Innovator Article

Jim Olson Helps Students Hone Their “Leadership DNA”

Veteran Silicon Valley Executive Named Robert A. Fox Executive-in-Residence

Image of Jim Olson Helps Students Hone Their “Leadership DNA”


For Jim Olson, leadership is a lot like tennis. We bring our natural athletic and mental tendencies to the game, we learn the fundamentals, we have mentors, we study the pros, and we apply it all on the court, looking to improve our performance.

As this year’s Robert A. Fox Executive-in-Residence, Olson has put the tennis analogy into play in his winter quarter course, Game Changing Leadership: One Size Fits One, to help MBA students better understand, develop and apply their “leadership DNA.”

“Just as tennis players are born with things they can’t change; their grip size, length of their legs, and some important cognitive characteristics, each of us are different in certain characteristics important to the leadership equation,” says Olson. “You can say we are born with some of these.  And the rest are learned through our experiences.”

Olson brings plenty of know-how, self-discovery and perspective to share with the 50 students in the class. His distinguished career spans more than 40 years leading several high-technology businesses for two Fortune companies in the Silicon Valley—Hewlett Packard and 3Com—and nearly a decade as CEO of SkyStream Networks, a leading global video technology provider.

An accomplished motivational speaker, author and active angel investor, Olson founded WestShore Management Group in April 2007 to provide interim CEO, corporate consulting and executive development services for public and private venture-financed companies.
At the Graduate School of Management, Olson has taught courses on Teams and Technology, Negotiations, and Technology Management. He also advises start-ups at the UC Davis Engineering Translational Technology Center, which he helped launch in 2010 to accelerate the commercialization of innovative and promising engineering research. BestCollegesOnline.com recently ranked the center among its “10 College Business Incubators We’re Most Excited About.”

In his course, Olson says one of his goals is to show students why some leaders succeed while others fail when both are faced with similar challenges, situations and environments. These factors, he says, include our personality, emotional intelligence, situational perseverance, values, views of ethical practices, views of the role and importance of teams, and reliance on our intuition. 

Olson is drawing from Jim Collins’ book, Great by Choice, guest speakers who will relate their leadership DNA discovery experiences, and case studies, including his own from leading SkyStream Networks.

To better understand their perceived strengths and weaknesses, students will take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment, keep a private personal learning journal and put their leadership skills to the test in a team project.

“The idea for the course is give students short cuts to discover what makes them unique and what they may not even know about their leadership ability,” Olson says. “I want them to maximize the value of their unique individuality by taking a deep look within themselves to know how to persevere when the chips are down and lead their organizations through the fire.”

—by Tim Akin

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