Hoover fellow Condoleezza Rice talks about embracing change, as well as making it happen.
Katherine Bell, Harvard Business Review: How does it feel to be back at Stanford after eight years away?
Condoleezza Rice: It’s great. In some ways I don’t feel as though I’ve been away. I’ve been here since 1981, so it’s coming back home. I’m teaching in the business school this time, which I hadn’t done before, but teaching is very familiar to me, Stanford is very familiar to me, being involved in Stanford sports is very familiar to me. So it’s been a pretty easy transition back. And I was really ready to leave government.
Bell: You’ve specialized in big career moves between sectors. How have you made those transitions work?
Rice: I believe you should never spend your time being the former anything. I wasn’t the former special assistant for Soviet affairs, I was the new provost. And I wasn’t the former provost, I was the new national security adviser. And now I don’t plan to be the former secretary of state, either. I think if you take that attitude, then you fall more easily into a new environment.
You have to leave behind the context of what you were doing and adapt to the new context, but the nice thing about making these transitions back and forth is you can bring new skills and new ways of looking at problems.
Bell: What piece of knowledge from your academic career did you find most useful in the State Department?
Rice: I found it useful to remember that most institutions don’t want to change. They’re institutions because they’ve developed a certain set of traditions and norms and expertise, and change is hard. A lot of the work I’d done as an academic affirmed that usually institutions change when they’re failing. It’s very hard to make them change when they’re succeeding. They take the cues too late from the environment. The question is, how do you get a relatively successful institution to respond to really new challenges? The fact that I’d studied how institutions develop was very helpful when I found myself leading a Department of State that was having to adapt to a post-9/11 world.