Capes, Cars and Classrooms
In the wake of the recent economic crisis, many companies, such as General Motors and Yahoo, are restructuring and reorganizing in the midst of new CEOs, bankruptcies, and bailouts. Denny Gioia, professor of organizational behavior at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, knows a thing or two about a companies needing to change.
In the 1970s, Gioia served as corporate recall coordinator for Ford Motor Co. and was initially in charge of the infamous Ford Pinto fires case in 1973-74 -- which resulted in a recall of the vehicles because of exploding gas tanks during rear-end collisions and an eventual indictment of Ford in 1980 on charges of reckless homicide.
Prior to his work at Ford, Gioia worked for Boeing Aerospace at Cape Kennedy as an engineer during the Apollo/Saturn lunar missions, where he was a member of the launch teams for Apollo 11 and 12, and the build team for Apollo 13. (In this recent article celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo lunar landing, Gioia recalls watching the launch as an engineer.)
Gioia’s path to Smeal started as a pre-teen, when his fascination with space flight began. Living in Florida close to Cape Kennedy (then known as Cape Canaveral), he knew his ticket to the space program was through engineering, so he majored in engineering science at Florida State University and went on to get his M.B.A there as well.
Although he did achieve his goal of working at Cape Kennedy, it was the combination of his engineering degree and M.B.A that landed him the job at Ford during the recession of 1972. A self-proclaimed “car guy,” Gioia wanted to work for Ford on their racing team but to his dismay, the team was shut down a month before he arrived.
Although he saw himself on the fast track to success at Ford, Gioia says the words of one of his MBA professors continued to reverberate in his head, “You belong in academia. If you’re not back in three years, I give up on you.” Surely enough, Gioia decided that he was fascinated by organizations and could make a career out of it.
After leaving Ford in 1975, Gioia decided to go back to school at Florida State for his doctorate in Management and Organizational Behavior.
“Being at Boeing and Ford is where I developed my views of how organizations work, how they should work, and how they should not,” says Gioia, who claims his experiences at these companies motivated him to enter into academia.
Gioia now conducts research on the topics of organizational identity, image and reputation, sensemaking in organizations, corporate recalls, and organizational change processes. “My research stems from my practical experience and my interest in making organizations work better,” says Gioia. “If you understand how an organization works, you get some good insight into how to manage it.”
In 1992, Gioia wrote “Pinto Fires and Personal Ethics: A Script Analysis of Missed Opportunities,” published in the Journal of Business Ethics, which offers an insider account of his personal experience with the Pinto Fires case and the organizational dynamics that surrounded while he was at Ford.
Although a lot of his research stems from his professional experience, Gioia also takes it back to basics by studying the origins and effects of organizational identity and its association with various organizational successes and failures.
Gioia says his research, while covering many areas of management, all fits under the umbrella of trying to understand how people (and leaders) make sense of their organizational experience – and how leaders “give sense” to organization members in attempting to initiate and accomplish change.
“I’m concerned with the ways people’s perceptions, decisions, and actions are influenced by how they think. You need to understand that stuff if you’re going to ask people to change,” he says.
In addition to his research, Gioia teaches graduate students in the MBA and Executive MBA programs at Smeal and he particularly enjoys his first-semester MBA course on managing people and organizations. “The course is designed to have people understand themselves in a managerial setting and to begin to think like leaders and managers,” says Gioia.
According to Gioia, discussion is the key to learning in his courses. “I’m like a traffic cop guiding discussion, leading students toward a conclusion that results in a principle that’s portable,” explains Gioia. He tries to instill in his students a set of memorable guiding principles that they can remember and apply in future managerial settings, even five or more years after they have been in his class.
Gioia came to Penn State on a three-year contract – 30 years ago. He is currently Chair of the Management and Organization Department at Smeal. “After three years at Ford, I let it all go to do this,” he said. “I could have been rich, but I don’t regret it for a minute.”