Real-life business lessons


When Kevin Roberts came to Lancaster University Management School in late May to teach MBA students about corporate strategy, he left his machine gun behind.

Kevin, chief executive of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, has been a legend in the corporate world ever since he celebrated becoming president of PepsiCo Canada in 1987 by having a Coca-Cola vending machine wheeled on stage while he was giving a speech and shooting at it until it was full of holes.  Kevin, who was born in Lancaster, left school at 17 and never graduated from university.

“I had a difference of opinion on moral philosophy with the headmaster at Lancaster Grammar,” he said, explaining that he was expelled after his girlfriend became pregnant.

Now a governor of the same school, Kevin said his association with the university came about because, “I wanted to make a difference in my hometown. I wanted to work with tomorrow’s leaders, and if you want to find talented young people in a cluster, then a business school is the place to be.”

Kevin’s course, called ‘Strategy in the Making’, is part of Lancaster’s ‘Mindful Manager’ programme, a module in the university’s full-time MBA programme that focuses on what managers actually do and how they do it. Instead of giving a lecture or describing a historical case study, he gives the students a chance not just to watch corporate decision-making in real time, but to help shape it.

Classroom tricks

“I share everything with them – financial information, market information, our internal debate, which companies I’m pitching,” he said. “Nothing is confidential. Nothing is withheld. It’s as if they were my board.”

Each session lasts four hours, with Kevin dressed in his trademark black shirt and black jacket, pacing up and down the lecture hall, challenging students with a rapid-fire mix of corporate homilies – “Business is a blood sport” and “Mindful managing means choosing what you can do and what you can fake” – personal anecdotes and gentle teasing.

When one group urges Kevin to be more open to collaborating with consumers, he confides, “We’re considering acquiring a crowd-sourcing company,” and goes on to reveal the name of the company and the parameters of the deal.

A student who confesses to having an ambition of living on the most fashionable street of Mumbai one day prompts Kevin to refer to the main villain in the 1987 movie Wall Street and wryly observes that, “Gordon Gekko is back with us — greed is good.” But the same student is praised for his honesty and for his commitment to lifting his country’s fortunes, along with his own.

Urging them again to keep their responses brief and to make their proposals measurable and specific, he instructed: “Start your sentences with a verb!”

“I don’t think my role is to hurt them,” Kevin said afterward in an interview. And the students, who come from 19 countries including Azerbaijan, Britain, India, Mongolia and the United States, give as good as they get. Divided into 11 teams during their first session in January, their assignment was to come up with the major strategic challenges facing Saatchi & Saatchi. Reporting to Kevin in May, nearly every team told him that after 14 years at the helm of the company, finding his own replacement needed to be high on the list.

As Chris Saunders, who directs the school’s full-time MBA programme, winced visibly, a young man from Bangalore, suggested that it might be time for Kevin to step aside. The chief executive responded with good humour.

And when another student appeared to chide Kevin and his colleagues for failing to foresee the growing importance of social networking, saying, “We were wondering why Saatchi & Saatchi didn’t do something like Facebook rather than letting Facebook do Facebook,” Kevin agreed with the critics.

“You’ve suggested we should have been much more aggressive – maybe have our own video channel or have our own Internet platform,” he told the class. “And I’m going to implement that. Because you’re right.”

He was so captivated by one student contribution, which declared, “Fear constipates faith,” that he offered its author, Jean-Robert Richard from Tobago, a job as a copywriter.
Gaurau Bajaj, a student from Chandigarh, whose first degree was in mechanical engineering, said it was precisely the opportunity to interact at such close quarters with business leaders that made him choose Lancaster for his MBA.

“I have friends in business schools across Europe, and many of them are very happy,” he said. “But I don’t think any of them can say they are working with a real CEO on live issues, as we are here.”

“If I have an idea, I can present it directly to Kevin,” Gaurau added. During a break, Anil Rao, another student from India, said: “We’ve all got a mental image of what a top CEO is supposed to look like. But with Kevin what you get is much more than what you expect.”

Several students cited “value for money” as another major consideration in their choice of Lancaster. While many MBAs take 18 months or two years to complete, the full-time programme at Lancaster is a one-year course, and tuition costs 23,000 pounds, or about 38,000 US dollars.

“This experience will stay with our students throughout their whole careers,” said Sue Cox, dean of the business school. Back in the classroom, Kevin prodded the students for comments and feedback, though his patience does seem to have limits. Student presentations are governed by a strict “10-minute rule,” and an assistant is on hand to ring a bell if students go on too long. “If this was Hollywood, you’d get 30 seconds and three lines to sell a screenplay, so this is pretty good,” he told them.

Declaring “I’m not asking for volunteers. I’m picking on you,” Kevin had the students critique one another’s strategic plans. “You are the CEO reporting to your board of directors. And remember, the further up a company you go, the more stupid you become. So keep it simple.”

When he followed the students’ appraisals of each group’s strategic priorities with his own critique, Kevin praised their focus on competition and their commitment to innovation. “Where you’re weak is in thinking,” he said, illustrating his points with a series of references to Saatchi & Saatchi clients like Procter & Gamble and Cadbury. “It’s the clients who pay our salaries,” he said.

The troubles of one particular client served as an illustration for their next assignment, which was to come up with “10 things we have to do over the next 100 days.” Referring to the recent earthquake in Japan, he said, “Toyota is 25 per cent of my global business. And we’ve got no cars to sell. What should I do?”

Although his own academic career had been cut short, teaching “does scratch an itch that I missed,” Kevin acknowledges. He also said the experience had brought him more than just emotional satisfaction.

“For me this is free consulting. To reach these kids at a time in their lives when they are so receptive to new ideas is just fantastic.”

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