Students Hear What It Takes to Be a CEO from Heads of Urban Outfitters and PRI

Published on May 25, 2010

What makes good CEOs tick? More than 100 students heard the answer from Glen Senk, ’80, CEO of Urban Outfitters, and Alisa Miller, MBA ’99, MPP ’99, president and CEO of Public Radio International (PRI), May 25 at the fourth Charles M. Harper Road to CEO Series.

The discussion was moderated by James Schrager, clinical professor of entrepreneurship and strategic management and co-sponsored by the student-led Corporate Management and Strategy Group and the Office of Alumni Affairs and Development. Before the event, about 20 students got the chance to chat with the CEOs over coffee.

Miller, who was passionate about working in journalism and media, described how she launched Booth’s student-led Media and Entertainment Group and participated in the New Venture Challenge with a media company she’d created. After graduating, she landed a position as a director of business development at the Sesame Workshop, which produces Sesame Street.

At SesameStreet, Miller said, she strove to live up to the “rich legacy” of the company and to keep innovating in order to maintain the brand’s vibrancy and creativity — skills she uses as CEO to adapt to the changing media environment, maintaining PRI’s model about sustainability, and not focusing just on profits.

At Bloomingdales, where Senk began his career in the 1980s, he learned the constantly changing nature of retail. As a result, as CEO he commits some of his employees’ budget and time to letting them come up with innovative ideas that might create the “next big thing.” At Bloomingdale’s, he worked in several positions that let him touch almost every aspect of the company, which gave him a great understanding of the retail industry.

Senk also worked at Williams Sonoma, where he said he became more convinced that he would only work for an organization whose values and principles he believed in. The growth of Urban Outfitters from a $30 million company when he became CEO to its current market cap of $7 billion 17 years later is a testament to that belief, he said.

Asked if they had any advice for aspiring CEOs, Miller advised students to create their own future, be self-aware, and seek as varied experiences as possible. It’s also important to believe in your path and be comfortable in making changes to it if necessary, she said. Senk added that self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and good listening skills are among the key attributes of a good leader, and that great CEOs have unimpeachable integrity and commitment to their passion and are not afraid to follow their inner compass during tough times.

During the Q&A session that followed, students asked Senk and Miller how they resolve situations where they have limited knowledge of a topic. Both CEOs agreed that they ask for help and seek out experts or people whose opinion they value to gather as much information as possible, stressing that understanding what you don’t know is one of the most powerful tenets of leadership.

Asked whether there had been any change in the way people or peers perceive them since becoming CEO, Miller said people seem to take your every word very seriously. Senk cautioned that egos can become bloated as CEOs and can devastate businesses, and that chief executives should be aware of that fact.

—Originally reported by Chicago Business; edited by Patricia Houlihan