University of Pittsburgh

Alumni Panel Offers Strategies for Success

In Samme Thompson's first professional job, long before he established himself as a successful telecommunications executive at Motorola and AT&T, he was like many of his peers, reluctant to raise his hand during meetings unless he was absolutely certain that he knew the answer to the question at hand.

"Don't be afraid to raise your hand, simply because you are the new member on the team" he tells MBA students today. "First, do your homework on the subject, then develop a plausible solution, an alternative approach, or an insightful question that might help solve the problem that your team is wrestling with. You don’t need to your answer to be all boxed-in before your input can add value to the discussion."

Thompson (MBA '70) runs his own senior advisory consulting firm from his home base in Chicago, a venture he founded following three decades of working as an investment banker, management consultant and senior executive in the telecommunications and information technology industry. He encourages students to maximize every opportunity that comes their way, going "deep and wide" to understand the issue's analytics and the organization itself.

Thompson was one of two Distinguished Alumnus honorees, along with Kenneth Woodcock (MBA '66), a retired executive with The AES Corp., to participate in the Pitt Business Strategies for Success discussion held on April 12 at the University Club in Oakland. Nearly 50 students, faculty, and alumni attended the one-a-half-hour talk, which preceded the school's 49th Annual Business Alumni Association awards dinner, held later that night.

Dean John T. Delaney, as moderator of the informal discussion, sat in a sofa chair with Thompson to his right and Woodcock to his left. The relaxed conversation ventured into different directions — what mistakes did they turn into opportunities for success? How can visionary leadership be encouraged in a collaborative setting? What are the right types of questions to ask in new ventures? What strategies lead to success in offshoring? How do you respond to constant change? How do you mitigate risk in new or changing markets?

"I think managing risk is knowing what your competition is doing and staying ahead of them," Woodcock told the audience. Woodcock is a retired senior vice president with The AES Corp., an electric power company that generates and distributes electricity in more than 27 different countries. In his 23 years with the company, Woodcock sought out new desirable sites, traveling extensively, including to Argentina, Namibia, Vietnam, and many other far-off locations. "One of my proudest achievements was to get Hawaii to install a clean coal plant, convincing them that dependency on oil was hurting them," Woodcock says.

The panel's rumination on leadership generated back-and-forth discussion. Three different leadership styles emerged: the Steve Jobs visionary and micro-manager, the royal CEO of Jack Welch, and the hands-off, let-the-employees-take-the-credit leader. Which of these is best?

"Different qualities are needed for different companies at different times," Delaney said. "I don't want to say charisma is needed — that's a word that is overused— but I would say there is something about a visionary CEO that is attractive to people."

Thompson agreed. "You need functional skills, and an in-depth knowledge of the business.  However,  you also need that human quality that makes you such a magnet for the best and brightest, the person whom the real stars want to play a role in making successful," he said.

On doing business in global environments, one of the constant challenges for U.S. companies (as well as many other international companies) involves operating in markets where corruption is ingrained in the culture. Woodcock's experience was straightforward: "We vigorously complied with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act," he said. Thompson shared an anecdote of a younger employee at a firm asking whether the firm's zero tolerance policy allowed for even little bribes (the answer was no, no, and no). "Ultimately, securing a contact, or conducting business under illicit means is never worth it. Plus, it is in violation of the law, which can result in criminal penalties," Thompson says.

"Any business going offshore needs to understand how the government there operates. One of the themes at AES is that you learn by doing," Woodcock says. Rather than read books about a country's culture, Woodcock made a habit of asking endless questions. Before deciding on a legal contract, he would often interview six law firms and enrich himself with their knowledge.

Woodcock encouraged graduates to pay close attention to the company culture. For example, AES is a corporate iconoclast. The company upset the apple cart, Woodcock says, during its public offering, when the company attempted to make language about serving the social good over profits part of its core mission. Woodcock says AES was founded on four tenets: fun, fairness, integrity, and social responsibility. In that kind of environment, bosses weren't allowed to make decisions. In terms of fun there was not "a beer blast on Friday night," Woodcock says, "but we didn't ever allow an organizational chart to be written at AES. That puts people in silos," he says. "People at the top should be coaches. They should empower people and ask them to seek advice before making decisions."

Woodcock and Thompson also had advice for new graduates who are entering a business landscape being reshaped by disruptive innovations. "I was exceptionally fortunate to be right in the middle of companies and industries just exploding with change," says Thompson, who participated in the wireless evolution and the wave of industry consolidations following the U.S. Justice Department's breakup of AT&T. "How do you add value to that?" he asks. "Just step up your act. Be ready and stay excited about being in a change-driven environment."

And the next time you are in a meeting, don't be afraid to raise your hand. Even if you don't know the complete answer, you can make a valuable contribution toward solving, or at least understanding, the problem.