Billy Byham atop Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa(Photo provided)
Bill Byham has climbed Table Mountain in Cape Town twice. First in 1973 when he was beginning to take his business, Development Dimensions International (DDI), global. He scaled it again last winter, 40 years later. Both South African ascents are symbolic of a man who has reached the top of his field in industrial organizational psychology.
Byham (PhD PSY '63, HDR '07) is nearly a brand name himself in business circles. He formed DDI in the basement of his home in 1970 with Douglas Bray, a fellow PhD. The two took the assessment center method — which evaluates individuals for higher-level positions by putting them in simulations of the challenges they will encounter in a new job — to staggering new heights throughout the corporate world. DDI is now one of the big five in human resource consulting with 50 PhD and 58 master's-level industrial organizational psychologists. They've trained more than 20 million leaders worldwide in assessment centers for heavyweights such as AT&T, Shell Oil and more.
For Byham, who thought he might maintain DDI from his basement and teach at the college level, the mission of the global giant resonates from his PhD days 50 years ago. "In the broadest sense, I've been doing the same things ever since I left Purdue — leadership assessment and development," he says. "Of course, everything has advanced tremendously, particularly relative to technology."
His own career advanced rapidly upon leaving West Lafayette. A West Virginia native who attended Ohio University for his undergraduate degree, Byham always wanted to live and work in New York City. He landed a dream job as the assistant to the CEO of a large advertising agency in the glory days of the advertising business. He says the Mad Men television drama is more real than you can imagine. "I did that for two years but wasn't using my industrial organization training," he says. "Still, it was a great opportunity to learn how to run a big business."
Byham's industrial organizational psychology career took off during a six-year stint at J.C. Penney, where he introduced cutting-edge testing, performance management and assessment center systems. He wrote an article about his groundbreaking assessment centers for the Harvard Business Review — the first article for the general public about the methodology. Soon after that he took the entrepreneurial leap.
The secret to his success may be in the unique way DDI develops leadership skills. "We treat leadership training as a skill and not a personal philosophy," Byham says. "It's just like learning to play tennis. We tell them how to handle a situation, show a video model and then facilitate practice."
The author of nearly 25 books, Byham wrote Zapp! The Lighting of Empowerment in 1990. Zapp! echoed loudly throughout the marketplace, selling more than 3.5 million copies. It's also been lauded as one of the best business books ever written.
Byham remembers his Purdue days fondly. It was the No. 1 school for industrial psychology in the 1960s, he says. "The wonderful thing about my life is that I've stayed in that same area. But I've changed my focus every five years. If I get interested in something, I get the company interested in it."