Persevere. A thought leader may not always be successful in the near-term. In challenging the known, you come against the status quo, which has paradigmatically taken root inside of your industry. Moving past this inertia is challenging and may require you to persevere alone in the wilderness until you can gain your own counter-balanced group of followers. The work that I began as a doctoral student continues — I have one project that I have been working on for 17 years and it still is not done. Hopefully by the time I retire, this research will finally see the light of day!
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Schwarz.
Dr. Andrew Schwarz is a Professor in the Information Systems and Decision Sciences Department in the E. J. Ourso College of Business Administration at Louisiana State University. He brings to his current position a unique blend of industry and academic qualifications. Prior to pursuing his Ph.D., Andrew completed his undergraduate degree at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, where he majored in social psychology and minored in sociology. Following completion of his bachelor’s degree, Andrew worked in the market research industry for Fortune 500 firms, crafting research aimed at developing advertising campaigns for both new and established products and built models to forecast future trends in the credit card and food and beverage industries. In 2003, Andrew graduated with a Ph.D. in Management Information Systems from the University of Houston. He is currently involved in research aimed at investigating: 1. IT acceptance and use 2. Information technology management issues, such as governance, firm boundary choice, and alignment 3. The implementation and diffusion of technology within organizations, and 4. Future technology trends. Andrew has been ranked in the top 1% of the globe in terms of research productivity in top tier journals and his work has appeared in MIS Quarterly, Information Systems Research, Journal of the Association for Information Systems, among others.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I would like to thank you for the opportunity to share my story and my experiences with you and your readers. It is an honor to be selected to be profiled in this venue.
The story of my journey to where I am today began in a small village in Hungary in the early 20th century. My grandparents, Henrik and Dora Schwarz were Hungarian farmers and were responsible for the horses in the village. My grandfather was conscripted into the Hungarian Army to fight with the Germans as a radio operator and arrived at the Russian front line just in time to retreat. Unfortunately, after the war, their home and land were taken by the Russians, so my grandparents were sent to an East German farm to help the farmer. They tried to escape to West Germany on the night East Germany changed its currency and got caught but were successful at their second attempt. My father was born in Hof, West Germany in a displaced persons camp in the 1950’s. Hearing of their flight, the Presbyterian Church arranged for this young family to move to Milton, Pa. While my grandparents were sixth grade educated, my father then learned English as a young boy and eventually made his way to Penn State and majored in Astronomy. He worked for the Naval Surface Weapons Center in Dahlgren, VA as a programmer before taking a job in charge of software support office for the Trident II missile. He worked his way up to become a software engineer at NASA and retired at JSC as the KSC representative for the Orion program.
Meanwhile, on my mother’s side, my grandparents came from a small town in rural Pennsylvania. They both went to business school and were able to complete a two-year degree. Using this degree, they opened a shoe store, but it ultimately went bankrupt. So, they tried again and opened a highly successful children’s clothing store in downtown Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. This was in the old days where downtown was the place to be and my grandfather was active in the community. Eventually, they expanded to having three stores in different towns in Pennsylvania. My mother met my father in rural Pennsylvania, and she earned a two year legal secretary degree. She had interesting experiences working at the Department of Justice within the organized crime division and worked at the Watergate Special Prosecutor’s office during the impeachment of Richard Nixon. In her 40’s, she went back to complete her undergraduate degree in elementary education and became a teacher later in life.
My younger brother, Daniel, and I were raised on the east coast of Florida and we made are way to Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida. I majored in social psychology and minored in sociology and women’s studies and graduated in 1997. Following my graduation, I worked in the market research industry, crafting market research projects for Fortune 500 companies. After 2 years, I became disillusioned with the industry and decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Management Information Systems at the University of Houston.
Following my graduation from UH, I was recruited by LSU in 2003 and have been here ever since. In my 17 years at LSU, I have been blessed to be productive in my academic research, with the ability to publish in top tier journals. I have received the opportunity to focus on the MBA program at LSU, where I teach the core Information Technology (IT) course, as well as classes in Artificial Intelligence, Cybersecurity, and Cloud Strategy. And, I am active within the academic and business community, serving as a consultant to start-up firms to help them build their business and achieve market dominance. Along the way, I have been blessed with a lifetime achievement award, recognized by the local business community, and received multiple distinctions within the university.
My backstory shows the power of perseverance. In two decades, my family has moved from being sixth graded educated farmers who worked in a factory and drove short haul trucks to a university professor who has received platitudes on the global stage. I believe that all of us have the capacity for greatness within us and that it is up to each of us to look beyond our current circumstances and strive for the best.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
We need to consider first what we mean by a thought leader. To me, a thought leader is an individual who tries to peer into the future and sense changes that are occurring and respond in a manner that outlines not only an understanding of where the field is headed, but can also define the means by which we can get there. And, often, that direction means that we need to question some fundamental assumptions that we have all held onto and then be willing to break those assumptions in a novel way. Through my research, my teaching, and my engagement with the business community, I am constantly looking ahead to where Information Technology is headed, where business will be changed, and the juxtaposition of public-private partnerships and the role of higher education in our society.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One of the hallmarks of a thought leader is that they are looking ahead. In my role as a professor, I am challenged with engaging in three activities — intellectual research; university teaching; and service to my field, the university, and the broader business community. Professors have traditionally suffered with trying to integrate these three activities — often, viewing them as distinct areas of their profession. However, I see these three activities as intersecting circles — my research influences how and what I teach and what the broader university and business community needs will affect my teaching and research. To me, they are a wholistic entity that cannot be decomposed.
In late 2018, my research began to reveal the challenges that enterprises were facing in their embrace of the cloud. I knew that the future of IT would revolve around the cloud, AI, blockchain, and the subsequent struggles with securing an increasingly decentralized infrastructure. Yet, when I look at how we were teaching our students, we were not embracing these new principles of computing. We were teaching the cloud and IT in a silo and not from an integrated, strategic, enterprise perspective. So, I challenged myself to learn and become certified in Amazon Web Services. In Spring 2019, I began teaching my students to become AWS certified. The university heard about this new initiative and I began engaging with our industrial relations team. It turns out that the state was working with a New Orleans based company and that this progressive IT organization wanted AWS certified students. The state of Louisiana surveyed the higher education campuses and found that only one professor in the state was certified to teach AWS — that was me! From Spring 2019 to the present, I have created a Cloud for Business initiative and we now teach cloud computing to undergraduate IT majors, to undergraduate business majors, to MBA students, and I have recently begun teaching cloud skills to other faculty as well. We are also experimenting through LSU Online, with some cool initiatives where classes can not only be taken through traditional for credit modalities, but also courses on-demand, both in person and online.
This was an interesting story because it showed me that a thought leader was more than just acquiring followers — it is about having expertise, knowledge, and the credibility to craft a strategy and then to execute the strategy in a way that enables others to look to you. As a result, I was named as a Faculty Fellow in the university, where, alongside other faculty, we can collaborate with our colleagues and be thought leaders in the future of higher education.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As a thought leader, we often feel like others will follow along with us when we define a thoughtful strategy. But I have found that this is not always the case. John Maxwell once said, “If you think you’re leading, but no one is following, then you are only taking a walk.” I have certainly found this to be true. In my teaching, I am always trying to think about how we can engage students in new ways so that they can be excited about what they are learning and be active participants in the learning process. A few years ago, I became excited about a new approach to coaching students about how to analyze businesses to find the root cause of what led them to the mistakes or difficulties that they were making. In my mind, I was going to help students to become better business leaders through this approach. So, I spent hours creating this new assignment and detailed instructions on how to use this new worksheet. The first round of assignments came in and they were all blank! I sat there, staring at the screen, becoming increasingly frustrated that my students had not understood the directions and had blatantly ignored this well thought out assignment. I reached out to one of the students who insisted that they had filled out the worksheet in great detail. I felt like Maxwell — I was taking a walk in the park! I then realized I had overlooked a very important detail in my instructions — I had forgotten to teach the students a basic step in the process. I had forgotten to teach them how to fill out a PDF and save it with new content! In short, I forgot to be a leader because I had not instructed them on how to follow me. This taught me a lot about how, when thinking about the future, we need to be the change that others look to and then help to lead people to that change.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
First, a leader does not have to be a thought leader. A leader can be a leader for a variety of reasons, such as formal power or social influence, and then attempts to rally people to support a cause. But this cause may or may not in an area in which the leader has expertise and knowledge. They share the attributes of a thought leader in that they will have courage and passion, but it may not be an area where the individual has defined their niche.
Second, an influencer differs from a thought leader in pure numbers. An influencer is focused on instantly scaling up to enable a great number of individuals to follow them. A thought leader may not, at first, attract a great number of followers. It may take time for a thought leader to achieve a great number of followers.
So, a thought leader is distinct in they have expertise, knowledge, and credibility in an area that they have deep amounts of expertise and that may eventually translate to a great number of followers, but may initially be to an audience of one, until the thought leader has convinced, through persuasion, to having others follow them on their movement.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
There is a lot of talk about the benefits of thought leadership to companies and organizations and society, so I will leave that to other thought leaders to talk about these benefits. To me, it is much more of a personal reason for why it is important. Often times, in our lives, we get bogged down by the mundane in life — we focus on the day-to-day minutiae of living our lives. Being a husband to an amazing woman and a dad to four wonderful children, it is easy to wake up every morning and focus on the task at hand — worrying about dinner dates, carpool, basketball practice, and social time with our friends. We put work in that box as well, squeezing in time on our phones to check our e-mail and keep up to date on the projects that encompass our business commitments. While all of this are necessary elements of our lives, we never really sit back to think big about where our worlds are heading and what the world of the future should look like. Taking time out to think big and to become unconstrained by what the world is versus what the world should be enables you to rise above the mundane and get excited about our niche areas. It inspires me to read other thought leaders and see how they view the world in the future. It is exciting to imagine a world as we all dream is possible and it enables me to have energy to sit through another endless basketball game or listen to my friend tell the same story again and again over a drink. We need to live our life to its’ fullest every day and enjoy every moment that we have been given and being a thought leader enables us to achieve this!
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
This question comes at a very opportune time in my professional life. I have been on a journey lately to rethink what it means to be a faculty member who teaches his students. Along with most of your readers, I went to a university where a professor stood behind a lectern, read his or her notes, and we diligently copied those notes down. I did not have a laptop or tablet to take notes — I used old school notebooks. When I first started as a professor, I followed this model, although by that time, instead of reading notes, I read PowerPoint slides. What a lot of students do not know is that a lot of professors (including me) are as bored giving those lectures as the students are hearing those lectures. Early on, if you were to give me a name of a lecture, I could recite it to you by heart and without even looking at PowerPoint. I quickly became bored with this approach. As I started to think about what I was doing in the front of the classroom, I realized that my job was to mentor my students and to get them to have the passion for IT that I had so that we could make learning fun. I began experimenting with gamification in the classroom — I would have students make paper airplanes to teach them about integrated supply chains and I would use Legos to teach them about project management and changing requirements. Quickly, my classroom became fun and I enjoyed teaching them — not from behind a lectern, but alongside of them. We would laugh together as their Lego towers fell and used this to talk about how changing project requirements compromised the resulting system. But I wanted to push the envelope further. So, I began using simulations and online games to teach them and found that some of my colleagues had developed a cybersecurity business game, where students had to learn how to respond to a cyber-attack in real time.
Through a series of events, I approached my colleagues, now turned friends, and pitched a vision of the future. This vision was a place where we taught students how to run a business by allowing them to use serious business games, cloud-based and on-demand, in a real-life setting. We were fortunate to receive some funding from LSU and we established Wisdom Springboard — a venture that is developing serious games for the next generation of leaders. We have private investor funding now to help us propel this business further and hope to have a game to align with every core aspect of a business. To me, this is about making learning fun.
By looking ahead and sensing and responding to changes that I see in education and my role in a university, we are now having fun, creating a business, and steering the discourse around what the future of the classroom looks like in higher education.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
- Strategy #1: Sense and respond. Just as in running a business, a thought leader needs to sense changes that are occurring within their industry and then respond quickly. In my class, I teach the concept of Digital Darwinism — companies that cannot adapt to change will fade away through natural selection. The same is true of thought leaders — we need to sense changes that are occurring and then pivot. In my own career, I foresaw the advent of online education and was one of the architects of the Online MBA program at LSU. During the first year of the program, there were no other faculty that were prepared to teach their courses, so I taught six rotations in one year. Our other amazing faculty stepped up to the challenge and we have now built an amazing MBA program, offered in-campus, hybrid, and online. I am always looking over the horizon about changes that are happening in my industry and trying to respond.
- Strategy #2: Challenge the known. Thought leaders need to challenge underlying assumptions of what we think we know about a particular area. In my research, I am known to study topics that others before me have studied, but I enjoy work that questions underlying assumptions. For example, one of the key areas that I study is how and why individuals adopt new technology — a complex subject that has spawned 30+ years of work. Yet, as a doctoral student, I decided to carve out my niche in this area and have continued ever since. And my early worked challenged the status quo, which leads to strategy #3:
- Strategy #3: Persevere. A thought leader may not always be successful in the near-term. In challenging the known, you come against the status quo, which has paradigmatically taken root inside of your industry. Moving past this inertia is challenging and may require you to persevere alone in the wilderness until you can gain your own counter-balanced group of followers. The work that I began as a doctoral student continues — I have one project that I have been working on for 17 years and it still is not done. Hopefully by the time I retire, this research will finally see the light of day!
- Strategy #4: Never stop learning. When a thought leader senses a change, this means that they will need to learn more about an area to challenge their own assumptions. As a professor of IT, I am always challenged to learn more about technology to teach my own students. As new technologies have evolved over my past 20 years in the classroom, I have had to dig deep to understand them so I could communicate the principles of tech to my students. This deep dive enables you to rise above the mundane and see trends and directions and to influence thought in a meaningful way.
- Strategy #5: Build a network but be willing to go it alone. A thought leader needs to be surrounded by others…. eventually. But, at first a thought leader may need to step out alone and be willing to take a chance for a passion project. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to serve my communities of practice — both within my academic discipline and the broader business community. At first, I was often alone, as others did not yet see the changes occurring. Yet, I persevered and built groups of like-minded individuals. It is through these networks of communities where we can see our influence and thought leadership evolve. Life is better done together and gives us the strength to enact the change that we envision.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
I would have to point to two examples of exemplar thought leaders. First, Bill Gates as an excellent example of a thought leader. While there has been criticism of Mr. Gates during his tenure as a CEO, I admire how he knew when he was done at Microsoft and devoted his life to humanitarian efforts. He is known to research the areas he cares about extensively, reading and asking experts about the topic until he is knowledgeable. I think this shows thought leaders that we need to always be inquisitive about the world around us and never stop learning.
Second, Oprah Winfrey. Oprah’s ability to raise above her circumstances and become a media powerhouse has been well documented. Again, like Bill Gates, Oprah knew when her time was up as a talk show host and impresses me with her ability to steer the national discourse through her influence. Her interviews are thoughtful and explorative with her guests and, like Bill, she reaches out to others to build a coalition of support. I think this shows thought leaders how building networks of like-minded individuals can help us to change the conversation about areas that we care about.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I would disagree. We need to have those in our industries and our sphere of influence that can rise above the day-to-day and provide thought leadership to shape our futures.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
I would offer leaders three pieces of advice:
- Take care of yourself, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. We often think that a leader needs to work 24/7 and that a “good” leader is one who is always available and responsive. This is not true. Balance your work time and your play time and do not apologize for taking time for yourself. To me, family time is paramount, and exercise is an integral part of my day. My wife and I are known as “the walkers” in our neighborhood — people see us walking steps together every day. Exercising and relationships allows us to connect to the world around us and then hyper-focus during those times when work requires.
- Learn how to prioritize. Prioritize your “to do” list and determine what are “must do’s,” “nice to do’s” and “later to do’s.” Leaders need to recognize that our time is valuable and that we need to focus on what matters and focus on only what matters when it matters. I try to set up goals every day and make these goals manageable and achievable. This means that I may not get to all the projects that I want to in the short term, but in the long term, my time is not scattered.
- Do not take on too much. Do not be the leader who raises your hand to run every project and every team. Recognize that we all have limits and if we are the ones who take on every assignment, we are not allowing those around us to raise to the challenge. A good leader not only advances themselves but makes everyone around them better and the only way that we can accomplish this is to only take on what we can reasonably accomplish.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could inspire a movement, it would be to inspire those to rethink the concept of education. The traditional view of education is that students (at any level) can only learn at a certain time in a certain place. We begin our views of work indirectly by how we educate our kids at the elementary school level. We tell them that school is where you go to learn and that you go to school between 7 AM and 3 PM. This continues through high school and, eventually, college, where we tell our students that you must be in a class at a certain time. We then wonder why we are conditioned to “go to work” rather than “do our work.” Work is a verb — it is what you accomplish. It is not a noun — where you go.
For us to think about education differently, we need to begin by teaching our kids that learning is fun and that learning happens anywhere we you are. Like most parents, my wife and I struggled when our four kids shifted towards online education and we were fighting for bandwidth and for quiet places to work. Yet why was this so difficult? It was difficult because we have not embraced the philosophy that online learning and face-to-face learning are equivalent. You do not learn better face-to-face than you do virtually — you just learn differently. Each modality offers benefits, so rather than look at the negatives of one and try to steer every learner into a “box,” we need to, as a society, become lifelong learners. It should not matter if you are sitting on a remote beach in the Caribbean (my personal preference), in my class in Baton Rouge, or in the mountains of Colorado. Learning can take place anywhere at any time.
One of the societal challenges that has bothered me for my entire career has been the digital and economic divides in our country that serve to divide, rather than unite us. As you can see from my background, I am very blessed to be where I am at in my life and my hope and prayer is that everyone, regardless of your economic background, has the opportunity to rise among your circumstances and accomplish your hopes and dreams. The way we can solve divisions in pay equity and economic mobility is through equivalent education — where we all have opportunities to embrace lifelong learning. While I know that some will criticize this (rightly) and say that we do not have equal opportunity, if I could inspire and unite us all to a place where we do, then we can truly come together. Education is the great equalizer and I love in my own classroom when I can hear the voices and perspectives of a diverse coalition of those with different backgrounds and experiences. Learning from one another and listening to one another is what we all need — rather than look for ways to divide us, I hope to inspire those to look for ways to unite us. We all have the same goal, so let’s work together to find ways to accomplish it rather than find ways to denigrate others and put them down.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Dalai Lama once said that “The purpose of our life is to be happy.” We have all had periods in our life where we have experienced pain and suffering and made the choice to come through these times stronger than we were before. I, like most of your readers, have fought for every blessing that I have. I, like most of your readers, have experienced times of darkness where I did not see how I was going to make it through. I went through a tough divorce that made me question some of the fundamental assumptions that I had made about spirituality, my career choice, and the life choices that I had made to that point in my life. But I allowed myself to feel those emotions and then came through it all as a stronger version of myself. I realized that the purpose of my life was to be happy. I am now married to a wonderful woman, reconnected with my kids, and became focused on what matters in life. And what I found through this journey was that when I healed emotionally, my professional life flourished. I have accomplished more in my life professionally after emerging from this place in my life than ever before and opportunities continue to emerge that make what I am doing fun. I can truly say that I love what I do — I love my job and because I am a truly happy person, I have become blessed and successful with what I am able to do.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Other than my wife, whom I always enjoy a lively conversation with over lunch and breakfast, I am going to cheat a bit and answer one for breakfast and one for lunch.
For breakfast, I would love to enjoy a traditional New Orleans brunch with Drew Brees. I admire Drew’s view towards life — he calls them his four F’s: faith, family, football, and philanthropy. He has been a legend within the NFL, but also has a reputation in Louisiana as being an upstanding man who inspires those around him.
For lunch, I would love to enjoy a relaxing bite to eat in Los Angeles with Elon Musk. I admire Elon’s ability to innovate and challenge others about their assumptions. Whether you agree or disagree with his views on AI or business, he is not afraid to take a position. His business journey has not been linear and has required him to evolve and change and I would love to find out more about how he approaches life and business.
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.