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Lessons from the executive suite

May 16, 2012

Be humble. Foster teamwork. Ask a lot of questions. Be a good listener. Be encouraging and supportive. But also learn when to say “no.”

These were some of the management tips offered to students by two top CEOs and Chicago Booth alumni at the April 26 Charles M. Harper Road to CEO Series, held at Harper Center.

John Amboian, AB ’83, MBA ’84, chairman and CEO of Nuveen Investments, Inc. in Chicago, and H. Thomas Watkins, ’79, president and CEO of Human Genome Sciences, Inc. in Rockville, Maryland, shared their secrets with an audience of 180 students at the event.

Sponsored by Alumni Affairs and Development and the Corporate Management and Strategy Group, the Road to CEO series is designed to connect successful alumni with students eager to learn real-world lessons from professionals at the top of their fields.

Moderator James Schrager, clinical professor of entrepreneurship and strategic management, guided Amboian and Watkins through a series of questions about their management styles, philosophies and strategies. While these two executives have risen to lead successful companies, their demeanor was remarkably humble.

“It is those who are most selfless who end up being trusted enough, viewed as being objective enough to be followed,” Amboian said. “That’s my story. I became the CEO because in a very competitive, high-energy environment, I was viewed as the most objective—focused on the high ground—and my record demonstrated that I put myself, if not last, close to last.” Watkins offered similar views, suggesting that an effective leader doesn’t always have to be standing in front of the group, having the last word.

“A lot of my management playbook is to be a fly on the wall, and I think that’s what really good leaders do,” Watkins said. “They watch and they learn. You’re going to be a better leader if you listen a high percentage of the time.”

The road to CEO was long and winding for the panelists, but each said they picked up valuable experience along the way.

Amboian held financial and business management positions at Philip Morris Companies, Kraft Foods Inc. and Miller Brewing Co. before joining Nuveen Investments in 1995 and becoming chairman and CEO in 2007.

“In a way, there was no connectivity between what I learned at Kraft and Miller and Nuveen, except I learned a lot about brand management, competitive dynamics, and the importance of having efficient, effective infrastructure,” Amboian said. He called the transition “mayonnaise to mutual funds,” referring to the journey from consumer products to finance.

Watkins began his career with Arthur Anderson & Co. and was a management consultant at McKinsey and Co., Inc. before spending 20 years with Abbott Laboratories. He became CEO of Human Genome Sciences in 2004.

“I’m not a scientist. I took high school chemistry and didn’t do very well. But what I could bring was the ability to build out a company and to shape concepts and ideas into what I hope will be a company with a great future developing drugs,” Watkins said.

While both executives credited their Booth education with giving them a strong foundation, they both found their on-the-job training to be invaluable as well. Amboian said that one of the most important things he learned was being a firm decision maker.

“The toughest thing as a CEO is to say ‘no’ to people who have a dream, a vision, and idea they’re passionate about. The last thing in the world you want to do is pull the rug out from under them. But sometimes you have to say ‘no’ for the good of the organization,” Amboian said.

Watkins offered some tips for students aspiring to become strong leaders. “I think the three most important things you need to focus on to move your career ahead are: You’re constantly willing to learn. You’re resilient. And you’re going to come back, even if you get setbacks, having learned from that without losing your optimism,” Watkins said.

Students found the forum to be informative. “They shared ideas with us that you can’t learn in a classroom,” said Hemant Adhikari, a second-year Full-Time MBA Program student. “What you learn from a textbook and in class is useful. But they told us how you use that knowledge in the real world.”

Added Arti Mattu, also a second-year Full-Time student, “It’s great to have successful alumni come back and share their experiences with students. It’s comforting to know that the school has produced successful people and that there is a network of alumni out there as you advance in your career.”

John Slania

Photo by Beth Rooney