Doug Rieder: A Self-Made Man Shows Today’s Students the Way

Ask Doug Rieder about Sterling Risk Advisors, the surety and insurance brokerage firm where he’s worked for more than a decade, and he’ll tell you plenty: about how the company has grown over the years, the unique aspects of their business model, whom they’ve hired and how those people have excelled.

Doug Rieder (far left) chats with Sterling Risk Advisors employees (left-right) Amy Matthes, Darius Williams and Kaitlin Meurer, all Georgia State graduates.

Doug Rieder (far left) chats with Sterling Risk Advisors employees (left-right) Amy Matthes, Darius Williams and Kaitlin Meurer, all Georgia State graduates.

What he’s less likely to tell you, though — unless you specifically ask — is that he’s the president of the company. As you talk to him about his business philosophy and Sterling’s corporate values, you begin to understand why.

“We’ve kind of run the place by consensus, sort of like a law firm,” Rieder explains. “We don’t like to have to over-manage people, so our structure is very simple, and our rules are very simple — they apply to everybody. It’s destabilizing when an organization holds people to different standards or lets upper management play by a different set of rules, so we pay people at a high level and treat them fairly.”

That sense of equality and fairness is informed by both Rieder’s middle-class upbringing in western Pennsylvania and by the master’s degree in finance he earned at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business. And he’s helping to promote those values among current students, not only as a donor but as a business leader providing valuable real-world experience through internship opportunities.

‘Nothing but Rave Reviews’

Those opportunities began blossoming a few years ago, when Rieder pointed out that there was a potential gold mine of motivated interns situated right in Sterling’s backyard. “I brought it up in a couple of board meetings that we really needed to reach out to them because they’re right here in town. Why are we not reaching out to Georgia State?” he remembers. “It’s a great pipeline for hiring people. That’s huge for a business like ours that’s been growing at the rate we’ve been growing. We’re blessed to be in Atlanta, no doubt about it, with the talent pool we have here. The people we meet with when we go to conventions and meetings, they don’t talk like that because they don’t have that kind of opportunity in their backyard like we do.”

The ability to relate classroom learning to real-world experiences is important, Rieder says. It’s one of the reasons his classmates at the Robinson College made nearly as big an impression on him as his professors did. “The students were, on average, older, mature businesspeople — which I was not at that point. I was young and green,” he remembers. “But it was a high-caliber student population, and I really thought highly of the program.

“People who pursue their grad degrees at night, I think, tend to be proactive about things — they’re motivated, they’re doers. Nobody likes to confront big challenges, and when I first got out of college and I had to present something to a big group, I was scared to death. But when you go to grad school, just meeting people off the cuff and all that, it really builds a great foundation for the kind of work we do. And Georgia State was a key part of that. It was a great experience top to bottom.”

As someone who earned a few scholarships but paid for the rest of his college education out of his own pocket, Rieder says he’s looking for “a scrappy, get-it-done background” from his interns. And they aren’t stashed away in broom closets to sort office supplies. They join Sterling’s brokers on presentations and sales calls. So far, Rieder says, their Georgia State interns have risen to the challenge. And a few have earned full-time job offers.

“One of the women who came to work for us, Kaitlin [Meurer], joined us three months before she’d even graduated from Georgia State. She was a big help to my CFO when we were moving — she was there all the time and helpful, whatever we needed, and probably kept him from going insane because he was working 80 hours a week for two months. She’s doing great for our medical malpractice group. I hear nothing but rave reviews. The expectation is that she’ll move up the ranks of our service team staff.

“We’re having a steady stream of talented, aggressive professional people come through here. There’s an opportunity here, and we’re developing more of a career path for our interns as a result. I can’t see it being anything but good.”

Atlanta, the Land of Opportunity

“Talented and aggressive” could describe Rieder as well. Only a couple years removed from his undergraduate degree at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, he excelled in the training program at Reliance Insurance Company and got to interview for a job at what was then a fast-growing branch in Atlanta. It was a major move for a self-professed “Yankee by birth,” but one that energized him from the moment he got to town.

“When I first arrived, we were intimately involved in construction, and I can instinctively remember coming into town from the airport and seeing tower cranes everywhere I looked,” he recalls. “Atlanta was such a hub for young people from the South. I was a single young man, so one of the first things I noticed was there were a lot of pretty girls, and it just seemed like they were coming from all the good Southeastern schools to work. Particularly for someone in his early 20s who had something to do with construction guarantees, it was just a vibrant place to be in the late ’80s.”

Rieder worked on the underwriting side with several different insurance companies before going independent and starting his own business. He didn’t strike out alone, though — Rieder, fellow Georgia State alum Bart Miller and Miller’s son John all left their previous company as a group, put together a business plan and began operating as Sterling Risk Advisors on April 1, 2003. The $125,000 Bart Miller loaned them to get the company off the ground was paid back by October.

In a relatively short amount of time, Sterling has grown to become one of the top risk management and insurance firms in the region. Part of the reason, Rieder explains, is the company’s broker-ownership model — a rarity in their field, he says, but one that’s enabled them to attract senior talent from nationwide firms. It’s also helped instill a greater sense of teamwork, and along with it a stronger commitment to customer service.

“We view ourselves as problem solvers in that inner circle of advisors to our clients. They’ve got their attorney, accountant, banker, and us,” he says. “We like to tell people, ‘We’re going to be competitive and effective as your broker, but where we’re going to add value is by educating you, referring resources to you, coming up with solutions to problems, not just selling you a policy.’ That’s sort of the negative stereotype of insurance people, that they just want to sell you a policy. I do want to do that, but I’m going to add a lot of value around things if you allow us to. And our clients do — they embrace that.

“And the good thing about a lot of the stuff that we espouse is it’s good business on top of everything else. It’s just easier to be straight with people, to be responsive and professional and ethical. And when you do that, it’s rewarding to you as well. So it’s not all necessarily altruistic, but you still sleep better at night. It makes for a successful, growing business because that’s what people want.”

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Robinson to Launch Online Graduate Degree in Hospitality Management

 The J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University will offer an online graduate degree in hospitality management beginning fall 2015. The one-year master of global hospitality management degree will be the first online program offered by the Robinson College.

Intended for established hospitality professionals as well as for those seeking to enter the discipline, the online program will offer the same rigorous coursework as the traditional degree format.

“In a dynamic, fast-paced industry, we felt it necessary to offer an alternative to the traditional classroom environment” says Debby Cannon, director of the Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality Administration. “Online learning allows students from around the world to achieve academic and career success and gain the skills necessary for a global workplace.”

“The Robinson College of Business is pleased to offer this new online degree program beginning next fall,” adds Toby McChesney, assistant dean for graduate recruiting and student services. “With increasing demand for online graduate programs, we are certain that this one-year graduate program will allow students to earn a Robinson education anywhere in the world.”

“As we enter our second century, I am delighted that the Robinson College will offer its first online graduate degree to the thriving hospitality industry” says Richard D. Phillips, dean of the Robinson College of Business. “This is groundbreaking for the college and the School of Hospitality as we advance our graduate degree offerings to meet the needs of business professionals across the globe.”

Candidates must hold a four-year undergraduate degree from an accredited college or university, and professional experience is preferred but not required. Applications are due by May 1.

In addition to their degree, graduates of the program will receive a Certificate of Specialization in Sustainable Hospitality Management. For more information or to apply, visit online.robinson.gsu.edu »

Named in honor of the founder of Days Inn, the Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality Administration at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business is the oldest and largest program of its kind in the state. Founded in 1973, it is among the top 30 hotel management programs in the world.

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Robinson Students Pump ‘Lyfe’ into Marketing Firm

On the third floor of a nondescript building next to the Atlanta Medical Center, Robinson College of Business students and alumni are building a marketing firm to cater to people like them – digital natives who grew up with the Internet.

The company, Lyfe Marketing, occupies a small office space. But in a span of a few years, brothers Sherman and Sean Standberry, with longtime friend Keran Smith, have applied that understanding to effectively grow their business.

Sherman Standberry

Sherman Standberry

They’ve built a firm that pushed a simple ticket giveaway for the Atlanta Hawks to the top of Twitter as a trending topic. They boosted the brand of a new bleach tablet to reach well over 2 million people, and they marketed a local entrepreneur networking event tied to the ABC-TV program Shark Tank, attracting hundreds of people in the show’s fifth season.

They’re unceasing in their work to give businesses an edge in the crowded space of digital conversation.

“I think it’s about priorities, and what we care about the most,” said Sean Standberry, chief executive officer of Lyfe Marketing, who graduated in 2013 with a degree in accounting. “You probably won’t catch us at a party on the weekend. You’ll probably catch us up all night working on a website, or working to construct our business in the best way possible.”

The Standberry brothers and Smith first met in high school in Stone Mountain, Ga. After they moved on to Georgia State, the trio started Lyfe Marketing – Lyfe standing for “live young forever” – in 2011.

Entrepreneurial spirit is in the Standberry brothers’ DNA. Their father is an accountant, running his own practice and letting his children know he expected them to become entrepreneurs themselves.

Without much training in marketing, they started as a promotions company, said Sherman Standberry, a senior in accounting and vice president for operations at Lyfe.

Keran Smith

Keran Smith

“We saw a lot of people who were trying to brand themselves, but they really didn’t know how,” he recalled. “We came up with this concept where you could really do anything you want at a young age. You don’t have to follow the tracks that society has laid out.”

Working with other small businesses near the Georgia State campus, the young men became more knowledgeable at the trade of marketing themselves, evolving into a full-service marketing firm.

They’ve even gotten a taste of the rough-and-tumble world of a political campaign, directing social media efforts for John Barge, who lost in his bid to become the Republican nominee for Georgia governor.

And Lyfe has grown to the point where they’ve hired other Georgia State students as interns.

Despite their successes, the trio is keeping their eyes on the future and pushing themselves forward.

Sean Standberry

Sean Standberry

“I still feel a little, if I’m being truthful, unsatisfied,” said Smith, director of digital strategy for Lyfe and a junior in marketing at Georgia State. “There are still a lot more things I want to accomplish with this company.”

Sean Standberry sees it two ways, from the perspective of a college student and from the angle of a businessman aiming for even higher growth.

“Any college student would be happy to have a business that’s growing,” he said. “But as a business owner, you’re trying to make your first million dollars.”

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Hooked on Soda

Sarang Sunder’s eyes light up when he talks about soda, but his excitement has nothing to do with the age-old Coke vs. Pepsi debate. As part of his doctoral dissertation, Sunder has developed a formula to measure the customer lifetime value (CLV) of carbonated beverage consumers. While most companies already evaluate sales and market share, they don’t quantify what Sunder considers the most meaningful data of all: profitability at the individual customer level. Sunder’s findings empower companies not only to identify high-profit customers but also to communicate to them on a much more micro level than a wide-sweeping network television commercial. “Our recommendation is to attract the high-value segment when you can, and to move the lower CLV customers up the ladder,” Sunder explains. “Within my dissertation, that’s what we’re trying to figure out how to do.”

Sarang Sunder Photo

Sarang Sunder

If Sunder’s research sounds complicated, that’s because it builds on five years of scholarship. Put simply, Sunder’s methodology will enable companies to market to individuals instead of the masses – and be more profitable than ever before. Plus, Sunder’s model can be applied to any consumer packaged goods (CPG) category: paper products, cleaning supplies, and coffee, to name a few.

Sunder earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Anna University in India and relocated to the University of Connecticut to earn a master’s in the same discipline – a far cry from the field of marketing. After a year of unfulfilling coursework, Sunder became a graduate research assistant for world-renowned marketing scholar V. Kumar (VK). “Fortunately he felt it was worth spending some time with me,” Sunder recalls. “I really wanted to join the marketing program, and he was moving [to the Robinson College of Business] the next year. I applied and the rest is history, I guess.”

In addition to the allure of studying under marketing legend VK, the empirical nature of Robinson’s doctoral program as well as the college’s relationship with Atlanta businesses influenced Sunder’s decision to continue his education at Georgia State. “[Robinson’s connections to area corporations] open up a lot of avenues,” Sunder says. “Marketing is a heavily applied field, so being able to apply what we do as researchers is very important.”

While Robinson’s local ties have enhanced Sunder’s research, he takes a special interest in emerging markets as well. For another major project co-authored with VK, Sunder and a classmate gathered data about a CPG company based in India and studied the international distribution of its products across various stores. Retailer competition in emerging economies is a lot different from the main players in established countries such as the United States; while big box companies like Wal-Mart, Target, and Kroger comprise the majority of the shopping options in the U.S., the opposite is true in a place like India, where anyone can sell goods on the side of the road. This becomes problematic for managers and company bottom lines, when stocking merchandise in a supermarket might be a lot more lucrative than a street vendor. “That’s what we’re solving in this paper,” Sunder says. “How can you optimize product placement in an emerging market?”

Sunder delivers an intro-level marketing course and recently received Robinson’s GTA Teaching Excellence Award, which recognizes graduate teaching assistants for outstanding performance. He credits VK along with assistant professors Denish Shah and Yi Zhao with influencing his style of instruction. Sunder plans to defend his dissertation in the spring and then secure a teaching position, which he considers a great gig. “Where else will I get to talk about something I am really passionate about to people who are willing to listen?” he laughs.

Sunder is equipped to offer his students a Coke and a smile – but not in the traditional sense of the classic slogan. He just loves his line of work that much.

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Lisa Rolf: Widening her Lens with an EMBA

Lisa Rolf never envisioned herself as an Executive MBA student. She earned a design-your-own undergraduate degree from a liberal arts college in Minnesota and immediately pursued a career in project management. But after leading teams at digital marketing agencies for 15 years, she noticed a gap in her skill set. Once Rolf attended an information session for Robinson’s EMBA, she realized the program would enable her to support not just her team but the company as a whole. “I wanted to make sure I could contribute to the growth of the company in a substantial way, and the EMBA seemed like a good opportunity to round out my experience,” Rolf recalls.

Rolf found Robinson’s EMBA particularly appealing because of its approach to general management as opposed to specialization, as well as the opportunity to study alongside classmates who already are established in their respective fields. The 30 members of Rolf’s cohort offered perspectives from a range of industries such as cardiac surgery, concert venue management, lobbying, and construction. “No matter the topic or theory we discussed, somebody could talk about how a situation applied to them in real life,” Rolf says. “So if the professors couldn’t put it in context, my classmates could.”

Since the EMBA cohort met every other weekend, Rolf and her peers remained employed throughout the program’s duration. From the get-go Rolf would leave class equipped with new knowledge to use at the office. “We covered contract law one Saturday, and when I came in the next Monday I encountered a statement of work with the stuff we talked about right in front of me,” Rolf says.

The program’s international focus empowered Rolf to analyze business problems through a macro-level lens. In Chris Brown’s course on global markets and country risk, students collected data about foreign countries such as infrastructure and environmental factors, and evaluated whether conditions proved favorable for different types of businesses. Plus, guest speakers who are experts on risk in specific countries put context around the data Rolf and her peers gathered.

Rolf cites her two-week business residency in South Africa as the most impressive component of the EMBA package. She and her classmates split their time between Johannesburg and Cape Town and participated in two corporate visits per day. No matter the company, such as a tech start-up, gourmet food distributor, or even a game reserve, executives delivered presentations that touched on doing business in South Africa including the challenges the market imposes. “The people we met spent significant time preparing for us and really thought about what information would be valuable for us to learn,” Rolf points out. “High-level executives spent two to four hours with us, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it.”

In addition to emphasizing global business concepts, EMBA faculty stress creating value for a company. Early in the program, Rolf internalized coursework regarding communication style and conflict management and honed her approach to leadership. On a greater scale, Rolf developed a solid foundation for impacting her company in a meaningful way – a difference her superiors noticed both before and after her June 2014 graduation. “I wanted to be able to contribute strategically to conversations with our clients and not just be the schedule keeper,” Rolf says. “Now I can take a step back and look at the operations more strategically with the skills I picked up in the EMBA program.”

Lisa Rolf photo

Lisa Rolf

Learn more about a Robinson Executive MBA here

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Reputation is King

This summer, a milestone crept up on me—I realized it’s been twenty-five years since I began my career as a professor.  So naturally, I’ve spent some time reflecting on how my choice of profession has worked out.  I spend most of my classroom time with executives who are there because they are unhappy with where they are – or they at least understand they won’t be satisfied for long.  Their hope is that whatever we do together in class will help them find something they’ll find more fulfilling.  How thankful I am that I’ve never had to wrestle with that.

And how grateful I should be to an early mentor whose advice, I would say, led to my good fortune.  I began my career at Louisiana State University in August of 1989.  The department chair had worked hard to hire a cohort of five young faculty members that could help shore up a department that had suffered from attrition.  As newly minted Ph.D.s, what we lacked in wisdom we compounded with inexperience.  The chairman had his hands full.

At some point during that first fall, I was walking across campus with him for lunch and I recall sharing a frustration.  I don’t recall the precise source of it, but I know it led me to want to call someone out for what I felt was a grievous offense of one sort or another.  Though I can’t remember the foul, I do remember his advice.  He told me, “You need to remember that this is a small field and you are going to have a long career.”   There hasn’t been a month across the twenty-five years since in which that simple piece of advice hasn’t helped me frame the way I should respond to a colleague, a student, or an administrator.

When my mentor made his observation, he was speaking quite particularly about the profession he and I shared. Ours was a small field – there are only so many business schools and only so many professors – and, because it is a good gig, very few people are in any rush to leave.  Make an enemy, and you will keep encountering that enemy for a long time.  Soil your reputation, and you will find it next to impossible to make a fresh start.

But it occurs to me that what was true of our world a quarter century ago is true much more generally today. Technology has now made his advice relevant to virtually every person beginning a career.  Now, no matter what your profession is and no matter where you practice it, you work in what is essentially a small field.

Certainly, those of us participating in social media are proactively making our reputation knowable to a much wider audience than ever before – with implications we might not anticipate.  But even if we personally aren’t contributing, others are on our behalf. Faculty, as an example, are subject to ratemyprofessor.com (where rating criteria include student evaluations even of a professor’s “hotness”). All sorts of other professions deal with similarly candid and arbitrary reviews on sites like yelp.com.

We all know that this explosion of information is a genie that is not going back in its bottle.  So, for those of you just embarking on your careers, look around you: the people around you will be your companions on a long journey. Manage your interactions with them accordingly.

And for those of you who are already well down the road and perhaps, along the way, have burned bridges, raised hackles, made enemies – well, do what you can to get those relationships on a better, more professional footing. Odds are that the person you’ve alienated will still be part of your field many years from now. And you’re in for a long career.

 

About the Authors

Nathan Bennett, PhD

Nathan Bennett, PhD

Nathan Bennett, Ph.D., is Professor of Management in the J. Mack Robinson College of Business. He specializes in leadership and strategy execution, managing innovation and change processes, top management team dynamics, and contextual influences on individual behavior in organizations. Nate has published in numerous widely-read resources for managers including the Harvard Business Review and Wall Street Journal. He is co-author of the 2006 Stanford University Press title “Riding Shotgun: The Role of the COO” and the 2010 book “Your Career Game: How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals.” Professor Bennett received both his Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Master’s degree in Applied Research from Tulane University, and a Ph.D. in Management from Georgia Tech.

 

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Robinson Reflections: Luis Planas

Luis Planas MBA '77, Finance

Luis Planas
MBA ’77, Finance

As a boy, Luis Planas wanted to be a doctor. His father was one of a handful of doctors in their town on the eastern end of Cuba and the only one that delivered babies. Luis even remembers wearing a white coat and carrying a small medical bag when he tagged along with his dad on house calls. His childhood memories are of an idyllic and limitless life, of horseback riding on his grandfather’s farm, of delivering food baskets to those in need. And then everything changed in 1961.

Luis was ten years old when he left Cuba for the United States, alone. His parents, recognizing the changing political climate in their country, made arrangements for Luis to live with friends of the family in Miami, Florida. At the time, his parents told him it was an educational opportunity that would last only one year and so Luis agreed to go.

To this day, Luis has not stepped foot back in Cuba, and though Luis and his younger brother were reunited within a year after arriving in Miami, it was a full five years before he saw his parents again. He recognizes that coming to America at such an impressionable age largely shaped who he is today. “Whenever I think about this decision that my parents made for my benefit at the time, it always gives me courage to move on.” And that’s exactly what Luis did: he moved on.

His first job was delivering papers for the Miami Herald. By the time Luis was 12, he and his brother were living with their cousin in Miami. Luis took on the paper route to help out and hasn’t been without a job since.

Sometime in high school Luis decided he was more interested in business than medicine, and he graduated with a BBA from West Georgia College in 1972. His intention was to become a certified accountant, so he answered a blind ad for a junior accountant position in Atlanta and later found out that the position was at The Coca-Cola Company. “I was very surprised. I had not purposefully set out for a job with a big company, but everyone knows The Coca-Cola Company, and the temptation was just too great, so I took the job,” recalled Luis. “That was my first job after graduation, and I stayed with the company for thirty-five and a half years.”

Although he started out in the accounting department, within six months Luis moved into the purchasing department. He enjoyed the work so much that he gave up his dream of becoming a CPA and instead went back to school to earn an MBA in finance. He enrolled part-time at the business school at Georgia State, which allowed him to continue working at The Coca-Cola Company while pursuing his graduate degree.

Georgia State University

There were challenges associated with attending night school. In addition to giving up his weekends for schoolwork, Luis remembers that traveling for The Coca-Cola Company posed certain trials – often his wife, Abrenda, and their two young sons would take Luis to the airport for a work trip, and then swing by the GSU campus on their way home to turn in his homework and pick up new assignments. “I don’t think I would have stuck it out without their incredible help and understanding,” he said. But he regrets that there was no foundation for a lasting connection to his classmates since night school, combined with a busy family and work schedule, offered no time for socializing.

However, the academics were just what Luis wanted. “Academically, I had to step up. I think Georgia State, even in the early 70s, was a challenging step up in the quality of work I was expected to turn in.” Luis remembers that most of his professors taught part-time while moving forward with their own careers in Atlanta, something Luis really appreciated since they brought real-world experience to the classroom. “These dedicated professionals were so supportive and encouraging to me; they made it easier for me to get my degree and prepare for a great career.”

Learn more about Luis Planas and other Robinson College alumni in the Robinson Reflections series.

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Robinson Reflections: Gabriele Zedlmayer

In the span of a couple weeks, Gabriele Zedlmayer traveled to Dubai, Riyadh, Johannesburg, and Rome, with a stop in between at her home in Germany and her office in Switzerland.

Of all those destinations, though, few are as dear to her heart as the one that started off her round-the-world jaunt: Georgia State’s campus in downtown Atlanta.

“It is a warm feeling to come back,” she says. “There are not many places I have gone back to after many years and thought, ‘Wow, this is something truly special.’ I’ve always loved Atlanta — I’ve loved the people, the Southern hospitality, the fact that I was given chances I wouldn’t have gotten someplace else.

Zedlmayer was the keynote speaker at the Robinson College of Business’ inaugural Global Business Forum last fall. As Hewlett-Packard’s vice president and chief progress officer, she was able to offer numerous insights from her own experience as to how technology and a focus on social responsibility can help today’s business students further their own careers.

A Warm Welcome, Far Away From Home

Zedlmayer smiles as she recalls how her own business training began early, courtesy of her large family — she was the fourth of six children, five of them girls. “Early on, if I wanted to get anything done, I had to use good persuasive skills, good negotiation skills,” she says. “I had to learn to be persistent.”

She followed in the footsteps of an older sister who had earned a scholarship in Germany and used it to attend Agnes Scott College in 1975. “I thought this was a great idea, to come to the U.S. and get exposed to a different culture, a different educational system, a whole new way of life,” Zedlmayer remembers. “And people here were so friendly and welcoming. I decided I wanted more of that experience, so I wanted to study in the U.S. more than just the one year.”

Georgia State provided an affordable place for her to continue her studies, so she came here to earn a bachelor’s degree in foreign languages, graduating in just a year and a half.

“There were not that many international students in ’79, not like today,” Zedlmayer recalls. “And the experience at Georgia State was somewhat different from Agnes Scott, because it is a much bigger place, and I had to find my way around. But I had fabulous professors who really took me under their wing and showed me how to get around in this place. They really explained to me, this is what you need to do, here are some additional opportunities you can pursue.

“The personal relationships I was able to build in spite of this being such a big place really made such a big difference for me. I had to prove myself, but Georgia State gave me the opportunity. I don’t know that every place would’ve done that.”

Global Travels and New Frontiers

Zedlmayer went on to earn her M.B.A. in Miami, but she says she didn’t necessarily have a plan for what she was going to do next. “Thirty years ago, you could go into business without having a real master plan in place — you started with a multinational company and built a career there. I don’t think that exists for young people going forward,” she observes. “Now it’s a time you really have to invest in yourself. Now you have to have more of a plan, but it’s also a flexible time, a time that requires openness to change. I think employers increasingly look for people who shape their own jobs and shape the skills that prepare them for those jobs.”

Zedlmayer worked for Eastern Air Lines for a while in the United States, then returned to Europe to work for a startup called Compaq. She describes it as “a golden time” and “the ride of a lifetime,” but also as “a bit of a shock” when Hewlett Packard acquired Compaq in 2002. Instead of panicking, though, she started researching what was different about HP’s environment and corporate culture. “Sustainability” was a term that kept popping up.

“Sustainability was really part of HP’s DNA,” she says. “When it came to environmental and social programs, I knew that was the job I wanted. So I started working toward getting that job.”

Today Zedlmayer leads a team of experts around the world in working with customers, governments, and nonprofits to create sustainable solutions to various social and environmental issues. Some of them have immediate business implications, while others, such as education, affect HP more in the long term. But they’re all vital, she says, both to HP’s continued to success and to the good of society as a whole.

Inspired by the way technology has transformed her own career, Zedlmayer has made science, technology, engineering, and math education a particular passion of hers. “It’s our responsibility to make STEM education something that kids love, that inspires them, that they can play with,” she says. “The future of economies around the world depends on whether we can get more kids interested in STEM education. The more work we do with personalized learning, the more we will keep the children with us.”

As sustainability only increases in importance for companies around the world, Zedlmayer is thrilled at the opportunities HP has given her in that arena. “It’s not just an opportunity, it’s a must. It’s something we have to do today,” she says. “I’m glad to be in a space that I think is going to be absolutely critical going forward.”

gabriele-zedlmayer

Gabriele Zedlmayer, Vice President and Chief Progress Officer, Hewlett-Packard Corporate Affairs
United States

Learn more about Gabi Zedlmayer and other Robinson College alumni in the Robinson Reflections series.

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Don’t Skimp on Talent Management in a Downturn

As leaders have steered their companies through this economic downturn several familiar tactics have been deployed.  A common move has been to cut costs – many firms have and many more will as an effort to hunker down and focus on the core business.  Others, like Oracle’s Larry Ellison, will see the tough times as having created a buyer’s market and will look to make acquisitions on more favorable terms than could have been had months ago.  Still others will look for ways to forge alliances, to innovate, or to otherwise shore up their competitive position.

Regardless of the plans leaders develop to forge ahead the single critical success factor is how well the company understands, develops, and then deploys talent.  The cleverness of the strategy developed to lead the company out of the downturn is irrelevant if there isn’t a team in place that can execute.  Here is the complication – when the competitive dynamics and the broader economic conditions have changed this quickly and dramatically it is critical to understand just what your team can do.  No company is playing the same game – or the game the same way – as they were just a few years ago. How well boards of directors and CEOs recognize and respond to that will determine how quickly and how successfully they bring their company through the downturn to leverage today’s improving conditions.

The challenge faced by leaders today is that two characteristics of the downturn make it likely that talent management issues have not been given proper priority.  First, because virtually all companies include some degree of cost-cutting in their plans for moving forward many are often too quick to identify succession planning, employee development, and similar talent management investments as targets for saving – it becomes “something we can’t afford to do right now”.  The problem with this strategy is that this may be precisely the time that investment could yield the best return.  How much experience does the management team have in managing in hard economic times?  How deep is their understanding of the impact fundamentally different market conditions will have on the business?  What previously unforeseen competencies have become critical for your leaders?  How can you develop these competencies without investment?  As conditions improve, how can we be sure we have the talent on board to take full advantage?

Second, the turbulent business climate leads to a turbulent labor market.  When employees view their company’s situation as tenuous they are likely to consider an exit on their terms rather than waiting to see if the situation improves.  Of course those most likely to leave are the most talented – they are the ones that will most easily find other opportunities.  For buyers of talent there is an incredible opportunity in the labor market because of this churn.  Buyers face a challenge in sorting wheat from the chaff as individuals look to leave companies with futures perceived as bleak or are cut loose – some time back, for example, J.P. Morgan made available the entire top management team of Washington Mutual.  For those struggling companies retention becomes an enormous challenge – and it may be one that only can be overcome with investment in talent.  And as conditions improve and hiring begins, pent up interest in new positions will lead to turnover.

For these reasons, this is not the time for Boards and CEOs to let off on succession planning and talent management but instead to double down to ensure they have the requisite sets of skills and experiences to be successful in navigating this downturn.  Specifically, succession plans need to be revisited – the future that a candidate was being prepared for has fundamentally changed.  Consequently what was a “ready now” successor may now face a significant gap in their preparation.  And smart buyers of talent may find some great values on the marketplace – but those can only be properly recognized when a clear understanding of what the company needs and what the candidate can do exists.

 

About the Authors

Nathan Bennett, PhD

Nathan Bennett, PhD

Nathan Bennett, Ph.D., is Professor of Management in the J. Mack Robinson College of Business. He specializes in leadership and strategy execution, managing innovation and change processes, top management team dynamics, and contextual influences on individual behavior in organizations. Nate has published in numerous widely-read resources for managers including the Harvard Business Review and Wall Street Journal. He is co-author of the 2006 Stanford University Press title “Riding Shotgun: The Role of the COO” and the 2010 book “Your Career Game: How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals.” Professor Bennett received both his Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Master’s degree in Applied Research from Tulane University, and a Ph.D. in Management from Georgia Tech.

 

Taylor Griffin

Taylor M. Griffin

Taylor M. Griffin is a partner and COO of The Miles Group.

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Who Is Looking Out for No. 1?

Serving a company as CEO is undoubtedly a unique opportunity.  And with the opportunity come truly unique challenges.  Some, like the pressures to produce consistent growth, are quite familiar.  Others, like how to develop strategies to survive and thrive in a global recession, are still being understood.  Whether the challenges are new or familiar, it requires a lot of grit to take them on day after day.  From what we’ve seen, the job has become only more grueling over the past decade.  To a degree much greater than ever before, CEOs are marked executives.  And their isn’t much reason to expect the scrutiny with which they’re viewed will lessen.

This circumstance raises important questions:  Is your current CEO – is anyone, for that matter – equipped to deal with all the woe and intrigue that comes with the job?  Are things evolving in a manner that may make the job unattractive enough so that – even with an astronomical paycheck – truly authentic, capable leaders are turned off?    And finally, what can boards and CEOs do to minimize the stress connected to the job as it is today?

What’s making the job tougher?  Here are just a few from what’s become a familiar list:

  • Political forces:  increasingly active government oversight and regulation
  • Economic forces: finding growth in a global recession
  • Social forces:  demands for greater transparency, increased concerns for socially responsible corporate behavior, distrust of institutions, generational gaps in the workforce and their workplace value systems
  • Technological forces:  dramatic rise of various social media platforms to track and hold companies accountable

And, granted, sometimes business has been it’s own worst enemy.  Who can forget the scolding auto executives received after travelling in private jets to DC for their Congressional testimony.  Not a week goes by where headlines don’t express outrage at what’s seen as outrageous compensation.  And finally, stories of what is at least bad judgment from CEOs like Mark Hurd and Brian Dunn don’t help.  Bad optics.

So CEOs face a tough situation – political, economic, social, and technological forces are interacting in new, often unpredictable ways.  The resulting volatility, complexity, and ambiguity create a situation where the pressure CEOs face is daunting. The demands on the CEO continue to increase – and CEOs can only spread themselves so far.  If you are a CEO, investors, analysts, government officials, regulators, NGO’s, customers, suppliers, partners, are among those who all want a piece of you – and they aren’t just in your town – they are all over the globe.  It’s a rare person who easily and comfortably moves around the world and engages with such varied constituencies in an authentic and meaningful way.  And all this is taking place in an environment where the role is faced with increased scrutiny.

How should your company be handling the increasing complexity of the CEO position?  First off, boards have to be sensitive to these demands when they select and appraise CEOs.  Perhaps they should recognize that CEO tenures will likely continue to shorten and as a result their succession planning and talent development processes may need to produce qualified individuals at a higher rate than in the past.  CEOs themselves have to make sure they invest necessary time in staying well under the crush of these wide-ranging demands.

That said, it’s troubling that recent reports suggest workplace changes are actually aimed at increasing the load carried by the CEO. We refer here to the recently reporting findings that fewer companies are deploying a COO – a second set of hands – and relatedly, that CEOs report an increase in the number of their direct reports.  Each of these trends leads to the conclusion that in an increasingly demanding time, more is being asked of already heavily burdened CEOs.  With these decisions, boards and CEOs may be unintentionally exacerbating the situation.

If there was ever a time that called for a number two – a COO – this is it.  The tendency in crises to want to centralize control – what we see now – is natural.  But this isn’t a crises; this is how it is going to be going forward.  None of the forces noted above are slowing down.  Companies need to be structured to match the complexity of the business environment and a COO provides a step in that direction.   It’s time to look out for number one by providing them a number two.

About the Authors

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Stephen A. Miles

Stephen A. Miles is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Miles Group. Previously, he was a Vice Chairman of Heidrick & Struggles where he ran the Leadership Advisory Services within the Leadership Consulting Practice and oversaw the firm’s worldwide executive assessment/succession planning activities. With more than 15 years of experience in assessment, top-level succession planning, organizational effectiveness and strategy consulting, Stephen specializes in CEO succession and has partnered with numerous Boards of global Fortune 500 companies to ensure that a successful leadership selection and transition occurs. Stephen holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s of Business Administration both from Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada; and a Master’s degree in Psychology from the University of Victoria.

nbennett

Nathan Bennett, PhD

Nathan Bennett, Ph.D., is Professor of Management in the J. Mack Robinson College of Business. He specializes in leadership and strategy execution, managing innovation and change processes, top management team dynamics, and contextual influences on individual behavior in organizations. Nate has published in numerous widely-read resources for managers including the Harvard Business Review and Wall Street Journal. He is co-author of the 2006 Stanford University Press title “Riding Shotgun: The Role of the COO” and the 2010 book “Your Career Game: How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals.” Professor Bennett received both his Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Master’s degree in Applied Research from Tulane University, and a Ph.D. in Management from Georgia Tech.

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