When I first visited Duke University more than 10 years ago as a faculty candidate, our current Chair, Larry Carin, was the host for my visit. I met several of our faculty members who have been at Duke for some time, as well as senior faculty members that had just joined the department (then-Chair April Brown and then-Director of the Fitzpatrick Center David Brady, among others). What impressed me the most was the enthusiasm that prevailed in the department, about the effort under way to establish a great academic unit with the core values of outstanding education and prominent research. As the recruiting process progressed, Larry recommended a book to me, Good to Great by Jim Collins, which was a very popular title at the time in business management. The book summarizes a research effort analyzing the case of 11 companies that have done extremely well compared to their peers and the general stock market for a period of over 15 years, trying to identify the critical elements that led to building such successful organizations. It was clear to me why Larry was interested in such a study, as this topic was in the minds of everyone in the ECE department at that period in time.
While it is impossible to tell the true predictive value of these types of postmortem analysis, there were some interesting and compelling points that were worth discussing. I certainly was intrigued by the prospect of building up a strong research effort and new educational initiatives in the department, and decided to come join the excitement. Having 10 years to look back upon our department that has gained substantial momentum along the way, it is an interesting exercise to see what aspect of those analyses were relevant to our department’s current path to success. The book describes six characteristics of these success stories, but I will ponder upon three or four that might be directly relevant to academic institution like ours.
Before I put together my random thoughts on these issues, I would like to share the insight some of our colleagues have shared in the “ECE Corner Office” section: I most strongly resonate with Richard Fair’s story on “Change, or Die”. All of our operating environment changes over time, either fast or slow, and the thriving organizations derive their success from how well they adapt to these changing conditions. Such changes often pose threats to successful organizations, yet provide opportunities for upcoming organizations to compete. All of these factors of success cannot be considered unless in the context of constant change: the Roman Empire did not last forever, and neither will the era of those dominant Engineering research/educational institutions of today, no matter how strong you feel their grip is in the current environment. Everything changes, and there lies our opportunity to build a great organization.
The first topic is the type of leadership that is common to these organizations with success. The authors term the type of leadership “Level-5”, characterized by individuals with extreme personal humility and intense professional will. They are the most modest people who never let her/his own ego get in the way of the success of the team/organization, nor quibble about trivial credit taking for personal gains (as the authors quote Harry Truman, “you can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit”). At the same time, they move with incredible intensity when it comes to achieving success for the team or organization. I have personally been blessed with having two mentors I can confidently identify as “Level-5 leaders” throughout my professional training process prior to Duke (one is my thesis advisor, and the other is my manager of three years at Bell Labs). While they do not strive to attract the flashes of stardom, they focus on building the core ingredients of success with ferocious will, eventually achieving outstanding success. Many Nobel Laureates I know in person also feature such a leadership: throughout their career, they do not explicitly pursue the glories of Nobel Prize, but work tenaciously to achieve scientific progress which eventually lead them to such an honor. Look around our department, and you will see many such leaders quietly building up incredible momentum, whether it is the novelty in their cutting-edge research efforts or means to educate the future leaders of our society: I am sure these efforts will eventually lead to outcomes that will have a huge impact in our world.
The second topic is about the process of building the organization by attracting outstanding talent, which many of us can see as an important procedure towards a great organization. We typically struggle with the role of strategic planning to think about where the organization (department) should go, and finding adequate people with the right talent to achieve those strategic goals. One of their findings is somewhat striking (and counter-intuitive): they find in these success stories, that instead of defining a strategic direction and then getting people to get them there, these leaders have done things in the exactly opposite order. Making analogies to people getting on a bus to go to a great place, “they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus), and then figured out where to drive it”. They always begin with “who” rather than “what”, which make it easier to change directions and adapt to the changes that one will inevitably face down the road (remember the “Change or Die” comment from Richard!!). What is an important field of research will inevitably change in ten years, and we want people who can be successful in those future fields. More desirably, we want to have people who can define what will be an important field of research ten years from now, and naturally be the leaders in those fields by driving those changes. I believe we have done exceptionally well on this front. Looking at our faculty members that have joined the department since I came in 2004, we have assembled an outstanding group of people who have become leaders in the field since. We certainly got the right people on the bus without necessarily worrying about exactly where the bus will go (of course, that does not mean that we want the bus to be driven in random Brownian path!!): the classic example is myself, in the sense that I absolutely did not foresee that I will be working so heavily in quantum information science, nor gigapixel cameras, when I accepted the offer to come to Duke. After 10 years, we indeed have a pretty clear direction that our people should be driving towards: such direction as the big data and information analytics and system integration research (current developments in “Future Technologies” initiative). These are some new directions that have become clear opportunities for our department based on the talent and expertise we have accumulated in the past decade, that was not obvious when the these faculty members were brought to Duke. We face an exciting prospect of becoming leaders in these rapidly emerging fields by driving the cutting edge of change in these research fields. These days, I get into interesting discussions with my colleagues that I have the most respect for, on whether we should hire pure talent or strategically in certain areas of research. We are in a bit of a different place compared to 10 years ago: we have some directions along which we want to “drive the bus” now, defined by some great people that have come aboard our bus in the past decade and a half. At the same time, we cannot lose the sight of bringing the “right kind of talent” on board: those that do the most rigorous research yet are capable of pursuing new directions. One cannot build a leading organization by following others. The fact that everything changes works greatly in our favor: if we have people who take some risks and strives to be at the leading edge of those changes, that is the recipe of success for building a leading organization in the future.
The next topic is termed “Confront the brutal facts, yet never lose faith”. This topic indeed is about how organizations face the issue of “change”, especially if it is of the nature and magnitude that completely changes the landscape the operation of their organization stands on. Many organizations face this issue as the world is changing, and again, as our colleague Richard points out, one will die if they do not face the challenge and change. The successful organizations have recognized the nature of the changes that is impacting their existence, and “developed a simple yet deeply insightful frame of reference” to base all of their decisions on in confronting these changes. The changes do not go away if you turn your head the other way. When confronted properly, these changes that are potential threats to one’s existence can turn into the greatest opportunities for success. We know of many great companies of the past, for example Kodak, Zerox and Nortel Networks, who have failed to see the change in the landscape (in these cases, shift to digital imaging and internet-based communication technologies) and disappear. Big changes of similar magnitude might be coming our direction, such as on-line education, federal funding environment for research, and higher education in developing countries, that might change the way Duke operates the education and research enterprise. We have to accept these changes as the new norm, and figure out an effective way to transform ourselves to not just survive but thrive in the new environment. I do not claim to know all the answers at this time, but feel that these crises might indeed turn out to be an opportunity for us to shine and rise to be the leadership status if we can learn to seize the changes and use them to our advantage.
The final topic that is of relevance is developing “simple yet deeply insightful frame of reference” to base all of the organization’s important decisions on. This insight must effectively answer the following three questions: “What can you be the best in the world at? What drives your economic engine? What are you deeply passionate about?” Among these three, the second one is highly relevant for the companies they analyzed (pursuing economic profit), but might be less relevant for an academic institution like ours. Although we cannot ignore the cost of operating an academic institution, I believe neither education nor research should be driven with economic profit as a metric. Our success should be measured by the success of people we train, whether they are undergraduate or graduate students, based on the impact they make in the society. So, we should paraphrase the questions as follows: What can we be the best in the world at, in which we are deeply passionate about, that will make our graduates the most successful once they leave Duke? If we can collectively come up with an answer to these questions and base all of our decisions based on that answer (faculty hiring, how to structure our educational programs, our research portfolio, and strategic initiatives), we should be able to make consistent decisions that will allow us to build an organization that best addresses these goals.
They describe the process of “good to great” transition as a slow yet steady momentum-building process, just like turning a large flywheel. The initial efforts to get the flywheel turning are enormous yet the results are not visible: but they are essential in building up the momentum to get things going. Such build-up process can be painful as the progress will necessarily seem very slow, but once the momentum builds up, spectacular results will follow. We have a lot of institutional experience on this front at Duke: Coach K had 10 years of build-up period before he could establish one of the greatest college basketball programs in the history of the game. While the long-term sustainability is yet to be seen, it took Coach Cutcliff over six years to achieve the success we witnessed this season. Duke’s highly visible educational programs, such as our professional schools and the signature undergraduate program, took a few decades to build up momentum and emerge into national eminence. We have definitely been building up a lot of momentum that is starting to show up in objective metrics (as Larry pointed out in the past few years). Our progress in undergraduate education is based on a long track record of our excellent teaching, as well as important initiatives such as the curriculum reform from 10 years ago that has led to our current educational structure. Based on these momentum-building measures, we have recently cracked the top 20 in undergraduate education in electrical engineering. The rate at which we have been expanding our research is equally stunning: the systematic expansion in research has led to a very high level of success in faculty productivity in various metrics, and our Ph.Ds are making much larger impact in both academic and industry environments of late. There is no question we have built up huge momentum in the past 15 years, and the trend is likely to continue. We are indeed about to make a huge leap, and it is exciting to note that it came as a result of the successful drive that has built up in the past 15 years.
On a closing note, it is important to again point out the message from Richard’s note: Change or Die. After an additional decade, we have the benefit of seeing where the 11 examples of Good-to-Great companies studied by Jim Collins’ team have landed at this point. While some of the companies continue to excel (such as Abbott Laboratories and Nucor Corporation), many companies have fallen victims to the changes that have caught them by surprise. Circuit City has gone out of business after the electronics retail industry largely moved to on-line marketplace. Fannie Mae deviated substantially from their core business values during the housing crisis, and needed huge infusion of public funds just to survive and has not recovered since. These examples show that even the most successful organizations are vulnerable and can lose their prominence in this changing world: a great opportunity for department like ours as we try to build up more momentum and rise in the ranks, but reminds us that the core values of the institution must be maintained for continued success. The essential driving force to adapt to the changes is the ability of our members to take some risk and move into new areas to lead this change: some of our most successful colleagues have done exactly that, whether it’s metamaterials, computational imaging, or machine learning. We should create a departmental environment where our young faculty members are encouraged to take some risks in their research directions. I am convinced that with adequate mentoring and guidance, the types of people we hire will be able to make progress in new areas, eventually growing into leaders of their fields. When we have more people like that, we will naturally become a great department in the leadership position.