Prof. Krzysztof Obłój, Head of the Department of Organization Strategy at Kozminski University and the Faculty of Management at the University of Warsaw: Good managers have the ability to see the world in terms of opportunities

Prof. Krzysztof Obłój, Head of the Department of Organization Strategy at Kozminski University and the Faculty of Management at the University of Warsaw: Good managers have the ability to see the world in terms of opportunities

Peter Drucker said once that “a major part of what we call management is about making other people’s jobs harder”. How would you comment on the relevance of these words?

Peter Drucker had a pretty good sense of humour. Of course, there is a grain of truth in these words and it may happen that the intervention of superiors hinders the work of subordinates, but this is not what management is about and it only occurs as pathology. Management, generally, is based on decision-making. These are issues about markets, products, distribution systems, the current management of the company, and what the company is to do in the future and how. The essence of all choices is a certain reduction in the freedom of the organization and the behaviour of employees, since employee actions without specific guidelines can lead to chaos. On the other hand, a very important question arises as to what extent the people who manage should intervene in the implementation of employees’ tasks. Pandemic time is an interesting experiment in this regard, because in many companies it has limited the supervisors’ possibilities of intervention and control. It turns out that in most cases this does not bother either the coordinators or the subordinates. Commenting on this quote, we can say that it is a kind of warning – when the organization is formed by intelligent and competent people, you should not spend energy on controlling their behaviour, and instead focus on thinking about the future. In that sense, it is spot on, but nothing more than that. 

How do visionary leaders create organizations that overcome competition, market shifts, generational transitions, and technological revolutions?

Very good managers have the ability to see the world in terms of opportunities. They see things that others miss, creating teams of people who work better together and creating the right conditions and motivations for them. And that is an art. Simply put, organizations would be well managed if it weren’t for the people, who are the organization’s biggest problem and also its biggest solution. And that is why you need to know how to manage them. The real job of a leader is to make sense of a good team and point people’s efforts in the right direction. Keep in mind that each person has a different goal or interest, and the more complex the organization is, the more diverse those goals, professions, backgrounds, or motivations of people will be. It is important to bring this together in such a way that everyone is moving together in the same direction. Leadership work puts some constraints on people and unites them in parallel. Some people, despite their efforts, will not succeed, and others can do it in such a way that we move forward and want to achieve this goal, because we see in it something interesting, beautiful, lofty or ambitious, just like that.

To what extent does the new business reality of a pandemic affect the strategy and processes of corporate organizations? What kind of leadership do companies need now?

When it comes to technology, the problem of organization and management is an exact reflection of the problem of society. The main obstacle is that we are surrounded by more and more noise. It is wrong to say that the range of available information is increasing, because it is largely replaced by information noise, and the specific issues we are looking for are very difficult to find. In addition, technology has provided us with an acceleration, and with it comes an increase in risk. Email, computer, digitization, artificial intelligence all create opportunities, but at the same time multiply danger. When setbacks occur in an organization that has accelerated, they have greater consequences. Technology has also made the organization more democratic, and I see this very clearly when I give lectures as well – I used to bring knowledge as an authority, and now people, instead of focusing on the content and questions we discuss, verify and look for confirmation of what I say (or negation) online. This is similarly happening in organizations and why a supervisor is not an authority to his subordinates like he used to be. Many things that he or she suggests, employees can contest by using knowledge from the Internet. Technology changes the content of managers’ work – it shifts them from the position of a technocrat, who knew better, to the position of a prophet, reminding about the value of a given action. And it is natural that in a world full of technology, non-technological factors – norms, values, organizational culture and soft skills – have become more important. These have always been important, but now technology is taking some of the work away from managers, democratizing the work environment, and in a sense making everyone pretty smart, or equally stupid. I say this because the naive belief in artificial intelligence, big data, which is unheard of in Poland, is at the same time quite funny because in the world of big data, in order to have enough information, you have to have it all. A very good example that shows what it means to not have all the information is the incredible distortions and errors of polls during elections. Voters intentionally lie or don’t participate in polls and big data won’t help here, because at the end of it all, it turns out that the results are rigged. Leaving that aside, technology introduces a lot of fantastic things and at the same time complicates a lot by making the environment more noisy, risky and democratic.

To what extent does the new business reality of a pandemic affect the strategy and processes of corporate organizations? What kind of leadership do companies need now?

To be very honest, we won’t know until the pandemic is over. If I were to speculate, I would point to three important changes resulting from the pandemic and related to the role of leaders: greater responsibility of leaders for the well-being of employees, greater intimacy and democratization of organizational life, and greater importance of important issues affecting us all, not just business. First, a greater cost of the pandemic has been borne by employees than by managers, who by nature are highly optimistic, more motivated, and more systemic in their outlook. Leaders are privileged in some way and the pandemic caused the scissors of optimism of managers and realism (or pessimism) of employees to unravel. Therefore, the effect of the pandemic should be, and probably will be, a greater concern by leaders for employees who, worried about loved ones and the future of the organization, need support and optimism while leaders deal with the fact that last year was better than they thought.

Second, the pandemic in good leaders also results in a greater willingness to listen and have peripheral conversations. For an unusual thing has happened. Superiors have left their elegant offices, swapped suits for tracksuits, and the constant running and conferring has been replaced by democratized online discussions in the comfort of home. In my opinion, this is a radical change, the consequences of which will be long-term, and there is no going back to the morass once we have seen these people in the normal world and started talking to them normally during business. There’s a lot of talk about turquoise, flat organizations and this is a bit of a story about iron wolves – they didn’t exist, except in very specific organizations like Silicon Valley or startups. Normal organizations are hierarchical because it gives everyone a sense of security and proper distribution of tasks, power and information. Pandemic has partially eliminated this hierarchy and made managers to listen more and everyone to have more intimacy in interpersonal relations. It is a different world and it will be very difficult to go back to playing professional, hierarchical roles. The simplest example would be decisions related to remote working. Organizations cannot decree it after a pandemic. Employees can’t demand it or refuse it.  What will be needed is a discussion, and a fairly democratic one at that, about how to arrange the company in this area after the pandemic in order to meet business interests and human expectations.

Third, the pandemic is not a big surprise, it had to happen, but nobody knew when. And now we know it better and we know how important an event it was and is. So people understand better and discuss more about the significance of big issues and events – they ask big questions about climate, sustainability, the concept of modern organization. A broader view of the business environment is becoming the norm. And that means leaders need to start talking to employees about bigger issues than just business.

In the era of the pandemic, a new management philosophy has emerged – readiness for continuous change and its rapid implementation. In your opinion, will this increase the innovativeness of enterprises?

Most innovators end up in business graveyards because innovation is extremely risky. And that is why innovations in business, especially successful ones, are not common. Innovators most often fail and only belatedly do big players colonize the terrain where innovators have died. During the pandemic, the digitization of work accelerated dramatically, and after only a month, people discovered that it was frustrating and blurred the lines between privacy and business. It also causes behaviors that we would never suspect – people can do an awful lot of things in the course of professional meetings that they shouldn’t, and there’s no control over it. The research I’ve been doing with a team from ALK and UW on how corporations and companies function under pandemic conditions clearly shows that this is an innovation that is making people very tired at the moment and most people want to give it up. Organizations are also ambivalent about it because they have discovered that it has taken away the serendipity and spontaneity of social interaction. Some things it has made faster and more productive, and some things it has made less productive. Therefore, the judgement on remote work is not yet made and is not at all obvious. In my opinion, in the future it will be a certain addition, a form of supplement to normal work. Research on organizations working in difficult conditions also shows that it is very wise to adapt quietly – it may not bring golden mountains, but it will ensure smooth functioning. Taking innovative risks is dangerous and therefore the privilege of a few. And this was also confirmed in our research. Polish companies during the pandemic refrained from introducing innovations, except for remote working, which in itself is sufficient innovation not to introduce more. This is a high-risk time, and it must be survived wisely.

Do corporations allow entrepreneurship to flourish ? What is the role of the leader in creating an entrepreneurial corporation ?

Entrepreneurship in corporations does exist, but to a limited extent, because they are very complex entities and any entrepreneurship and innovation requires many arrangements. Remember that we live in a very complex social environment and any words and initiatives can be met with negation from the environment inside and outside the corporation. Therefore, introducing a product or change requires legal and technological case and it is a very complex and risky process. Only startups can afford to be truly entrepreneurial, because no one cries after them. However, if the risk is taken by a large corporation and several thousand people may lose their jobs, it becomes complicated. Along with innovation comes risk and from a certain point on its level is difficult to accept, which inhibits entrepreneurship. Therefore, leaders in corporations operate under very high constraints and few can afford to emulate entrepreneurial corporations like Amazon or Apple. They can afford almost any failed experiment and a loss of a billion dollars. But if any Polish corporation is affected, it simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Governments are important players in post-covid Europe. Does this represent a distortion to economic rationality of management and governance?

No. The free market economy with very limited government intervention was a 30-year case in the history of the economic world. It lasted the longest in America, and in Europe it started in the 80-90s and a whole liberal ideology was added to it.  In combination with a very strong network of social redistribution and social protection, the pandemic brought the state back onto the scene in a big way, and all entrepreneurs had to turn to it for help. At the same time, it should be remembered that many companies were not affected by the pandemic and parts of the economy even flourished during this time. If we look at the Polish situation, it is a classic example of an economy that came through the pandemic not entirely dry, but without collapsing.

The state has now entered the scene like a prima donna in several ways – it has given support, loans, subsidies, and secondly it will partly make or have made investments in companies that have fallen into trouble. So there will be a re-emergence of state ownership in many places. The Chinese economy coped best with the pandemic, which says a lot about the centralized economic model in which the state plays an important role. In democratic countries, the state will regain its rightful role in the economy – it is needed, because without it the market is or becomes a bit wild. In populist or neo-totalitarian countries, the state will become the main player in a very brutal way and the privileged political parties will seek to increase the share of state-controlled property and to increase the scope of control. By contrast, in countries that have suffered real misfortune, such as Latin America, the state will have to pick up the broken shells because no one else will. A pandemic restores the role of the state in the economy – either the role it deserved, or a redundant one as in neo-totalitarian countries – how it will be in our country, we shall see.

Professor Krzysztof Obłój

A specialist in strategic and international management. He is one of the most cited Polish specialists in economics and management in the world.

For years, he has lectured at world business schools, incl. Sun-Yat Sen University in China, University of Illinois, Yale University and Duquesne University in the USA, Norwegian Bodo Graduate School of Management, French ESCP-EAP and Ecole Nationale des Pont et Chaussees, Slovenian Bled School of Management. He is the author of over 130 scientific articles published in prestigious scientific journals. His books are published in the USA and Europe (e.g. Management Systems, 1993; Winning: Continuous Improvement Theory in High Performance Organizations, 1995; Emerging economies and firms in the global crisis, Palgrave Macmillan, London 2012; Passion and discipline of strategy, New York 2014). Books published in Poland: Organizational strategy: in search of a sustainable competitive advantage, 2014, Passion and discipline of strategy, 2010 and 2016, and Practice of the company’s strategy, 2018 have become bestsellers on the Polish market.

He has extensive practical experience. He was the chairman or member of supervisory boards of, inter alia, Orlenu SA, Dwory SA, PZU SA, Agory SA, Eurobank SA, Alior Bank SA, IMPEL SA, AMBRA SA, Polmos Lublin SA. He advised companies such as Laboratorium Kosmetyczne Irena Eris SA, LPP, Gedeon Richter SA, Rockwool SA, Orange SA, AMBRA SA, Budimex SA, PressGlass SA, LPP SA, Sanitec SA, Asea Brown Boveri SA, Wólczanka SA, Próchnik SA and many others . His research and advisory interests focus on the issues of strategy, international management, entrepreneurship, and management problems and paradoxes. He is currently conducting research on the adaptation of Polish companies to the pandemic situation.

Last Updated on May 18, 2021 by Łukasz