Former brickie’s labourer, truck driver and university drop-out, Dr Mark Strom, a Western PhD graduate, is now an innovative business consultant, published author and keynote speaker. As Head of Innovation and Design at Third Horizon Consulting, he led transformation in schools, mining companies and other large organisations, and went on to work as Principal Director, Innovation & Thought Leadership at Accenture.
According to Mark, the best starting point is an organisation’s people and their stories.
“I’m still surprised at how business strips out the human factor,” he says. “When you value what people have, rather than mapping them against set criteria … it makes people happy (and) it’s smart for business to leverage individuals’ strengths.”
People recognising Mark’s potential helped trigger his own turnaround.
After dropping out of his first university degree within three weeks, Mark worked as a brickie’s labourer and truck driver until he met an older gentleman who appreciated his bright, inquisitive nature. It was the classic tale of someone taking an interest in your story – he said “you probably do have a brain – why don’t you study?” Encouraged, Mark completed an undergraduate degree in theology, philosophy and history before furthering his studies at a graduate school in the US. When he failed an exam for criticising the question rather than answering it, he caught the attention of a kind professor. “He introduced me to his colleagues who became my mentors for the next three years.”
Mark went on to complete a PhD at Western on the history of ideas and contemporary concerns around leadership.
“Being able to take a multidisciplinary approach attracted me to Western Sydney University,” says Mark. “When you look at questions of ambiguity and complexity in business, philosophy and history show us that it’s not about looking at the problem, it’s about how we position ourselves in relation to it.” When engaged to help Sydney Trains improve their customer service, he encouraged them to ditch typical customer service guidelines and instead seek insights from their best frontline staff. “When you take the time to work with people and have robust conversations, that’s when you get real, positive change.”
Mark says the best business solutions come from asking the right questions.
These are his examples of how to re-frame typical management questions to bring people and context to the fore:
- Change “what culture do we need?” to “of whom are we proud?”
- From “what’s our engagement strategy?” to “what fuels our pride? What kills it?"
- From “what were the key points in our discussion?” to “what idea did we just avoid, sideline or dismiss because we are too afraid to ask, say or hear it?”