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How a Kansas research initiative plans to drive the future of leadership

Journal contributor Sam Smith sat down with Tim Steffensmeier, director of research at the Kansas Leadership Center and associate professor of the Staley School of Leadership Studies at Kansas State University, to talk about the two-year development of an initiative called Third Floor Research.

Smith:

Why did the Kansas Leadership Center decide to pursue a research initiative?

Steffensmeier:

There were a couple of primary reasons. First, this organization was a decade old. We had lots of evidence that our trainings were helping people make progress on tough challenges, but we wanted to understand more clearly the impact of our leadership development at the individual and organizational levels. We were also curious: Can you see noticeable differences at a larger level, like a community or region? Another purpose was the need to build a system that allows new ideas to come in, to continually evolve programs and ideas to help KLC stay innovative and make sure that the organization doesn’t rely on things that are perhaps not as useful tomorrow as they are today.

Smith:

What is the current state of research in leadership studies today?

Steffensmeier:

Leadership as a field of study is relatively new. I think most of the efforts and large-scale work that’s happening has been in the last 30 years. So it’s a new discipline, particularly when you think about other social sciences. Most of those disciplines are more than 100 years old.

I do think it has made its way into consulting shops around the country and the world. You see more universities investing in leadership studies curricula. You see, popping up over the last 30 years, specific curriculum and courses, and sometimes even entire schools, where minors, majors and Ph.D.s are created around leadership. Those things don’t pop up unless you can point to some body of research literature in a field. So there is a sign that this is developing more as a mature field, just by pointing to a kind of infrastructure that exists, including the Kansas Leadership Center.

Smith:

What do you think were the drivers that contributed to the development of leadership studies?

Steffensmeier:

Great question. A lot of the past research was the study of leaders. But I think there is this move away from studying traits or skills in certain people to, “Oh, it’s not just traits.” They find that different people show up with different personalities, so it starts to expand into, “Oh, maybe leadership is more about situations.” And it becomes more complex. At some point, too, people start thinking about what exercising leadership looks like from a variety of different positions, not just people in a particular role. That further expands the field. So, I think, like a lot of disciplines, it starts in another space, like psychology or sociology, and then develops into its own field of study because it starts to become more complicated, more interesting.

My guess is, too, that the leadership industry is born, so people are starting to train others in these skill sets and in these organizations, and it calls for data, for evaluation. There’s probably a story to be told about how the leadership industry in general starts to get built up. Barbara Kellerman has an interesting and provocative book called “The End of Leadership,” where she does a historical read of the leadership industry and comes to the conclusion that, for all the money invested and for all the efforts out there, we don’t have a lot of results.

Smith:

Let’s talk about the name. What is the “third floor,” and why is KLC calling its research initiative Third Floor Research?

Steffensmeier:

In 2017, the board at KLC authorized a research initiative with an investment to help grow a research arm of KLC over a long period of time. And we came up with an analogy of a building.

If you think of a space like this one, the first floor is where you’re doing on-the-ground work: training, teaching, introducing ideas. The second floor runs the organization, developing programs, ideas, communications, financial. But the third floor is going to look at what people are trying to teach, what’s happening when they go back to their organizations, and we’re going to make sense of impact at that level. And we’re going to call that research. So this is applied research that is helping both an organization and a host of people out in the world make some sense of what the impact is.

Smith:

How is the work funded?

Steffensmeier:

It’s a combination right now of KLC budget and sponsors from organizations that want to understand the impact of their leadership development efforts. And our findings – particularly the findings that would be published in peer-reviewed journals – are not going to be editorialized by somebody in this organization or whoever is paying for the research. So what we’re putting out through Third Floor Research is going through what they call institutional review boards. These boards are set up to make sure the research is fair, and that it’s not doing harm to your participants.

Smith:

I believe there are three levels of activity that will structure your work. Let’s take the first one, which you are calling “leadership learnings.”

Steffensmeier:

As we conduct research, we are going to be learning about ideas that are working or teaching methods we use or how to engage certain groups of people. For instance, we might be learning about what it’s like if you have new authority in a managerial role. And we’d put those learnings out to particular audiences in digestible ways. These would be snippets.

You can imagine something that might find its way circulating on social media. It could turn into a postcard; it could be a one-page. It would be tailored to a particular audience that we think would benefit from knowing something that we’re learning about leadership. And we would do these routinely.

Tim Steffensmeier leads a session at the Kansas Leadership Center.

 

Smith:

So that’s one tier. There’s another: research projects. Could you talk about this level of activity?

Steffensmeier:

These are projects aimed at learning about our teaching, our learning, our impact. They focus on a particular group of people or an organization we are working with. They are also projects for which we think we could ask a research question, gather data, analyze that data, then disseminate what we’re learning within about a calendar year. We have set a constraint of one year to make sure we are producing as much learning and understanding about our impact as possible, so it drives change in the organization and so that we have something to put out into the world. In this first year, we have four research projects. Our target is by late October, KLC will have a large event, and during that event, we will talk about our findings and announce our projects for 2020.

Smith:

Then I think there’s something else you are working toward called a global database. That sounds rather grand. Do you want to unpack that for us a little bit?

Steffensmeier:

Yeah. The third level of work we’re calling a global database: collecting a delimited set of data about leadership development experiences. There are programs that we have connections to, and they are all trying to help people exercise leadership in a more impactful way to make more progress. So we would collect similar data about participants going through those programs. We’re interested in demographics, dosage (amount of material presented) and level of support (online, in-person teaching, coaching). And we’re also interested in touching base with people after their experience and asking where they’ve made progress and how they’re putting ideas to use. This basic set of data, then, would allow programs to compare and contrast themselves. It would also allow us to make some sense of what they are ultimately allowing people to do in terms of making progress or impact.

Smith:

Let’s dig into the research projects themselves. I believe one of the projects concerns leadership capacity of Latinos in Kansas.

Steffensmeier:

This study is being led by Elisa Adriasola from Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in Santiago, Chile, who studies leadership development and how you build the capacity of individuals. We are trying to understand how Latinos here in Kansas approach solving problems and making progress, how they currently exercise leadership and where they are seeing progress being made. So, it’s an exploratory study with a specific group of people here in Kansas, which, all predictions show, will be a lot larger part of the population and be in all kinds of positions to really advance and make the state grow and prosper.

Smith:

And there’s another project coming up, right, with the high-tech industry?

Steffensmeier:

This study is trying to understand, if a group of people from an organization in the high-tech sector go through Kansas Leadership Center training, is there any impact at the organizational level? What we’re interested in is changing behaviors and changing interactions in a particular company that fits in the larger category of the high-tech industry. So we’re studying change at the organizational level around the employees’ ability to be more adaptable, to exercise more leadership on tough things that are happening with and around that organization. The lead researcher is Tim O’Brien, a lecturer at Harvard University who teaches adaptive leadership at the Kennedy School. His colleague is Ron Heifetz, whose ideas had a big impact on the Kansas Leadership Center.

Smith:

And there’s a third project dealing with nonprofits?

Steffensmeier:

If employees at nonprofits go through KLC leadership development experiences, does it change engagement level? So we are trying to correlate leadership development with employee engagement, and we are studying people who have gone through leadership development trainings, either within their organization or have come to the KLC. But these are all employees who have been introduced to the Kansas Leadership Center principles and competencies. And we are looking after the fact, doing focus group interviews with cohorts that have gone through, and then asking the entire organization specific questions on an annual survey that measures employee engagement. Mary Banwart, associate professor in communications at the University of Kansas, is the lead researcher.

Smith:

Finally, there’s a fourth project focusing on community leadership programs.

Steffensmeier:

Yeah. We are looking at the impact of community leadership programs on a person’s work and community engagement. In this study, we’re looking at two different kinds of community-based programs in Kansas. One, we’re looking at programs using the Kansas Leadership Center ideas. Another is leadership programs focusing more on a network of people and understanding community challenges. Many have sponsorships with chambers of commerce. And we’re looking at the impact of community leadership programs on how involved a participant is in their community and to the degree to which that experience helps them in their job or their workplace, however the person might define that. Randy Barbour with the community psychology program at Wichita State University is the lead researcher. We also have colleagues working with community leadership programs in Kansas helping on this project.

Smith:

Anything else that is important to bring out for Journal readers, Tim?

Steffensmeier:

At the KLC Activate Conference in 2018, I gave a keynote about Third Floor Research. The metaphor I used was that Third Floor serves a self-correcting function for an institution or for a field. Third Floor has an opportunity to put pressure on a system so that it doesn’t get comfortable. In our language, the third floor raises the heat by bringing new data and interpretations into the room that people on the second or the first floor may not have access to.

So the self-correcting principle would be another way to describe why Third Floor Research would be important to a place like the KLC, and to other organizations that think of themselves as on the frontier of leadership studies, or changing the civic culture in Kansas. We’ve got to put pressure on the system to continually innovate. And I hope that, in some profound way, that’s what Third Floor Research does for the Kansas Leadership Center and how leadership is exercised in Kansas.

Smith:

Thank you very much, Tim!

Steffensmeier:

Thanks, Sam. I appreciate it.

A version of this article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/1yrgiftsub.

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