Savvy businesspeople may recognize Allan R. Cohen’s name from their bookshelf. Along with his writing partner, Stanford University’s David L. Bradford, he’s the bestselling author of the classic management titles Managing for Excellence and Influence Without Authority. The academic pair has consulted for dozens of top U.S. companies and they are widely considered as go-to gurus of leadership education. If you haven’t been lucky enough to sit in their classroom, here is your chance: In a few months, their massive open online course (MOOC) will go live. It’s part of a pilot with Cohen’s school, Babson University, and NovoED, a Stanford University education startup that’s focusing on connecting networks of small teams of learners. The best part: it’s free. Writer Erin McDermott recently spoke with Prof. Cohen about the new course—Lead Like an Entrepreneur—and why business owners might want to tune in to a virtual session.
EM: In addition to being an author, scholar, and business consultant, you’ve been teaching business students since the 1960s. How does what you’ll be doing with NovoED compare with what you’ve been doing in traditional classrooms?
AC: For the last seven or so years, I’ve been doing hybrid courses, both face-to-face and online. That’s in the direction of NovoED, but it’s different. When you see students in the classroom, you develop a relationship with them, and online continues it and may even deepen it. With NovoED, we’re never going to see the students. A lot of the ‘teaching’ is really what they do with each other. In the hybrid version, there’s a huge amount of students teaching each other, but I’m still deciding when to respond, when to intervene, when to ask a new question. With a MOOC, that’s pretty difficult: There can be thousands of people and you can’t possibly read every post. Part of why I’m doing it is the challenge of trying to figure out if it’s possible to create meaningful, interactive, and engaging learning experiences when we’re not there. We do that in the hybrid, where we get a heavy and rich discussion—but that’s a different relationship. The evolution moves away from the ‘sage on the stage’—as they call it—to the designer of the experiences. In my field, the challenge is to create dilemmas that students have to resolve and to which there aren’t necessarily correct answers.
AC: We see leadership as an interesting mix of who you are and what you do. Who you are as a person very much influences the way others respond to you. Part of what we’re doing is trying to get people to do self-examinations, increase their self-awareness, and think about their impact on other people. We hope to enable that with material and virtual teams where they can discuss stuff, and hopefully get to the place where they can give each other some feedback. That’s one territory. Another requirement, for someone leading his or her own company, is to be able to articulate, sell, and commit to a vision of what your organization is about, how it will make a difference to people. We have examples and can help participants create a strong vision statement. It’s not just about putting words on paper—it’s about making it work and having people believe it in an organization that is consistent with that. Another thing that leaders of entrepreneurial organizations have to do is to create a team: Get people to join them who will collaborate to make the organization. Finally, there’s the whole field of how you influence people you don’t control—we’ve written a few books on this—and how you can give powerful feedback to people to help them learn and grow, and how to take feedback so you can learn and grow.
With all of these, we are opening up possibilities. It won’t go as deep as an actual course can go. One of the fascinating things about MOOCs and online education is that in some ways you can’t create the same kind of depth, but in other ways you get all of these people talking to each other, so it can be even richer. Education has to be about engaging people and getting them to wrestle with things and come to their own resolutions on issues.
EM: One of the biggest differences with this class: This will be free, which drops a barrier that has kept so many people away.
AC: We also know that, so far, most MOOCs have extremely low completion rates. So, it’s free, but people drop out or drop in and out, and when there’s no obligation to complete anything, most people drop out. Part of what I’m interested in is can you make it engaging enough so that people stay. I don’t know. We’ll find out.
AC: We’re prepared in the sense that we’re designing for 25,000 or 30,000 people. We might end up with nine from all I can tell! In the design of it, I think of it as having two core elements: One is that we are not leading a discussion—we are creating something that lets students have a discussion. Another is constant trimming. We were estimating how much video there would be of us talking, and the answer was “less than we originally planned.”
EM: It’s a fascinating leap for everybody when you think about it.
AC: It is fascinating. David Bradford and I are both very skeptical and very intrigued. The idea that you might be able to get this stuff out into the world to a lot of people is very intriguing. And I think we’re just at the beginning. Most of the MOOCs so far have been about disseminating content. I’ve written a lot of books—people know what I have to say, content-wise. It’s getting people to practice what they’re learning, and get responses to it that’s the trick.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.