The Organizational Strategist

July 13, 2010

Pathways to success: Robert M. Mason’s take on personal strategy

Filed under: Interview, Strategy — Tags: , — Whit @ 8:23 pm


I have found that strategy takes many forms and journeys. The manner that some organizations or individuals succeed can be radically different from others. I decided to explore and interview specific individuals to record their background and thoughts so that others may learn from their experiences. From these interviews I hope to get snapshots into different takes on strategy to broaden our own thinking and potentially learn some good tips for our own strategies.

Bob Mason (Professional Profile) was kind enough to meet with me as I shifted geographies from Cleveland to Seattle. His story is one of an evolutionary manner that has guiding principles and a clear direction forward. However, the exact footsteps that his strategy walked were not on an easily understood and predetermined ascent.

Interviewing Robert M. Mason

Whit: How do you define yourself?

Bob: “Multiple ways, but typically by roles:   family (father of grown children, grandfather, husband); professional (professor, member of organizations).  In a global sense, I think of myself as a builder (perhaps metaphorically “mason”), as someone who adds value to the people with whom I engage and organizations with which I am involved.”

Whit: What do you do? This can be from a professional and/or personal take.

Bob: “I have a senior academic role in the Information School of the University of Washington.  Until recently, I served as the associate dean for research, a role which called on me to support the research culture and activities of the school.”

Whit: What has been your strategy that has lead to your success?

Bob: “I suppose it could be described as strategic opportunism—akin to Mintzberg’s enacted strategy; I try to keep fundamental values in mind, look for opportunities to add value to endeavors that are compatible with these values, and take opportunities as they arise.  I try to avoid the rigid pursuit of an elusive objective if there are better opportunities…but this requires some judgment on “when to hold them and when to fold them.”  For example, my first consulting business started while I was still working on my PhD.  An acquaintance suggested we become partners in a business that would pursue an early opportunity in fiber optics.  This initial idea did not work out, but we did discover additional consulting project opportunities that gave us satisfaction and helped us establish a going business.  Later, recognizing that my partner and I had different objectives and values, I sold him the business, and started a new, more focused, consulting business that did not involve a partner.  This new consulting firm (still in existence) became the basis for the next phase in my career.  Five years later, when my wife had an opportunity to become the director of the Cleveland Public Library, I became the “trailing spouse” and moved to Cleveland, taking my small consulting business with me.  In connecting with others in Cleveland who had an interest in startup firms and technology management, I became one of the tenants of the CWRU “incubator” for early stage businesses.  This meant that I became more involved with the Weatherhead School of CWRU.  Soon, my academic colleagues and I recognized an opportunity for an interdisciplinary center that focused on the management of science and technology.  We formed this, received foundation funding, worked with both engineering and management, and created an executive program in technology management that was recognized globally for its value. 

None of these successes was based on a pre-determined strategy.  They each resulted from recognizing an opportunity and pursuing it.”

Whit: What are the most critical elements in implementing your strategy?

Bob: “Openness:  to people, to recognizing opportunities (both seeing the possibilities and thinking positively about what can be achieved).  Each of the examples in the previous question arose because my colleagues and I recognized an opportunity and envisioned how it could be successful.”

Whit: Describe an occasion where you had to change or correct your strategy.

Bob: “In my senior year of high school, I applied and was accepted to MIT.  However, financially I could see no way I could attend, so I prepared to attend the U. of Tennessee:  rented an apartment, began to select a course of study, etc.  At the last minute, I received a scholarship that paid the tuition to MIT (only the first year), so…major change of plans—enrolled at MIT and moved to Boston.  As in the career examples that came later, this experience demonstrated that even firm plans should remain flexible.  In this case, I had a goal (attending MIT) and recognized the opportunity when the financial door opened.  Even after entering MIT as a freshman, however, MIT continued to raise tuition, and I recognized that the opportunity to enter the co-op program (a year-round program that enabled me to earn a salary for alternate semesters) would enable me to continue to finance my education.”

Whit: What advice would you offer to others so that they may achieve their own success?

Bob: “Know your values—know what is important to you and be conscious and aware of your own world view.  These values and worldview determine what you see in the physical and social world; they highlight (and hide) different features of your environment and they are the (often subconscious) determinants of how you make decisions on spending limited resources.  You find these values by being mindful of what excites you, delights you, and gives you joy.  By knowing these values, you become mindful of the opportunities you have each day to express these values.  In whatever you do—whether a dream job or other endeavor—find the part of it that you can embrace with enthusiasm, and engage it fully.  The rest will follow.”

Thanks Bob!

July 11, 2010

Corporate Social Responsibility as a Strategic Advantage


Strategy is the alignment of resources and capabilities to win in the market. The more encompassing, pervasive, and thorough the strategy is throughout an organization, the more effective it should be. Generally speaking, the harder you try to make something happen, the more likely it will happen. The same is true with an organization and its devotion to a particular cause. The more the organization tries to enact a given strategy, the more likely it is to happen.

-Strategic CSR-

Corporate Social Responsibility is a great example of a common category of effort that organizations pursue which has great potential for enabling the organization’s strategy, but often falls very short of realizing the full potential. Often times, companies will have a volunteer day, a cause that it endorses or a charitable organization it helps out.

The effects of corporate social responsibility are many fold. Usually this takes the form of putting in some volunteering hours for local clubs or community efforts. What ends up happening is that the employees help out in the community, some positive visibility to the organization comes through, possibly tax benefits are derived, and the organization’s employees feel that they are making a positive impact where they live, which boosts morale. These efforts are good, but not great. Quite easily, they could be great if channeled and reframed to maximize the potential.

How to do this will depend on what is most needed or wanted in an organization. What you want to do is find out where the sweet spot is with the kind of visibility, networking, impact and so forth you want to make, be known for, or receive. That sets the desired outcome and measures of success, which should align well with the overall strategy an organization is pursuing. Additionally, you would want to pair up the kind of output your employees want to do. That sets your current state and desired approach. The support and channeling is where the magic happens to make the link between the organizational strategy and what activities employees would like to do for their corporate social responsibility projects. In this linkage, look for ways of doing the following:

  • Making a lasting impact
  • Helping out in areas that will set up your organization for increased chances of success
  • Finding areas where a small change can have large benefits to your organization and the organization that you are helping out
  • Making the benefits repeatable and having a cumulative effect
  • Finding areas to get the right kind of visibility
  • Being very certain that the way your employees participate is in tune with their own beliefs/desires because their enthusiasm carries through for impact and quality of time spent
  • Researching and understand where your involvement can make the biggest potential feedback
  • Enabling connectivity to the community, brand recognition and relationship building

An example that comes to mind is an idea I proposed when working at a small consulting firm a few years back. The company wanted to grow and was constantly on the lookout for new business analysts and potential consultants. The firm, being personally and professionally invested in the community, was very much in tune with helping out the surrounding organizations and the city overall. What I suggested was that, as a CSR effort, the company partner with schools or professional organizations to put on case study competitions, business plan competitions, and the like while the small consulting firm would help out in a sponsor/volunteer capacity. What this would do is help out the community by finding ways to improve the quality of business plans, critical thinking and other abilities of those involved. The consulting firm employees would be able to directly impact and enhance the innovation and idea incubation through the competition structure while helping improve the individual’s efforts at the same time. Plus, the consulting firm would gain exposure to new ideas, potential candidates and gain insight into perspective client organizations (particularly through real case studies).


The difference between ordinary CSR and CSR that brings strategic advantages to an organization is the method and approach behind the CSR. If CSR is approaches as a means to further enact an organization’s strategy, it has the potential for great benefit. This topic is similar to the author Jim Collins’ thoughts in his book Good to Great where he describes distinction from his classification of level four versus level 5 leadership. The level 5 leaders are the devoted to a cause or effort that is beyond just their own success, fame, and ambition. The topic of Servant Leadership and the Aspen Institute’s teachings also come to mind as they are akin to level 5 leadership. Harness the innate potential, core beliefs, and spirit of giving for your organization and surrounding community or stakeholders to find strategic advantages that are yours to be realized.

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