Cynthia Montgomery
Cynthia Montgomery: "It takes courage for a leader to ask and answer the deepest existential questions facing a business"

Cynthia Montgomery is a professor of business administration and former head of the strategy unit at Harvard Business School, where she has taught for 20 years. For the past six years, she has led the strategy track in the school’s owner/president management executive education programme, which attracts leaders of midsized companies worldwide.

Prof Montgomery grew up in Pennsylvania and has a masters and PhD in business from Purdue University Krannert School of Management. She has taught at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and served on two Fortune 500 boards.

In her spare time, she enjoys reading and travelling. She has recently published a book, The Strategist: Be the Leader Your Business Needs.

1. When did you know you wanted to teach?

There are lots of teachers in my family – my sister is also a professor and my mother started the first nursery school in the small town we grew up in. While there’s probably something in that ether that influenced me, frankly I pursued this career because I like doing research and I like the autonomy that comes with the job.

2. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?

As I was embarking on my doctoral studies, Arnold Cooper, an accomplished researcher on strategy and entrepreneurship, told me: “Now you have to become an expert in something. You have to find out what that will be.” I didn’t understand it at the time but at some level I believed it and he was right. I’ve spent 30-plus years working on strategy. This has become my life’s work and the time and variety of exposures has given me a point of view that’s been carefully honed over a long time.

3. Who are your business influences?

Dominico DeSole and Tom Ford’s fantastic turnround of the Gucci Group – it involves a remarkable re-imaging of the company and what it could be and the disciplined rollout that made it a reality. I’d say the same about Steve Jobs’ turnround of Apple. Jobs has been overexposed lately, but it’s truly a remarkable story and one can learn as much from his colossal failures as from his successes.

4. What academic achievement are you most proud of?

Publication wise, there are two sets of work that mean the most to me: one would be the series of articles that grew out of my large sample statistical research; the other would be my recent book, The Strategist: Be the Leader Your Business Needs. Thousands of books and articles were written about strategy in the last 25 years, but almost nothing was written about the human side of strategy – what it means for a leader to be a strategist.

5. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

I’ve learnt the importance of clear thinking and intellectual honesty. It takes courage for a leader to ask and answer the deepest existential questions facing a business: What will this business be and why will it matter? I wouldn’t want to work in an organisation that didn’t have such a leader; nor would I want to invest in it. Clarity of intent is enormously important, otherwise you can’t marshal what you need to build something remarkable.

6. What is the worst job you have ever had?

Just out of high school, I was interested in a career in medicine. Our family doctor was urging me along this path and got me a job at the local hospital. The first morning I was assigned the task of refilling water pitchers in patients’ rooms. The first room I walked into was dark; from the door, I could barely see the patient at the other end. As I was standing by her bed, pouring the water into the pitcher, she leaned over the hand railing and vomited all over the floor. The job went uphill from there – the next assignment was sterilising bed pans.

7. What is the strangest thing you have ever done when teaching?

Recently some colleagues and I were doing research on whether entrepreneurs are born or made. We asked for volunteers from the executive course we were teaching. Somewhat surprisingly, they all signed up and agreed to give us samples of their DNA, delivered by rinsing with mouthwash, spitting into a cup and transferring it into a test tube – all while seated with their peers in the classroom!

Another thing I did was distribute ice-cream bars when I taught a case on Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream. Over a few years, I got pretty efficient at handing them out to groups of 90 – it involved a quick pace, a good pitching arm and a pretty good eye.

8. What advice would you give to women in business?

I would urge them to find a place to work where they can truly be themselves; where who they are fits; where what they work on really resonates with something they care about. The years go by faster than young or even middle-aged people could imagine. If you haven’t been true to yourself at work, that’s a huge part of your life and you’ll never recover those years.

9. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?

I started my adult life with what I would consider good balance between personal and professional pursuits. Over time that balance has gotten slowly but surely out of whack. The rewards of the journey have been sweet, but over time the costs have escalated. I wish I would have stepped back and seen it sooner, but like managers who get caught in the trap of day-to-day demands, I lost the big picture.

But I have it now and the creative opportunity before me is what to do about it, or as the poet Mary Oliver asked, ‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ It’s a question we all should ask ourselves again and again over time. Like good strategists, it’s wise to live deliberately with an eye to the future, with an openness to new ideas and the resourcefulness to make them happen.

10. What is your plan B?

If I hadn’t followed the academic route, I would have liked to build a business. In the last 10 years, in the owner/president management programme, I have spent a lot of time with business owners and serial entrepreneurs who have started two or more businesses. In the final segment of the course, they all had a chance to work on their own strategies and the business models that would bring those ideas alive. Many of the stories were very inspiring.

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