Career and Jobs

Where Do The Top Management Thinkers Get Their Breakthrough Ideas?

“Find your passion and create a career around it” is advice people hear every day. So how did the greatest management thinkers find the ideas and projects which led to their eventual success? What was their management thinking origin story? Last month, Thinkers 50, referred to by the Financial Times as the Oscars of management thinking, ranked the top management thinkers in the world. 

“A question we ask the thinkers we feature in the Thinkers50 Ranking and Awards is what sparked your interest in this topic?” Des Dearlove, the cofounder of Thinkers50, shared. “What are you passionate about it? Often they relate a story about a moment or a revelation that set them on their journey of discovery.” 

The journey to stardom, not surprisingly, had many twists and turns. “Many of them have been on their own personal journeys for a long time – often plowing a lonely furrow for years before their work is fully recognized,” shared Dearlove. “We hope that the Thinkers50 recognition helps bring their ideas into the light and connects them to a wider audience.”

In the spirit of much-needed community and collaboration this year, Thinkers50 ranked the top ten winners and stated that the remaining 40 would be ranked #11. I reached out to several of the recently crowned Thinkers50 top winners to hear their management thinking origin story. 

Rita McGrath, PhD

#2 Ranked management thinker in the world and shortlisted for the Strategy Distinguished Achievement Award

Author, Seeing Around Corners

At the age of 25, I was handed a major digital transformation project (though we didn’t call it that then) and was fascinated by the organizational change dimensions of the undertaking. Then, when I went to get my Ph.D., I thought about studying the science of implementation. My thesis supervisor and boss, Ian MacMillan, thought that was really boring. Happily, Citibank gave us a three-year grant to study corporate venturing, which aligned pretty well with what I was already interested in. That eventually led to discovery-driven planning, the entrepreneurial mindset book, and the work that followed. 

Linda Hill, PhD

#10 Ranked management thinker in the world

Author, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation

In college, for my learning theory course, I conducted a study of brainstorming and its impact on team creativity.  In graduate school, I assisted with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s project on flow and creativity. As a business professor, my expertise became how leaders learn to lead—although I seized on opportunities to develop cases and do consulting with “creatives.” Then, in 2000, I decided to lean in on what has always been my passion—figuring out how leaders can leverage our diverse slices of genius to innovate and build successful businesses and a better world.  

Frances Frei, PhD and Anne Morriss 

#11 Ranked management thinkers in the world and shortlisted for the Leadership Distinguished Achievement Award

Authors, Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You

We were both taken by the idea of leadership at a curiously young age. Frances first became interested in the context of sports: how coaches helped players reach their potential, how players made each other better on and off the court, how the joy and heartbreak of competition seemed to elevate everyone in the game. For Anne, oddly enough, it presented as an obsession with the American Revolution at the delicate age of nine. As we both started playing sports

ourselves (and starting revolutions, in our own small ways), we discovered that leadership wasn’t only about individual heroics, but also about—indeed, primarily about—what everyone else on the court was doing. When we went on to study and lead organizations, it became clear to us that the daily work of leading is much quieter and less dramatic than the leadership stories that had captivated us as children. The practice of leadership almost always asks you to risk something, but it only sometimes requires a midnight ride or a clutch, buzzer-beating jump shot. And there’s rarely a crowd that goes wild when you get it right. 

Katy Milkman, PhD

#11 Ranked management thinker in the world and winner of the Strategy Distinguished Achievement Award

Author, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be

My revelation came when I was already an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania studying decision making, but I was studying a broad and unfocused set of questions like: “What kinds of news stories are most likely to go viral online?” and “Do women and minorities face discrimination in academia?” I was interested in so many things that I started attending a seminar series on health decision-making at Penn’s medical school. And one day at a seminar there, I saw a pie chart that changed my path. It showed the fraction of premature deaths in the US broken down by their causes (e.g., accidents, genetics, environmental hazards), and what blew my mind was that the biggest wedge in the pie—accounting for 40% of deaths—was “decisions we could change.” I couldn’t believe that daily decisions we could change about what we consume and whether we exercise and buckle our seatbelts had such a huge cumulative effect. But it was immediately clear to me that if daily decisions have such a large impact on our health, our daily choices must also have huge cumulative effects on our education, our financial wellbeing, and so on. And that’s when I decided to focus my research and communication on the study of behavior change.

Thinkers50 Origin Story

So how did Thinkers50, the Oscars of management thinking, get their start? Dearlove explains: “Our own origin story is that the idea for the Thinkers50 was born over a pizza in London in 2001. By then, the steady flow of new business books and ideas was becoming a torrent that practicing managers couldn’t keep up with. We wanted to create a consumer guide to help practitioners sort the real nuggets from the fools’ gold. At that time, we were journalists, so we were professional skeptics. That changed when we met CK Prahalad. CK’s book the Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid persuaded us that management could be a real force for good in the world, which transformed our outlook and the Thinkers50 mission.”

These competitors are great friends (read my  Forbes article on this topic) and learn from each other regularly. Perhaps it is because they recognize that success does not happen overnight. Instead, it is a persistent drive and focus, working on a topic you find fascinating. For these winners, it is often why they get up in the morning, and their entire face lights up when they talk about their work.

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