Why You Should Play to Your Strengths and Listen to Your Heart

Published on May 19, 2009

Selecting from the various types of effective leadership styles depends partly on time, place, and circumstance, said Dennis Keller, ’68, chairman of Devry, Inc. “It also depends on one’s abilities, values, and goals,” Keller said during the Distinguished Speaker Series, sponsored by the Graduate Business Council, at Harper Center on May 19.

“My best advice is to look at yourself as closely and dispassionately as possible, identify the aspects of leadership in which you excel, and play to those strengths,” he said. “If certain important qualities are not among your strengths, then find someone who is strong in those areas to be a partner or a colleague.”

Playing to your strengths includes listening to your heart about pursuing your career in a field you enjoy and in which you believe, Keller said. “When you work in a field you like, you’re naturally energetic, enthusiastic, and dedicated,” he said. “Invariably, history’s most accomplished individuals have testified that the work itself — not money, fame, or luxury — constituted their greatest reward and satisfaction.”

The most satisfying philosophy of leadership is the servant-leader model, Keller said. “In this vision of leadership, the leader’s primary vision is to serve the highest and best interests of the group,” he said. “The leader looks to the needs of the group before looking to her own and thinks constantly about ways to improve group and individual performance.”

Keller described his career, which included cofounding the Keller School of Management and acquiring Devry, Inc., as a series of case studies that could be titled the “confessions of a serial entrepreneur.” While growing up, he sold corn and tomatoes from his grandfather’s farm and parakeets from the basement of his family’s home, he said.

As an undergraduate he started a pizza company with 40 part-time workers, and by his third year he made more money than junior faculty members, Keller said. “I knew by the time I graduated that I wanted to start businesses as my life’s work,” he said.

While earning his MBA at Chicago Booth, Keller wrote the core portion of a business plan that eventually became Keller School of Management, he said. The plan called for using funding and sponsorship from large corporations to train minority and prospective entrepreneurs in an intensive, concentrated business curriculum taught by experienced business people, Keller said.

“The first of two major innovations in our plan was taking the most useful half of a two-year MBA program and teaching it all double time in one semester,” he said. “The second innovation was to use a practitioner faculty. All of our faculty had good academic credentials, but they also had managerial credentials in the area in which they were going to teach.”

The Graduate Business Council invited Keller to speak because he works in a sector — educational services — that succeeded during the recession, said first-year student Mike Perrone, president of the council. “It’s one of the few industries that during the downturn actually did extremely well,” Perrone said. “It’s a very appropriate topic for this time because it’s heavily connected to the recession and thrived during it, especially because of the people who have been displaced.”

                                                                                                                    — Phil Rockrohr