Leadership Advice from Alumni at the Top

Published on February 17, 2010

A good leader is someone who takes action. “You have got to get things done, not talk about it, not dream about it. Get it done, dammit. That’s how you want everybody in your organization to act,” said Mike Harper, ’50, retired president and chief executive of ConAgra Foods.

Harper spoke February 17 at a fireside chat in Hyde Park at Harper Center. The building was named in 2007 in honor of one of the largest cash gifts Chicago Booth ever received. He was joined by longtime friend and business partner Eric Gleacher, ’67, whose $15 million gift to the university in 1996 named Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago. The talk was moderated by James Schrager, clinical professor of entrepreneurship and strategic management.Gleacher’s largest piece of advice to the audience was something he learned as an officer in the Marine Corps.

“Number one, you never lie to the troops. That’s integrity,” Gleacher said. “Number two, the troops always eat first. You take care of others; that’s what we call culture. Number three, never leave anybody behind.”

Gleacher would later go on to work for Lehman Brothers — where he made partner in 4½ years—and Morgan Stanley before starting his own investment banking business, Broadpoint Gleacher, in the early 1990s.

Schrager began the talk by highlighting an expert study by K. Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at the Florida State University. Among the study’s findings that Schrager highlighted:

  • Experts are made, not born
  • If you want to be an expert at something, study experts and what they do
  • Experts predict the future

As for how Harper predicted the future and turned around the deep-in-debt ConAgra in the 1970s, it came down to reading people as soon as he took the reins of the company.

“You learn very quickly those who didn’t have a clue,” he said. Harper soon brought Gleacher on board as the company’s investment banker, and together they led the company on turnaround and buying spree of over 100 prepared food brands.

Gleacher added another expert mantra to the mix: experts don’t always settle for simply being successful. “I have never looked at myself as being successful,” he said. “I feel like I have more to do. I’m just not finished yet.”

Both men had advice for would-be MBA grads: get a job. “Once you have the job, be better than anybody else,” Harper said. “You work harder at that job than the guy next to you. Be the best damn whatever for that organization. You’ll figure that part out. That’s why you are here.”

Harper began his career working as a general manager on the manufacturing floor at General Motors’ Oldsmobile division, a job that many would not consider glamorous.

Gleacher said those struggling to find a job, especially in this economy, should consider entrepreneurship. “There is an overabundance of talent right now looking for jobs,” Gleacher said. “Do something entrepreneurial. You’ll learn something, and the work will challenge you. You’ve got that Chicago Booth MBA, and you’ll get that dream job when the economy is easier.”

Jose Zorrilla, a first-year student in the Full-Time MBA Program, said he attended the presentation “to get to know the people whose names are on these facilities.”

As for what Zorrilla took away from the presentation: “No matter where you start, if you work hard enough, you’ll be successful. There no standard career path for any MBA student. It’s about doing the right thing regardless of what job you’ve got.”

— Patrick Ferrell