Strategic Leadership Across Sectors
The leaders of business, government, and the nonprofit world who come to Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld's class each week all boast resumés that would make just about anyone jealous. They've created companies, won elections, and conquered industries. But while Sonnenfeld, the Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management, is sure to ask his guests about their many exploits, he is often more interested in exploring the times when things didn't go so well. "It's the setback that is often the defining moment," he said during a session with Mickey Drexler, the J. Crew CEO who was abruptly fired as head of the Gap in 2002. "Most people don't make it through. But for those who do, a certain steeliness of character pours from it and they are never the same afterwards. They trace their eventual rise to that often very painful fall."
The course is Strategic Leadership Across Sectors and it stands as a unique offering not just at Yale SOM but at any business school. For more than 20 years, Sonnenfeld has run the Chief Executive Leadership Institute, a platform through which he engages many of the most influential leaders across a variety of sectors. Through the relationships he builds with them, he is able to bring them to Yale for intensive sessions on their careers and leadership styles. The result, say the students who line up each year for a spot, is one of the signature courses at Yale SOM. "There is no simple formula when it comes to leadership," says Meghan Gutekunst '11. "Every situation, every organization, every industry and sector requires you to adapt in different ways to the situations that present themselves. Intellectually, this is easy to understand. But it's different when the crisis actually arises. What makes this course so great is that the people who have been through these situations come into our classroom and spend an entire afternoon walking us through them. These are the kind of insights you can't get just from a case study. And no doubt a lot of us will refer to them when we're confronted with a crisis in the future."
This year's list of guests included leaders from all sectors, and industries ranging from finance to retail to transportation to media to consulting. No two conversations were at all similar. In one session, Jeffrey Bewkes, president and CEO of TimeWarner, and Jeffrey Zucker, the former president and CEO of NBC Universal, debated the future of media; in another Sherron Watkins, a former Enron vice president, walked students through the process that made her one of the most famous whistleblowers in corporate history. Students got to interact with private equity legend Lynn Tilton; Michael Leven, president and COO of Las Vegas Sands Corporation; Dominic Barton, global managing director for McKinsey & Company; corporate turnaround expert Bruce McKinnon; Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund; Internet media tycoon Arianna Huffington; former U.S. Representative Chris Shays, and David Neeleman, who founded JetBlue and now heads a Brazilian airline.
Howard Chang SOM/FES '12 said that for someone who hopes some day to be a CEO, interacting with such a wide variety of leaders was invaluable. "You get to see them struggle with these really important decisions, ones they knew could hurt their careers," he says. "And they're not just lecturing. It's clear they see this as a conversation with us. They believe in what Professor Sonnenfeld is doing with this course."
Sonnenfeld says that it's this dialog that attracts top CEOs to the course, and often has them seeking a return engagement. With most conversations strictly off-the-record, he says that guests feel they can speak honestly about their experiences. He designed the course to allow busy leaders the opportunity to duck out early—but they rarely do. "We'll plan for them to be here an hour but often they'll stay through until the end," he says. "I've worked hard to create an environment of trust, which leads to a remarkable degree of candor. These are conversations students would never get from reading press clippings or a case study."
His guests agree. Shays, who is now co-chair of the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, says that he finds the environment of the course both stimulating and informative in ways both he and the students often find surprising. "People have a preconception of what a public figure might be like, but most of the time they're wrong," he says. "By interacting with me in the class, they're gaining insights they otherwise would never get. The conversations are always provocative. And for me, I get to talk to people who are going to be the movers and shakers in our society."
Drexler, who has turned J. Crew from a bastion of preppy into a stylish upscale brand, says that the benefits of appearing in the course go both ways. "I like to speak to students and explain my personal point-of-view and how I manage and lead my company," he says. "But I also just really enjoy the class. I find it very motivational. Jeff creates a great environment."
Gutekunst credits Sonnenfeld's preparation and classroom style for eliciting truly candid moments from the guests. "His interviewing style is unique," she says. "He's not afraid to really push them. Sometimes there's a real elephant in the room and he just dives right in. He's not shy to ask speakers about sensitive topics. But he does it in a way that comes off as respectful, not confrontational."
Francisco Sibal '11 says that it was the combination of the stories told by the leaders and the way Sonnenfeld brought them back to the overarching themes of the course—resiliency, ethics, and personal responsibility—that made it so valuable for managers about to go out into the world. Time and again, he says speakers touched on how their personal values helped guide their decisions, whether it was dealing with getting fired, scrambling over a product recall, or in the case of James Dunne, responding to the destruction of his investment firm in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Of the 83 people who were in Sandler O'Neill & Partners' World Trade Center office that day, only 17 survived. Dunne explained how he led the firm through the tragedy to the point where today it is thriving.
"He talked about the commitment he made to the victims' families, something that went above and beyond what other firms did," Sibal says. "He was a very powerful speaker and he presented a portrait of a leader in a crisis that was truly inspiring. It's what makes this course so great. We know these people are very successful; we know they are powerful. But the course strips that all away and gets to the core of how they make the tough decisions. Each one has a different leadership style, so it's not like we're being given a prescription on how to deal with adversity. We're being introduced to the process a real leader engages in to come up with a tough solution. And even if it's years before any of us are in a situation like they have faced, by taking this course we'll be better prepared when that moment arises."