MBAs and their role in shaping transformational change

Publication date: 07 February 2019
Article type: Blogs and Articles

AMBA graduates have the potential to bring creative, game-changing possibilities to the organisations they join or found, writes Dr John Mervyn-Smith.

Game ChangersWhat value can MBAs add to the world of business? How transferable is the experience of the classroom to the practicalities of getting things done at work?

This article suggests that MBAs bring a different talent to organisations that employers need to understand if they are to exploit it.

To understand the nature of this talent we must first understand how it has been assessed in our research project. Specifically, this picture of differing talents emerged through our work with The GC Index®, a profiling tool and framework used to assess how people, teams and organisations make their impact.

The GC Index®: Understanding Game Changers

The GC Index® was born from an increasing need for organisations to find people who can drive transformational change through creativity and innovation. Organisations survive and thrive when they have the capability to develop, change and adapt. The life-blood of organisational longevity and success is ideas, invention and re-invention.

The story of Paul Buchheit, a Google engineer in 2001, illustrates the potential and power of people to make a game-changing, transformational impact on organisations. He started using his ’20% time’ (the one day a week Google allowed staff to work on new projects) to develop a new product. Initially codenamed Caribou, the product was, after nearly three years of development, released as Gmail and would reinvent the entire web-based email category, capturing 53% of the market.

‘The life-blood of organisational longevity and success is ideas, invention and re-invention’

Gmail, now one of Google’s most successful products, was not an idea formulated by management and developed in a classic top-down ‘waterfall’ manner. Developing an email product was not even part of Google’s corporate strategy at the time. It was one engineer’s ‘passion project’, driven by the belief that email services should be better.

It is an example of how one Game Changer can positively transform the destiny of not just one organisation but an entire industry.

The question though, from London-based business insight and talent consultancy eg.1, was ‘what makes people like Paul Buchheit different, if anything?’ eg.1’s experience had been that these individuals could not be readily defined using existing capability frameworks, yet they were the very people organisations were increasingly asking them to identify and develop.

These requests prompted Nathan Ott and Andrew Gray from eg.1 to commission a research project to explore, and hopefully answer, the following questions:

  • Do individuals who drive transformational change through creativity and innovation – people they called the ‘Game Changers’ – exist in the corporate world?
  • If they do, what characteristics differentiate them from their colleagues?
  • Can we assess these characteristics in a meaningful way – a way that can support the identification, recruitment, retention and development of these individuals?

‘Game-changing talent was not seen to be associated exclusively with hierarchical success’

The results of this study are described in detail in the publication The DNA of a Game Changer. The headline findings were both enlightening and encouraging with analyses of the data revealing the following:

  1. Our interviewees readily recognised Game Changers in the world of work.
  2. Game Changers were working at all levels within organisations and game-changing talent was not seen to be associated exclusively with hierarchical success.
  3. Game Changers were seen to have characteristics that differentiate them, in a statistically significant way, from colleagues described in our interviews as ‘high potentials’ and successful senior executives.

Further analyses and reflection upon the characteristics of Game Changers described by our interviewees, suggested that they clustered into two categories:

  • Imagination. A capacity for original thought: the ability to generate ideas and see possibilities that others do not; to be creative.
  • Obsession. An obsessive, compulsive nature that compels them to give expression to their creativity and to turn ideas into reality.

An examination of our data, including the ways in which people responded to the questions on our initial questionnaire, revealed five distinct, well-defined ways in which people make an impact at work. The culmination of this work was The GC Index® framework.

The GC Index® framework measures and describes five proclivities; five different ways in which people are inclined to make an impact and contribution.

Two years on from our initial research, our database revealed the following insights:

  • The GC Index® profiles for people feeling engaged by and comfortable in their roles are typically characterised by two ‘dominant’ proclivities: imagination and obsession.
  • These two dominant proclivities shape the individual’s approach to leadership and management.
  • Two dominant proclivities from five, produces 10 possible leadership styles. These are presented in the diagram (multi-dimensional leadership).
  • Most importantly, our data reveals that all of these combinations are represented by successful executives. In other words, it is possible to be a successful leader in corporate life with a range of leadership styles.

The GC Index® therefore, gives us a framework for thinking about the diversity of leadership styles. It also challenges the notion that leadership can only be defined by one set of capabilities. This multi-dimensional leadership model is transforming the way organisations approach leadership development and assessment.

However, we are also seeing that, consistent with a notion of situational leadership, that some combinations are more common in some settings.

For example, in large, hierarchical organisations, senior executives most commonly have a Strategist/Implementer profile. In one large UK infrastructure company, a sample of 30 managers profiled produced 47% with the Strategist/Implementer profile.

‘Game Changers can often be seen as unrealistic, fanciful dreamers’

In another cohort of senior executives in a global technology company 55% shared this profile, while 33% of a group of 18 future leaders in an engineering company were Strategist/Implementers.

This data is consistent with more anecdotal evidence that suggests that people seen to have ‘high potential’ are often Strategist/Implementers. On the face of it, this pattern makes sense: young people in their 20s and early 30s often build a reputation by getting things done, bringing energy and urgency to delivery in a reliable way – being Implementers. Those who see action within a broader context, the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’, the Strategists, are often groomed for bigger roles.

Strategist/Implementers, at their best, will bring structure and focus to change and they can drive transformational change. Transformational change though, is initiated by Game Changers, those individuals who focus more upon possibilities than problems.

In the first example noted above, 28% of executives had Game Changer inclinations in their profiles, important for the strategic agenda of organisational change. For the second example it is 14%, and for the future leaders in the engineering company, it’s 5%. This company has a built reputation over many years with game-changing thinking and knows that its capacity to survive and thrive will depend upon its ability to identify and nurture Game Changers.

By way of a benchmark, a random sample from the general population would produce 16% of people with moderate-to-strong Game Changer inclinations: the capacity for original thought.

These observations are consistent with evidence that suggests that people with game-changing inclinations can struggle with corporate life. They feel their needs for creative expression are stifled and often leave or are not selected.

This is not to say that organisations need lots of Game Changers; not everyone needs to be rushing around being creative. But when Game Changers are a part of a small minority, it can be difficult for them to ‘find their voice’ and have influence. Their creativity can often be ‘drowned’ in ‘fail safe’ cultures with a focus upon the pragmatism of the ‘tried and tested’. In such cultures, Game Changers can often be seen as unrealistic, fanciful dreamers.

The group of MBA graduates that we profiled using The GC Index raised some interesting observations.

In the AMBA group, Pragmatic Leaders accounted for 5% of people. Visionary Leaders were most common at 22% with 61% having some game-changer inclinations in their profile. In total 27% of the AMBA group had implementer inclinations in their profiles.

‘AMBA graduates are engaged and energised by the world of ideas and possibilities’

This data supports a view that AMBA graduates are more engaged and energised by the world of ideas and possibilities rather than the world of practical realities. More specifically, they have the potential to bring to organisations creative, game-changing possibilities.

The leadership combination of Strategist/Game Changer is an interesting and powerful one. These individuals not only have the potential to bring game changing ideas to the world of work, but they see possibilities within a strategic context.

These are the sorts of talents that organisations with an agenda of transformational change need to recruit, recognise, nurture and exploit. 

Mike Gillespie is Managing Director and Co-Founder of Advent IM Ltd, an independent information security and physical security consultancy, and Vice President of the C3I Centre for Strategic Cyberspace + Security Science, a not-for-profit organisation.