devil’s advocate. That is the new chapter. It’s full of good new material. Beyond that, I incorporate the latest research on team communication breakdowns, as well as work on why we sometimes reject others’ advice. I also include some great examples from recent years including Mulally’s turnaround at Ford, Intuit’s use of the “two pizza rule” to keep decision-making teams just the right size, etc.

Morris: In his TED program, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asserts that “flow” is “the secret to happiness” in a workplace environment. Here’s a two-part question. First, do you agree with Csikszentmihalyi?

Roberto: I really like Csikszentmihalyi’s work. It’s a tough concept to apply, though… It’s not easy to define it, and it’s not easy to identify how to create it. In my view, a workplace environment is a complex system. Creating a healthy environment involves working on many facets of the organization – the leadership, the talent, the working conditions, the processes, the values, etc.

Morris: Also, to what extent is “flow” (i.e. total and joyful immersion in efforts to achieve peak performance) essential to effective management of conflict and consensus?

Roberto: I’ve never thought about this connection, to be honest. I do think much dysfunctional conflict emerges when people are not happy in their roles, or not happy with the colleagues with whom they work. Having said that, I’m sure that conflict management is still a challenging task even in a very positive, rewarding work environment. The bottom line – interpersonal conflict is a potential risk any time you have vigorous give-and-take on tough issues.

Morris: In my review of your book for various Amazon websites, I recall an incident that occurred any years ago when one of Einstein’s Princeton colleagues playfully chided him for asking the same questions each year on his final examinations. Einstein replied, “Quite right. Each year, the answers are different.” The same could be said for many of the business issues that you address, especially now when changes in the business world today occur much faster and have much greater impact than at any prior time that I (at least) can recall.

Here’s my question: In your opinion, how best to manage ambiguity and uncertain when change seems to be the only constant?

Roberto: Leaders need to constantly scan the environment – their own, as well as the competitive environments in other industries and markets. They have to keep their ears and eyes open. Internally, they have to stay connected with the people working on the front lines, producing and selling the goods and interacting with customers. Beyond that, leaders need to work hard to avoid getting stale. They need to take on new challenges, seek out new learning opportunities, and question the way things have been done even when the organization appears to be performing effectively.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as [begin italics] the most important point [end italics] or [begin italics] key take-away [end italics] in each of several passages.

First, Decision-Making Myths (Pages 11-17)

Roberto: Decision-making is not just an intellectual exercise conducted in the mind of the CEO… it is a social process, and managing the interpersonal dimension is crucial.

Morris: The Perils of Conflict and Dissent (25-29)

Roberto: Far too many leaders do not seek out dissenting views. They do not actively stimulate debate.

Morris: Managerial Levers (45-65)

Roberto: You have to decide how to decide to be an effective leader. In other words, you must take a few moments to design the decision-making process that you want to lead in a crucial situation. Deciding how to decide means thinking carefully about who you want involved in the process, the context you want to create, the ways in which you will stimulate robust communication, and your role in the process as the leader.

Morris: Hard versus Soft Barriers (84-100)

Roberto: Candid communication does not occur for a variety of reasons. Some are “hard” i.e. complex hierarchical structures create barriers to frank communication. Others are “soft” i.e. the perceptions of status in the firm. In other words, are some people held in higher regard than others, because their functions are deemed more “important” than others? Do these status differences stifle open candid communication?

Morris: Pulling All the Right Levers (113-115)

Roberto: As a leader, you have to think about how to structure a conversation to spark intelligent dialogue and debate. You are like a process architect, shaping the quality of the dialogue by selecting the appropriate mechanisms for dialogue.

Morris: The Leader’s Toolkit (115-128)

Roberto: There are different techniques that managers can to use to stimulate debate. You need to build a toolkit, and draw on this variety of techniques as needed to create robust conversation within your team. I offer a variety of techniques in the book, as I know that each leader will have their preferred methods.

Morris: Curbing Affective Conflict (149-167)

Roberto: Even the best teams will find that task-oriented conflict spills over into interpersonal conflict. As a leader, you have to first stay attuned to the signs of emerging affective conflict. Then you have to intervene to try to keep the debate alive, but minimize the interpersonal tensions. That might involve reframing the debate, for instance, so as to change the tone and nature of a challenging conversation.

Morris: The Devil’s Advocate in Business (180-184)

Roberto: A devil’s advocate needs to focus on encouraging others in the team to think differently about a problem. He or she needs to ask good questions, and to seek to generate new options. The devil’s advocate is not effective when he or she is simply pushing his or her own agenda.

Morris: A Culture of Indecision (205-225)

Roberto: Many organizations find themselves stuck at times. They can’t make tough decisions. Indecision comes in three forms: culture of no, culture of yes, and culture of maybe. Each of these dysfunctional cultures results in an ability to make the tough call and execute a plan of action.

Morris: The Origins of Indecisive Cultures (225-228)

Roberto: Indecisive cultures do not emerge in an instant. They are not simply the product of the current leader’s faults. They often are much more deep-rooted. It’s a cultural and systemic problem, not just a personality problem, in most cases.

Morris: Legitimate Process (249-257)

Roberto: People will not commit to a decision if they think that the decision process has been a charade. They don’t want to be presented with a fait accompli, and yet still asked to participate in meetings that pretend to seek their input. People want to feel that the process of consultation and debate was legitimate, that they had a fair opportunity to voice their opinions and be heard.

Morris: Divergence and Convergence (274-278)

Roberto: Good decision processes have a balance of divergent thinking (dialogue and debate) and convergent thinking (efforts to build commitment and shared understanding). However, it’s not a linear thing. We don’t diverge and then converge. It’s much more iterative. We begin by diverging, but then we may seek out intermediate points of agreement along a path to a final decision. Along the way, more debates and divergence will occur. Great leaders seek out these intermediate agreements, because they help to build commitment and achieve closure in a timely fashion.

Morris: The Psychology of Small Wins (278-281)

Roberto: Small wins are crucial. You don’t build commitment in one giant leap at the end of a decision. You build it along the way, as you seek out these intermediate points of agreement. Small victories help to build allies, deter opponents, and garner momentum.

Morris: The Importance of Trust (293-297)

Roberto: Ultimately, leaders need to build a reservoir of trust within their team. They will have to make some unpopular decisions. Sometimes, their people will not fully understand why they are making a certain choice. However, if they have built trust in the past, then they can still gather the support needed to execute effectively. You store up that trust for when you really need it on those tough, perhaps unpopular choices.

Morris: Two Forms of Taking Charge (306-311)

Roberto: You take charge in two ways. The traditional way is by shaping the content of a decision. The book is about the other way of taking charge, i.e. shaping the process by which a group of people work on a decision. Leaders sometimes forget this second important way in which you can be firmly in control, yet not dictatorial.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Know What You Don’t Know and the new edition of Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes For An Answer and is now determined to improve leadership capabilities at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Roberto: Start with your own team that you manage and lead. Start with a few practices that you can try out with your team. Talk to the team about these practices before implementing them. Ask them to join you in trying these new ways of working. Seek their feedback along the way. Practice, practice, practice. It’s the only way to become a better leader.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in the two books, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Roberto: In many ways, small companies are even more the reflection of a particular entrepreneur or family member. Therefore, you have to go the extra mile to make sure you encourage others to share their expertise and input. A small company founder can often be viewed with such respect that others are reluctant to share their ideas.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Roberto: “Why do you write these books?” I write them because, ultimately, I want to have some positive impact on the practice of leadership. I don’t want to just study and write for the sake of sharing my ideas with academic peers. I want to influence managers in a positive way. I want to help them become better leaders.

* * *

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

His blog link

His Twitter link

A link to his CD/DVD programs, The Art of Critical Decision Making and Transformational Leadership, for The Teaching Company

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