January 2016 | Business Trends
Each January we ask Wharton faculty to share a glimpse of what’s on the horizon for the new year.
Volatile, unpredictable, complex: today’s whitewater business environment puts leadership at a premium. Companies need leaders who can make “good and timely decisions,” says Wharton management professor Michael Useem. The academic director of The Leadership Journey: Reinvigorate Your Leadership explains, “When uncertainty and change are very much in the air, the key decisions of company managers have greatest impact — for better or for worse — as management experience and university research both confirm. Given the increasing uncertainty and change in virtually all major markets, now is a good time to strengthen management capacities for decision-making. Growing political uncertainty in China, Western Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere is sure to add to that leadership imperative.”
That imperative, says Useem, also extends to the board room. Citing a recent Wall Street Journal headline regarding the merger of two of America’s largest chemical companies, “Dow, DuPont Deal Cements Activists’ Rise,” he says, “With the growing support of institutional investors, activist investors have been prodding publicly-traded directors to streamline operations, change strategies, replace executives and, in this case both merge — forming the country’s largest chemical company — and divide — once together, the new DowDupont combine will be broken into three new companies.” Useem, who directs Boards that Lead: Corporate Governance that Builds Value, calls on directors to act pre-emptively and proactively. “Now is a good time for directors to step back, think like activist investors, and then step forward to actively lead the company in partnership with the executive team before investors and analysts press for it.”
Wharton professor G. Richard Shell, author of Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success and chair of Wharton’s Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department, sees 2016 as a time when professionals will accelerate their search for deeper purpose in their daily work. "In times of financial crisis," he says, "it is enough to have a job and be grateful for it. But as the labor market opens up and professional options become available, there are increasing pressures on employers to provide opportunities for meaningful personal growth as part of the employment contract. This can take many forms, from helping employees to understand the good their product or service delivers to the larger world and rewarding employees who serve their communities, to providing the training it takes for people to learn and grow on a personal level."
Shell notes that he sees this drive toward more meaning in the work experience at every age level in business. "Our MBA students founded an organization in 2013 called Purpose, Passion, and Principles (P3 for short) that facilitates a 9-week peer program of small-group discussions on family, identity, happiness, work, and long-term goals," he says. From 60 students in its first year, P3 now serves over 400 Wharton MBAs, many of whom have carried the program beyond Wharton to their first jobs after school. "I am seeing the same trend in our Advanced Management Program in Wharton Executive Education," says Shell, "only the participants are 45-50 years-old instead of 25-30."
He leads AMP executives in an exercise that asks them to look 15 years into the future to envision their legacies. Commitment to this exercise has intensified in recent years, Shell notes, as senior leaders consider the meaning and purpose in both their own work and in the work of the organizations they lead. The comments they leave behind say it all: "A cornerstone...The lighthouse effect of this part of the program will remain for a long time to come!" said one 2015 AMP participant. "Incredibly powerful," stated another. "In 2016," concludes Shell, "I expect more and more executives to make the workplace a platform for making positive differences in the world."
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