Leadership Lessons

One alumnus is CFO of the major airline he joined right out of Owen. Another's focus on toys has taken him to Europe and back. Vanderbilt alumni share their personal leadership paths.

From the Summer 2014 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Leadership is as much art as science. Its components can be studied, but to see it in practice is to develop an appreciation for the intangibles that turn those components into success. In training not just executives but leaders, Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management has long provided both practical and personal lessons.

Vanderbilt was pivotal in the lives of each of these alumni. What they drew from their experience is as varied as their personalities and backgrounds, but all built on their time at Owen while advancing careers that are challenging and successful.

Flight Plan on Course

Paul Jacobson, MBA’97
Executive Vice President, Chief Financial Officer, Delta Air Lines

Career Path Milestones:
Senior VP of Finance, Treasurer, Financial Analyst, Delta

Paul Jacobson
Paul Jacobson, MBA’97

The best career decision Paul Jacobson ever made, he says, was “ignoring Peter Veruki’s advice.”

There may be a touch of humor in Jacobson’s statement about the legendary former head of Owen’s career center, but the story is indicative of the way Jacobson has always dealt with roadblocks to his dreams. New at Vanderbilt, he met with Veruki and the placement staff “to tell them that my goal was to get a job with an airline. Peter spent two years trying to talk me out of it, saying I should think about Wall Street.”

But Jacobson had dreamed of flying since boyhood, and when childhood asthma and a lack of resources grounded that goal early on, the goal of working for an airline took its place. By the time he got to Owen, he had earned his pilot’s license and a degree in aviation management from Auburn. When the closest aviation job he could find was with McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis, he decided, “getting an MBA would open some doors.”

Owen did just that.

“There’s just something about following your passion that will always lead to happiness.”

“I learned a lot about finance and accounting, but most important, how to think critically,” he says. “On the softer side, with such a small class and collaborative culture, I learned a lot about working in teams. That’s not a skill everyone has.”

He also learned from Clinical Professor of Management Fred Talbott’s communications class. “To this day,” he says, “the most nerve-racking project I have ever undertaken was his five-minute stand-up comedy routine. I’ve never felt more exposed.”

Lifelong overcomer

While Veruki’s warning had some merit (“I still owe him one for bringing down the average salary from that class at first,” Jacobson says), Jacobson landed at Delta, starting as a $40,000-a-year financial analyst. He was the firm’s treasurer at 33 and its chief financial officer at 40.

His rise to CFO, he says, came in part because he followed a passion for capital markets, learning enough to make himself invaluable and a natural for the post. “I like to say that they promoted me by default,” he says.

As a lifelong overcomer, he is grateful for the bad as well as the good the job has offered.

“It’s not about achieving perfection,” he says. “It’s about getting things done and steadily improving. I spend a lot of time with the new MBAs at Delta each year. I try to instill patience into them. Everyone is looking for rapid advancement and is often chasing titles. I try to tell them that it is the experience you are getting that is going to get you ahead in the long term, and to try to stay focused on that.”

Major challenge

“The stakes were never higher than when we were taking the company through the bankruptcy process,” Jacobson says. “I was fortunate to be part of a laser-focused team with a clear strategy for turning the company around. I came out of the process with a much deeper sense of capital stewardship, and it has helped fuel our desire to change the history of this company and the industry that it is in.”

These days, when he talks about Veruki’s advice and his own humble start at Delta, he adds a qualifier—“I graduated first in my class for getting exactly what I wanted out of a Vanderbilt degree.” The lessons of his life figure prominently in his worldview and the things he passes along to those setting out on their own paths.

“There’s just something about following your passion,” he says, “that will always lead to happiness.”

The Thing That Gets You Excited

Adena Friedman, MBA’93
President, Global Corporate, Information, and Technology Solutions, NASDAQ

Career Path Milestones:
Chief Financial Officer, The Carlyle Group
CFO/Vice President for Corporate Strategy, NASDAQ

Adena Friedman
Adena Friedman,MBA’93

“The key to great leadership is that you don’t pretend to know every answer,” says Adena Friedman, president of global corporate, information, and technology solutions, NASDAQ in Washington, D.C. “If you’ve got the right voices around you and you’re listening to them, you don’t have to feel alone in making decisions, even when they’re staring at you.”

That mix of discernment and experience were part of her Vanderbilt education, reinforced particularly, she says, by Professor of Management David Rados. “He was our case study professor in marketing and he was a very hard teacher—just cutthroat—and I loved it. You had to be prepared. We did product management, which I ended up doing for the vast majority of my career.”

It was a key component of a period made all the more important by the fact that she was fresh out of college.

“What Owen got was a very enthusiastic, somewhat opinionated, higher-energy person,” she says, “and what they pushed out the door was a business-oriented thinker able to turn soft skills into hard skills and apply them to an industry I really wanted to go into.”

From researcher to CFO

Friedman joined NASDAQ, rising from researcher to CFO in 18 years. Key challenges came when she was given NASDAQ’s $100 million data business (which grew to $250 million) and then oversight of corporate strategy as well.

“The key to great leadership is that you don’t pretend to know every answer.”

“Suddenly I’ve got to find a way to bolster the trading business and expand in new ways. I started looking at merger and acquisition candidates on the trading side, which I’d never done before,” she says. “Our CEO, Bob Greifeld, put a lot of faith me and it was a lot of fun.”

She was key in the acquisition of Brut, a relatively small but important electronic trading system, and of INET.

During her time there, NASDAQ failed in attempting a hostile takeover of the London Stock Exchange, which she views as a key learning experience. “We learned a great deal about political and cultural sensitivities in addition to the structural complexities,” she says. “That helped us do better the next time around when we purchased OMX, which was a far more strategically aligned asset than London would have been.”

Chaos and decisions

She faced trial by fire when NASDAQ realigned its business following collusion charges after a 1994 study by Owen professor Bill Christie and Notre Dame’s Paul Schultz indicated that the exchange’s market makers inflated trading profits. Friedman was among seven of 14 vice presidents retained in the reorganization in a period marked by increased workloads and chaos.

“I asked my mentor what I should do. Should I stay?” she says. “He said, ‘You’re a survivor. Why would you leave now? The best days are in front of you.’ He was totally right.”

She did stay at NASDAQ and rose to CFO. She left NASDAQ in 2011 to serve as CFO of The Carlyle Group, but recently returned to NASDAQ. As president of the exchange’s information services, technology solutions and corporate client group business segments, Friedman directs strategy and operations, as well as has financial responsibility for those businesses.

Her experience prompts two pieces of advice for current students.

“Take a chance,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to try something new and different even without a clear understanding of the path it might take you down. Find the thing that gets you excited and it will probably take you in the right direction.

“And don’t be too greedy too young. Don’t turn down an opportunity because it doesn’t give you enough money right away. I probably took down the salary average for Owen in my early years with NASDAQ, but I never regretted it because the opportunities that came my way were terrific.”

Making a Business Leader from an Engineer

Steve Gruver, Executive MBA’01
Co-CEO/Owner, Orchid International

Career Path Milestones:
Manufacturing Engineer, Grumman Allied

Steve Gruver
Steve Gruver, Eexecutive MBA’01

Steve Gruver knew the value of mixing school and work. He’d worked for the local Grumman factory while attending high school and the Pennsylvania College of Technology. While earning his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology, he worked for Grumman through a co-op program.

It was eight years later that Gruver, now running his own business in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., discovered a different mix of school and work. Gruver allowed a group of Vanderbilt Executive MBA students to use his company, Orchid International, as the subject of its final strategy project. He wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

“I worked closely with them,” he says. “I was impressed with them and the tools they were using to analyze our company. The group’s final presentation blew me away. After that experience, I was sold. I needed to try to get into that program.”

Gruver’s 2001 Vanderbilt MBA for Executives turned him from an engineer into a business leader just at the right time.

Irresistible opportunity

After graduation from RIT in 1989, Gruver had overseen manufacturing engineering at Grumman’s South Carolina plant, but was looking for something more.

He found it when he met Grant Bibby, an engineer who had recently started a small automation company. Gruver left Grumman, the two joined forces, and six months later, he was operating Orchid’s U.S. sales office out of his apartment.

“Looking back,” he says, “it does seem like it was a big risk, but at the time, it didn’t. I could not resist the opportunity to grow a business from the ground floor.”

Orchid originally provided custom automation. The firm designed and built quick die change systems for smaller presses and tooling, primarily in the appliance industry, then moved into other automation for metal stamping.

“Immediately apply what I learned made the process very enjoyable and rewarding.”

“Soon we were designing, building and installing large-scale automation systems for major automotive manufacturers,” he says. In 1994, the firm acquired a metal stamping operation and moved it to Tennessee. The facility attracted the team of Owen students and led to Gruver’s own Executive MBA.

Immediately applicable

When he applied to Owen, Gruver’s metal stamping and automation company was dealing with investors, acquisitions and an eventual realignment. “The majority of my time was spent growing and managing the business,” he says. “An executive MBA program made good sense.” Eventually, three other Orchid executives earned Vanderbilt business degrees as well.

“It was challenging to balance the workload, but immediately applying what I learned made the process very enjoyable and rewarding,” he says of his Vanderbilt education. “The class was divided into small groups. As a team, we worked very well together and the team provided a support system to get us through the difficult and challenging times.”

He says the knowledge gained through Ray Friedman’s Organizational Behavior, Germain Böer’s Cost Accounting and a strategy project with Rick W. Oliver was especially valuable. “Understanding accounting principles was extremely important as a business owner,” he says. “Germain had a way to teach this in very simple and basic terms that made sense.”

In 2004, Orchid sold its automation business to focus on metal stamping. The 2008 economic downturn further focused its business and prompted use of the skills and teamwork Gruver had polished at Owen.

“It forced us to consolidate and get very lean,” he says. “We had reached $180 million in sales with 800 employees. We scaled back and consolidated work to just two locations in the U.S., with $70 million in sales and three hundred employees.” Today Orchid is more product-focused and further diversifying its customer/industry base to be less affected by industry economic downturns.

“My biggest takeaway on my career journey is my appreciation and recognition for the people I met along the way and for the people who support our business,” Gruver says. “There is such power within a group of people working together toward a common goal. People have ideas and ambitions and want to contribute and make a difference.”

The Leader She Chose To Be

Cindy Kent, MBA’99, MDiv’01
President and General Manager, Drug Delivery Systems Division, 3M Health Care

Career Path Milestones:
GM and Vice President Gastro/Uro Therapies, Medtronic,
Marketing Manager, Eli Lilly

Cindy Kent
Cindy Kent, MBA’99, MDiv’01

Cindy Kent was prepared to begin work on dual post-graduate degrees in law and business when her career services director at Eli Lilly called her into his office. Kent had turned her industrial engineering degree into early success with Lilly and now she was ready to take a big step forward. The meeting came after the company put her through a battery of assessments.

She recalls that he said her tests showed she had all the right skills to succeed in their executive program, but that her empathy component was off the charts.

“Have you ever considered the seminary?’” he asked.

There’s no way I can do three degrees, she thought. So she decided to set aside law school.

“Leadership means being a balanced citizen.”

The senior vice president of human resources later told her, “We think this MBA/divinity combination will nurture your leadership. People follow you and we believe your religious leanings will make you a better leader overall, not just a better business leader.”

Kent looked at several schools before choosing Vanderbilt. “When I visited other campuses, everyone told me how competitive they were, how cognizant they were of the rankings,” Kent recounts. “We didn’t have that as much at Owen. It was a nurturing environment where I could learn and thrive as it shaped me as a business leader.”

She calls the workload of pursuing dual degrees “maddening”—and says she regrets missing out on socializing—but the workload made her the first ever to earn the dual MBA/divinity degree at Vanderbilt.

No casualties

She is proudest not of her rapid advancement at Lilly and then Medtronic, but rather that her success was “never because I left casualties in the wake. I think my dual degree and the fact that I was at Owen at all was a reflection of the type of leader I have chosen to be.”

Always one to embrace work-related challenges, Kent wrestled instead with career changes.

“Some of the hardest and best decisions I ever made involved leaving jobs and companies I absolutely loved to take new jobs and get new skills in my toolbox,” she says. “I didn’t leave because I was mad or because I wasn’t getting what I wanted or needed. I just realized I was way too comfortable (or perhaps even a bit bored at times), and that’s my signal that I’m probably ready for a change. Part of that is, ‘Do you want to be a good leader in that specific setting or do you want to be a great business leader in general?’ If it’s the latter, then it may require different experiences that your current role cannot provide.

That wider calling has taken Kent into the community and prompted her to nurture the leadership potential in others.

Balance of business and divinity

“I spend significant amount of time mentoring others,” she says. She got involved with the Girl Scouts, high school mentoring and STEM programs in her 20s as an opportunity to lead and mentor girls and young women. Currently, she and her husband are establishing a charitable giving fund, and Kent remains active in the ministry as well.

She is looking always for the kind of balance she was able to bring to the seemingly disparate degrees of business and divinity, balance she began practicing at Vanderbilt.

“Metaphorically, at least, I kept my Bible close at hand when I was in business school,” she says. “Then, when I was in the Divinity School, I’m there with my calculator. Leadership means being a balanced citizen. Every day we see examples of business leaders who’ve made ethically poor decisions. First on my list of guiding principles—a list that I have kept since my first manager role—is ‘Integrity above all else.’ I have honestly never had to compromise my ethics and personal values. I feel like I’ve been more rewarded and personally satisfied for not compromising.”

Turnaround Man

Geoff Walker, MBA’94
Executive Vice President, Fisher-Price Global Brands Team

Career Path Milestones:
Senior Vice President and General Manager, Mattel Europe
Vice President-Marketing, Wheels, Entertainment and Games divisions, Mattel

Geoff Walker
Geoff Walker, MBA’94

As a young marketing executive at Mattel, Geoff Walker found himself heading cross-functional brand teams with senior-level representatives of design, engineering and packaging, among others.

“You don’t have direct authority, but you have the responsibility to drive the business,” he says. “How well you do that defines how successful you’ll be. I was able to develop unique management skills while at Owen; much of your success there is based on how well you work with teams, since the case work and projects are mostly team-based.”

Hot Wheels to Europe

That was just one of the ways Owen helped prepare Walker for a career track that now has him leading worldwide strategy and development for Mattel’s Fisher-Price division. The turning point in his career was an international assignment. Following success in turning around the Hot Wheels brand, he was given a major new challenge and moved to Europe.

“While I don’t mind failing, I love to develop a culture of winning with people who will also take risks.”

“Even though it was considered a lateral move, going there was the best decision. The role really stretched me,” he says. “I dealt with the nuts and bolts of running a business from core, developed markets like the U.K. to opening Russia and growing emerging markets in Eastern Europe. It got me out of my comfortable marketing zone. Ultimately, it taught me a lot about owning who I am as a leader.”

The task was as challenging as anything he had ever undertaken, but it suited his personality.

“I’m aggressive,” he says. “I make bets, and while I don’t mind failing, I love to develop a culture of winning with people who will also take risks. Some people want to work on the brands that are growing. I want to be on the turnaround brands. They are a lot more rewarding and fun.”

Beyond child’s play

His current position pulls together the marketing and product development culture from Mattel headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., and the cross-functional leadership he practiced in Europe. With Fisher-Price in a turnaround mode, Walker has already set in motion three key strategies for the company: designing more innovative products, making the Fisher-Price brand more meaningful to the millennial mom and globalizing the brand. “About 65 percent of the company’s sales now come from the U.S., but the majority of growth is going to be fueled outside the U.S.,” he says.

Walker’s career has included successes in virtually every aspect of the company’s toy and game businesses. He cites the business basics he learned at Vanderbilt as an asset he has applied throughout his career.

“You have to deal with a wide variety of situations when running a business,” he says, “and as you encounter complex problems that require clear or creative thinking, you’ll find yourself drawing from the strong foundation you acquired through the coursework and classmate interaction at Owen.”

His advice? “Seek as many experiences as you can.”