Best firms lead change in critical areas — including healthcare, environment — say conference speakers
“Leadership is not a function of position,” according to Kent Thiry, chairman and CEO of DaVita Inc. “It’s a function of human behavior.”
Thiry delivered the morning keynote address at the Oct. 31 Kellogg Leadership Conference, an event organized by students and attended by students, faculty, staff and alumni.
From the front of the Tribune Auditorium at the James L. Allen Center, Thiry discussed the human aspects of leadership and the importance of learning from others, stating problems and goals aloud, and creating a working environment in which people can be honest about what’s working and what isn’t.
“How people experience you is the definition of the kind of leader you are, whether you like it or not,” he said, adding that while it’s not fun to have one’s faults spelled out by the people who know them best, it’s an essential part of learning to be a better leader.
Faced with any challenge, said Thiry, a leader doesn’t waste a moment: “You begin with the end in mind, and you begin now.”
The conference’s featured faculty guest speaker, Harry Kraemer Jr., agreed.
“One of my very favorite numbers is 168,” he said, noting that there are 168 hours in each week. “Everybody gets the same 168.” How people choose to use that time is up to them, said Kraemer, clinical professor of management and strategy. He advocated considering each hour as a chance to do something productive and worthwhile.
“Focus on, not being right, but doing the right thing,” he said, advising audience members to let go of their egos. A genuine desire to do the right thing — even at the risk of being proven wrong — not only helps others in a leader’s sphere of influence, but also makes the leader’s life far less stressful. “If you have to be right all the time, life is really a burden,” said Kraemer, who is also an executive partner at Madison Dearborn.
Following Kraemer’s address was a panel discussion titled, “The Innovative Leader,” moderated by James Conley, clinical professor of technology.
“Innovation is easy if you have time and money, but the real world doesn’t give you either of those,” said panelist Tracy Crocker, the vice president and general manager of the Latin America division of Ecolab. He added that innovation is part science, part art — it’s about using available resources in increasingly creative ways.
Addressing the students in attendance, panelist Jeff Semenchuk emphasized the drive to innovate that is inherent in the MBA education: “You’re paying a lot of money and spending a lot of time and putting your career on hold not just to go back and run the business as usual.”
Participants in the “Leading Companies and Communities” panel explored the commonalities between for-profit and nonprofit management under the direction of moderator and Kellogg Professor of Management Walter Scott.
Panelist David Pope ’94, the president of the Village of Oak Park, Ill., said the commitment to build a strong community has to be genuine. “This is, for some people, about appearances … [but] real leadership is about making the right decision when no one’s watching.”
Robert Bennett, the vice president of HR performance and support at FedEx Express said that while nonprofits are widely considered to be more people-oriented than for-profit organizations, the best leaders “get things done through people, not through position or power.” He added, “You’ve really got to empower people. You’ve got to let them be creative once they’re on the job.”
The conference also hosted the panel discussions “Leading Diversity” (moderated by Julius Pryor III, the vice president of global diversity at Coca-Cola Enterprises) and “Leadership and Turnarounds,” (moderated by Clinical Professor of Management and Strategy James Shein). Attendees also participated in one of the two workshops offered: “Seasons of Leadership: Resilience, Transformation and Insight” and “Effective Management of Cross-Functional Teams.
Wal-Mart Vice Chairman and Chief Administrative Officer John Menzer delivered the afternoon keynote. After briefly recounting Wal-Mart’s rise to ubiquity, Menzer addressed the responsibility of influential organizations to use that influence to effect positive change.
“Fifty-one of the top 100 economies in the world are businesses, not countries,” he said, and with that kind of economic power comes the strength to take on difficult problems.
“Healthcare is one of the major issues in our country, and certainly in our company, so we decided to roll out the $4 prescription drug program,” said Menzer of a recent initiative that provides all customers — insured or not — with low-cost generic drugs. The effort is also profitable for Wal-Mart.
In addition, Menzer said the company is taking strides to reduce waste and environmental pollutants. “A couple years ago, no one was talking about Wal-Mart and sustainability in the same sentence. And you shouldn’t have, because it wasn’t even on our radar.” The company recently announced a plan to reduce total packaging by five percent on the products it sells, he added — a move equivalent to removing 213,000 of its merchandise trucks from the road.
“Successful businesses embrace change,” said Menzer. “Very successful businesses lead change.”
Clinical Associate Professor of Management and Organizations Michelle Buck led the Seasons of Leadership workshop, which illustrated the ways that great leaders use periods of adversity to cultivate transformative positive change in their lives. She noted that, in addition to the conference being an opportunity for Kellogg students to learn more about and reflect on the leadership principles learned in class, it was “a great example of student leadership at Kellogg.”
Conference chair Chaim Lubin ’08 said the conference organizers worked to ensure that insights from this year’s event stuck with attendees: “You want people to get something very specific, something tangible that they can take away and use to improve themselves.”