Professor Miha Škerlavaj
BI Norwegian Business School
Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour
This is how 38-year old Miha Škerlavaj, a tall, cheerful Slovenian, describes his work. Since March 2015, he is Professor at the Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at BI.
How do you like living in Oslo?
“My family and I have settled well here. The children have made friends and learned the language quickly, and the whole family is enjoying the nature, which is so present here in Oslo.”
And how do you like it at BI?
“My daily life at BI is characterized by wonderful relationships with colleagues, a creative environment, autonomy at work, and a strong business connection. The fact that BI is an institution on the rise just gives all of this.
Tell us about your academic background. How did it all start?
“My roots in academia go back to 2001, when I started my postgraduate studies and work at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. As is often the case, it was a fortunate combination of an opportunity, my own motivation to grow personally and professionally, as well as an ability to do so. Before that, I was an active student, involved in various hobbies such as sports and scouting. I also held a couple of positions in local businesses, ranging from advertising to banking.”
As a student, what were your motivators?
“Ever since a childhood, curiosity and a variety of interests have been strong driving forces for me. The desire to comprehend what goes on in different parts of an organisation initially inspired me to study banking and finance. I then went on to business informatics, and subsequently wrapped it up all with a PhD in organisational behaviour. In fact, quite an unconventional path when I think about it.”
When did you realise that you could become a professor?
“For a long time, it wasn’t my intention to become an active part of the academia. However, it does seem like I had it in me all along. A desire to learn, know, experience and to share with others are patterns from my family background. For instance, I was taken on as a Boy Scout leader of a group of boys older than myself, purely based on the fact that I knew a bit more that they did at the time. By seeing and valuing each and every member of the group, I managed to create good conditions for working together in a new and meaningful way. Very much like how I see the role of a professor.”
What other qualities do you think a professor must have?
“You have to care about people and the work that you do. Full stop. Everything else follows as a consequence – good publications come from good collaborations, good teaching from good interactions with students, and good citizenship from good relations with colleagues.
What really got me involved was the diversity of experiences and skills one gets to develop and use as a professor. Research, teaching, working with business partners, all of it. This is something I discovered during my PhD studies.”
Where do you turn to learn new things?
“To others, travel, books, academic and popular press, social media, observing and talking to people. I like to follow a piece of advice I was given back home: ‘If you ask you might look stupid once, if you don’t you will be stupid forever.’ “
You are Professor at the Department of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour. Why did you choose this specialisation?
“As mentioned, I had a broad interest in organisations. It started with numbers, moved on to computers, and ended up with people. So organisational behaviour makes perfect sense.”
Tell us more about your research?
“My first main area of research, teaching and consulting is about pro-active behaviours at work in its broader sense. For my PhD, I tried to under-stand learning patterns and structures in organisational networks to identify optimal conduits of learning for knowl-edge-intensive organisations. In recent years, my colleagues and I have turned a stone and are actually dedicating a lot of attention to trying to understand how and why people hide knowledge from their colleagues at work, and what the impact of this is.
The second area of interest are relations at work. I have been studying various organisational networks (learning, creativity and innovation), the significance of leader-member exchange in creativity and innovation, prosocial motivation and behaviours, leaders and change agents in their ability to relate to others. There are so many interesting, meaningful and not yet well understood angles of how humans relate to each other at work. That should keep me and my colleagues busy for a long time ahead.”
How would you sum up the characteristics of a good leader?
“Exactly the same as good professor. Both caring and demanding, involving and empowering when needed, with strong situational awareness. They need the ability to find a good “fit” between employees – task – organisation, and to see how they can contribute. They also need to be a team player. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for any superman, just an orchestrator and facilitator. Confident enough to be aware of their shortcomings, and knowledgeable enough to know when it is time to ask for help. It is really uplifting to see recent research moving away from shocking findings about percentages of pathological conditions among leaders, and acknowledging that it is human to ask for help. Leaders looking for advice can actually increase others’ percep-tion of their competence by directing tough questions to the right people.”
Our lives are becoming more and more technology-centred. Are we forgetting the human touch?
“I recently had a pleasure of reading a provoking article about the future of work. Actually it was called ‘The end of work?’ In short, its idea was that technology is as-suming more and more of human work, and that some professions will become extinct. This is especially the case for routine work with little creative input. Nothing new about that, is there? In fact, the very same technology is opening up whole new fields where there is a real need for human creativity. What is obviously changing is the format and nature of work.”
Give us an example?
“Think of 3D printers. When this technology matures, there will be no need for mass production. Pro-duction can be insourced again, or even brought back to the craftsman instead of using factories. That is a radical change and there are a lot of opportunities for people with good ideas. However, routine and low-skilled jobs will be lost.”
Which sectors are best at creativity and innovation?
“All and none. I don’t believe in words like creative industries or high-tech sectors. What is that? Is an advertising company (X) that translates and adjusts commercials from its headquarters (Y) still part of a creative industry? Is 150-year old glass producing company Steklarna Hrastnik, which makes glass for cold or hot liquids and sells it for 8 times the price of ordinary glass, not innovative? In fact, I like to involve my students in a variety of cases from different industries to show how broadly applicable the concepts of creativity and innovation are.”
Is there a simple recipe to achieve creativity?
“One of the things that I like to share with the participants or stu-dents of the company workshops is that they cannot expect any recipes from me. Organisational lives are simply too colourful for that. The very same applies to creativity. It is novel, it is potentially useful, and it is in contextual. What is novel in one place could be old news in another, what is useful to one per-son might be completely useless to another. Having said this, there are practices that stimulate divergent thinking. What research and organisational experience have convincingly shown us it that creativity should be linked to the bottom line or general purpose of the organisation. Otherwise, this could easily lead to (near) destruction. Think of LEGO and the challenges they had in 2003.”
Where do you find your inspiration?
“However cheesy it might sound, for me a source of inspiration is to have an impact on other people’s lives. One can hardly match the feeling when people, with whom you inter-acted years ago, approach you with detailed memories about how this changed their careers or even their lives. And often, I am completely unaware until it happens. It simply gives me the shivers – it is a source of inspiration and responsibility at the same time.”
How do you get people to listen to you?
“I jump on the table and start shouting. Just kidding. In the classroom, I simply get up on the podium, remain silent and wait for attention. This works very well initially. After that, it is the message that matters – it has to be relevant to the audience, it has to matter, there has to be an element of discovery and surprise. Over the years I’ve learnt that an inductive approach works very well for most of my audiences. Start with an experience (a case, simulation or scenario), follow with reflections and connect to the most recent research. It usually works, especially when I add a touch of my own personality, occasionally humorous and at times serious.”
Reference: Advantage #1/2016 – The magazine for members of BI Alumni