What is the Criteria for Assessing Ambidextrous Leadership?

What is the Criteria for Assessing Ambidextrous Leadership?

The OR Podcast

In this podcast David talks with Jan Laser who is a HR Business Partner in an Organisation in Hamburg, Germany. Jan publishes academic papers whilst not being employed as an academic. In this podcast, Jan and David talk about publishing papers as a non-academic independant researcher and about his latest paper ‘Criteria to appraise top executives for ambidextrous leadership’. 

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Jan Laser

Dr. Jan Laser is a HR Business Partner and independent non-academic researcher. Jan lives and works in Hamburg and has a PhD from Helmut Schmidt Universität – Universität der Bundeswehr Hamburg in personal career planning.

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Ambidextrous leadership

Ambidextrous leadership refers to the ability of leaders to effectively balance and manage two seemingly conflicting objectives, such as exploiting current successful strategies while simultaneously exploring new and innovative ones. This type of leadership is crucial in today’s rapidly changing and complex business environment, where organisations need to be flexible and adaptive to stay ahead of the competition. Ambidextrous leaders possess the unique capability to simultaneously maintain and improve existing processes while exploring and developing new opportunities, making them valuable assets to organizations seeking to drive innovation and growth. In Dr Laser’s paper he explores what criteria organisations should use to appraise senior leaders against for ambidextrous leadership qualities.


Jan Laser – ambidextrous leadership-1

[00:00:00] David: Welcome back. Today I’ve got Jan Laser. Could you just give us a short introduction about who you are and what you do, Jan? 

[00:00:06] Jan: Of course. First of all, thanks for having me. I’ve been looking forward to speaking with you, David. So about me, I live with my wife and two sons, Paul Jonathan and Louis Theador in the city of Hamburg, we enjoy doing sports or going for walks together. I studied social economics at Hamburg University, then my master in HR management, and finally I completed my doctorate Helmut Schmidt Universität – Universität der Bundeswehr Hamburg on personal career planning. Currently, I work as a HR business partner in a large passenger and transport company here in Germany. I’m also involved in research with the focus on human research management. To make my ideas accessible and because I like trying new things, I’ve started a YouTube channel. 

[00:00:45] David: I didn’t know about that. I’ll get the link off you when we finish and I’ll put it into the show notes. That’s brilliant. So the reason that I’ve reached out to you and contacted you is that you recently published a paper in the Journal of Organizational Effectiveness: People and Performance that’s entitled Criteria to [00:01:00] Appraise Top Executives for Ambidextrous Leadership, can I just ask you what is it that prompted you to do this study? 

[00:01:05] Jan: I first became interested in ambidextrous for leadership in 2018. I read about the fundamentals of ambidextrous management and leadership, but I didn’t find much about what actually defines an ambidextrous executive, at that time, a lot was written about using opening and closing leadership with implications that this would translate into leadership, but it didn’t get much more concrete than that. So that’s why I decided to put myself in the shoes of decision maker and ask how this decision maker might appraise the top executives suitability from the leadership, and that led me to more specific ideas such as which criteria I would use for that kind of appraiser. My idea was to give a more specific to the appraiser process than just saying you need to use opening and closing leadership styles. I thought other people in the field might be interested in that too, so I wrote the paper.

[00:01:53] David: Before we get into the paper, which we will do in a minute. One of the other reasons that I reached out to you is that usually when I’m talking [00:02:00] to people who’ve published papers, I’m talking to academics and they’re based in university, and I’m intrigued because I’m sure many of our listeners will be interested to know about getting papers published in academic journals when you’re not an academic in a university and that you’re a HR practitioner, which I found intriguing. Can you talk us through about that, please. 

[00:02:19] Jan: My biggest issue is time. Such papers require a lot of time, really a lot of time. Whenever I have time, early in the morning or late in the evening, I work on my research. I would also add that you need to have a thick skin, as you will always have some negative feedback from few, but don’t worry, that’s just part of the process. 

[00:02:37] David: Yeah. And how difficult did you find getting an article published in a peer review journal then? 

[00:02:42] Jan: That’s not so difficult because if you have got a good topic, then that’s not a big problem. Perhaps the biggest problem is that I’m more a theoretical analytic researcher, and the most true it’s empirical stuff, but if you have got the right topic, it’s not so a big problem. 

[00:02:57] David: Okay, great. And so what advice would you give to [00:03:00] anybody who isn’t an academic but wants to publish some research? 

[00:03:03] Jan: I would say if you don’t have a mentor yet, find a mentor. I did that too, first I was an employee at the university and had a mentor there, Peter Conrad. Then I also had my mentor of many years, my doctoral supervisor, Thomas Spengler from the Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg, and later I went to Hamburg university, who also gave me a lot of good advice. Advice, including about the paper we are discussing today, so again, find a mentor. 

[00:03:26] David: That’s good advice. Okay. Let’s just go back to the paper then. First, I just want to clear something up. Could you just explain what you mean by organisational ambi dexterity, please, Jan. 

[00:03:35] Jan: Take one approach, which I think is the best known, you can refer to the terms exploration and exploitation. According to this approach , exploration makes the best possible use of its existing resources, which would be exploitation while also breaking into new markets, for example, through innovation, which would be exploration. A good example of exploration is Amazon’s spreadsheet into many other market area, after publishing the [00:04:00] original online store and often cited example of the lack of security , that you may now had this opportunity to invest in Netflix in through thousand, but didn’t end and filed for bankruptcy in 2010. So organisation ambidexterity aims to create a sustainable n in a changing market. 

[00:04:14] David: I suppose facing two ways, isn’t it? It’s dealing with the now and keeping the business going with the existing resources and exploiting the existing resources and markets that you’ve got now, but also, as you say, trying to find new markets, but also innovating both the business model, innovating products and services and things like that. Part of that issue, so if you’ve got an organisation, there’s an awful lot of research in this space around ambidexterity. One of the issues that comes up is, how do you go about leading an ambidextrous organisation and this is what you’ve been writing about. I’m interested in, how would you define what is an ambidextrous leader? 

[00:04:50] Jan: Yeah, David, this is where it really gets interesting for me. To begin with the definition, I originally found an ambidextrous leader, although I personally prefer to speak of an [00:05:00] ambidextrous executive, I’d explained why in a moment. It’s someone who performs both opening and closing leadership and can switch between the two if needed. Where it’s opening leadership as a boss you increase variance in employee behavior, for example, when a company like Google encourages its engineers to spend up to 20% of the time on project, they have chosen themselves, that is an example of opening leadership, which is good for exploration because you’re generating new idea. Closing leadership, on the other hand, means that variance in employees behavior is reduced through rules and compliance and so on, which is good for exploitation because you increase efficiency. That provided a good starting point for my research which I expanded in on in my paper with the aim of making the assessment process for executives clearer and more specific to opening closing leadership I added the rules of leader and manager and transaction and transformationist types of leadership because it creates exist between these concepts. Opening leadership, transformational leadership and the leadership role itself are [00:06:00] all helpful in promoting exploration, and in the same exploitation is promoted by closing leadership, the management role and transaction leadership. So in the ambidextrous exact role, all of these things work together. I added the leader and manager role to make it clear that an ambidextrous executive is not defined only by the extent to which he or she ambidextrous lead leaders but also that the mindset of an ambidextrous executive is different, for example, if a top executive practices opening and closing leadership but doesn’t fulfill the leadership role, it could happen that our of preaching innovation exec doesn’t allocate the resources needed to promote innovation. So an ambidextrous executive is not only characterised by actions that explicitly involve directing the behavior of employee.

[00:06:44] Okay, what’s the long version? In short, by ambidextrous top executive, I mean someone who personally promotes both exploration and exploitation, risk leadership and management, transactional and transformational, as well as opening and closing leadership, but that’s not quite [00:07:00] it, one important point is missing, which is that you have to switch flexibly between these areas as and where needed. So I know that’s a lot of requirements. One more point, David, one more point, sorry. Let me keep my promise and explain why I prefer to talk about an ambidextrous executive rather than an ambidextrous leader, if you use the term ambidextrous leader, we can ask why not an ambidextrous manager? Because both roads are important, in ambidextrous leadership, which also includes management and that’s the reason I use the term ambidextrous executive. We could go a step present and ask ourselves whether we can then speak of ambidextrous leadership or whether we should also make a linguistic adjustment here, but that would be stretching the idea a bit far perhaps, and I don’t want to go off on attention.

[00:07:41] David: Yeah, and I think that’s actually wise distinction, largely because there’s an awful lot of research within the organisational ambidexterity that shows that usually people aren’t great at doing both things. In the early days of some of the work around organisational ambidexterity, what they were trying to do was to make all of the people [00:08:00] within the organisational ambidexterity but what the research has shown is that tends not to work, people aren’t great at doing both sides, usually what we find is that they’ve got strengths in one area, exploitation or in the other area to do with exploration and it’s at the senior levels, being able to strategically operate in an ambidextrous way to be able to, as you say, promote these things, that becomes critical. And just moving on that is, why are ambidextrous executives so critical to organisation. 

[00:08:31] Jan: The reside of the actions of the people who act in it, so if those people tend towards management or exploitation, then you will get the corresponding reside, which can have catastrophic effects. As for our opening example from Blockbuster, that’s the general picture. If we are talking about the leader, then leadership is key to the company’s success. The leader has authority to distribute resources and also to influence employee behavior. We can imagine what might happen if ambidexterity is not valued, it’s the [00:09:00] highest level, meaning no balance between exploration, exploitation is even accept. In that case, you might be very innovative exploration, but not adequately exploit existing resource, while on the other hand, you fully export existing resources exploitation but don’t notice when the market is leaving you behind, for example, you might make the best cassettes ever, that’s who wants them. 

[00:09:20] David: Yeah, that’s true. So what the paper was looking at was the criteria for ambidextrous executives which is critical especially when you are doing recruiting and things but also for development purposes as well. So what did you find in terms of what the criteria are for ambidextrous leaders or executive.

[00:09:37] Jan: Okay, David, your previous question about what defines an ambidextrous executive is relevant here because we said that an ambidextrous executive is someone who promotes both exploration and exploitation with management skills, transactional and transformational styles and opening and closing the leaders. In making these connections, we can use well known concepts as the criteria [00:10:00] contained within them for executive. These well known concepts would be the role of leader or manager and transactional and transformational leadership for the position of an ambidextrous top executive at all times, providing full confidence in that person’s ability to respond flexibly in a changing demand changing market. The relevance of the criteria in the leadership concept can vary over time, firstly, it becomes clear that you are looking for a generalist rather than a specialist is the fifth point that’s important for me too, because you can divide the criteria into two categories. For category one, I used the heading one dimensional criteria, which includes criteria such as intelligence, being a team player, and creativity, in this category the criteria are only judged on the extent to which they are met or not. There’s no differentiation between exploration exploitation, because it wouldn’t make any sense to say that the person is intelligent in exploitation, but not in exploration..

[00:10:55] David: Okay. 

[00:10:55] Jan: … situation is different with the criteria and category two, which I call [00:11:00]multidimensional criteria quality, such as courage and ambition fall into this category. Here I looked at the extent of courage and different or approaches, because being courageous as a leader is different to being courageous as a manager, this criteria should also be differentiated in relation to first and second order change. Lower executives are not responsible for organi sation that is dramatic and transformative, but rather for incremental predictable change, which can be defined as first order change. Second order change involves things like investment decisions affecting the whole organi sations involving risk the CEO or the top management team are responsible for. The lower executives are required to be courageous regarding first order change, as been negotiating implementation of first order change, addressing any resistance from employees and on and co executives are required to be courageous regarding second order changes. Lower executives, Top executives therefore need to be courageous within the bond of their role. So we can say that the rewards of lower executive and [00:12:00] CEO involve different orders of the criteria courage, meaning that in the same category we have the same criteria, but different usage. 

[00:12:07] David: Okay. Yeah, that makes sense. So how can organisations use these criteria than.. 

[00:12:11] Jan: First of all, when selecting or appraising it for executives, it’s important to ensure that appraisal criteria aligned with the content of the specific area or role. Otherwise, criteria could be too abstract for the assessors. Assessors for now, how to apply the criteria in concrete terms, it’s important to differentiate, say between exploration exploitation, for example, but only res make, it wouldn’t make sense to say the criteria of intelligence doesn’t matter in a given role. For example, on the other hand, the criteria for my paper can be checked in the company to see whether they should be included in the evaluation process and on the how they might be used in application as just mention. This criteria can be used in recruiting, accession planning, personal development, or possibly the owner system. 

[00:12:55] David: And do you think that others like recruiting, hr, learning, and things can be [00:13:00] doing things to help to foster and promote greater levels of organisational ambidexterity within the organisation ? 

[00:13:07] Jan: Yeah, I think so. So recruitment, of course, can ensure that employees are hired to promote an organisation. Talent management can ensure that the concept of ambidextrous leadership is considered in assessment and feedback systems, and in training and coaching. I also see a need for talent management when an executive changes from the middle to the top level because the previous experience in management and leadership for first other changes can no longer be used to the extent they were before, because it’s the top level, they are especially responsible for second other changes, which cause for other skills and therefore close support from HR. Promotion ambidexterity could be anchored as the bonus system, for example, in at least 10 to 20% of annuals are generated from products that have been on the market for no longer than five years, top excess get bonus, bearing in mind that Covid culture is difficult to change, HR might consider [00:14:00] consulting to create independent startups, which could be set up with access to the parent company’s resources, but not the other way around so they can develop pretty and are not influenced by the old mindset, what bureaucratic regulations. Another point is to differentiate which tasks must be completed by the CEO, we can ask if an ambidextrous top executive has to fulfill all needed or the criteria, or could the company hire the top exec strong in exploration and leadership, who can then share the exploitation management tasks versus top management team that’s still leading ambidexterously, but indirectly as ..

[00:14:36] David: Interesting. Okay. Thanks Ian, I really appreciate this. How can people contact you or connect with you? 

[00:14:42] Jan: David, first of all, thank you and you can find me on LinkedIn or on my homepage, www.coplam.de 

[00:14:47] David: Great. I’ll add links to the show notes. This has been brilliant. Thank you, Jan. I really appreciate your time. It’s a really important topic that I haven’t actually seen very much research around considering as you say that [00:15:00] executive level and the criteria for both choosing the executives and for helping to develop them particularly around the development of organi sational ambidexterity. It’s been great. Thanks. 

[00:15:10] Jan: Thank you, David. Thank you. 


Laser, J. (2022), “Criteria to appraise top executives for ambidextrous leadership”, Journal of Organizational Effectiveness: People and Performance, Vol. 9 No. 3, pp. 449-470. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOEPP-06-2020-0094

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page