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Published: February 14, 2003

 
 

Noel M. Tichy: The Thought Leader Interview

The University of Michigan leadership teacher says leadership is about teaching.

Photograph by Joe Vaughn
During the 1990s, no company was more identified with best practice in managing change than General Electric, and few outsiders were more identified with GE’s success than Noel M. Tichy. Between 1985 and 1987, Dr. Tichy served as the company’s manager of management education at its Leadership Development Center in Crotonville, N.Y. In that capacity he was witness to, participant in, and a shaper of CEO Jack Welch’s program to transform GE from an old-line industrial company to a diversified global manufacturing and services conglomerate. Dr. Tichy’s focus: embedding leadership development in GE’s genes, and training its leaders.

Note the plural. Mr. Welch’s insight, which was not widely shared in business at the time, was that leadership was not the province solely of the CEO and his or her senior executive team, but had to be institutionalized throughout the company. A globalizing economy meant that a business world long characterized by stability, autocracy, and strictly bounded processes would have to become more change-embracing, which would require the development of nimble, adaptable leaders up and down company hierarchies. That, in turn, meant building the capacity for teaching men and women not only how to manage change, but how to create it.

Educationally, Dr. Tichy was well suited for the task; he had written his Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation on change agents. But by blending what he saw at the GE revolution with his experience both before and after Crotonville, he has transformed himself into one of the world’s foremost educators on management education, both at the University of Michigan, where today he is professor of organizational behavior and human resource management and director of the Global Leadership Program at the business school, and for corporate clients, which have included Best Buy Co. Inc., Royal Dutch/Shell, and Ford Motor Company.

Dr. Tichy’s approach to “change agenting” has itself been a journey of sorts. From his earliest management book, The Transformational Leader: The Key to Global Competitiveness (with Mary Anne Devanna, John Wiley & Sons) in 1986, through 1993’s Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will: How Jack Welch Is Making General Electric the World’s Most Competitive Company (with Stratford Sherman, Currency Doubleday), he concentrated on processes by which leaders manage change. But in his recent book, The Leadership Engine: How Winning Companies Build Leaders at Every Level (with Eli Cohen, HarperBusiness, 1997), and his newest, The Cycle of Leadership: How Great Leaders Teach Their Companies to Win (with Nancy Cardwell, HarperBusiness, 2002), he has trained his sights on the mechanics of teaching leadership. His most controversial admonition: Teaching must be interactive — the boss has got to learn as much as the staff, a construct the 56-year-old Dr. Tichy calls a “virtuous teaching cycle.”

“People need to be smarter every day,” Dr. Tichy told strategy+business over a buffet lunch in the cafeteria of the University of Michigan Business School’s executive education building. “Well, what’s the mechanism for making you smarter? It’s some kind of interactive teaching. It’s as simple as that.”

S+B: Your early passion was effecting broad social change. How did you transition from that goal to the objective of helping companies manage change?

TICHY: I was never antibusiness. I always felt that the free-enterprise system was the right system, and that businesses were the wealth-producing institutions of society. But when the opportunity came to do graduate work and teach at the Columbia Business School, I was very ambivalent because I wanted to change the world. I had my long hair and boots. I went to the business school thinking, I only want to work with doctoral students.

 
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