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Dean's Corner

Badger Executive Talks Shine a Spotlight on the ‘Wisconsin Way’ of Leadership

By Vallabh Sambamurthy

June 1, 2021

Badger Executive Talks logo

The pandemic has kept all of us from traveling for more than a year, but that didn’t stop me and my fellow Business Badgers from connecting with some of our most successful alumni and hearing their stories throughout this past academic year. In its first year, our Badger Executive Talks virtual speaker series featured six accomplished leaders, and I was gratified by how the qualities that led to their success are the same qualities we work to develop in our students. They are also the same qualities that alumni carry with them throughout the business world.

Through live conversations with me, these six executives shared their leadership journeys and answered questions from alumni all over the world. Their industries vary, but these leaders all share fundamental qualities that helped them rise through the ranks. While some of those attributes may be intrinsic, the Wisconsin School of Business gave them a stage to develop and polish the tools and qualities that help create a trusted leader. It’s what we continue to do today.

These leaders are risk-takers. They’ve all made a choice that was probably a little scary at the time but paid off. Maybe it was a lateral move in a company to learn new skills. Maybe it was going full speed to commit to gender diversity at a time when others were taking baby steps. Maybe, like with consumer insights innovator Gayle Fuguitt (MBA ’80), it was walking in to a top executive’s office to make a case for the direction you believe the company should go. Or maybe, like with technology executive Ericson Chan (BS ’90), it was shepherding the evolution of global technology from the early days of online business in the 1990s to today, when technology is the centerpiece of innovation. These Business Badgers are not afraid.

They also have grit. They bounced back from challenges that could have ended their careers and instead found the strength to learn from the experience and move forward. John Peirson (BBA ’88), CEO of Deloitte Risk & Financial Advisory, is an example of this. He had just made partner at Arthur Andersen when the company went belly up. Fifteen years of building to that moment disappeared, and John needed to create a new path for himself. Similarly, Tom Westrick (BBA ’90) was on his way to making partner at Arthur Andersen when the firm shut down, but his resilience carried him through that career shift and informed the type of leader that he is today.

These executives are well-rounded. They long ago mastered the fundamentals of business; if this were football we’d say they do the blocking and tackling that’s essential for anything else to go well. That strong core prepared them for their first jobs and the additional responsibilities they gained throughout their journeys. In his first leadership role, Tom Falk (BBA ’80), former chairman of Kimberly Clark, led a team that included colleagues in research, supply chain, finance, engineering, and marketing. He, and all of the executives I spoke to, are able to speak the language of many disciplines and employ their well-rounded business fundamentals to lead in an array of fields.

Less tangible but no less important, these leaders understand and exhibit empathy. They continually show collaboration, humility, and a willingness to make tough decisions. Cheryl Stallworth (MBA ’81) spoke of how she chose to always create an environment where people wanted to be, that motivating with fear was something she made sure she never did.

These six are just a microcosm of what we see in generations of our students and alumni who hold their time at the Wisconsin School of Business close to their heart. For many years we’ve been successful in attracting students who graduate with gratitude for the experiences they’ve had. Business Badgers have built strong connections with each other and with Madison, and many of them talk about professors like Stephen Hawk, Jim Graaskamp, or Jack Nevin. They received mentorship and coaching to get answers to life’s defining puzzles. Students have long come here, formed their own ideas of what they want to do, soaked in stories, and leaned on each other. That goes beyond the curriculum. It’s the culture; there’s something special about the place.

Our alumni embody Wisconsin values. They work hard, they have a human touch that helps them build and maintain networks while looking after the generations that follow. Sure, you hear that you need sharp elbows to rise to the top, but we don’t hear that about Business Badgers. And we don’t hear that in the stories of our alumni in top leadership roles.

Once again, in 2019, the University of Wisconsin ranked #1 for producing the most Fortune 500 CEOs. It’s a ranking we’ve had for more than a decade and I often hear the question, “How do you do it?” What I can say is the Wisconsin School of Business is where theory meets practice, and the result is an alumni network filled with reliable, trusted leaders. Beyond what they study in the classroom, our students learn on their feet with the applied learning opportunities that are also fundamental to their education. Combine that with the many clubs that give students the chance to build their network and practice their leadership, and you have the strands that make up the DNA of the Wisconsin School of Business.

In a constantly changing world, many of our alumni find themselves at turning points in their careers. It might be time to make a move or they might recognize a growth opportunity. That can be scary. I believe that by hearing the leadership journeys of our six alumni in the Badger Executive Talks, those transitions seem a little less scary now. If there’s another trait our Business Badgers share, it’s that they help each other. It’s what has built leaders in the past and what will continue to build them in the future.

We have much to learn from each other, and the Business Badger community will have more opportunities to hear from successful leaders within our alumni community when Badger Executive Talks return in Fall 2021.