CEOs: They’re Just Like Us!

Elana Green (NI), Associate Editor
Despite their illustrious résumés, the panelists at the Leadership in the 21st Century plenary session on the second day of the Business Summit interacted with each other informally and addressed the crowd as if they were students in an Aldrich classroom. They delivered important lessons on leadership and potentially controversial opinions on financial and political affairs, all of which were enhanced by the note of candor that resonated throughout the conversation.

Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, CEO, Ayala Corporation; Jamie Dimon, CEO, JP Morgan Chase; Orit Gadiesh, Chairman, Bain & Company; Rick Wagoner, CEO, General Motors – an impressive array of names and titles, to be sure. Yet, despite their illustrious résumés, these accomplished individuals spoke informally and with a note of collegiality as they espoused their views on leadership during the Leadership in the 21st Century plenary session on the second day of the Centennial Global Business Summit. They were in spotlights on a stage in front of 2,000 people in the large tent erected on Baker lawn, but the panelists engaged with each other and the audience as if they were students sitting in an Aldrich classroom.

The moderator, Professor Nitin Nohria, opened the session by asking each panelist to describe the experience that most defined him or her as a leader. I was immediately jolted back to the long hours I spent completing business school applications last fall. Nohria’s opener sounded suspiciously like question 3a on last year’s HBS application. “Ha!” I thought, “These CEOs have to answer those questions too!”

Each panelist gave an answer that would have impressed even our own Dee Leopold. Rick Wagoner recounted how he was able to manage his own business unit for the first time when he was assigned to run GM’s operations in Brazil. Jamie Dimon described being fired (his words) after 17 years at Citibank and how the experience made him realize that CEOs should be personally invested in their jobs and, as a corollary, care deeply about their organizations. Orit Gadiesh said her most defining leadership experience probably occurred when she was in the Israeli military but went on to describe reigniting employees’ pride in their firm during tough times at Bain in the early 1990s. Jaime Augusto Zobel spoke of the moment he realized that a social development agenda could be integrated with business strategy.

Professor Nohria followed up by asking what leadership lessons can be drawn from the difficult times that the world is now experiencing. Dimon listed five things that leaders must do: 1) Encourage an open environment, 2) Have a sense of urgency, 3) Have the ability to act, 4) Be disciplined, and 5) Set their own standards, and in particular, set high standards for integrity. He drove home the last point, saying “People say they want integrity, but then they don’t fire the top sales person who lies to the client.You have to act on it.” His comments drew loud applause from the crowd. When Nohria asked Wagoner to add his comments, Rick grinned and said, “I agree with what he said” (meaning Dimon). The audience laughed and Professor Nohria shot back: “That’s a classic HBS answer.” Wagoner quickly rejoined, “Particularly when you didn’t read the case!” which prompted more laughter from the crowd. He recounted how, during his time at HBS, he got cold-called in three classes in a row.

The moment was a humorous and welcome reminder that even though the panelists are successful executives at the top of their respective fields, they were once students just like us – worried about being cold-called and prepping for a three-case day.

Nohria continued “cold-calling” the panelists. He asked, how does a leader impart confidence to an organization? Orit Gadiesh took on this topic, but before delivering her answer, she began fiddling with her clip-on microphone, saying someone should come up with a better microphone for women because “this thing has flashed three times saying, Ms. Gadiesh, please speak up.” She said she couldn’t wear the microphone properly because “my tie is not on,” a comment that elicited laughter from the crowd and appreciative applause from the women in attendance.

Gadiesh went on to address the topic at hand, saying that managers must realize that, “Just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you’re the leader.” True leaders, she said, inspire people to follow them willingly; unlike those who are in positions of power and command a following only out of fear. As she did in her previous answers, Gadiesh used up a significant portion of the session’s “airtime,” leading me to wonder whether she was a recipient of this particular skydeck award when she was a student here. Even the mention of her need to “speak up” so that people in the back could hear her reminded me of skydeck-ers shouting at the worm deck to speak louder during class. If only we all had clip-on microphones.

Despite the informality of the session, it was not without some awkward moments and even potential controversy. When Professor Nohria asked for the panelists’ thoughts on the likely impending increase in financial regulation, Dimon launched into an impassioned speech. Business leaders, said Dimon, need to be more involved in Washington; not for the purpose of promoting self-serving tax policies, but rather, to work for the long-term benefit of the entire economy. He complained about politicians who say certain projects or policies are “politically impossible,” meaning, not supported by their constituents. But these constituents, he asserted, don’t understand the issues, and politicians should not listen to what the “uneducated” portion of their constituencies think. Might Dimon have been referring to the same people who “cling to guns and religion,” live on Main St., and carry the moniker “Joe Six Pack”? It seems likely. He went on to say that the average business person is more charitable and honest than the average member of congress. His comments drew rousing applause and cheers from the audience once again.

In a similar vein to the previous day’s Leadership session, the panelists could not help but discuss political issues. Dimon stated his belief that the U.S. government has been “unable to make the decisions to make this country healthy.” By way of example he said, “We’ve had this energy problem since 1974. We deserve $4 a gallon gas!” Awkwardly enough, Wagoner was next to speak, but he eased the tension with humor. “Thanks for your help on the gas tanks,” he said, eliciting laughter from the audience. He essentially agreed with Dimon, however, saying that businessmen (I’ll assume he meant to include businesswomen too) need to be more statesmen-like and become involved with Washington to serve the greater good. Gadiesh also commented on the agenda in Washington (after admitting to Wagoner, “Sorry, I don’t drive one of your cars. I drive a Smart which is way cool and doesn’t use much gas.”), saying that energy should be the first priority – a sentiment also expressed by the panelists in the previous day’s session.

Professor Nohria closed by asking the panelists if they had any advice for HBS faculty members about what to say to students in these difficult times. As sometimes happens when the professor poses a difficult question during an intense classroom discussion, he was met with silence. After a moment, one person voiced what many people in the room were thinking. Rick Wagoner, Chairman and CEO of GM, the ninth largest company in the world, turned to Professor Nohria and said, “You guys are the professors. We thought you knew everything.”

October 20, 2008
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