Thomas J. DeLong: An interview by Bob Morris

Thomas J. DeLong is the Philip J. Stomberg Professor of Management Practice in the Organizational Behavior area at the Harvard Business School. Before joining the Harvard Faculty, DeLong was Chief Development Officer and Managing Director of Morgan Stanley Group, Inc., where he was responsible for the firm’s human capital and focused on issues of organizational strategy and organizational change. 

At Harvard, Professor DeLong teaches MBA and executive courses focused on managing human capital, organizational behavior, leadership and career management. DeLong has served as course head for the required course on Leadership and Organizational Behavior. 

DeLong teaches globally in a myriad of executive programs as well as executive courses on campus. He consults with leading organizations on the process of making individual and organizational change.

His latest book, Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success, centers on the challenges of helping talented professionals who are resistant to change. He has also co-authored two Harvard Business Review articles, “Let’s Hear It for B Players” and “Why Mentoring Matters in a Hypercompetitive World”.  His forthcoming Harvard Business Review articles focus on why high achieving professionals often unwittingly sabotage their effort to excel.

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Morris: Before discussing Flying Without a Net, a few general questions. First, other than a family member, who has had the greatest impact on your personal growth?

DeLong: Dr. Chase Peterson, former President of the University of Utah asked me to serve as a confidant and consultant very early in my career. He believed in my ideas. I thought I could accomplish just about anything because of the faith and confidence he had in me. I’m not convinced that I contributed all that much. However, as a 30 year old new minted Ph.D, I could not have asked for a greater gift than the confidence he had in me.

Morris: Professional development?

Delong: working as the first social scientist on Wall Street. I had no intention of leaving academia until I met John Mack in the early 90’s on an airplane when he was a newly appointed President of Morgan Stanley. Taking the theories on organizational behavior and change and applying them in a tough environment provided an intense on the job developmental process that couldn’t have been substituted through any sort of simulation or executive level course. It was the professional development experience of a lifetime.

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

DeLong: The key learning for me early on when I made an unusual career decision after leaving MIT was that I have the right to receive personal inspiration or insights into what I should do.  You can collect only so much data before you have to trust your intuition and do what may seem irrational to others. If you don’t trust your own instincts you  never develop the faith or confidence in your own judgment. Deciding to head west after my doctorate seemed irrational to others. Leaving BYU and heading to Wall Street and short circuiting a “fast track” career in academia didn’t seem rational to some.

I worry about some of the Harvard  Business  School students who have figured out how to please virtually everyone else but haven’t ever asked what they really want. They have been very successful yet less self aware that I would have expected. They are afraid to listen to themselves. Their own reflections, listening to their own heartbeats frighten them.  We need to figure out how to teach them to have more confidence in their own psychological journey so that they are aware of epiphanies when they happen. Too often they miss the opportunity or don’t look up to see the person who has entered their lives that could give them a new perspective or answer to a sought after answer.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education helped you to prepare for the work in which you are now actively involved?

DeLong: Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace both have emphasized the power of self-discipline.  Franzen’s Freedom teaches about the principle of discipline throughout the chapters.  Formal education teaches you the discipline to hunker down and be alone and cloister yourself away for a time and concentrate and focus. Faculty pushed me to question my assumptions. This process of refinement and reflection helped me frame my experiences in ways that I could wrestle with questions and data and experiences from different angles, from different perspectives. Bonner Ritchie, a former professor used to tell us that there is nothing more practical than a good theory. Being able to be facile in thinking and action comes about through the aging process of education along with experiences. I don’t know what I would have done without the refining process that education can provide.

Morris: In two of your books, When Professionals Have to Lead and Professional Services, you have much of value to share with leaders of both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Here’s my question: What are the most valuable lessons that leaders of for-profits can learn from the not-for-profit world?

Delong: First, that it’s not just about you. I worry that many for-profit leaders become decentisized over time due in part of their making. They have handlers and myriad assistants who meet every whim.  They feel a need to talk and give insights wherever they go. After a while they really do begin to see the world as a place that serves them rather than what they can do to make things better. I worry over time that leaders in for-profits listen less and talk more. They really do become enamored with themselves. They lose perspective.

On the other hand not-for profit leaders need to realize that they are running businesses, that their world is closer to for-profits than they can imagine. These two worlds are merging. Ten years ago at HBS we seemed to be careful to discuss not-for-profits as businesses. We were almost apologetic about discussing their institutions as businesses. Well we don’t apologize any more. As these two worlds converge we are going to have to not forget how they should be seen as different before we see them as integrated and very similar entities.

Morris: Please explain the title of one of your HBR articles, “Let’s Hear It for B Players.”

DeLong: My first sizable research effort before the latest work on individual change focused on the large number of professionals in organizations that are largely ignored. I realized that more and more organizations were created talent management systems that obsessed about the star performers or the underperformers. As I studied the diaries and journals of leaders I saw virtually no initiatives or processes in place that centered on those stalwarts or solid citizens in the organization who simply did good work and didn’t need constant feedback from those above. They data suggested that they needed less feedback, had more institutional knowledge, were more loyal and more secure in who they were as professionals. However, they were overlooked much of the time.

Out of 100’s of interviews with leaders of organizations, virtually none had programs that specifically focused on the care and feeding of this population. And what was surprising was that these professionals could be ignored for up to three to five years without any significant negative consequence.  But once cynicism set in and discouragement due to neglect set in, then the organization had a big problem. So I’ve come to be a huge supporter of those in the middle who deserve our attention and our recognition for how they serve organizations. Remember, they don’t ask for a lot. They just want a minimal amount of recognition.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the most significant differences between executive mentoring and executive coaching?

DeLong: Mentoring in my judgment is more enduring, long term, much more personal and what is missing in most professional service firms.  Coaching is more tactical, theoretical and behavioral and less focused on the interpersonal connection between the person being mentored and the mentor. I have a central concern that we are now outsourcing the most important work of the leader and that is to mentor and develop others. Yet we are outsourcing it because we don’t have the time or inclination. It takes up too much psychological and emotional energy.

It’s important to note that since the early 1990’s leaders and managers in organizations have continually been asked to do more and more in their job descriptions. They can’t do all that is on their plates. What falls to the bottom is often the most important work. It is the mentoring and teaching and cajoling and having tough conversations. We are outsourcing this to coaches who don’t have the connection within the organization or the individuals assigned to be coached.  I see case after case where a manager abdicates his responsibilities because he doesn’t want to spend the time to really dig in and have difficult conversations and take someone by the hand and help them succeed.

I am frustrated with leaders and partners and managers who blame the “new generation” for being too demanding in their need for feedback. I would argue that if they received the same type of support that their mentors received early on they wouldn’t be needy. They wouldn’t feel so much like free agents. They wouldn’t leave jobs so frequently. But new associates are promised good working cultures and they are disillusioned with they realize that they are often on their own.

My second worry is that there is little training that goes into being a modern ‘coach.” Too often professionals who see themselves as “good with people” believe that they should be coaches without any training or sensibilities about the process of coaching except they believe in themselves. While this is a noble attribute it can also be dangerous. Coaches can be as interested in creating long-term relationships with professionals when those same professionals should be receiving mentoring and coaching from their managers.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Flying Without a Net. When and why did you decide to write it?

DeLong: Early on I struggled to see how I could accomplish everything I expected of myself to change. Early on in my career I began to observe a type of professional who no matter what they accomplished they feel somehow guilty because they hadn’t done enough. I began informal interviews while at Morgan Stanley in the 90’s, focusing on what was it about these professionals that drove them to fret over everything. I gradually began formal interviews using stratified random sampling as well as studying motivation theory. David McClelland’s work particularly struck me as powerful. I realized that the need to achieve or accomplish tasks served as the central motivation for so many professionals who self selected into particular fields like the professional services arena and in certain areas of medicine. The more data I collected the more I realized I was on to something that not only helped me understand myself better but resonated with those with whom I shared my data. My dean, Nitin Nohria heard me on a number of occasions talk on the research. He pushed to me capture my work by writing a book.

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

DeLong: The book differs in two fundamental ways. One has to do with the resonance the information has had with others as I wrote the book. I kept coming up with more and more stories the more I reported on the data. The interest was overwhelming.  I would speak to 100’s of audiences and I could never end on time. They wanted to talk more and more on the subject. So as I wrote I found myself changing stories based on my real experiences.

Second, and more important, I did not imagine that I would use as many personal examples as I ended up using. This has been the hardest part of the writing of the book. My first draft was a mix of purely academic and conceptual. I realized after setting the book down and realizing that I didn’t ‘find the book engrossing that I had not been vulnerable. I had written about being vulnerable and not illustrated it or created the space for the reader to experience through their reading of it. That is when I changed stories and decided that I had to show it and not just talk about. When I go back and read the book now there are moments that I get self-conscious. Yet, I also know that if I didn’t experience those feelings then I probably hadn’t gone far enough in terms of showing what I meant to the reader.

Morris: Did you have any head-snapping revelations while writing it?

DeLong: My head  continues to snap by the number of requests I’m getting from groups that want me to talk about the book. It’s been staggering. I have already begun to receive testimonials by readers who say that they now have greater understanding of why they do what they do. So the head-snapping is more about how it is resonating with the readers.

Morris: The book’s subtitle refers to “fear of change.” My own opinion is that people tend to fear the unfamiliar. Hence the importance of effective communications between and among everyone involved, especially prior to launching change initiatives. You own thoughts about all this?

DeLong: The only sign of life is growth. And we have to get over ourselves and out of the way of ourselves before we can make the changes we know we must make. So fear is the natural place we go. And as I state in the book, no one changes alone. While I have to often take the first step alone, there are so many in our lives that are actually there to grab us when we think we will falter.

Morris: What is the “Achilles Heel” to which the title of the first chapter refers?

DeLong: It could actually represent so many things. It represents that addiction many have to achieve and accomplish tasks by any means necessary. Our self-concepts get wrapped up in what we do, by our titles, our positions, etc. So the external world feeds that need and reinforces that need. There are too many stories of individuals who suffer from this malady who sacrifice relationships along the way in order to cross things off their lists.

Morris: Which basic anxieties seem to cause the greatest stress for most people? Why and how?

DeLong: I would argue that the fundamental anxiety of purpose creates the most severe anxiety of all. What is my role in life? What am I supposed to accomplish?  If my life were to end right now, what I have done? Who have I served? Will I be missed by anyone?

Morris: Why do so many people fail to confront them effectively? How. In fact, should they respond?

DeLong: These questions frighten so many people that they simply distract and become busier. The first step is to stop long enough to reflect and realize that there is a way out. There are answers to these questions and it doesn’t have to be frightening to ask them.  But the more we distract the more frightened we become.

Morris: To what extent (f any) can the causes of these basic anxieties be eliminated or at least avoided?

DeLong: I applaud those that accomplish many tasks. The question is whether or not they are in denial about how addicted they are to the process of accomplishment? Can they name ten people in their lives who have paid a price for their need to achieve?  If the person can’t respond immediately to these questions then I think they need to figure out whether or not they are achieving what they want to achieve.

Morris: You identify and discuss “11 traits common to driven professionals tat often cause them problems in terms of career success and satisfaction.” Which seems to be the most difficult to recognize? Why?

DeLong: The drive to achieve is the toughest because it is so acceptable in our culture to achieve and receive rewards and recognition for it. It is so easy to distract and accomplish.  I argue that trying to manage the need to achieve is harder than coming off an addiction to drugs. The process of improvement is serious business. It is not a problem that can be solved but rather a problem that has to be managed.

Morris: I commend you on the strategic as well as linguistic brilliance of the questions you pose throughout the book. My reaction is that one of the primary purposes of the questions is to encourage to interact directly with the material and thereby become emotionally as well as intellectually engaged in a process of personal discovery. Is that a fair assessment?

DeLong: My goal is to allow the reader to forget time and be involved in the reading of the book to the extent the he becomes appropriately uncomfortable and wants to slow down and answer at least some of the questions. I want them to be comfortable with the process of self-reflection.

Morris: I felt as if you wrote the book specifically for me. Here’s my question: Were you conscious of having that rapport with your reader while you were writing the book? Please explain.

DeLong: If you experienced reading the book as you did then I’m very pleased. I revert back to my earlier observation about trying to write a book where I get over myself and integrate both academic and the personal. I was conscious that I didn’t get it right the first time when I wrote it for my fellow academics. But the more I followed my own sense of what I wanted the reader to experience the more I shared more from the personal.

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


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