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How Writing Helps Executives Attack Challenges: Bruce Craven Q&A

December 20, 2021

For years, Bruce Craven’s career traveled dual tracks: one as a business educator, one as an author and screenwriter. He was successful in both, publishing a novel that he eventually adapted for the screen (2001’s Fast Sofa starring Jennifer Tilley) while serving as program director at Columbia Business School.

Then he realized he could combine the two, using his creative writing skills and insights, to teach business managers and executives. Currently an adjunct associate professor at Columbia Business School, Craven teaches in the MBA, Executive MBA, and Advanced Management Program, helping professionals improve their communication skills while tapping into the powers of imagination and creativity.

Craven is one of many educators leading experiential modules in the Columbia Business School Executive Education Advanced Management Program, a 22-week intensive learning path for high-level executives. Below, he reflects on the power of writing and communication to transform business, the techniques to build communication skills, and the surprising business revelations found in Game of Thrones.

At what point in your career did your writing and your interest in business education converge?

It was probably about 20 years ago. By that point, I had worked in executive education for 12 years, but I saw my writing and teaching as two separate paths. I was a working writer with a novel published and a film produced. My work in executive education entailed many different roles, from sales to running programs to co-writing curricula.

“When we communicate what’s important, we reveal ourselves.”

And then, at one point, I had an aha moment. I was reading Joseph Campbell. He was talking about how we can miss our true path if we accept the path that someone else establishes for us. Suddenly I had an insight. I realized that my path might just be bringing together writing, fiction, poetry, film — all fictional narratives with the challenges of leadership. In an instant, something that had seemed like a negative was transformed into a hugely intriguing positive opportunity.

Executive-level success requires a broad range of high-level skills. How important is communication within that skillset?

Oh, it’s very significant. Look at what a business leader in any organization needs to do. They need to relay to people what’s important. They need to gather feedback. They’re constantly engaged in persuading others to follow their lead. They’re always involved in some level of negotiation and in formulating strategic plans. They’re always gathering information on what happened in the past. All of that involves effective communication.

In addition, when we communicate what’s important, we reveal ourselves. Being able to do that in a way that’s authentic and natural to you, having clarity about your own emotions and why you’re excited about something or troubled by something, and accomplishing all of that in a way that builds trust, is critical to success.

“Writing helps executives envision how they want to lead others and attack future challenges.”

How can executives use writing as a tool to improve their management skills?

One of the first exercises I created after gaining this insight was a workshop where executives write stories envisioning themselves facing challenges. As I kept working on this, I realized that writing and visualizing oneself in a story is a great way to predict potential obstacles, identify your insecurities and face challenges, and redirect yourself to be more proactive and attack those opportunities positively.

Today, we complete exercises where people look back to explore how they faced adversity. They look at how others helped resolve their problems. Then they complete several reflection exercises to collect the valuable information and organize it to gain clarity. The resulting insights enable them to be more effective leaders going forward.

I’ve been running this workshop for 20 years, so I can say from experience that writing helps executives envision how they want to lead others and attack future challenges. Additionally, it’s beneficial for looking at different possible decisions and thinking them through. It’s a good exercise for evaluating which decisions can lead to success for you and your organization.

It’s also an excellent resource for looking back at your history. It helps you reflect on inspirational leadership learning moments, to look back on your journey to see how you become the person you are today. It’s a tool for building authenticity and clarity about what matters to you as a leader.

What other exercises do you use to teach business communication?

This is something I use in my MBA and EMBA courses and the Advanced Management Program. I have participants create a leadership message linking to experiences from their lives and using their experiences to drive commitment from other people. In the MBA and EMBA courses, it’s a big part of their final assignment. The goal is to help others understand how you learned that something was important and why your team needs to rally around that learning.

An effective message has to be crafted in a way that people will respond. It’s challenging and a little intimidating for senior executives because committing to something important to you that you believe in is revealing. Asking someone to follow you is an intense moment. It matters. When people get a chance to prepare and practice and learn a model to construct messages, that helps them in their executive lives — especially when coupled with learning how to access and express your values.

There’s one more exercise I’m very excited about. It’s called the Living Case. It works best in a program like the Advanced Management Program, where you get contributions from people who come from different organizations, different roles in that organization, and different countries. It starts with one participant writing a short description of a challenge they’re facing in their organization. The summary is two to three pages long. Once that’s complete, we form small groups of people from different industries, different countries, and different roles. They read the case and ask the case writer a few questions to gain clarity. Then the case writer leaves the room, and the small group applies what they’ve learned in the program to this particular challenge.

What happens is that they bring fresh perspectives and see opportunities that the case writer was too close to the challenge to see. When the group’s work is done, they call in the case writer and say, “Here are some things we think you ought to consider in terms of confronting this challenge.” It’s a way of taking a lot of the ideas and key learning insights from the program and allowing participants to apply them to a very specific challenge.

Your most recent book is about leadership lessons in Game of Thrones. What should executives take away from GoT?

First, for those who don’t know, Game of Thrones is a popular television series based on a very popular series of novels. They’re epic fantasy novels; the fiction is of the highest order. There are dragons, so there’s a fantasy element and an epic element. There is war, massive battles, families and fierce fights among them. The stakes in this environment are very high. One small mistake and you can get your head cut off, or someone close to you may die or pay a horrible price.

My book dives into how to lead yourself and others in an intense, demanding environment. Now, most of us never encounter a dragon nor get threatened with a sword, but our environments have their own intensity levels. They require our commitment and effectiveness to navigate risk, and the book focuses on how you help others, build trust, and lead people to be adaptable against adversity. One of the most prominent themes is how to build resilience to lead yourself and others against adversity in your professional life so that you win rather than die.

I should add that a lot of the ideas in the book are drawn from other Advanced Management Program faculty; they were hugely influential to me. The book allowed me to honor professors who have created transformational material; I just put it through the lens of Game of Thrones to make it intense and fun.

What distinguishes Columbia Business School Executive Education’s Advanced Management Program from similar executive education programs?

I’ve been with the School and program for a little over 30 years. From day one, I could see our potential was our creativity as a business school. That has only grown exponentially over all these years. The program leaders constantly look for creative ways to help executives make the best use of their time and instill new, impactful ideas in them. A world-class faculty delivers information in digestible doses, so it’s easy to use in the heat of battle. There’s an emphasis on experiential learning. My writing workshop is an experiential class. Part of the learning is the actual writing of each individual story. That’s something that many executives have never done before, and some of them will never do it again. It’s an experience that produces profound learning. The program constantly asks itself: can we find new ways to help people?

The other thing I would say is that the program focuses on recognizing that all individuals have their own authentic set of experiences and have lived individual lives. We try to bring all of that together to help the leaders find their internal clarity so they can express themselves and lead others effectively. We don’t provide answers. We provide the mechanism for you to decide what kind of leader you want to be and how to do it to the best of your abilities.

The Advanced Management Program by Columbia Business School Executive Education builds its curriculum on three pillars: leading authentically, thinking strategically, and executing dynamically. Communication is critical to all three, especially to leading authentically: you can’t lead others without self-awareness and the ability to convey your insights. Bruce Craven’s session is just one of many that help you build and hone these skills.

Over 50+ sessions that include lectures, workshops, discussions, and experiential learning events, the Advanced Management Program explores novel approaches to leadership, innovation, alignment, and strategy. You’ll learn alongside other high-level executives from various industries, business functions, and countries to benefit from a rich mix of experience and insight. After you complete the program, you’ll join Columbia Business School’s vast global alumni network. Post-program coaching sessions help you continue your learning far into the future.

If you are a senior executive seeking an experience to jumpstart innovation, creativity, and change, the Advanced Management Program may be the right fit for you. Apply today.

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