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Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Management guru Andrew Pettigrew: it's all new territory

Published By: The Independent - 09 Apr 2009

After five years as dean of the School of Management at the University of Bath, management guru Andrew Pettigrew is returning to the scholarly life with a part-time post as professor of strategy and organisation at the Said Business School, Oxford University. But this is no slow easing into semi-retirement. Instead he is throwing himself into the heart of the current financial and corporate crisis by launching new research into how top business leaders manage strategic change.

Nothing, he says, could be more crucial. “There’s a whole generation of leaders in a number of industries, vast battalions of people, who have been very publicly discredited. They’ve got caught up in a cycle of debt-fuelled growth and while many have now disappeared those that are left are facing a world where the three main words are survival, recovery and renewal.

“This isn’t the first time bankers have gone over a cliff together arm in arm, but people don’t always learn from a crisis. The memory of these things can be dissipated because the people who experienced them are disposed of. They are pushed over the wall as the guilty party and then organisational memory is lost.”

Meanwhile people who have grown up with a business model of growth have deeply-embedded attitudes and behaviours. “They expect to learn fast, grow fast and earn fast. One of the things I want to pursue is how people can dismantle this growth model in a productive way.”

Yet surprisingly little work has been done on the subject of leadership. Only now are researchers at Harvard starting to bring it in from the cold by establishing a new hub for people working in the area. “Partly, I think, this is because researchers have a certain disquiet about studying individuals. Also there’s a history of poor quality work in this field which then tends to attract poor quality people, and in addition it’s a difficult and elusive thing to study. Then there is the problem of access. Many leaders of major corporations have in the past tried to hide behind gilded curtains.”

Luckily his own network of high-level contacts means he can walk right through those curtains and hob-nob with people beyond. Throughout his career he has maintained that academic research must be relevant to the real world and have an impact on it, and has always spent time out and about. In fact he is highly critical of the way that university assessment procedures encourage academics to view publication as an end in itself. “It is vital that people benefit from the work that you do.” He also believes people should be able enjoy that some of that benefit while research work is in still progress, and that a good case can be made for sometimes undertaking collaborative research, where universities and commercial partners work together. “One of the reasons I wanted to work in business schools is that you could be a dual citizen, both of the wider world and of academia.”

Yet Andrew Pettigrew, 64, did not initially seem destined for a business career. He studied anthropology and sociology at Liverpool University after going on an expedition to Uganda where he counted flat and conical-shaped hut roofs in order to study cultural patterns, and has always held that the sociological viewpoint is as important as the economic one when studying organisations. He made his name by undertaking studies of complex organisations over lengthy periods of time and contends that work that simply looks at what is happening at any given moment is little more than a snapshot of selected statistics.

Now, in addition to teaching and researching, he works for the European Foundation for Management Development in Brussels, for McKinsey -- “a very good place to be at the moment given the turmoil going on in the world, as they tend to get drawn into that turmoil” -- and for the NHS. “I’ve always tried to keep a balance between public sector interests and private sector interests, and that is part of the attraction of being here at the Said. This is a business school that engages in public policy and is more oriented towards the social sciences than other business schools.”

It is clearly the perfect berth for someone who believes that the whole relationship between business and society is about to change fundamentally. Large corporations, he says, are going to have to be much more careful how their use their power. They are going to have to act more responsibly and legitimately and to accept both tighter external regulation of their affairs and the kind of corporate governance that will curb the power of over-confident executives. At the same time, while the Government knows that it needs move forward collaboratively, no-one yet knows how state bodies will be able to develop cooperative strategies that will work in the face of today’s many uncertainties. “All these things add up to the most enormous challenges for leaders, especially as no-one knows how long all this is going on for. It is all completely new territory.”

However one thing is clear, and that is that it is a great time not only to be studying the leadership of complex organisations but also to be teaching MBA students about the intricacies of strategic change.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to tackle with them these basic issues of survival, renewal and turnaround. I’ve invited four CEOs along from banking, retailing, the NHS and McKinsey to discuss their experiences. And that’s one of the great advantages of being here in Oxford. People want to come. You don’t have to twist their arms to get them here. They like being associated with the university.”

As does Andrew Pettigrew himself. “I’m very excited and enthusiastic about being here in this community. My first university job was as an assistant professor at Yale University and this is probably my last, so there’s a great symmetry to starting at Yale and finishing at Oxford.”

Fact Box

Early Career: Corby Grammar School, Northamptonshire; anthropology and sociology at Liverpool University; PhD at Manchester Business School

Main Career Influence: Professor Enid Mumford, PhD supervisor, who believed ‘everything is possible until proved otherwise’

Minor Classic: The Politics of Organisational Decision Making, 1973

Crucial Career Move: to Yale, in 1969, and exposure to top US scholars and lifelong networks. “In the academic world you need both social and intellectual capital.”

Career Highlights: studying ICI between 1975 and 1985 and writing The Awakening Giant, 1985; setting up the Centre for Corporate Strategy and Change at Warwick Business School; dean of the School of Management at the University of Bath

Notable Achievements: the only non-American to be elected distinguished scholar of the US Academy of Management; being made a Fellow of the British Academy; receiving the OBE for services to Higher Education (in January this year)

Family: “three wonderful sons”

Likes: talented people who make the most of their talents; the family home in Herefordshire; antique clocks

Dislikes: talented people who don’t exploit their talents

Last book read: Andrew Marr’s A History of Modern Britain