This blog is a companion to the interview with Dr. Gill Robinson Hickman and Jorrit Volkers on VoiceAmerica “Innovative Leaders Driving Thriving Organizations” on January 24, 2017, focusing on leaders moving away from the cult of personality and toward supporting the mission of the organization by supporting followers. This interview was conducted at the International Leadership Association Annual Conference.

In its simplest form, the term pracademics is a melding of the words practical and academic. Pracademics involves resolution of challenges with practical actions that align with “correct” academic theory and academic theory.

John was the president of a third-party distribution company that provided a retail product and service for businesses. Throughout the course of his career, he had been very effective at spotting industry trends and shifting the organization to take advantage of those changes. This skill over decades created a financially strong organization. Unfortunately, he also had a blind spot in how he treated his people and his perception of his ability as a leader. He saw himself as the quintessential successful leader. As the world changed, he continued to lead from his stance of command and control. During his last couple of years, he fired a highly successful CIO and most of his team because he didn’t understand the need to make certain significant business changes.

The CIO was heavily research-based and, therefore, discounted as too academic and not practical. In one instance, the CIO made a change to the hardware and processes that allowed the organization to avoid a multi-day outage of all technology support because he remained current on the trends and research. This leader’s forward-looking and research-based decisions and actions saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars with just this single event.

We all make mistakes and learn from our mistakes. The challenge is how to mitigate the impact of these mistakes. With the current rate of change, leaders are likely to make an increasing number of mistakes as the range of challenges they experience increases.
Full disclosure, I consider myself a pracademic. One of the differentiators for my company, Metcalf & Associates, is staying connected to the research community and translating highly valuable research into practical and cost-effective solutions. I do this because I have found solutions to my biggest problems within the research community that I couldn’t find elsewhere.

To clarify what I think is a common misperception, research is not just done in universities, it is also conducted in businesses and consulting firms, think tanks, and nonprofits. As we heard in the interview, we are seeing an increasing focus on partnerships in and across organizations and sectors where academics and practitioners partner. The International Leadership Association creates a forum to encourage this collaboration.
One of the reasons I moved in the direction of being a pracademic was that I worked with a consulting colleague who was highly trusted by his clients. He was highly experienced and had good intuition, yet I observed him making recommendations that I considered to be questionable. I looked to research to explore my concerns. It ended up being true that his work was contrary to the prevailing theory and, unfortunately, ineffective in the situation in question. That said, however, it is often these questions that help the researchers and practitioners begin the process of inquiry into changes in theory. Additionally, some of my most respected colleagues are considered pracademics. The ones I am thinking of both teach and work as practitioners.

So, why be a pracademic if being a solid performer and building on past successes has worked for your entire career?

1. Well-researched and proven models will help you identify possible risks you have not experienced in a limited number of implementations, but may impact your success if you use a similar solution in a different setting.

2. Researched frameworks are often designed to create repeatable solutions across a broad range of environments.

3. Researched models often provide a more complete solution and better solution than those created to solve a singular or less complex problem. They are more robust.

As a practitioner, I identify the problems and a solution that is as practical and cost effective to implement as possible. I generally don’t have the time to look at the range of options across a broad solution set. For this reason, my solution is more likely to fall in the good enough bucket. That may work most of the time—but when it doesn’t, the risk to my business could be high. By adopting a solution that is research-based, I reduce my risk and
I don’t need to invest the time in creating the solution.

Frameworks and models created by pracademics provide a mechanism to deconstruct complex challenges and examine them in a time-effective manner. Theorists do much of the heavy lifting to determine which variables matter. The leader needs to know which models and frameworks apply in a range of situations.

Skilled leaders are busy leading their organizations. For most people, this is just not going to happen. Turning to pracademics who create well-researched solutions is the best option to have well researched solutions tailored to their situation without needing to do the research themselves.

If your organization has a problem and you could partner with a researcher who would be able to identify a robust solution, consider it to a find solution and contribute to the body of research.

As leaders, we face a world that is becoming more complex by the day. I have found one of my success accelerators is creating the ability to contribute to research in a way that differentiates my organization because it allows me to adopt new and practical research more quickly than my competitors. While I am contributing to solutions that my competitors will benefit from, I am also positioning myself to benefit more quickly than many others. The commitment to research is a core element of our culture.

How does your organization bring together problems, practitioners, and academics to create robust solutions and minimize implementation risks?

To become a more innovative leader, please consider our online leader development program. For additional tools, we recommend taking leadership assessments, using the Innovative Leadership Fieldbook and Innovative Leaders Guide to Transforming Organizations, and adding coaching to our online innovative leadership program. We also offer several workshops to help you build these skills.

About the author
Maureen Metcalf, CEO and Founder of Metcalf & Associates, is a renowned executive advisor, author, speaker, and coach whose 30 years of business experience provides high-impact, practical solutions that support her clients’ leadership development and organizational transformations. Maureen is recognized as an innovative, principled thought leader who combines intellectual rigor and discipline with an ability to translate theory into practice. Her operational skills are coupled with a strategic ability to analyze, develop, and implement successful strategies for profitability, growth, and sustainability.

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