Candid Conversations with Sometimes Controversial Business Leaders Lead to Memorable Learning Experiences

Several weeks ago my wife, who is a first-year student at Fuqua, sent me a text message: “I think Rick Wagoner’s in the Fox Center?” Rick was the CEO of General Motors from 2000 to 2009. “Probably,” I responded. “He’s teaching one of my classes.” We later chuckled at my casual response.

Students in their second year at Fuqua have moved largely from skill or competency-focused core courses to more electives and experiential courses that include opportunities to apply what you have learned. One such class is Strategy 491: Managing the Challenged Business, which is based on a construct where prominent business leaders serve as guest speakers and present some of their most challenging real‑world decisions for us to grapple with.

On the first day of class, we were greeted by John Englar, who leads the class as a Fuqua Executive-In-Residence. He’s also a former senior executive at Burlington Industries and Delphi Corporation. Also seated at the front of the classroom was Rick Wagoner, who co-teaches the class. As we reviewed the syllabus, I noticed that our third session would be taught solely by Rick on the General Motors restructuring efforts of the 2000s, which was certainly well-timed given the ongoing controversy surrounding government support for GM during the financial crisis and recent IPO of the company.

Out of respect to Rick and John, the rest of the class, and those of you who may later take the course, I will not include specifics from the discussion. But I do feel compelled to describe the experience.

An Open Discussion with Rick Wagoner, former CEO of GM

Most of you have probably sat in a lecture with a distinguished person. Your mind might drift a bit as the speaker talks about decision-making in a role far different than what you have experienced in your cubicle – but that wasn’t the case with Rick’s presentation. It’s not often that a Fortune 50 CEO (well, to be exact, Fortune 1 for many periods in history) starts by asking for your opinion on what he should have done. Rick entered and did exactly that.

Just minutes into the two-hour discussion, a classmate was standing at the back of class describing his perspective on the key challenges that GM faced while Rick served as CEO. Rick proceeded to moderate a lively and honest discussion on the critical decisions of his tenure, some of which proved controversial during the financial crisis. His candor and willingness to reflect on several decades of global experience – often during very tough times – for the benefit of students was remarkable.

Rick closed with recommendations for when we find ourselves in similar situations. My classmates and I scratched wildly on our notepads to capture what he said. Most of us would have happily continued that session for about a week. Lucky for us, he later joined a number of sessions in the course to provide guidance and anecdotes on many topics, including critical negotiations with creditors, suppliers and labor to help put a business on better financial footing.

Now fast approaching graduation, I guess that my nonchalance in responding to my wife is the fortunate result of quite of a bit of exposure to senior executives while in business school. To be sure, we are all still a bit nervous when raising our hands to speak to these executives, but with every experience, the prospect of sitting in their seat someday starts to seem a bit more feasible. John and Rick often joked that students from Fuqua wouldn’t ever find themselves managing a challenged business, yet assuming some of us do, we now have a toolkit and great advice on how to handle it.