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Q&A: Julian Birkinshaw

What is your competitive advantage?

I am good at bridging between the worlds of academia and practice. So I am much closer to the real business world than most research-focused academics, and I understand the world of theory better than any full-time businessperson.

How would you describe yourself in three words?

Creative and disciplined at the same time; very efficient at getting things done

How do you keep your thinking fresh?

I read a lot, and deliberately quite a wide variety of topics, not just business books. I go to academic seminars, which are often very narrow but have some interesting concepts buried underneath all the literature and statistics. I also write my ideas down in short blogs – strangely, the habit of trying to construct an argument actually helps me to develop my ideas further.

How do you divide your time?

My time is split four ways – teaching at London Business School, consulting and speaking to external audiences, research and writing, and finally administrative responsibilities at LBS (department meetings, seminars, running the Deloitte Institute)

How much time do you spend travelling?

I travel once a week – a mix of long and short haul travel. And I never stay long enough to get jetlag – I am usually abroad for only a day or two.

What is the secret of a great presentation?

The quality of the speaker is obviously key here – I have seen brilliant speakers captivate their audiences talking about incredibly obvious and mundane things. But beyond the speaker’s basic charisma, the secret of a great presentation is that takes the audience somewhere new and surprising. Remember, most of the audience for a business presentation have seen a lot of these presentations before, so they don’t want another story about Jack Welch or Steve Jobs. I believe they want something different, that forces them to think and reflect in ways they don’t usually do. Of course, it also has to link that new thought back to the “real world” as well.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

To be a good management thinker, the first point is you need to actually know what you are talking about! This means starting from either a strong foundation in practice (running a business) or in theory (getting a PhD). There are really good management thinkers coming from both camps. But the people who jump into book-writing or conference-speaker without any sort of foundation are usually very superficial.

The second point is that the neat new ideas usually emerge at the intersection between theory and practice. So if you start out in academia, you should spend a lot of time working with executives to understand their world view, and if you start out as an executive, you need to read widely, to place your practical experience in the right context.

Julian Birkinshaw is a professor at London Business School. He founded the Management Innovation Lab with Gary Hamel and was included in the 2015 Thinkers50 ranking.