A Unique Opportunity to Interact with World Business Leaders

On Friday, November 4, Fuqua’s Board of Visitors descended on Durham for its semi-annual meeting to discuss the state of the school. This highly revered bunch includes a number of high-profile CEOs (like Chairman Robert A. McDonald, President and CEO of The Procter & Gamble Company) as well as recent Fuqua graduates. The board is responsible for using its collective expertise in leadership and management to help improve the student experience at Fuqua. It’s a daunting and amorphous task, but if anyone’s in a position to solve the challenges that face a business school, this might be a good place to start.

But bridging the gap between practice and theory, as always, is a hurdle. These are very busy individuals, who probably don’t have as much visibility into daily life at Fuqua as they might need to make informed decisions. So, this became yet another opportunity for Fuqua students to contribute to their school.

Second-year students Anne Njuki and Mike Fitzpatrick are student representatives on the board, and they selected about two dozen other students to offer their perspectives on the state of leadership at Fuqua. I was fortunate to be one of those students; collectively, we planned to discuss the leadership initiatives we’ve experienced at Fuqua.

When we got in the room with these dignitaries from The Boston Consulting Group, Rio Tinto, Eli Lilly and Company, and Citigroup, among others, we had a host of stories, but the real learning came from the questions we received. The board members pushed us, trying to determine if our various pursuits were leading toward Fuqua’s goal of creating “Leaders of Consequence.” Sure, we were all doing interesting work here in Durham, but would this persist once we were out in the real world?

While acknowledging our collective achievements, these leaders of the business world also described an increasingly confusing economic outlook, one that would affect the styles we use to lead. They recalled a sense of naïveté that afflicted them when they started their careers, but a changing world requires a flexible leader, and if we’re lucky, we’ll learn that skill to a great degree in business school.

One particular leader suggested that leading in difficult situations would be the greatest test of how we’d hold up in the professional world. For instance, we like the idea of consensus decision making when the stakes are low, but when the pressure is ratcheted up, will we still desire that, or will we take the easy way out? He indicated that we’d need to have this experience for ourselves, and that refining our leadership style would be an ongoing task.

Though the board arrived to solicit our opinions on how to improve the Fuqua experience, our meeting turned into something of a two-way discussion. We were fortunate to be in the same room as some of these sages of commerce, and in the end, much of the learning was done on our side of the room.