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SIOP Award Winners: Meet Kristin Cullen-Lester 2021 Early Career Award—Practice Award Winner

Liberty J. Munson

As part of our ongoing series to provide visibility into what it takes to earn a SIOP award or grant, we highlight a diverse class of award winners in each edition of TIP. We hope that this insight encourages you to consider applying for a SIOP award or grant because you are probably doing something amazing that can and should be recognized by your peers in I-O psychology!

This quarter, we are highlighting SIOP’s 2021 Early Career Award—Practice: Kristin Cullen-Lester.

Why did you apply?

I was hesitant, at first, to apply for this award because my primary employment position is now in academia. However, colleagues who supported my application encouraged me to apply, pointing to my efforts throughout my career to embody the scientist–practitioner model and positively impact employees and organizations by advancing the science of leadership development practice.


Share about who you are and what you do.

As a doctoral student at Auburn University, I developed a passion for SIOP’s mission of advancing the science and practice of the psychology of work. After graduating, I joined the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), an organization with a similar mission of advancing the science and practice of leadership for the benefit of society worldwide. My focus has been on advancing conceptualizations of leadership as a collective activity and developing scientifically grounded, practitioner-friendly tools/interventions to help individuals, teams, and organizations improve their networks. After 6 years working as a research scientist at CCL, I transitioned back into academia, first at the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston and now at the University of Mississippi School of Business Administration, where I am an assistant professor of Management. I also cofounded Network Leader, a startup aiming to inspire professionals to build meaningful relationships for good.

I chose this career path because it has enabled me to advance scientific thinking regarding leadership development practice through my research and, importantly, provided opportunities to impact practice directly by working with leaders to improve themselves and their organizations. I’ve worked across different sectors and industries (e.g., energy, healthcare, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, higher education, foundations):

  • Reframing key leadership concepts (e.g., collective leadership, boundary spanning) for employees at all levels in terms of networks.
  • Delivering custom and open-enrollment network-development sessions for first-time supervisors, middle managers, and senior executives.
  • Using network analysis insights to guide how several large organizations approach change efforts, including tapping informal leaders to accelerate rapid strategic change.
  • Diagnosing communication breakdowns and designing training inventions to address network fragmentation.
  • Identifying misalignment across networks of teams in their strategic goals that undermine effective collaboration.
  • Detecting fault lines within top teams and facilitating senior-team development.
  • Working with senior leaders to identify overload experts and key knowledge holders nearing retirement to aid talent development and succession management.


Describe the research/work that you did that resulted in this award. 

My qualifications for this award include:

  1.   Advancing the science of leadership development practice
    Leadership development has predominantly focused on improving human capital development (i.e., internal knowledge, skills, and abilities), paying less attention to social capital development (i.e., the network of relationships that yields valuable information, resources, and collaboration). Doing so has limited the ability of leadership development practice to deliver the leadership capacity needed in today’s complex and interdependent organizations.

    In an article for SIOP’s Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, my colleagues and I argue for expanding “the goal of development beyond only individual leaders’ competencies to the expansion of a collective’s (e.g., team, organization, community, and nation) ability to produce DAC” (direction, alignment, and commitment; Cullen et al., 2012, p. 429). Moreover, we argue that this shift in development requires network development. Unfortunately, while 77% of the leadership development practitioners we surveyed talk to their internal and external clients about networks, few practitioners (only 34%) utilize assessments to map network connections (Cullen-Lester et al., 2017). This gap is concerning because, although an accurate understanding of organizational networks is critical for leadership effectiveness, people often struggle to develop accurate network perceptions without assessment and development intervention.
    A strong conceptual grounding from which to intervene was also missing; thus, we clarified the multilevel targets (individuals, collectives) and approaches (i.e., developing one’s own, shaping others’, and cocreating collectives’ networks) for creating sustained changes in networks. The potential impact of this framework for the field was recognized recently, as we (Cullen-Lester et al.) were awarded the best paper for 2017 in The Leadership Quarterly.
  2. Pioneering CCL’s network-based leadership development practice
    When I joined CCL in 2011, the center was reconceptualizing its practice of leadership development to align with the view of leadership as an accomplishment of collectives (i.e., the production of shared direction, alignment, and commitment) rather than as the actions of only individuals in a formal leadership role. Network-based leadership development solutions would become an important means by which CCL engages in this work. During my time at CCL, we developed a point of view and business case for incorporating scientifically grounded network assessment and development into CCL's programs and services. To gain momentum for this initiative, I led the (a) organization of conferences that brought together CCL thought leaders, leading external practitioners, and network and leadership scholars; (b) presented at multiple CCL Board of Governors meetings to gain the endorsement of board members for the competitive advantage this work would provide CCL; and (c) delivered worldwide capability development sessions for CCL faculty (i.e., trainers, consultants) and staff to prepare them to deliver network-based leadership development. I am thrilled that CCL continues to invest in this work, and I'm honored to serve in an advisory capacity.
  3. Cocreating the Leader Network Diagnostic tool and certification
    Creating the networks that knit together organizations are individuals’ professional networks, which provide access to information, resources, and influence that enable performance and career progress. At Network Leader, we developed the Leader Network Diagnostic (LND) to address one of the major barriers I observed to incorporating network-based leadership development into practice: the varying comfort levels trainers have with network concepts, methods, and feedback. This digital assessment and feedback tool walks people through how to complete an assessment of their professional network. It provides them with feedback on their network structure, diversity, depth, and the resources their network provides. Throughout the assessment and the personally tailored feedback report, videos delivered by Phil Willburn and me explain key network concepts and insights. After completing the assessment, participants are ready to begin thinking about actions they can take to improve their network. We wanted to take the “heavy lift” off of practitioners (i.e., not require them to become experts in network methods and analyses) and instead enable them to focus on facilitating discussions in training or coaching sessions centered on actions participants can take to improve their networks. Hundreds of practitioners have become certified trainers of the LND, using our trainer materials (presentation deck, answers to frequently asked questions, etc.) in development initiatives within their organizations and external clients. Through the LND, we have reached over 30,000 leaders and working professionals, providing scientifically based network development.
  4. Educating managers/practitioners about the power of networks and network development
    The whole point of conducting network assessments is to take an expanded view (looking beyond intra-individual capabilities) by revealing the pattern of relationships that are critical to individual, team, and organizational success. Adopting this expanded perspective has massive potential for enhancing leadership development practice. To ensure that my impact on practice goes beyond my work with organizations, I have provided research papers, white papers, webinars, workshops, and presentations to help other practitioners expand their networks and leadership knowledge base. These activities have helped bridge science and practice and provide practitioners with network-analysis and -development techniques to add to their “toolbox.”

What do you see as the lasting/unique contribution of this work to our discipline? How can it be used to drive changes in organizations, the employee experience, and so on?

As mentioned before, leadership development has predominantly focused on improving human capital development. A potential reason for this is that there can be a rather steep learning curve when implementing network assessment and feedback. I hope that my research-and-development work will continue to make network-based leadership development more scientifically grounded and also more accessible so that it can be offered at scale in many different types of organizations.


What do you think was key to you winning this award?

Having colleagues who could speak to my work in its various facets in their letters of support was an important contributor to winning this award. For example,

  • Phil Willburn (CEO, Network Leader) wrote: “Kristin has the talent of translating dense scientific findings into consumable nuggets for managers and leaders. This skill enabled her to have a tremendous impact on our small start up and our key products. She has been critical in delivering a very niche concept–network leadership–to a broader audience who may never have been exposed to it.”
  • Cindy McCauley (CCL Senior Fellow, SIOP Fellow) gathered input from colleagues throughout the Center for Creative Leadership when writing her letter.  “Although Kristin contributed to other streams of our work, it was her leadership role in developing a network-based leadership development practice that had the greatest impact—on CCL and beyond… She contributed significantly to our leadership development practice as an innovator, a thought leader, and a designer of development interventions… Kristin introduced concepts from network science and worked with colleagues to articulate why these concepts were important for leadership development—particularly as notions of leadership development were broadening to include collective development… Speaking for myself and my CCL colleagues, we cannot think of anyone more deserving of the SIOP Distinguished Early Career Practice Contributions Award. We have witnessed Kristin’s impact as a scientist–practitioner on our own organization’s capabilities, on our client organizations, and on the broader leadership development field.”
  • Alison O’Malley (Senior Solution Consultant, BetterUp) and Greg Bean (Executive Director, Gutierrez Energy Management Institute) wrote about the direct impact that they witnessed on organizations and how working together helped them improve as practitioners.
    • Greg Bean wrote, “I was a management consultant in the energy industry for over 30 years. I have observed that Kristin’s approach, grounded in sound research and cutting-edge science, can be very powerful and is more innovative and scientifically grounded than that typically applied by even the most well-known consulting firms. This approach is especially valuable in times of rapid industry change like we are in today both in the short term due to the COVID crisis, drop in demand, and, in the long term, due to the transition to low carbon energy sources… I was particularly impressed with her feedback sessions with the CEO and other senior leaders, which provided participants immediate value by clarifying how well managers in the top levels of their organization are connected to drive strategic agility and organizational performance.… Kristin earned the respect of the CEO’s we worked with as an outstanding practitioner. Despite having a limited background in the energy industry, Kristin quickly understood the specific context of the industry and each organization. She was able to tailor the project to each company to offer the best advice and insights.”
    • Alison O’Malley wrote, “Kristin facilitated my awakening to what must happen in order to perform high-quality, high-impact research in organizations. Her applied work on incorporating social networks into leadership development has profoundly shaped my professional path and positively impacted hundreds of teams in dozens of organizations… Kristin is advancing the cutting-edge science and practice of networks and leadership development, and she is terrifically deserving of this award.”


Are you still doing work/research in the same area where you won the award? If so, what are you currently working on in this space? If not, what are you working on now and how did you move into this different work/research area?

Yes! Incorporating networks into leadership development continues to be a primary focus of my work.

I am working on research that aims to better understand network development and utilization and whether women and underrepresented minorities develop different networks and/or receive different returns from their networks. The insights from this work have important implications for individual training and leader development, not only for the people who are attempting to build and utilize their networks but also for the people with whom they interact (e.g., their contacts and third parties). Each set of people has an important role in ensuring that networks do not perpetuate career inequities.

Through research supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), I’m aiming to discover the most effective ways to share network assessment feedback with the senior leaders, who will use this information to help guide their organization into an uncertain future (Carter & Cullen-Lester, 2019). In this project, we deliver custom feedback to participating organizations regarding

  • Strategic alignment regarding future direction and priorities,
  • Sufficiency of upward influence flowing from lower to higher level managers,
  • Disproportionate influence or exclusion from strategic conversations with senior leaders (i.e., problems with diversity, equity, and inclusion),
  • Groups working at cross-purposes (collaboration problems) rather than for the good of the organization as a whole,
  • Lack of trust and perceived competence between and within groups that lead different parts of the organization,
  • Difficulty adapting to changes required to succeed in the “new normal” created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now is a critical time for companies to participate in this kind of analysis. Organizations need to determine how their strategy development and implementation need to shift and what they must do to support crucial networks within their organization in the face of a new normal characterized by greater uncertainty, hybrid work, and frequent workplace disruption. We are providing senior leaders with the information they need to make data-based decisions. For example, the president of an academic institution recently decided to reorganize reporting structures to facilitate better vertical and lateral communication to improve agility and accelerate alignment around the strategies that will enable the institution’s future success. This is an ongoing project, and Dorothy Carter (University of Georgia) and I would like to encourage readers to learn more by visiting our website: https://strategicleadershipsystems.org/


What piece of advice would you give to someone new to I-O psychology? (If you knew then what you know now…)

I have two basic pieces of advice, which are probably not surprising given my area of focus.

First, embrace the science and practice sides of our field. Although not always easy, it has been incredibly beneficial for me to work directly at the intersection of science and practice. My research is richer and more impactful because of my experiences working with leaders and their organizations. The insights I can bring to leaders to help solve workplace challenges are more useful because they have a strong scientific evidence base.  

Second, work with people who challenge, support, and energize you. I love my work, and a big reason why is because of the relationships I have with my coauthors and colleagues.

Photo: Kristin and her husband Houston, enjoying a summer walk with their golden retrievers Rory and Carson.


Carter, D. R., & Cullen-Lester, K. L. (2019). Collaborative research: Strategic leadership systems: How networks of strategic communication and informal influence arise and drive firm performance (3/1/2019–2/28/2022). The National Science Foundation (NSF), Science of Organizations (SoO).

Cullen, K. L., Palus, C. J., Chrobot-Mason, D., & Appaneal, C. (2012). Getting to “we”: Collective leadership development. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 5, 431–436.

Cullen-Lester, K. L., Maupin, C., & Carter, D. R. (2017). Incorporating networks into leadership development: A conceptual model and evaluation of research and practice. Leadership Quarterly, 28(1), 130–152.


About the author:

Liberty Munson is currently the director of Psychometrics of the Microsoft Worldwide Learning programs in the Worldwide Learning organization. She is responsible for ensuring the validity and reliability of Microsoft’s certification programs. Her passion is for finding innovative solutions to business challenges that balance the science of assessment design and development with the realities of budget, time, and schedule constraints. Most recently, she has been presenting on the future of testing and how technology can change the way we assess skills.

Liberty loves to bake, hike, backpack, and camp with her husband, Scott, and miniature schnauzer, Apex. If she’s not at work, you’ll find her enjoying the great outdoors or in her kitchen tweaking some recipe just to see what happens.

Her advice to someone new to I-O psychology?

Statistics, statistics, statistics—knowing data analytic techniques will open A LOT of doors in this field and beyond!

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