Michigan Engineering News

On strategy: Questions for the Leadership Advisory Board

The Leadership Advisory Board (LAB) exists to provide strategic insight, guidance and assistance to Alec Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, to execute the College’s vision and mission.

How can Michigan Engineering gather the best ideas to improve its strategic direction?  One of several ways is through its Leadership Advisory Board (LAB). It has tapped an impressive array of leaders for this group. The board’s charge is to provide strategic insight, guidance and assistance to Alec Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering*, to execute the College’s vision and mission. Members,  many of whom are alumni, are selected based on a demonstration of outstanding professional achievement, commitment to the long-term vitality of Michigan Engineering and enhancement of the LAB’s breadth and diversity.

We checked in with these thinkers to see what resonates with them about the direction of Michigan Engineering:

Susan J. Schmitt
Sr. VP of H.R.
Rockwell Automation

Kenneth Washington
VP & CTO of Research & Advanced Engineering
Ford Motor Company

Richard I. Lesser (BSE ChE ’83)
President & CEO
Boston Consulting Group


1. You’ve heard a lot from the Dean and other College leaders about the development and meaning of the vision and mission. What excites or impresses you about it?

Schmitt: I love the vision’s focus on being a thought leader of engineering research and education for the benefit of the common good for the 21st century! This statement is powerful, long-term oriented and inspiring.

Washington: I am both impressed and excited about their commitment to cross-disciplinary research, where they clearly recognize that big innovations and discoveries happen at these cross-disciplinary intersections.

Lesser: A big challenge for any organization is how to create momentum for continued change, innovation and improvement – to avoid complacency, to not stand still. This plays extremely well to the ambition of the College of Engineering. As good as it is, I am really energized by the goal to take it to the next level in terms of research contributions, community involvement and investment in the next generation of engineers and leaders.

2. What’s a key strength or opportunity for Michigan Engineering?

Schmitt: Students at Michigan Engineering are encouraged to pursue bold ideas. Faculty and researchers, among the top leaders in their fields, are guided by a desire to create a long-term, tremendously positive impact for the College.

Washington: Their proximity to the heart of the U.S. automotive industry is an important strength and opportunity for Michigan Engineering. They have a unique opportunity to help drive the reinvention of the automotive industry in areas like electrification, autonomy, and connected smart vehicles more than any other university in the world.

Lesser: Michigan has great opportunities and strengths to build upon. A key opportunity is its location in the industrial heartland of the U.S., where there are amazing companies to collaborate with to drive breakthrough innovation. A core strength is the world-class quality in many disciplines: medicine, business, LSA and the engineering college itself, which has so many departments on the leading edge. Meaningful breakthroughs in today’s world really require leveraging a truly interdisciplinary approach.

3. How about something to be careful about?

Schmitt: Focus on the biggest leverage actions that will make the most significant impact versus becoming too activity driven.

Washington: Michigan Engineering should be careful about the intensity of competition in hot technology fields like robotics, deep learning and cybersecurity, and how competition for talent will place pressure on their best professors to leave academic life. They should think carefully about how to incent these professors to stay in academia while still participating in this important revolution.

Lesser: Technology is dramatically changing the way work is done, and at an accelerating pace. This is true for companies, governments and universities. For Michigan to remain one of the top engineering colleges in the world, it must be ready to continuously challenge how it operates and builds new capabilities across the university. It’s never been truer that standing still is falling behind in today’s world.

What person or book has most influenced your ideas about strategy or success? In one sentence, explain why.

Schmitt: Dr. Elliott Jaques most influenced my ideas about strategy and success because of his substantial work during which he studied large and small organizations, both for profit and not-for-profit, all over the world, and the people in them for 50+ years and identified several important things that must be in place to ensure high organizational performance and effectiveness. His research and conclusions significantly shape my views about leadership, organization design to drive the strategy and managerial practices that must be in place.

Washington: Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” flags the importance of getting the right people on the bus and having the right culture to drive success; getting these right will make everything else so much easier, productive, and enjoyable.

Lesser: The book I recommend most often is “Give and Take” by U-M grad and Wharton professor Adam Grant. For me, it is a very different business book than others I’ve read, challenging some of our traditional assumptions around what makes people successful in business and in life. Creating environments that encourage “Givers” strengthens cultures, promotes creativity, and allows everyone to achieve higher levels of success. That’s true for businesses and for academic institutions.

Bonus question for alumnus Rich Lesser: What’s something you learned at Michigan that you view as connected to your success?

Lesser: The combination of great problem-solving, creativity, persistence and strong teamwork are the foundations of making real change happen, driving progress and building both individual and collective success.

*Gallimore is also the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor, and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor.

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