Q&A with Erica Dawson

By Kathryn Quinn Thomas

Erica Dawson

Last spring, the College of Engineering launched an engineering leadership program with an alumnus’s anonymous gift of $700,000. To kick-start the new program, the College hired Erica Dawson, who earned a Ph.D. in social psychology from Cornell in 2003, as program director.

Dawson is passionate about leadership training and what that training can do to help engineers make a stronger impact on their lives, their careers, their workplaces, and on society as a whole. She has an extensive background in leadership, negotiation, and conflict management training.

Before her new appointment, she was assistant professor at the Yale School of Management, where she taught in the organizational behavior group. She has also been a visiting professor at Cornell’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. She trained through the Coaches Training Institute’s curriculum for co-active coaching and co-active leadership. Dawson also designed and volunteers as director of the Program on Organizational and Executive Ethics at the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

An expert in negotiation and conflict management, Dawson consults worldwide for organizations ranging from large multinational consulting firms to small nonprofits. She is a skilled coach, working one-on-one to help individuals become confident in using negotiation to build relationships and meet their interests. She also consults on group processes, leadership development, and other areas central to the functioning of high-performing teams. 

At the College, Dawson is charged with creating and implementing a program to enhance the education of engineering students. The goal is to provide opportunities for students to develop the knowledge and skills that will accelerate their growth as creative leaders and mentors.

Dawson is working closely with the college’s Leadership Advisory Committee, which worked for more than a year to outline the new program, develop strategic direction, and engage in a national search for a director. She is working with engineering faculty to incorporate leadership education into existing courses and developing relationships with industry partners who will participate in the delivery of programs. Cornell Engineering Magazine sat down with Dawson last fall to discuss the topic of leadership and how she plans to incorporate it into the engineering curriculum. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

CEM: What was the genesis of the leadership education program?

Erica Dawson: An alum who hires engineers called Dean Collins to say that, although the engineering students have advanced technical skills, they don’t necessarily know how to work well in teams. Learning the teamwork and leadership skills on the job was taking time and patience. The upshot was that this alum gave us a generous donation to help us develop leadership initiatives.

We also had an influx of money from another alum to hire our new associate director, Werner Zorman. Werner is an engineer and has recently been a leadership consultant. So what we are focused on is creating an identity for Cornell Engineering leadership. What is our brand, exactly what does it mean to be an engineering leader from Cornell?

There are so many unique things about this university, this College of Engineering, and the students that are here. One of my goals is to have that reflected in a leadership model. We’ll be developing a program that offers lots of opportunities for students to develop their own brand of leadership.

CEM: What is the difference between leadership and management skills?

Dawson: Well, there is a distinction. Someone once told me that a manager is skilled at making sure people can climb up a ladder successfully. A leader makes sure the ladder is leaning up against the right wall.

We are looking at basic managerial skills—project management, the ability to budget, the ability to lead an effective meeting. If you don’t have those skills, it’s really hard to be a great leader. What I have seen in my few months on campus is that students don’t really have those skills. They either figure it out or they don’t. And that’s a big deficit. So this year we’re starting with that as an emphasis, realizing that they need this foundation. Over this first year, I’m talking with a variety of constituencies—with faculty, with administrators, with alumni, with students, with potential donors—and trying to get a picture of what we need to teach our students. So this whole first year is about envisioning, thinking, planning, and creating. By beginning of next year we’ll have a full-blown program.

I am very excited about our first forays into leadership training. We are working with project team leaders. They are building things here in large teams that work and they’re doing it without much systematic leadership support. Some of the students have figured it out and many have not, so the team dynamics, team performance could be taking a hit. So we designed a series of seminars for about 40 project team leaders. It’s a quick-shot, six-session, intensive series focusing on their own leadership and the leadership of their teams. We’re beginning with a four-hour retreat that gets them asking the big questions: What’s their vision for the team this year? What are their goals? What are they willing to commit? Even as basic as, what is your role as a leader? They’ve never thought about it.

So we’re starting them out on that foot, with introspection into their own leadership: What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? Then we make plans for leveraging the strengths and combating or managing the weaknesses. How do you create a message that sticks and motivates your team? How do you deal with conflict on your team? Conflict is going to come up. So we’re going to teach them how to manage conflict when it’s destructive, leverage it when it can be an advantage.

One of the seminars is on innovation processes. We take on that concept that innovation only comes from inherently creative people. And instead we will teach them how to arrange a team, manage team processes in a way that will elicit innovation. We’re talking with them about negotiation and listening skills, leadership communication skills. People are surprised that this is a skill that can be taught. Students are very excited about it. And we’re hoping next spring to capture some of the rising leaders, so we can do a lot more about personal leadership journeys.

We are also presenting some introductory information in the Engineering Seminar 1050, the required course for freshman. Some of our first-year work is about getting new students to recognize that asking for help is not a weakness, but a leadership skill. And we also look at innovation and innovation processes, which drives home the idea that it is important to fail. If you never fail then you are not taking enough risks. All the great engineering firms fail, a lot, by design.

CEM: Can you describe the basis of leadership education?

Dawson: My model, my brand of leadership has four different pillars: knowledge, experience, insight, and courage. We start with the foundation that you have to be technically skilled, you have to know your stuff, you need knowledge. And Cornell is producing some of the best engineers in the world, so the students have that as a strength. I also think of knowledge as leadership knowledge—there is a lot of research on how can we work best together, how can we create good teams, how can we deal with conflict. I’m a researcher, I’ve been a faculty member, and I’m committed to the idea that we need empirical support for what we are teaching. 

Part of the knowledge pillar is that you are aware of what research is available in the world of organizational behavior, social psychology, cognitive psychology, an entire field born of how we interact with humans. So part of the knowledge foundation is technical and interpersonal knowledge. 

The second pillar is experience. Knowledge isn’t enough. You can’t just sit in a classroom and learn something; you actually have to do it. All of our leadership learning is experiential. Very, very rarely will you find me In front of a classroom, lecturing on leadership. You would be more likely to find one of my classes wandering around in a maze with blindfolds on than you are in a classroom. My feeling is that you throw people into it and you learn while in the process. The only way people can learn this stuff is to experience their own successes and failures.
We do all kinds of really compelling exercises that mirror real life in ways that are meaningful. 

After each one, we do a skilled debriefing to discover what the students have learned and how to apply it in other contexts. 

Insight is the third pillar. To be an effective leader, you have to have some deep insights into yourself first. So this is very personal work. It’s going to sound woo woo to some people but it’s a necessary part of how to learn leadership. Students are invited to look inside and recognize where their egos lead them astray. They see what talents they have that no one else has. They start talking about what their personal values are and how they want to bring their talents into the world in a way that’s consistent with their personal values. I’ve seen this process transform people. When you have these conversations with people, careers change, family decisions change, trajectories change in ways that can be unexpected.
All of us should be having that conversation, but it’s not a privilege everybody gets. So I’m excited to bring that to our students. I’m also going to push for the idea that we have insight into other people. To have the recognition that not everyone is like us, they have different value systems, different motivational levers. Some very predictable patterns emerge in teams and it takes insight to see that happen.

The last pillar I have in my model is courage. And I mean ethical courage, moral courage, even sometimes physical courage. There are leaders who have had to take physical risks to lead their teams. This is one thing I see reflected in what our students are saying. When something comes up they are ready and willing to put themselves at risk for the sake of a larger goal. Our aim is to have experiences, exercises, and lines of questioning that help students tap into their own sources of courage. 

Courage needs to be grown. People need a reason to show courage. They need a reason to step into the line of fire emotionally and physically. Let me tell you a little story. I’m a sky diver. I took it up a couple of years ago because a student of mine at Yale suggested getting our licenses while we were having a beer in a pub. It sounded awesome. So I signed up for the skydiving class, I told everybody I was doing it, and made this commitment. But then my friend got too busy and I was alone in the adventure. So I started jumping and I was scared stiff. I mean I felt really physical dread, physical terror. 

But I kept on. It was my third summer, and I drove to the drop zone and I could feel the fear again, stomach tight, shaking, sweating. So as I’m driving out, I’m thinking “You know, let’s take stock of this. I’m experienced enough at this point to trust my equipment. I trust my instructor. I trust the data; it’s very rare to have an accident in skydiving. So, I’m just not going to be afraid anymore.” I jumped that day and for the first time I loved it. It was a mental shift, instead of focusing on the fear, I was focusing on the reason I was out there. It felt like a little nugget of courage broke open and the really cool thing is I’ve used it in many parts of my life since. It’s a transferable skill set.

Part of the courage is engaging in asking the questions, no matter which choice you make. Leaders in the workplace are going to face ethical dilemmas that are not of their making and this is where courage becomes very important. In a class at the Johnson School, I teach a segment on ethics, but I don’t call it that. I call it negotiating through agents. In this exercise, one of the parties has an incentive to lie, a big lie, and they do it in the class. And part of the debrief after the segment has not much to do with agents at all, but about the lies. Why did you lie?

If I called that section ethics, they wouldn’t lie. They hear themselves justifying it, “I had to, but I wouldn’t do it in the real world.” Come on, if you did it in a classroom with nothing on the line, you would do it in the real world. We need to give students practice with this so they can know this about themselves. 

CEM: How will you measure the program’s success?

Dawson: Part of that equation is the number of students we engage. I have a goal of offering something to everybody within three years. That might be accomplished through the Engineering Seminar. They can learn that we want them to be leaders here and if they are interested in working more on their own leadership path, they can come to us.

I’m developing a leadership certificate program for the people who want more. And they are definitely here. So having that in place within three years and having positive feedback from that will be an important measurement of success.

And part of the work I’m doing this year is designing some metrics to measure the shift in leadership skills as our students graduate. We will interview recent grads and ask them what they needed to know when they entered the workforce and how prepared they felt to be a leader. Then we will talk to grads in successive years to quantify the change. 

I got pulled into this field completely by accident, like most great things in my life. I was at Yale in 2007 and a colleague was designing a leadership program and she needed warm bodies to try things out on. She gathered about 30 of us. I’m a very logical, very quant-oriented person and I would sit in the back of her classroom hiding, rolling my eyes. Values? Please. But in conversations about values, it became very personal and powerful for me. To realize how much strength there is in finding your values and committing to them.

So I’ve been through the process and got hooked into it. In further leadership studies, one of my big questions was, what was I really up to? I was a professor. I was published, with research I found interesting, but I had a motivation problem. It’s tough to write when your work is published in journals that only two people read. It doesn’t do much good in the world. So this started to connect me with my own values. One thing I get a lot of gratification from is watching people change in front of me. And I have some talent for that. So I started moving my research more towards leadership and when this opportunity came up I took the plunge.

CEM: Is it practical to think that everyone can be a leader? Aren’t followers necessary?

Dawson: Not everyone is going to want to step up and be a leader and I respect that. The thing is I want everyone to be able to see the opportunity. I don’t want anyone to not know how to step up. We are all leaders and followers. It’s situational. You have to be a good follower, but in some situations you need to have a voice and have people believe you. So you’re not one or the other. You have to flow with it and step up when it’s needed and have the skills and the courage to step up.

There is a lot of discussion now about values-based leadership, about the daily opportunities for leadership that are not tied to the title someone has. That is the model we use here. It’s not about “you have a title so you’re a leader,” but about leading from where you are.