By Catherine M. Melocik
Published May 18, 2011
It isn’t prominently displayed, but propped in the corner of the window in Professor Matthew Slaughter’s office is a photograph of Slaughter shaking hands with then President George W. Bush in the Oval Office. Slaughter, Associate Dean for the MBA Program and Signal Companies’ Professor of Management, served on the White House Council of Economic Advisers under Bush and knows more than a little about testifying as an expert before members of Congress. In his innovative fall elective, Leadership in the Global Economy, Slaughter uses the framework of congressional testimony, with students as CEOs at the witness table, for each student to learn how to develop his or her own “teachable point of view about how business leaders should lead companies amidst increasingly present governments of many countries.” In other words, they learn how to tell their stories in the best way possible—brief, to the point, and, above all else, convincingly.
How did you learn about the concept of teachable points of view and why they are good for business?
Some leadership scholars have documented that a major part of what makes high-performance organizations do well in terms of profitability, growth, and productivity over many years is that they are organizations whose employees really value teaching and learning from each other. And part of what makes really good leaders is that they create those types of organizations and try themselves to teach others the point of view they want their organization to pursue. Andy Grove at Intel was a good example of this: One of Intel's real organizational strengths is that they set up their infrastructure so that anyone in the organization is empowered to point out possible opportunities or concerns.
What gave you the idea to use congressional testimonies as a framework for the course?
So much of being an effective global leader in business today is getting involved and interacting with governments in different ways. Increasingly, I think business leaders don't always set the terms of conversations about their teaching narratives. And I thought an effective organizational device for the course would be congressional hearings, something that I've spent some time doing.
Can you give an example of a congressional hearing you participated in?
On the first day of class, I show some clips from one of the more famous hearings in recent years. I was one of the witnesses at the 2008 hearing in which the CEOs of the Big Three automobile manufacturers testified before the House Financial Services Committee, and they were each asked, under oath, How did you travel here today? Did you fly private or corporate? and, Would you work for $1 a year if we give you taxpayer support? At that hearing, and at many others, I've been struck by how some CEOs are extremely effective but how many other CEOs struggle mightily with that critical element of leadership.
How did hearings actually play out in class?
Each day we had global business topics that we addressed through congressional hearings. I played Barney Frank, then chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Students would come prepared to testify as CEOs. We'd hold each hearing, with three or four witnesses, and, as in almost every real hearing in the house or senate in the U.S., each student CEO would get five minutes. I literally had a timer, and I would call time. Classmates would serve as the House committee members and would cross-examine the witnesses. Toward the end of each class, I'd make some explicit connections back to the core Global Economics for Managers course I taught, which this course purposely builds on, and share my teachable point of view about the day's topics.
You had specifically invited students to approach things not only from a U.S. point of view but from that of other countries. Did any students do that?
A lot did, which was great. One of the really nice things about this class, especially since we were discussing global economic issues, was that there was a sizable number of students who are foreign nationals. On the first day, I told students that although we were using the form of the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee, they should feel free to assume the role of speaking to a government body anywhere in the world. It wasn't a class targeted at how to do business in Country X or Country Y—we already have electives at Tuck that do that. Instead, the goal here was to think a little more abstractly about issues of global business in whatever context worked best for each student.
You have said that teachable points of view are, by definition, subjective. Would you say that an object of the course is how leaders get people to view inherently subjective concepts as objective issues?
I'd say not necessarily objective, but persuasive. I want them to be objective in that I want them to be based on facts. And part of how I would play Barney Frank in the class hearings was to say, In your testimony, you said this; actually, here's what the data show. But more than that, the persuasive part is, Are you able to craft an argument that people hear on both an intellectual and an emotional level and that they find persuasive? Having good fact-based ideas is necessary, but it's not sufficient. Good leaders aren't good because they can make an interesting PowerPoint deck.
How were the students' testimonies?
Many were amazing: thoughtful, compelling, inspiring. Our students come from very different backgrounds, and that came out in many different ways—in the questions they would ask each other, based on their testimonies, and in some of the personal insights they shared about personal and organizational experiences they'd had. For example, there are a number of Tuck students in the military, and they brought military veterans' insights, which are quite different from those of other classmates. Effective leaders' points of view are deeply embedded in their own personal experiences and values, and a lot of the students' testimonies were riveting. When they were clearly drawing on their personal experiences and beliefs and had crafted truly inspirational language, you were able to hear a pin drop in the room.
Why do you think it's so important that MBA students learn these skills?
I'm trying to give students some experience with developing those arguments and narratives while they're still in the classroom. I told them, It's not like you become CEO and then you suddenly figure out how to do this—the likelihood that you become a CEO depends a lot on your ability to craft these narratives and for people to follow you along those steps. The world has been a difficult place in recent years, with the world financial crisis and the Great Recession. But it's a great opportunity for Tuck MBAs because organizations in the private and public sectors are desperate for leaders who have the toolkits to understand today's issues and have the leadership capabilities to help craft the solutions. Not to sound maudlin, but I hope this class will foster students' capacity to dream while working on a particular issue and think, Why can't I be the one to figure this out?