Realizing that people in lower to middle management positions often do not have access to job coaching that could push them forward in their careers, Jennifer Guy and Gregory Burnham have developed an assessment model that combines leadership and strategy.
Based on this model, their new Princeton-based company, LeadingStrategically, has designed a test of about 45 multiple-choice questions to be taken online. Completing the questions, which delve into how people behave and think, takes about 20 minutes. When the free test is completed, LeadingStrategically reports where the person stands on six dimensions of strategic leadership and offers a $99 customized report providing information and hands-on activities to help the individual progress.
What sparked Guy’s thinking about the role of strategy in leadership were her preparations for a talk on leadership. She reviewed leadership programs, interviewed small business owners, thought about her own experiences consulting on organizational change and change management, and after much thinking realized that the role of strategy in leadership was missing from the discussion.
She then sought out Burnham, who she knew from two consulting gigs, to get his perspective on how her ideas about leadership and strategy would work for the C suite leaders he was familiar with.
When she came to speak to him, Burnham himself had been thinking about leadership, because of his involvement with Rider University’s business advisory board under then-dean Mark Sandberg.
But Burnham’s aha moment grew out of his experiences at Caliper, the Carnegie Center-based firm that uses employee assessment instruments to measure a potential employee’s personality characteristics, individual motivations, and likely behaviors on the job to determine their fit with a particular organization or business. “When I was talking to her, I realized that maybe you could ask some questions like Caliper did and, based on the answers they gave, slot them into a model,” he says.
The need for affordable career development support was very clear to Burnham and Guy. “Right now, higher-level managers can get coaching support,” he says. “The company pays for someone like Jennifer to go and do sessions, sometimes for development, sometimes remedial.”
Burnham and Guy realized that they could deliver this kind of advice over the Internet at a vastly reduced price — their main product costs $99 — to anyone who is aware that they need it, as Burnham puts it, “if you were saying you haven’t gotten a promotion for a long time and feel kind of stuck, or you’re thinking about looking for another job and thinking about the best way to present yourself.”
Guy relates Burnham’s conversation with someone who had spent a year in outplacement coaching, but was getting nowhere. After a 15-minute conversation that included some questions from the online test, the woman told him: “I’ve spent a year trying to get advice from people on how to do this, and in 15 minutes you helped me see it from a different point of view.”
Guy explains that the woman had worked in technology and was telling her story to potential employees entirely from the perspective of her current skill set “rather than coming into the new experience and letting people know she was interested in helping them solve the problems that they have.”
The questions and report are designed to help people who work in an organization where they have to deal with colleagues and staff in other departments, and where there are layers of management and often shareholders and a board.
Based on a person’s answers to the questions, LeadingStrategically can deliver 18,000 different reports. One question, for example, asks test takers to indicate whether, when talking about strategy with their staff, they discuss the relationship between their plans and the company’s targets. From possible answers, test takers are urged to choose the response that most closely reflects their experience.
The resulting report is organized as a matrix with six different dimensions of strategic leadership- awareness, alignment, communication, time horizon, building capability, and engagement. A person is graded as being from stage 1 to stage 5 in each of the dimensions. For each dimension, the report lists findings about the person and recommendations for the person’s growth. Two dimensions are targeted as priorities for the person’s growth and these are treated in depth in the report.
In a sample report to illustrate how the test works, the two priority dimensions were time horizon and engagement. At stage 3 in engagement, the person does provide management with the analysis that helps them develop strategy, but that analysis is narrowly focused on the person’s functional responsibilities. Recommendations for growth, among others, urge the person to develop his or her own strategic suggestions; to develop them based on personal and business experience, education, reading, and conversations with colleagues; and to combine ideas to spark innovation.
The report also provides exercises to help the person move to the next level.
The first exercise in the engagement dimension is designed to encourage broader thinking about innovation by watching a video about the continuing development of the aluminum can.
The second exercise opens with theory about how innovation and strategy work together, then offers three business examples, asking the person to find a similar example in his or her own company. One of these examples looks at PATH, which is part of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where Burnham once worked, and describes the different options, with different levels of innovation, considered for replacing the PATH train’s fare card system.
The third exercise presents a Walmart case study and then asks the person to think about an example of innovation in their own company. They are instructed to consider both the impact on the company’s results and where the company would have been, in terms of market share, revenue, and profitability, without the innovation.
The fourth exercise is to read a short paper by a professor at Harvard Business School on the four tasks essential to creating and implementing an innovation strategy.
Talking about the importance of innovation, Burnham says, “Innovation is basically, in our case, the idea that if you don’t change anything you’re going to get killed. You don’t have to have a smart watch, a smart phone, or invent electricity — you have to keep your eyes open and take advantage of change where it is beneficial.”
Guy adds that a little tweak in an aluminum can described in a video made a big difference. “This change reduced the amount of material they needed to use in the can by a huge percentage, and this change helped improve its shelf life,” she says.
To improve on the time horizon dimension, the sample report also includes two tools, the first a worksheet focusing on goals and targets and the second advice on how to make suggestions to your boss.
The report ends with an annotated list of resources and references.
LeadingStrategically has been in development for several years, and Burnham and Guy have learned a lot in the process. Their first idea for a sales channel was leadership consultants like Guy, who could use the test and report to spark beneficial conversations with their clients. But the consultants weren’t interested because of unhelpful experiences they had had with the Myers-Briggs personality test. “I tried to point out that they could get 12 hours of conversation out of what we were doing, but they didn’t want it,” Burnham says.
Rethinking who their customers were, they decided to focus on people who needed career help and have no other way of getting it.
As they developed websites, they quickly realized they needed to focus on the needs of their potential customers. Rather than theory about leadership and strategy, their pages had to convey the message, as Burnham puts it: “We feel your pain and we can help you.”
“The people who need us are not sitting at their desks thinking, ‘I want to lead strategically,’” Guy says.
Burnham grew up in Queens. His father, who attended the General Motors Institute of Technology in Michigan, decided after World War II to change careers. He ended up as a high school teacher in Westchester County. Burnham attended Fordham University, and earned a doctorate in mathematics from Northwestern University.
Burnham moved away from theoretical math when a friend invited him to apply for a job at G.D. Searle in biostatistics. While at Searle, the family owners hired Donald Rumsfeld (who would later become secretary of defense) as a professional manager. When Rumsfeld wanted to reduce the staff and offered $15,000 to anyone willing to leave, Burnham and other younger employees took the bait.
His next position was with Bristol-Myers, five years before the merger with Squibb. In 1993 Burnham moved to the Princeton area to head up technology at Bristol-Myers Squibb. He left in 1999, when Peter Ringrose became president of research and development and brought in his own people. Burnham tried to stay in pharma, but ended up joining the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
At the Port Authority Burnham appreciated what was for him quite a new work experience. “It was great working on huge infrastructure projects — EZ Pass, PATH fares, and security at the airport,” he says. Although he figured he would just stay for five years, he ended up staying for seven, in part because of 9/11.
He was on the 71st floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Over the weeks and months that followed he also witnessed the anxiety created by the anthrax attack in Princeton. Watching people help one another to come to terms with the terrorist attacks, he says, “put a whole new perspective on ideas about leadership and how people can help other people.”
Burnham’s next professional position was in Princeton with Caliper, which at that point used “expert judgment as the basis for their model of personality and suitability for jobs.” Having done statistics with clinical trials, Burnham says he knew how to design studies to get correlation coefficients and probabilities that related certain personality traits to job performance, and he and his staff replaced much of the expert judgment with research and analysis based on outcomes-how performance on the job is based on personality traits. They also automated the production of reports, making it possible to provide them to clients instantly, using the Internet. He left Caliper in 2011.
Guy earned a bachelor’s degree in music performance from Ohio State University and a master’s in organizational management from the University of Phoenix. She has worked for 20 years as a consultant and executive coach, specializing in organizational optimization, including executive development and culture change.
Looking back to various points in his career, Burnham recalls thinking that simply because he was doing a good job he would inevitably move up the ladder. But that didn’t always happen. Burnham points out how wrong his thinking was. “My feeling about my career was to keep doing what I was doing and then do more of it and that I would eventually take the job” of the higher up person, he says.
But that didn’t turn out to be true. “My mistake was not taking a large enough view of the leadership role. I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he says. “If I had answered these questions [from LearningStrategically’s test], I might have known what to do.”
LeadingStrategically, 301 North Harrison Street, Suite 484, Princeton 08540; 609-759-1430; fax, 609-921-3315. Gregory Burnham and Jennifer Guy. www.leadingstrategically.com.