Management guru Andrew Pettigrew: 'It's all new territory'

This academic might be back on familiar ground at Oxford University, but the subject at hand is unprecedented

Hilary Wilce
Tuesday 22 October 2013 05:23

After five years of running the management school at Bath University, management guru Andrew Pettigrew is returning to the scholarly life at Oxford University. He has been appointed to a part-time post as professor of strategy and organisation at the Saïd Business School.

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."

People who have grown up with a business model of absolute growth have deeply-embedded attitudes and behaviour. "They expect to learn fast, grow fast and earn fast," says Pettigrew. "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," says Pettigrew. "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 Pettigrew has a network of high-level contacts. Throughout his career he has maintained that academic research must be relevant to the real world. 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 says. Pettigrew also believes people should be able enjoy 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 [can] be a dual citizen, both of the wider world and of academia," he says.

Pettigrew, 64, did not 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 to study cultural patterns, and has always held that the sociological viewpoint is as important as the economic 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, Pettigrew works for the European Foundation for Management Development in Brussels, McKinsey and 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 Saïd. This is a business school that engages in public policy and is more oriented towards the social sciences than other business schools," he says.

It is 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 and act more responsibly and legitimately, accepting 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 to move forward collaboratively, no one yet knows how state bodies will be able to develop co-operative 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," says Pettigrew.

But one thing is clear, and that is that it is a great time to be studying the leadership of complex organisations and to be teaching MBA students about the intricacies of strategic change. "This is a wonderful opportunity to tackle with them the basic issues of survival, renewal and turnaround," he says.

"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 in Oxford. People want to come. You don't have to twist their arms. They like being associated with the university."

The curriculum vitae

Education: Corby Grammar School, Northamptonshire; anthropology and sociology at Liverpool University; PhD at Manchester Business School
Main career influence: Professor Enid Mumford, his PhD supervisor, who said "everything is possible until proved otherwise"
His 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: studied ICI from 1975 to 1985 and wrote The Awakening Giant (1985); set 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; Fellow of the British Academy; OBE for services to Higher Education
Family: "three wonderful sons"
Likes: talented people who make the most of their talents; his 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

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