Building game-changing organizations: A Q&A with Thinkers 50 winner Doug Ready

MIT Sloan lecturer brings a career studying complex organizations to his June executive education program

November 27, 2013

Doug Ready

Doug Ready

Doug Ready, the senior lecturer in organization effectiveness at MIT Sloan, was named this month to the Thinkers 50, a widely watched biennial list of the 50 most influential thinkers in management worldwide.

On June 5-6, 2014, Ready teaches “Building Game-Changing Organizations: Aligning Purpose, Organization, and People,” an MIT Sloan Executive Education program for senior-level managers charged with making significant strategic decisions for their companies. Registration for the course is now open.

MIT Sloan caught up with Ready to talk about the Thinkers 50 honor, how he brings leading management thinkers to the executive education program, and what he’s working on next.

Congratulations on being named to the Thinkers 50 list! What do you think the list says about the state of management thinking and education today?

When I looked over the list my first impression was that I was both honored and lucky to be included. The list includes many people who have made lasting contributions to the field of management and leadership, such as Clay Christensen, Michael Porter, [MIT Sloan alumnus and Harvard Business School dean] Nitin Nohria, Herminia Ibarra, and Jim Collins. But what I also found interesting was the recognition that not all big ideas come from academia. The list also included former Procter & Gamble chairman A.G. Lafley, Lenovo founder Liu Chuanzhi, and Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and author of Lean In.

My inclusion is perhaps linked most closely with the research, writing, and advisory work I've been doing over the years on the purpose-driven enterprise and in global talent management.

You've talked about the need for companies to build three capabilities: being purpose-driven, performance-oriented, and principles-led. That's a tall order. Why is it so hard to achieve all three?

It is not terribly difficult to craft and articulate a compelling purpose for your organization. Many companies have powerful purpose statements. It is also not hard to create a high-performance culture. And it isn't hard to lay out a guiding sense of the principles that your employees should live by on a day-to-day basis.

What’s incredibly hard is to do all of these things simultaneously. Purpose statements are meant to inspire us—to make us feel proud and excited to be working for our organizations. But those very statements create a bar that is hard to maintain over the years, let alone decades, and our leaders are not otherworldly creatures. They are people. And people make mistakes. So when even small mistakes are made, let alone big ones, or when our leaders seem to violate our purpose or principles by making unfortunate choices, they are usually accused of being inauthentic, which creates a climate of mistrust. And once that happens, well, it's hard to regain the trust our leaders have been working on building for so many years.

As marketing professionals will tell you, it often takes decades to build a powerful brand, but just one big blunder to damage that brand. The same is true with maintaining that delicate balance among purpose, performance, and principles.

Your MIT Sloan Executive Education course was created for experienced, accomplished leaders. When you’re working with seasoned executives, what can you still offer them?

For all the reasons I just outlined, I have no doubt that there is a great deal that executives will learn from our new game-changing organizations course. This is something that even the best CEOs struggle with day in and day out. And it is not just a C-suite issue. Business unit heads, functional leaders, and senior HR leaders all need to be thinking about these issues for different reasons. If I'm a senior leader in a business, a division, or a region, it's important to align our purpose, vision, strategy, and values with the group's ambition. If I'm a senior HR leader, I need to be thinking about the best ways to spot, source, develop, and retain the kinds of leaders that fit with our purpose, vision, and values. So there is a great deal of work to do and we look forward to working with a global group of leaders who are concerned about getting this right.

You teach this course with HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan, an MIT Sloan alumnus. As a team, what do you bring to the course?

I've been very fortunate to have worked with some visionary CEOs and senior executives over the years, and so my contribution will be to bring this breadth of experience into the classroom.

But what I find truly exciting about this course is that we're going to bring some very powerful personalities into the room to work with our participants. Brian Halligan has created a remarkable company with a high-performance culture that is just off the charts. Yet Brian also has created a sense of purpose that is very compelling for HubSpot's employees, and he leads with a guiding set of principles.

We'll also be working with executives from BlackRock, the largest asset management firm in the world by far. BlackRock is an exceptional, purpose-driven enterprise, and is also led by a guiding set of leadership principles, but it has an edge to it that creates a high-performance orientation second to none in its industry … and perhaps anywhere else that I have come across.

What's next for you?

What's next for me is identifying more examples of game-changing organizations from around the world. We need positive stories of companies who lead with purpose but understand that they also have obligations to shareholders, and that these things don't need to be mutually exclusive. I am working with MIT Sloan Management Review to develop this concept as one of their Big Ideas initiatives. The Big Ideas are a powerful way to convene thought leaders on groundbreaking concepts, and I hope to serve as faculty director for this research project over the next few years.

Ready on June 5-6 teaches “Building Game-Changing Organizations: Aligning Purpose, Organization, and People,” an MIT Sloan Executive Education program. Register here.