The Practitioner Scholar

Doctor of Management Blog

Stephen P. Miller: Bridging the Gap

May 28, 2014 ·

The DM experience has been a journey of personal and professional discovery.  After a 35-year career as the senior non-family executive in a large privately-owned family business and six years as an adjunct professor of family business at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I became keenly aware of the need to bridge the gap between the practitioner and academic worlds in which I lived.  Much of the decision making I observed in the practitioner world was based on anecdotal information and narrow personal experience, often characterized by making a decision and then seeking facts which would support the decision already made.  On the other hand, much of the academic research in my field was very narrowly focused and often seemed only remotely related to the issues faced by practitioners.  I also stumbled across research that was highly relevant and useful, but it was often published in academic journals practitioners know nothing about and never read.  Weatherhead’s innovative DM Program was designed to fill that gap, and it delivers on the promise of teaching DM students to do rigorous relevant research.

My research on leadership development in family-owned enterprises is allowing me to establish my own voice in a field for which I have great passion.  I can speak and write with greater authority and confidence because I have gained a greater understanding of the theory which informed my own studies and because the results of my research have helped me to develop new insights into the complex process of leadership development in a family business context.

From a technical point of view, learning to design and execute qualitative and quantitative studies has helped me gain an appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches, and the value of integrating the two methodologies.   The training we have received on statistical analysis has made it possible for me to more adequately evaluate the quality of research papers and articles to determine if I should pay attention to or ignore the results.

From a more holistic point of view, our coursework on leadership, ethics, complexity theory, designing sustainable systems, the history of business, and cooperation and conflict in the global arena have broadened my perspective on a wide variety of social science issues.  My mind is more open to different ways of perceiving the world and I have learned to ask, “Why do you think that?” much more often before making up my own mind on an issue.

Finally, the value of relationships formed with the faculty, staff, and members of my own and the other DM cohorts cannot be overstated.  Faculty and staff, who are incredibly busy people, have been remarkably attentive to any request for help or information.  They have been patient with helping an old dog learn new tricks to follow his passion in a second career.  And the other DM students are simply remarkable.  They come from many different backgrounds and have an incredible variety of interests and expertise.  The collegial culture of my cohort has been characterized by cooperation and support, with each member always eager to help the others.  We have bonded through a truly unique growth experience and have formed friendships that will last for a lifetime.

Stephen P. Miller is President of GenSpan, Inc. and works with business-owning families to help them develop world-class sustainable family enterprises.  He served as the senior non-family executive for The Biltmore Company, a Vanderbilt/Cecil family business in Asheville, NC, for 35 years and now teaches two courses on family business at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.  He is currently pursuing his PhD in Management:  Designing Sustainable Systems at Case Western Reserve University in the Weatherhead School of Management.  Steve can be reached at

Tags: DM Reflections

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