# 286: Scholarship as USP? Between Arrogance and Ambition

Schmidt, Silke (2021). Narrative Change Management in American Studies: A Pragmatic Reading, 360.

Story behind the Passage

Today I am actually quoting from my own book. I just have to because this post is going to be the answer to a question I received about it. I started at least five different attempts to reply to the e-mail but none of them felt satisfying — felt right. Whenever this happens, no matter how much I want to finally push the “send” button, a writer like me needs to chew more on the question. Sometimes, the chewing does not necessarily lead to a short answer but to a text. So, this is the small story behind the actual story behind my post today and the fact why I am blogging about my own book.

To make it clear at the beginning: The book I am talking about, Narrative Change Management, is an academic book and you will not enjoy reading it, I guess. It is insanely expensive, has terribly many pages and so much information that it cannot be digested quickly. That also answers another question that I received in the very same e-mail: “How long did you work on this?” This could have been an easy answer which I will now, to make things even easier for me and the reader, include here as well: Officially, I worked on this book for about five years, from 2013, when I finished my Ph.D., until 2018, the moment I finished my habilitation (this is the degree you need if you want to become a professor in Germany). Actually, the book is the habilitation, just in an edited and shortened version. So, technically I worked on it for five years but the net duration, I would say, including research, writing, and revising it for the publication, amounts to about 1.5 years.

This difference already tells you a lot about how I work. Since writing is what I am meant to do, I do it quicker than most other people. Still, even working on a book for 1.5 years is kind of a long time, right? That is because a scholarly book like this one really takes up more time and energy than the other books I write nowadays — for clients and for myself. Scholarship is tedious and much time is wasted for stuff that will not really contribute to the value of the final product. Still, I insist that this book deserved every minute of work I put into it, no matter how much I started hating the circumstances. Part of my heart and a lot of my brain is in this book. I just HAD TO WRITE it, there was no other way. It had to get out of me.

Hardly anybody will ever know about this, however, because books like this one sell only about 100 copies if you are lucky.

Am I kidding?


But that is a different story.

I want to come back to what I started with.

The QUESTION in the message by a person I appreciate a lot.

So, the second question asked by this person in the e-mail was the one that I kept chewing on until today in the afternoon when I finally KNEW I had to write about it in order to answer it in a way that feels appropriate to me. The question was this:

“It is important that you can bring your knowledge to business practice. This connection between scholarship and practice is a USP which not many people bring to the table. You have evidence of this [the book].”

So, what is hard about this question?

And: Where is the question anyways?

Is there a question mark?

See, this is where the story starts. It was not an actual question. It was more like an encouragement by her which I appreciated a lot. But I took at it as a question because it triggered something and I felt I wanted to reply to it. This is the tough part because it is not easy at all to sell scholarship as a USP. You might think it is and many people do it successfully but these people are not me, obviously. Still, I had many different answers in my head as soon as I had finished reading her message. Here are some of the many attempts which are still in my “drafts” folder in Outlook.

  • “Actually, I do not think that selling scholarship as USP is easy in business. My experience is that it actually makes business harder. People associate theory and the lack of practical skills with scholars.”
  • “Knowledge and scholarship are two different things. Nobody is interested in real, I mean deep, knowledge anyways, let alone scholarship.”
  • “Most knowledge I have does not come from university. So, there is nothing to sell in that regard.”
  • “For me, education and intelligence are way more important than ‘scholarship.’ Unfortunately, these things have very little to do with each other.”
  • “Yes, scholarship can be sold as a door opener. People might trust you a bit more if you have a Ph.D. when you do cold calling. As soon as a conversation develops, you notice that people have no idea what scholarship is all about.”

I guess, if I thought more about it, I could come up with at least ten more short answers. The problem then was: They all sounded quite negative and they would have required additional explanation — they were just too short. Obviously, this has not changed which is why I am now writing about this entire issue. But the difference is that I have come up, at least partly, with an answer that feels closer to what I actually want to express in response to the suggestion/comment/question in the e-mail. And that is where arrogance and ambition enter the scene.

My Learnings

“Yet, to his credit, he did not allow pride to slide into arrogance,” the narrator comments (IM 116).” The background to this passage is that in this chapter in my book, I discuss Kotter’s Our Iceberg Is Melting. It is a fable about a penguin colony and the eight steps of change model Kotter developed for organizational change leadership. Fred, the character described by the narrator in this sentence, is the penguin who ends up saving the colony. The only reason why I have searched for this particular passage today is because I wanted to check if I wrote anything about “arrogance” in the book. Obviously, I did when I discussed Fred’s journey of turning from a weirdo into an effective but still highly sensitive leader.

So, what does arrogance have to do with my “scholarship as USP in business” question?

A lot!

To begin with, all the short-answer attemps above simultaneously apply. My experience indeed is that scholarship makes business harder. People in companies, especially in corporates (in startups it is a bit different), do not want any smart asses from universities who talk a lot and do little. At least, this is the image many executives have of them. Whatever comes out of your mouth is quickly judged as “too academic.” Of course, I am exaggerating here but it has happened to me in exactly this way. I have to underline that I am not judging the people who said it. I understand their perspective. Still, I want to point out what can happen if people know that you have a Ph.D. and maybe some academic past or present career. I already talked about this in many other instances on this blog, so I do not want get into it more deeply here. Let me just repeat again, as a starting ground for what follows, that the theory-practice divide is huge and that it has many different reasons.

One of these reasons is, and here the critics from the management world are right, that most/many academics have ZERO practical experience to a point where they really cannot make a huge contribution to implementing measures, let alone solving problems. This is where my personality split kicks in already but also the dissatisfaction and the pain associated with it. Let me start with the pain point first: I am indeed not satisfied with the fact that I am not marketing my scholarly expertise and background to the max. Other people do that more successfully — I guess. Most things they sell are sometimes one digit more expensive than what I sell because they push the “I am Dr. So and So” button. But here comes the thing: It is not only the price tag that bursts. Very often, it is also their ego. They think they are someone special because they have this academic polishing in their CV. That is where the arrogance trouble starts and where it interferes with my way of being and doing things.

To make this very clear: To me, there are only people. Every person on this planet has a unique story that needs to be appreciated and respected — no matter what it led them to do or “be” in some professional role context. This is the way I approach the world, including companies. Companies consist of people. So, whenever I enter a company, I do not care if the CEO hired me or someone else. I do not care if that CEO has a Ph.D. or not even a high school diploma. To me, all people are people and I approach them with curiosity and open-mindedness. Of course, there are people who resonate more with me than others, but that is personal energy exchange and attraction. It has nothing to do with valuing the individual as individual. The same applies to my way of doing things: I do not care if some person who is higher in the hierarchy has some idea and another person who is lower in the hierarchy has another idea. To me, the idea counts and the brain behind it.

That is a problem, however.

How can it be a problem if you treat all people equally,

if you do not bow to authority but instead speak your mind?

It is because this is not the way “we do things around here” — at least not in most organizations where fear is still ruling every single step. The people are used to having outsiders (“consultants”) enter who are “different” than they are. They get paid a lot of money which could be spent more wisely according to their opinion (which is often true). The outsiders, in addition, are treated as somewhat more special than the insiders. If these people even have a Ph.D., this aggravates the “us” versus “them” logic people inside the company develop in their minds: An academic coming to a company is the one who supposedly knows how to do things correctly and they supposedly know nothing. At least, this is what people start telling themselves. If this person has even written a book or several, that puts the outside academic on a planet where “normal” people cannot travel — not even as a blind passenger of Richard Branson.

Are you sensing where I am going?

Yes, the first part is all about projections and stereotypes about academics which I do not want to be related with but I become exposed to this, no matter what. There is another issue, however, which makes it even more difficult to sell your academic expertise and knowledge. This aspect is related to the knowledge and the scholarly methodology behind it. I indeed treasure knowledge and research. So, in that sense, I am an academic and I would love to bring more knowledge — more LEARNING — to companies. My experience, however, is very brutal in this context as well:

Nobody wants to know.

Nobody wants to learn.

Nobody wants to grow.

“You are so exaggerating!” you are probably yelling at me now. Yes, I am, but that is what it feels like from the perspective of the “scholar.” As a scholar you believe in the fact that even one hour of research will pay back a hundred times; a lot more than any “short-quick-and-dirty approach” that gets you fast and visible but shitty results in the long run. Still, my experience is: nobody cares. You need to hurry, just do your stuff, get things done, think little, question even less, avoid conflicts, market your achievements, get home quickly, and enjoy your vacation — do not take any risks — I mean any risks — that might affect your promotion to the next management level or the pretty car the company has been paying for you for almost two decades now.

Yes, I know many organizations are not like this anymore. Still, many others are. And from the perspective of someone for whom learning and growing is everything in life, such an environment feels toxic and frustrating and it made me truly sad to a point where I decided to not work with clients like that anymore who pay for Ph.D. titles to get more “reputation” on board but who have ZERO interest in what is behind it and who have ZERO ambition to learn themselves.

The thing is: If you as a CEO or some upper-level management member do not learn about the WHY behind the concepts you are trying to sell to your employees, HOW would they be able to LEARN from you?

I am aware that much of the confusion I am describing about scholars in business stems from the fact that people do not know much about scholarship and research . All they know is that people from academia have a lot of knowledge. And non-scholars develop inferiority complexes because they think they know less. Or they develop the exact opposite mentality by insisting they know a lot more from practice than any theory could teach academics. I can definitely say that both arguments are related to a big misunderstanding that is very hard to dissolve. Plus, scholarship might be 50% or even less about the actual knowledge a scholar derives. The more substantial part is about the method behind acquiring this knowledge. As a scholar, you are used to, trained to, look beyond the surface and not be satisfied with the first tidbit of information you get on anything. You are driven by the urge to understand how things work. The knowledge you gain comes along with this discovery journey and, in addition, you have the discipline to stick to a scholarly code of conduct and formal requirements.

The latter aspect of understanding the root of things — I share a 100%.

But then comes the next problem: Even if people in companies want that and they are actually willing to pay for someone who really tries to understand things deeply and who brings in much existing knowledge to this process of discovery, they JUST SEE THIS IN YOU. They reduce you to ONE CATEGORY, ONE BUZZWORD, maybe even ONE USP. They see the analytical scholar who knows facts and figures and theory and can write nice reports about it and give sophisticated talks. They see a person with a big head and nothing else. They see a professional with an academic title who hangs out with the “important” people in the company and who might even get information which people inside do not get. They think that this scholar has a certain agenda and for sure wants one thing: a follow-up appointment.

What if I am not like that?

My trouble with my academic career has always been that this academic career has maybe made up 10% of my identity and my potential, not more. So, the most important thing that came out of academia for me is neither the knowledge nor the methods I gained there, it is the experiences the university allowed me to have and the personal growth I was able to attain. Again, as I wrote about many times before, this is the original idea of the university that Humboldt and many others envisioned in the history of humanistic education since the Middle Ages (even before that actually, if you factor in the non-Western history of the sciences in the East). It is not a McDonald’s of credit points and graduation reports. Neither is it a Ph.D. factory. Here is where the word university comes from:

“university (n.) c. 1300, “institution of higher learning,” also “body of persons constituting a university,” from Anglo-French université, Old French universite “universality; academic community” (13c.), from Medieval Latin universitatem (nominative universitas), “the whole, aggregate,” in Late Latin “corporation, society,” from universus “whole, entire” (see universe). In the academic sense, a shortening of universitas magistrorum et scholarium “community of masters and scholars;” superseded studium as the word for this. The Latin word also is the source of Spanish universidad, German universität, Russian universitet, etc.”

So, the value I actually bring to clients is the entire process that has led me to become the person I am today. This aggregate of knowledge, methods, and experiences cannot be dissected in any way — it forms a whole. Neither can it be summarized under the umbrella “scholarship.” To be honest, the way I do things and the topics I work on have almost zero to do with my academic expertise. Still, I would not be the same person without all this. This makes all the difference, in combination with the fact that I always worked in business on the side.

But that is not the end of the complicated story yet.

Sorry to tell you.

There is more to read.

The complication is that I am a manager, scholar, and artist in one. That is something that people, especially people working in companies, will not get. It does not fit the categories. A manager is a generalist, a scholar is a specialist, and an artist is pure chaos. How can the three be combined in one? Even if they can, how can they be “sold” on a level that a person who is able to make decisions in a company and acquire big budgets can actually spend money for such a person? The mere combination of supposedly incompatible strengths leads to the fact that instead of selling SCHOLARSHIP AS USP — you run the risk of selling nothing because you have no clear profile.

Fortunately, this is not entirely true for me.

All my clients wanted me because the scholarly background played a role. But it was not the scholarship itself that made the difference in the end. For sure, it does not add much to the real value I create. That real value is in the speed of implementation, the creativity, and the entire process. In short: It is the method I have developed and the personal journey I create for clients. This is where I really bring in who I am: I invite them to grow with the book project as people who have already grown a lot but who look for more. This I can only do because there is this deeply intuitive and often rebellious artist inside. This is exactly the opposite of what scholars or consultants sell. But there is also all this scholarly training which allows me digest information and connect the dots on a level that non-scholars might not be able to.

This is why I am not marketing scholarship alone as USP.

But I am still a bit angry that I do not.

I am convinced I need more patience.

My decision to foreground the artistic instead of the analytical side when selling might be the wrong one or maybe it only exists in my head anyways. Maybe my clients see both parts simultaneously from the start. I do not know. I do ask them, of course, but the answers do not tell me much because, again, people then usually explain how I bring the scholarly perspective to the project and when I then ask them what they mean by that, I get an answer that actually does not have much to do with what scholarship actually is. So, I increasingly decide to keep quiet about the scholarship issue because it puts me in a position that I do not identify with at all.

O.k., so, where does the “ambition” aspect from the headline come in then if I definitely dislike the scholarly arrogance that often comes along with the label?

This is another difficult thing but it is important nevertheless: I have learned that a scholarly background does equip you with certain abilities that many other people lack. This is, again, not even related to the specific topic you worked on. It is mostly three things you learn: 1) discipline, 2) sticking to rules, 3) understanding complexity. If you did your Ph.D. or worked in university, you simply showed that you have endurance, you finish things, no matter what. You do stick to rules, no matter how shitty or dumb they might be — e.g., when citing footnotes and formating text. In addition, there is some cognitive aspect involved concerning processing abstract information. These are indeed valuable qualities, especially since many people lack them nowadays. Yes, they Google everything, yet, they learn nothing…

This endurance and the willingness to learn more, even finish academic degrees which take many years to complete, relate to the aspect of ambition. Since people from academia tend to have much intrinsic motivation, this can lead to even more and more ambition. If this is paired with some inborn competitive drive and a fighter spirit, it can get out of hands and shift to extremes. This is why I placed it in opposition to arrogance in the title. Ambition in and of itself is a driver, a motivation. The more academic background you have, the more you simply want to work on more complex things. It is not that you are consciously trying to say that all other things are for the less educated people or, in business, for the lower-level managers. It is just that you want to keep growing and learning, and then you need the respective people and the proper environment for this. This quickly brings the risk of overdoing it. If you happen to have a Ph.D., you can quickly end up in the same trap I described above:

Arrogant academic asshole — has all these degrees, knows nothing about the world, has no skills to actually get things done and keeps surrounding him/herself with only “smart and successful” people.

In this case, however, it is not an outside ascription.

It is what you actually want and embrace because you feel that only certain people on a certain level of can follow what you are saying and thinking.

Hence, the solution can only be in the middle — between too much ambition and too much arrogance. That might be a pretty disappointing finding at the end of such a fairly long post. But the point is, my self-critical even self-neglecting way of describing academics here suggests that you do need both extremes somehow. Only if you embrace ALL the talents that come along with a scholarly background will you be able to sell them appropriately. It is all about what you think you are or not that determines your USP. In my case, it is certainly not one or the other. It is the combination of the three — artist first, manager second, scholar third. If people are willing to embrace this multitude of strengths, they are the right clients. If not, then not.

My USP is everything that life has given to me as a gift so far.

My gift is to pass this on to clients.

To show them that there is more beyond the surface.

More to learn.

More space to grow beyond your own limits.

Reflection Questions

1) Were you ever accused of being arrogant? By whom and why?

2) Which characteristics do scholars have according to you?

3) What is your personal USP (no matter if you are employed or an entrepreneur)?

Founder & CEO of Companypoets