February 27, 2009

The Takeaway: Leonard A. Schlesinger ’73

Leonard A. Schlesinger ’73 discusses 35 years of applying what he learned at Columbia Business School to a successful career in business and academia.

Topics: Leadership

Leonard Schlesinger, the president of Babson College, credits much of his success to the entrepreneurial spirit instilled in him at Columbia Business School. Inspired to take risks, after graduating he bypassed traditional finance jobs to explore other aspects of business. Throughout his career, Schlesinger has tested the limitations of theory by applying what he learned in school to his work in industry and then taking his on-the-job observations back into the classroom for further development. His journey has been informed at every step by foundational principles and a desire to experiment that, he says, were cultivated at Columbia Business School.

Extraordinary Training

I was trained extraordinarily well. I received my MBA in 1973 with a concentration in corporate and labor relations. My MBA became a platform for me to engage with real-world phenomena. The Columbia Business School experience inspired me to test, experiment with and apply the theories that I learned as a student, by instilling the fundamental notion that theory and practice go hand in hand. One cannot be fully developed and successful without the other.

From the start, I was eager for the opportunity to put this training into practice. Many of my classmates went off to banking jobs. That was the traditional route that most MBA graduates took at the time—many still do. I decided to do something radically different—and that was a big risk. My first job was as a first-line supervisor on the night shift of a Procter & Gamble factory that produced paper products. I was on the floor, not in an office like the majority of my classmates. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was exciting. This move was largely an outcome of recognizing that through my MBA experience I had developed lots of conceptual notions, and a curiosity about the kinds of outcome these notions stimulated when put into practice.

While I worked at Procter & Gamble, a group of academic researchers and consultants came to the factory to experiment with semiautonomous and autonomous work-teams. This drove me to go back and get my doctorate in an attempt to more deeply understand the business practices I was encountering in the real world. After getting my doctorate from Harvard Business School, and spending years in industry, I returned to academia as a faculty member to try to develop a broader conceptual framework to execute against the work I had done in the service, profit sector. I was continually developing ideas about how the machinery of business operates, testing those concepts in the industry and then going back to study them more closely—all habits that started at Columbia. At each step of the way, a curiosity that I developed at the School led me to my next career move.

The Faculty’s Influence

There is no question that I was well trained analytically. And there is no question that I was trained to recognize the limitations of analytics training.

In terms of analytics, there was a young faculty member by the name of Charles Tapiero. He introduced me to the world of system simulation in its earliest days. To this day, I remain completely invested in a variety of different initiatives that look at technology-mediated interaction patterns to simulate real-world experiences in powerful ways and to develop learning tools from them.

Karl Magnusen was a superb and very tough labor-relations instructor who also helped me develop many of my capabilities. Noel Tichy was my Organizational Behavior instructor, and he introduced me to a field where I had virtually no experience or background, but a field where I ultimately ended up spending, both intellectually and practically, the past 35 years of my life.

The years I attended Columbia Business School were the earliest days in the field of organizational development. Many of my colleagues would have considered Tichy’s classes soft, as opposed to hard, management. This was something fresh and, as is often the case with new ideas, difficult to embrace for many already set in their ways. There is no question in my mind, however, that the opportunity to encounter these ideas and interact with them shaped my views of the world.

Lasting Impact

To some extent the thing that is most exciting and was most developed in the context of my time at Columbia Business School was an appreciation of being able to develop real-world laboratories to test ideas. I also learned to manage the continuing tension between the realities of day-to-day experience and the conceptual frameworks that are introduced in the classroom. That is an essential part of what we try to do at Babson.

I continue to monitor the work that goes on at the School, frequently checking on the intellectual research of the faculty. And as the School is a first-rate institution, I keep track of the curriculum.

My experiences at Columbia gave me the ability to live the ideas rather than just learn the ideas, and that has powerfully shaped the way in which I view, and act in, the world.

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