Bruce Avolio: Traveling Globally, Inspiring Locally
Our tour bus glided through snarled Lima traffic while Bruce Avolio kneeled in his seat to face 17 members of the TMMBA International Study Tour (IST) in March 2015. We had just finished visiting Ofertop, an e-commerce startup, and Graña y Montero, a group of 26 engineering and infrastructure service companies.
Bruce recapped our visits with these local and multinational companies. We had learned about the dynamic economic, political, and cultural landscapes of their businesses, asked questions during the presentation, and informally talked with leaders.
He announced “How did we today, on a scale of one to five?” The group laughed yet listened closely. “I’ll give you a 4.8.” It was a high score yet with a gap to improve to 5.0. I replay this exchange when I think about our trip, as his motivating and engaging style contributed significantly to our memorable week in Peru.
Bruce also joined a study tour to Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 2014. All student travelers completed his course International Business & Cultural Immersion.
Bruce Avolio, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking (CLST) at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. Appointed as the inaugural Mark Pigott Chair in Business Strategic Leadership in 2013, he is widely recognized for his outstanding research, consulting, and graduate-level teaching on transformational and authentic leadership. He has authored more than 150 published articles and 11 books.
In this interview, Bruce shares his perspectives on the distinctive value of a TMMBA International Study Tour and his path to the Foster Business School and TMMBA.
Q. What stands out to you as rewarding and meaningful in a TMMBA IST?
A. Two things come to mind. Number one is the group. The group came together so quickly and supportively in Peru. I keep reflecting on how much they did for each other. They were fun to be with and conscientious and focused on what we needed to do. They were present. On the company visits, they were told several times, “that if you keep asking questions, we won’t be able to get through everything.” The number of questions was terrific, informative, engaging, and reflected well on all of us.
The group in Dubai and Abu Dhabi needed time to acclimate because it’s quite different ? particularly for women as it’s a very different experience ? but they came together as a group and achieved everything I hoped they would. First, that they would be great brand representatives of Foster and the TMMBA, and second, that they would help each other in every sense and leave no one behind. They exceeded both goals in terms of my expectations.
I also think the pre-trip preparation was valuable to get everyone in the mindset of what they would learn through this experience: what would expand in your knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs and how to set goals and prep for this so you come back with something that has a tangible effect.
A lot of people talk about the first time they went to a different place – could be Paris, NYC, or Cambodia. In our daily lives, you kind of know the place ? and even though there are probably many things to learn – you may not be thinking about what you’ll learn. When you go away, I think there is a greater sense of awareness that something there that can be extracted. You’re ready to learn and your motivation level is higher.
Q. You describe a trigger moment in development as a little tiny intellectual nugget that drops in and affects your thinking for a long time. What was a trigger moment or experience that stood out on the trips?
A. Early on the Peru trip, it struck me when someone said I’ve come to know people in my class better in the last three days than I did in the last 15 months. I told the new TMMBA class that the trip is a great chance to expand your knowledge and also get to know each other, but I hope you get to know each other earlier. This is your future network and networks really build the success of programs.
Another was meeting an entrepreneur in Dubai who was getting his company off the ground. He was so enthusiastic on the prospects and bounced around his small office that we all tried to fit in. But he also talked a lot about how hard it is to find people like him. And then we met a similar entrepreneur in Lima and it felt like you could be in SoHo New York or Palo Alto, California. He was very quiet and watched his COO talk about the business. But then he got up and threw energy and passion into his talk. Here are two entrepreneurial leaders where it would be so cool to have a global entrepreneurial meeting of people who come from very different cultures and similar motivations to create something to make a difference. One comes from wealth and probably doesn’t need to do it and the other has to create opportunities. They were so similar in their enthusiasm and interests, yet they may never meet.
In Peru, I noticed how gracious people were and their sense of community and family. People take time and we don’t take time like you see in other cultures, and I think we’re missing this and it’s always reinforced when I go to cultures like Peru.
Q. You describe global mindset as how an individual and organizations do business in the geographical and cultural context of another country. A core purpose of the IST is to expand global mindset. How does global mindset affect leadership strengths and performance?
A. I see global mindset applying to their leadership in the TMMBA program, how students work with each other and how they come to understand each other.
From a leadership perspective, it’s thinking about the different cultures that are part of your experience and how you look and relate. They are global ambassadors. They are going to run companies and divisions of companies, and could have a lot of challenges with respect to global mindset.
It’s thinking about how to grow your business in different cultures. Our markets are saturated in the U.S. and North America and we’re all looking for places to grow business in other places in the world. For example, we don’t think a lot about Africa. It’s a billion person market and we’re starting to see some things happen there that point to positive growth in markets. If you don’t have a global mindset, you’re never going to think of those markets.
Even within a TMMBA class it’s really important. This is poignant for me because I really respect Narayana Murthy, the Co-founder of Infosys. I have a case study in technology, and it’s about this leader. I’ve had several students come up since I started using the case and say thank you so much for bringing him into the program.
I do it because I want them to know it’s not just teaching about some of our CEOs in the U.S. We want to look at the world.
Q. What life lessons or surprise takeaways have you heard from students after the Peru trip?
A. A lot of it is preconceptions they had going in and how they really changed through the experience. It turned out to be a much more in-depth experience and even for people who have traveled a lot.
We had some people who hadn’t traveled so it was the preconception and then the adjustment, which I would say is global mindset. We all learned through observing how we interacted with different cultures or just simple things like meeting and interacting with people on the street.
Q. What advice would you give a student considering the trip?
A. This is a unique experience that you will carry forward in your life that you probably won’t replicate in your career. When you look at your entire life, there is not a lot of time for this. You may want to travel and relax and sit on the beach.
When we go on these trips, the task is learning. This is a time when you can take a week or ten days and just heads down learn. You have opportunities to show what you’ve learned. You have an opportunity to connect with people that could sustain relationships with the program and their networks. And you have an opportunity to add to your global mindset. Why wouldn’t you do it if you could afford it? Why wouldn’t you do it if you could manage it with your family and job?
There is something rich about this experience because it’s not a requirement.
Q. Before TMMBA study tours, you decided to move from the University of Nebraska to the Foster Business School. Tell me about a key factor behind your decision.
A. The interest in leadership was central to my decision. I also grew up on public education and the vision to be the best public business school was energizing. I felt it was really important to demonstrate that we could be as good as any other university and business school in the public domain.
As an explorer, I wanted to try a different place. I had only been here once or twice – never out of downtown ? so I didn’t even know there were mountains here.
Q. How did you start with TMMBA and what do you most enjoy?
A. It was really serendipitous. There was an opportunity to be involved in the program and teach a leadership class in summer 2009.
What I like about TMMBA is being in a bunch of different worlds every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, since students come from different parts of the world. They have a really strong interest in learning and there is a cohort-feel, which you don’t necessarily feel in other programs.
I really enjoy them as a group. I like the diversity. I like the cohort. I like the way technologists think systematically and I like being able to challenge them, when I get the chance, to think a different way.
And there is the staff. This is unique as the staff are all present when you walk in to the Eastside Executive Center so you have different feeling here than in other programs.
Q. What did you want to be when you grew up?
A. First, I’m making the assumption that I haven’t grown up yet. I’m still working toward that. Grow old but never grow up!
Every boy I knew growing up in New York wanted to play for the New York Yankees. And I did. On a summer evening with friends, I was playing Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris and thinking someday I would put on the blue pin-stripe suit and play for the Yankees.
I also really remember being very interested in archeology. I don’t know the origin of this. I thought and actually still do love history and seeing the layers of how things are built. When we were in Peru, I was interested in Inca everything.
Q. How did you become interested in Industrial Psychology?
A. In college, I found a lot of things interesting and I declared my major in psychology in my senior year.
I was really interested in the area of criminology but then I took a course in Industrial Psychology. I thought my interests in applying psychology to organizations may be broader than just correctional institutions. I thought about what to do with that. My girlfriend broke up with me so I decided to leave NY and that’s when I left for Ohio and started my graduate work. It turned out to be one of the best Industrial Psychology programs at the time.