Learn More About Raffaella Sadun
Organizations have been studied for decades to identify new strategies for achieving effective management, a flexible workforce and increased efficiency. But one question persists at the center of all this research: why are some people and places better at adopting basic management practices than others?
According to Raffaella Sadun, the Charles E. Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS), one reason for this paradox is that historically, what’s been communicated about good leadership isn’t based on sound realities and facts. An organizational economist whose unique blend of data-driven analysis, big-picture thinking and strategic reskilling leads to transformative changes within firms, Sadun seeks to understand why some people are better at being leaders than others.
“Overall, the functioning of public and private organizations depends on leadership and culture,” explains Sadun, whose roadmaps reveal how to create a workforce that’s not just tolerant of change but embraces it to drive lasting success. “However, the current narrative often celebrates ‘superhero’ leadership and forgets that the leaders that are able to put basic management practices in place – ‘boring leaders’ – can do amazing things for organizations. Basic management can create a competitive advantage for the companies that take it seriously. My research has shown that management practices vary quite a lot within industries and around the world — and that companies with good management are significantly more profitable.”
Noting that great leadership takes both universal skills and context-specific ones, Sadun emphasizes that by focusing on three facets of good management – target-setting, incentives and monitoring – firms’ performance improves. Her deep study of worldwide best practices provides a treasure trove of options for organizations interested in exploring multiple potential routes to success.
Achieve Operational Excellence by Unleashing the Power of Managers
Managers hold immense power in shaping the culture, performance and outcomes of their teams and organizations, says Sadun, Faculty Chair of HBS’s Strategy Unit Executive Education Program. But the managerial skills required for 21st-century leaders are changing. As it turns out, the skills needed in management are often not the skills people are hired for or the skills they are trained to perform.
As an advisor to organizations and governments around the globe, Sadun expertly pinpoints the new skills needed across all levels of an organization as business operations become more complex, workforce diversity grows and technology evolves. By refocusing the lens on which abilities are most important, she helps managers become adept communicators, relationship builders and people-oriented problem solvers so they can make better, more informed decisions and drive positive change within organizations.
“Though core management practices may appear to be relatively simple — in that they often rely on nontechnological investments — they are not light switches that can be flipped on and off at will,” points out Sadun, who was named to the 2023 Thinkers50 Radar list, which spotlights thought leaders with ideas most likely to shape the future of management. “They require a profound commitment from the top, an understanding of the types of skills required for adoption and — ultimately — a fundamental shift in mentality at all levels of the organization.”
Sadun’s passion for understanding management practices has taken her on a global journey, leading her to co-found several large-scale projects to measure managerial behavior in organizations, such as the World Management Survey, the Executive Time Use Study and the first large-scale management survey in hospitals, MOPS-H, conducted in partnership with the US Census Bureau. As she breaks down in her HBR McKinsey Award-winning article, “Why Do We Undervalue Competent Management?”, achieving operational excellence is still a massive challenge for many organizations – even well-informed and well-structured ones. However, Sadun has found that simply moving a firm from the worst 10% to the best 10% of management practices is associated with a $15M increase in profits, 25% faster annual growth, and 75% higher productivity. Challenging the common assumption that everyone needs to be a strategist, Sadun proposes that, by acting like a manager instead, anyone can achieve these incredible results.
Unveil the Big Picture to Optimize Rapid Reskilling
Another critical element of Sadun’s approach is the importance of reskilling within organizations. At the Digital Reskilling Lab at HBS, where Sadun is co-leader, she studies the effectiveness of the extensive digital training investments made in the private and public sectors. Her research emphasizes the value of aligning reskilling efforts with business strategy, ensuring that employees are equipped with the right tools and capabilities to drive efficiency and effectiveness within their roles.
“We are collecting evidence on companies that are at the frontier of reskilling to understand how they do it and the challenges they had to overcome ” she describes. “A common challenge is that often training programs are designed just from an HR perspective without a focus on interface or content and are missing the connection with the strategic objectives of the organization. It’s imperative to show a clear business outcome for why someone is learning a new skill for them to want to be successful.”
Sadun’s research shows that, by giving employees a big-picture view of how they slot into a business’s goals, they become more engaged, productive and purposeful. Her blueprints show organizations how they can create and deploy programs that instill flexibility and a willingness to address challenges. No time in recent memory demanded quicker change than the onset of the global pandemic. Sadun implemented her methods while serving as an economic advisor to the Italian government to help reshape their post-Covid economy in 2020 and 2022. Her learnings, as described in “Lessons From Italy’s Response to Coronavirus” reflect a keen understanding of how to achieve massive mobilization, even in uncertain times. As a result of her work, she received the highest-ranking order in Italy, the Grande Ufficiale dell’Ordine ‘Al Merito della Repubblica Italiana’ in 2021. In 2022, she was awarded the Prize Fondazione de Sanctis per le Scienze Economiche.
When rapid changes demand that organizations respond quickly, they need to harness the power of proven management skills to achieve their goals. By uncovering how “basic” management and organizational practices vary across the globe – and how this affects productivity at the micro and macro levels – Sadun has emerged at the forefront of identifying key drivers of growth in organizations worldwide.
Raffaella Sadun is the Charles E. Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Her research focuses on managerial and organizational drivers of productivity and growth in corporations and the public sectors.
Sadun currently co-leads the Digital Reskilling Lab at HBS, where she studies the effectiveness of large-scale digital training investments made in private and public sector organizations. She also serves as director of the National Bureau of Economic Research Working Group in Organizational Economics, faculty co-chair of the Harvard Project on the Workforce, co-editor for the Journal of Law, Economics and Organization and associate editor for Management Science. She is the author of articles published in journals such as “The Quarterly Journal of Economics,” “American Economic Review” and “Journal of Political Economy.”
Sadun served as an economic advisor to the Italian government in 2020 and 2022 and received the honor of Grande Ufficiale dell’Ordine “Al Merito della Repubblica Italiana,” the highest-ranking order of the Republic awarded for “merit acquired by the nation” in 2021. In 2022 she was awarded the Prize “Fondazione de Sanctis per le Scienze Economiche.” Sadun received her Ph.D. in Economics from the London School of Economics.
Raffaella Sadun is available to advise your organization via virtual and in-person consulting meetings, interactive workshops and customized keynotes through the exclusive representation of Stern Speakers & Advisors, a division of Stern Strategy Group®.