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Focus on Leadership: Ethan Burris on Learning to Lead at McCombs

Ethan Burris

Leadership is a common emphasis in business education, but the McCombs School of Business is taking steps to distinguish itself through a focus on analytics.

That's according to Ethan Burris, co-director of the school's Center for Leadership and Ethics, associate professor of management, and director of the department's Ph.D. program.

Burris recently discussed leadership education and initiatives at McCombs.

What's unique about leadership education at McCombs?

Go to any business school's tagline and leadership is prominently displayed. We are starting to differentiate ourselves by looking at analytics, this kind of strategic and evidence-based role in what we do, how we train students, and how we engage our research with the larger business community. We're preparing the next generation of leaders not only to be self-aware in their own tendencies and attributes, but also to have a strategic mindset for knowing their team is effective and if they're effective interpersonally. Applying the analytical lens to leadership helps them diagnose that and then take action.

Can you describe any new ways you are implementing this approach in the classroom?

This is the second time we've offered Managing Human Capital: People Analytics. It’s a seven-week MBA class. We go through each of the core human resources functions, including hiring, compensation, performance management, job design, working in virtual teams, and how to fire somebody. My aim is to integrate data and analytics to help firms make those strategic decisions. 

Have you introduced any other new classes that address leadership?

Two semesters ago, [Associate Professor of Management] Caroline Bartel started teaching Leading for Impact to undergraduates. Most of the class is focused on self-development: learning about yourself and your tendencies, your values as a leader, and what you stand for — and then helping you put those into practice. A lot of the cases have an assessment component. If you said this is your value, how does that actually help you resolve the case? Are those values going to resonate with the employees you manage?

What is the role of alumni in leadership education at McCombs?

We're launching a Relatable and Ethical Leaders Program. The aim is to identify one alumnus from The University of Texas at Austin who recently graduated and can talk about an ethical challenge that they faced and overcame. 

Over the summer, I'll spend time writing a case on that person to present to our incoming students in the fall. They're going to wrestle with a pretty sticky ethical issue. Then, we'll bring in that alum to talk through how they actually handled the case. That should provide a nice kind of cultural tone around specific values at McCombs and how we expect our students to behave.  

Rowling Hall, the school's under-construction new building for graduate programs, will include a dedicated space for the Center for Leadership and Ethics. What will that include?

The new space is going to be organized around the notion of leader analytics. We will have a personalized coaching center where you can take a bevy of assessments, get some feedback, and then work with coaches. For instance, if you do a communication analytics assessment, you'd give a speech, get that recorded, and get some quantitative feedback. Then you'd work with the communication coach to improve.

The leader analytics hub will also be more external facing. It will leverage faculty research and insights to partner with organizations and really bridge that academic-practitioner gap.

The school's Management Department as a whole is focused on leadership. Who are the newest faculty joining the department?

We have three faculty members starting in the fall. Steven Gray from Washington University in St. Louis does work looking at the dynamics of entrepreneurial teams. Andy Brodsky from Harvard Business School studies voice and communications, especially virtual communications and emotions. Shiva Agarwal from Wharton studies technology strategy. She has constructed a database of every app created on the iPhone ecosystem and is able to look at how different categories of apps lead to different performance implications.  

What new McCombs research looks at leadership?

We're launching diversity research on boards of directors. In boardrooms, how does the presence or absence of minorities impact team dynamics? How does it impact committee assignments? Who feels comfortable speaking up — and in what way? How does it impact the majority members' feelings and engagement in the board? These are basically unknown. We have a corporate sponsor that's already donated, we're currently raising money for the rest, and then we'll officially launch the research.  

Moving from faculty to students, what leadership opportunities can you highlight?

Students can attend co-curricular workshops. There's an hour-long presentation on integrating neuroscience and leadership that considers how the field of brain science can help you be a better leader. We ran a pilot last year, and have condensed that into a shorter workshop that we’ll be offering in the spring.

The Center for Leadership and Ethics Society is a group of second-year MBA students who provide peer mentoring and coaching for first-year students. They attend our events and have a deeper dive with some of the workshops. 

Lastly, there's always room to work with faculty on their research projects. That's much more of a technical role, but as you can see from the People Analytics class, it's also the trend for a lot of this area.

Photo by Nikki Fermanis from Google

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#1 Great article Ethan!

Great article Ethan!

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