University of Pittsburgh

Katz-Educated Executives Offer Strategies for Success

Friday, April 25, 2014

What big mistake did you turn into a teachable moment? How do you manage the heavy stress of leadership? Which leadership style is the most effective? How do you promote greater diversity in your organization?

These questions and more were the focus of the Strategies for Success alumni panel that preceded the University of Pittsburgh’s 50th annual Pitt Business Alumni Awards on April 11 at the University Club in Oakland. Pitt Business Dean John T. Delaney moderated the three-person panel that, collectively, had more than 75 years of management experience:  Max H. Mitchell (MBA ’89), president and CEO of Crane Company; Susan E. Arnold (MBA ’80), a retired president of global business units at Procter & Gamble, a current operating executive with the private equity firm The Carlyle Group, and a board member at Walt Disney Co. and McDonald’s Corp.; and Kulpatra Sirodom (PhD ’87), an associate professor in finance at Thammasat University Business School and board member of multiple Thailand companies.

The standing-room-only audience of more than 80 people included many current and incoming MBA students who came to soak up the alumni’s leadership wisdom. Arnold began the talk by providing a product development lesson learned from spectacular failure. Years ago, Procter & Gamble spent a considerable sum to develop an all-in-one detergent product that could be used in the washer and dryer. Market research showed consumers wanted this but the product ended up being a total flop.

“Normally it’s best to fail fast and fail cheap,” Arnold said. “It was my fault we were all excited about it. I learned a really important lesson. Consumers can’t tell you exactly what their unmet need is. They can only conceptualize their current state. What you are paid the big bucks for is to translate that.”

Mitchell’s teachable moment, from his time with Ford Motor Co., provided a valuable lesson in change management.  Ford had adjusted the crankshaft of an automobile model, but despite the improvement, the automobile was experiencing more oil leaks than before. How could that be? It turned out that an important step was omitted in the new process. The silver lining, though, was that once fixed, warranty claims dropped to their lowest level.  

“In every case the real learning I’ve had has been done through the adversity and the challenges much more than the success. The key is that you learn from it,” Mitchell said.

Sirodom, meanwhile, as a member of the audit committee of Thai President Foods PCL, learned from a global business experience. The company built a new factory in China in order to introduce its instant noodle product to the country, but the product failed to achieve quality standards and the business suffered huge cost overruns. The factory was shut down, but there was a silver lining: the company realized it could make nice profits in selling the cups the noodles are cooked in.

Asked by Delaney which leadership style works best in an organization, the panelists agreed no one style is best. “Really great leaders can be flexible based on what the organization needs,” Arnold says. “You can be fast on your feet. You can delegate. You can take control when needed.”

Mitchell said leaders should balance out their strengths by finding others who complement what they lack. “If you are a visionary, you need people who can execute. If you are good at executing, then you need visionaries around you,” Mitchell says.

The panelists agreed that decisiveness is critical. “You have to make the decisions,” Sirodom said. “That’s what leaders are for, for better or worse, and you need to be willing to change when there’s an error.”

Delaney asked the panelists how they manage the high stress of their positions. Sirodom says there is no substitute for having a good family who will listen to what you are going through. Arnold said having outlets for stress is important, as is the confidence to move on after you have made a decision and not linger on it. Mitchell says good leaders don’t project their inward stress out onto their colleagues.

“If we think of the leaders we like to follow, they are self-composed, have a vision, are an optimist, and they help and coach us,” Mitchell says. This is a leader’s challenge: making sure the stress you are dealing with doesn’t get transferred to others.”

Delaney asked Arnold, who in her nearly 30 years at Procter & Gamble held positions that no woman has held before or since, about what guidance she can offer today’s female MBA students. Arnold recalled the initial culture shock of starting at Procter & Gamble, which was less about gender differences than her unfamiliarity with such a highly conservative, button-down culture. In this environment, she learned the importance of communicating with colleagues in “the same language, in the same manner and format. It doesn’t mean you have to change who you are or what you feel,” she says.

Delaney asked Mitchell how Crane, which is always developing a new technology, manages the pace of constant change in the industry. He responded that companies should make driving change a strategic priority. It is far better to “influence technology rather than have to respond to it,” Mitchell says.

Following the panel discussion, Arnold, Mitchell, and Sirodom were recognized at the 50th annual Business Alumni Awards ceremony, where they each received the Distinguished Alumnus or Distinguished Alumna award.  In total, more than 200 people attended the ceremony, which featured a banquet dinner and was attended by a number of past award recipients as well as other alumni, students, faculty, and staff.

The additional awards conferred at the ceremony included the:

  • Distinguished Service Award: Gloster B. Current Jr. (MBA ’72), a board member with A.O. Smith Corporation and immediate past president of the Pitt Black MBA Network
  • H.J. Zoffer Medal for Meritorious Service: George A. Davidson Jr. (ENGR ’61), a retired chairman of Dominion Resources Inc. and long-serving member of the Pitt Business Board of Visitors and University Board of Trustees
  • CBA Outstanding Alumni Award: La’Tasha D. Mayes (CBA ’03), the founder and executive director of New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice.
  • Corporate Appreciation Award: Texas Instruments