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Lessons in Leadership Series: Dr. Roy Herberger

“Every successful leader I have known could listen well, craft complex problems into a strategy and then sell the idea to others.”

Educated at the University of Texas (Austin) and with a doctorate from the University of Colorado, Dr. Roy Herberger focused his career in education management that included the University of Southern California, SMU, and Thunderbird. In addition, he has served on over 16 public and private corporate boards including executive board positions with Apollo Education Group, Pinnacle West Capital, and the Mayo Clinic.

C.O.I.’s Rowena McAllister recently had the opportunity to ask Dr. Herberger about the changes in education, identifiable qualities of strong leaders and advice he would give those embarking on international careers, among other topics.

Q: Can you talk about the transformational nature of education on a career and how you see education playing a role in this new economy?

A: I believe that we are in the middle of a revolution regarding the impact of education on career success. There are surprising changes in the world that I grew up in vs the one that students of today are experiencing. We are beginning to understand that a college degree, with all of its components, may end up missing the mark as it relates to initial career success. An example of this is that ten years ago students could expect a high correlation from their coursework in selected majors to the specific requirements of employers and careers. It was relatively straight forward to set up 120 hours of course credit to succeed with a student’s first professional position.

Today the reality is that education is not only continuous, but it is the responsibility of the individual to match their learning experiences with the ever changing business and social climates they will face. In addition, today’s student faces the harsh reality of the cost of structured education models that might not provide the learning experiences they, or potential employers, expect. I believe this is potentially a good thing for students.

Institutions of higher learning are recognizing that highly structured course experiences must be coupled with new flexibility that includes on-line platforms, practicums, and non-credit training. Accrediting bodies are allowing, and expecting, faculties to include practitioners with current knowledge of challenging government and business futures. Education to careers is being reshaped into hybrids that often include both for-credit courses and boot camps taught in non-traditional ways.

Q: What advice would you give to someone starting out in an international career?

A: When individuals describe themselves as having an international career, they most often are referring to having been assigned overseas, or they have had responsibility for divisions or people working overseas. Globalization over the past century has compressed the meaning of international careers to a much narrower set of fundamental skills, such as having lived in multiple cultures and demonstrated fluency in English, as well as other languages.

Study abroad programs are important, but not necessarily sufficient, to qualify for that first international job. You must demonstrate a commitment to learning multiple cultures and then augment your education by interning or apprenticeships with a firm or government that needs your skills in focused areas like law, accounting, finance, math, or marketing. Thunderbird students were unique in that the vast majority of American students immersed themselves overseas by joining organizations like the Peace Corps or taking jobs such as teaching English as a second language. This strategy gave them a head start in the job market for those rare first time international positions.

The most typical road to securing an international job is to seek work with a company that has a global structure. You may have to wait in line while demonstrating your cross-cultural and technical skills before landing a position in the international division. Mobility and the willingness to take tough overseas assignments is a key criterion for moving up the international career ladder in a global institution. Finally, read and become fluent in the history and government practices of other nations. For example, Asia is a natural target for your education and understanding. You don’t necessarily have to speak Mandarin or Japanese, but it certainly is a differentiating factor. International managers appreciate a job candidate who knows more than just GAP accounting or finance. A demonstrated knowledge of other culture’s laws, customs, and history will set you apart.


Q: What are the most important characteristics of a successful leader in your view, and why?

A: The answer could be a full book! However, by looking back on great Leaders and great leadership I have known, there are few common and important characteristics.

The most important is “confidence.” Cyrus Freidheim was International President of the respected consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton. He was known for his expertise in finance, strategy, and general management, but he was also known for the confidence he exuded when solving complex management problems. When he walked into the room you knew the “Captain is on deck.” He never showed anger or disrespected people who disagreed with him; rather he honored them with the opportunity to freely express their opinions, but they also had to have ideas to back up their opinions!

His own confidence in himself conveyed self-confidence to his employees and consulting clients. He was a natural born winner that you knew would lead your team to recovery and a victory.

A second characteristic I have found in good leaders is that they can create good “ideas” by listening very carefully to others. Dr. John Noseworthy, CEO of the Mayo Clinic is just such a leader. He is responsible for one of the most complex institutions in the world. Risk and reward for the Mayo Clinic practitioners is often a matter of life and death. New ideas for the practice of medicine most often come from the field where nurses, researchers, and doctors practice. Dr. Noseworthy must manage the environment that allows for 63,000 people to feel valued and able to express their ideas on being the best that Mayo Clinic can be.

Strategy” is an often over used word, but not really understood in the context of being a leader. If you buy into my earlier comments about “Confidence” and “Ideas”, then put those two skills into the third skill of building strategy you get an example of leaders who have a natural skill of executing on planning e.g. strategy. General Eisenhower, through his amazing job of executing the Allied invasion of Europe in WW II is the perfect example. Every successful leader I have known could listen well, craft complex problems into a strategy and then sell the idea to others.

My last observation on successful leader’s may seem to be a contradictory one. Eric Schmidt, the former Executive Chairman of Google and Alphabet, Inc. appears to have developed a “high degree of tolerance for ambiguity.” He would probably argue with me on this point, but the way that he and Jonathan Rosenberg managed first time employees was to give them the freedom to create their own ideas and products at Google. This freedom was not total, but the Google employees are paid handsomely, and they are expected to spend upward of 20% of their time finding and developing their own ideas with colleagues at Google. This is a behavioral skill in leaders that is not typical. At Google, this philosophy is rooted in the corporate suite all the way down into the company cafeteria and the unscheduled meeting spaces that dot the campus. Leadership is not a game of perfect and, in fact, it can be messy. Google is the quid essential example of thriving on chaos by hiring the best and the brightest while freeing them up from excessive rules and intervention.

Q: What is the biggest challenge facing business leaders today?

A: I think that you must segment the business that managers are in before you can understand their challenges. But, there are some obvious issues that seem to plague most leaders.

I would cite the “speed of change” as an example. Planning used to be in time frames of 5 and 10 years. Today, if you are running a health care organization like the Mayo Clinic or Kaiser Permanente, you are besieged with mind bending business alternatives that are reshaping healthcare daily. Long term planning is still vitally important, but the ability to change course rapidly is critical.

I would also bring forward the “compression of product life cycles.” If you believe you have the best idea and the best delivery of your product and you will have a legacy of profit for the next 10 years…be very careful! Mass customization is rendering the market place into an ever-changing paradigm that shortens product life cycles and profitability of unique products.

Do you recall the days when Walmart ran inefficient retailers out of business in rural America? Walmart’s business looked to be a colossus that would take over all of retailing. Now, Walmart is in a fist fight for market share as Amazon is becoming the best “just in time” delivery system ever.

I would say one of the most significant of all future challenges to business leaders will be machine learning, or more specifically, “artificial intelligence.” The age of robotics is advancing in marvelous and frightening ways. How would you like to own a taxi license, or a law firm, or any personal service company? These fundamental and important institutions are facing uncertain futures as automation and “big data” optimization alter the product and services landscape. The age of efficiency and performance automation will have amazing positives, but it will punish those institutions whose leaders are not ready for what is coming.

Finally, “cyber terrorism” is real and becoming the highest risk for the corporate board room. No one is certain where this threat is going or if it can be contained. One thing is for certain, financial statements will continue to reflect this modern risk for institutions of all forms. Leaders who decentralize this threat to outside agencies or consultants are risking their future.