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Q&A with author Bill Welter

What motivated you to write this book, and when did you first start thinking about the topic?

I started my consulting career in1977 when I joined  Ernst & Ernst, and it was sometime in the late 1970s that I became concerned by a recurring situation I would see when advising clients. Namely, we were being called in to counsel organizations that had extremely well educated and highly experienced executives in management already. With so much in-house talent and skills, why did they need our help? Then about 15 or 20 years ago, I came across the quote from Louis Pasteur, which helped inspire the book: "Chance favors the prepared mind." It struck me that the problems I was seeing were problems of organizations and executives who knew how to handle "today," but they really were not prepared for tomorrow.

What real-life situations exemplify the importance of having a "prepared mind"?

The more I thought about the concept of a prepared mind, the more I could see the consequences around me. The book is filled with stories, but some of the more obvious stories are: Folger's wasn't prepared for the changes brought about by Starbuck's. Boeing wasn't prepared for a pan-European competitor. Kodak and Polaroid were not prepared for digital photography. Napster came out of a college dorm room, not the R&D lab at Sony. The American auto companies were not prepared for high gas prices in the 1970s and it looks to be the same in 2005.

Tell us about your collaboration with co-author Jean Egmon. How did it start, and what complementary skills did she bring to the writing process?

I met Jeanie five or six years ago when she was the director of the Center for Learning and Organizational Change at Northwestern University. From the start I considered her to be a "practical academic"because of her grasp of business fundamentals. I had written a white paper about the eight skills of the prepared mind and I gave her the paper and asked her to tell me if I was nuts, or if I was onto something. She agreed that I was seeing something real. The more we talked the more I realized I needed her views and experience to ground the book in conceptually sound principles. She agreed and we started to write the book from both perspectives.

Who will benefit most from the book?

The book is aimed at decision-makers and those people who influence the decision-makers. The background concept is that of the Sense-Response cycle (Sense, Make-Sense, Decide, and Act) and therefore, the book is not aimed at any particular business or industry. Unless your business is static and unchanging, the book can apply to your situation, regardless of your management level or specific market.

What kind of environment allows a "prepared mind" to work at optimum levels?

This is a good question and one worth exploring in more depth. In general, if an organization wants to be prepared (that is, filled with "prepared minds") for its future, it need an environment in which people are not afraid to try new things. And senior management must be genuinely interested in what lower-level decision makers have to say.

You outline eight key skill areas that form the foundation of leadership. What are some examples of key tools for each area?

  • Observing -- Scan for trends and anticipate changes to your business. Learn the warning signs for your operation and look for them.
  • Reasoning -- Test all assumptions. Draw cause and effect diagrams.
  • Imagining-- Think of your product or service in a new category (e.g., Swatch went from timepiece to fashion accessory). Think of combinations.
  • Challenging -- Have a "devil's advocate" on your team. Practice asking "Why?" five times when told you need to do something
  • Deciding -- Use checklists (like an airline pilot). Keep a scorecard of your decisions and look for ways to improve.
  • Learning -- Read widely. Always have a "personal research question" to keep you engaged.
  • Enabling -- Teach others. Provide opportunities for others.
  • Reflecting -- Write in a journal on a regular basis. Perform after-action reviews with your team.

Tell us how the book can help management students, teachers of management, and trainers in continuing education.

The ability to apply knowledge is critical and the skills needed to do this can be found in the book. We have spent the past 25+ years assuming that if we teach workers about something (finance, marketing, leadership, etc.), they will get better. Not so. They need to be able to apply the knowledge they are getting.

What do you hope people will most remember after reading your book? What practical skills and approaches can they incorporate in their day-to-day work life, and how can they incorporate those elements into their long-range planning?

I hope they will remember the importance and reality of the Sense-Response cycle and recognize their strengths and weaknesses with respect to the eight skills. Improvement in their mental preparedness will depend on how hard they work to improve their weaknesses. All workers need to recognize, and take advantage of, the changes that will cross their paths. We hope this book will help them do so.

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The prepared mind of the leader: Eight skills leaders use to innovate, make decisions, and solve problems.
Observe. Reason. Imagine. Challenge. Decide. Learn. Enable. Reflect.
Bill Welter, Adaptive Strategies Inc., mindprep.com
Jean Egmon, Third Angle, Inc., third-angle.com