Choosing — Last Day of the GMAC Conference

Day 3 of the GMAC annual conference in Boston.

I don’t know if the conference organisers saw the irony, but the conference’s closing speaker was Dr Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, who, because she is blind, would not have been able to see any drawings that Dan Roam, the opening speaker, might made on his napkins. In any case, I found Sheena’s talk much more interesting than Dan’s, to the extent that I have just bought her book from the iBooks store and will read it on my flight back to the UK.

Sheena talked about leadership and choice, about how great leaders gave their followers just enough choice. About the dangers of giving too much or too little choice in terms of the motivating effect that it might have on followers. And cult differences in cultural attitudes towards choice :- do different people view choice as liberating, confusing, or simply a lack of focus?

The obligatory inspiring story in such keynote speeches was of Steven Callahan, who was sailing solo across the Atlantic when his boat capsized in a storm. He had no water, food or radio but the first thing he did was make a choice :- he could paddle west, or lie down and die. He chose the former and after 76 days at sea eating fish and drinking rain water, he was rescued off the coast of Guadalupe. Sheena’s point was that no matter how dire the situation, you have a choice. (Of course, simply making a choice won’t get you out of a sticky situation — Steven was a skilled mariner and he was obviously lucky).

Coincidentally, I had been thinking along similar lines about our MBAs. In a presentation that I give to prospective candidates, I talk about how each Cambridge MBA has a unique story, and their year in Cambridge is an opportunity to write the next chapter in their lives. I have however struggled with how I could convey that message to a wider audience. W have decided to rely more on videos on our website, and Sheena’s talk has given me an idea of how we could frame some of the video interviews that we will be conducting with students this next week when I return from Boston. Again, watch this space….

Written while sipping a double espresso in Cafe Vittoria in Boston’s Little Italy.

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