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Leadership is a critical component of business success. But the discussion of business leadership is all too often limited to the principles of executive leadership – i.e., leading from the C-suite. By comparison, relatively little attention is paid these days to leveraging the tremendous value of instilling and developing leadership skills at the organization-wide level.
For business students and recently employed business graduates, understanding the evolving role of leadership from an entry-level position through the initial years of professional development can make or break a career. It’s much the same for any first-time professional, regardless of their higher education degree – navigating the journey from contributor to emerging leader is no easy feat.
These are just two of the invaluable messages Dennis Weese, incoming Executive in Residence at Auburn’s Harbert College of Business, is planning to deliver to Harbert students beginning March 13th. Weese, an Auburn MBA graduate, is a successful corporate leader and seasoned board member for both public and private equity backed companies, with extensive experience in multi-unit management of company owned stores and franchise locations in the restaurant, financial services, retail and automotive industries.
The Harbert College of Business recently sat down with Dennis to find out why he feels there is so much to be gained from melding the theoretical teachings of a top-ranked business school with the practical principles of real-world employment and professional advancement.
|Harbert:||Let’s start with why you’ve decided to serve as Harbert’s next Executive in Residence.|
|Dennis:||That’s an easy one. As a Harbert MBA graduate and member of the school’s Advisory Board, I’ve enjoyed the privilege over the past few years of engaging with Harbert faculty, administrators and – most importantly – students. I have been fortunate in my own career to have been given extremely valuable insight and direction by mentors, co-workers, bosses and others. So, when I was asked to impart a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way to Harbert students, I jumped at the opportunity.|
|Harbert:||You’ve been a staunch advocate of progressing the practical components of business education success. In particular, you focus on the critical importance of building leadership capabilities at the entry level and how that manifests itself from Day One through the first few years of an individual’s professional career. You use the term “Organizational” Leadership to differentiate this focus from the C-Suite leadership skills so often discussed. Can you explain?|
|Dennis:||Sure. It seems much of the conversation surrounding business leadership these days centers either on C-suite leadership (almost exclusively CEO leadership) on one end of the spectrum or business school education issues on the other end – how to prepare B-school graduates for their first full-time position. That leaves quite a skills gap – a gaping hole, really – between the individual contributor responsibilities most newly hired business school graduates are tasked with performing and the hands-on management role they aspire to. I’d like to help bridge that gap.|
|Harbert:||Let’s dive a little deeper into what you mean by that – how can a new hire perform their entry-level job responsibilities while also preparing for the substantially different roles required when managing others?|
One guiding principle for successful organizational leadership development is recognizing that leadership is a privilege – it’s not an opportunity simply handed to each new hire. It has to be earned – but not just through individual contributions. The potential to be considered as an emerging leader becomes evident through a new hire’s everyday engagements and interactions with colleagues and superiors. Developing and curating these relationships as an early team member becomes as important to professional advancement as fulfilling one’s well-defined, job-specific tasks.
You want to take the time to do it right. Managing others is a discipline – and it looks different at every level. As you work your way through an organization, those tactics evolve, but what is common are the values and principles.
|Harbert:||What would a student or new employee want to keep in mind to prepare for the shifting responsibilities from individual contributor to group manager, to director, and so on? Is there something that you would advise them to focus on in terms of the values and principles they strive to advance?|
We are all familiar with the cliché “lead by example.” The thing about clichés is the underlying element of truth contained in most of them. While it may not be as simple as this cliché might suggest, students and new professionals can benefit greatly from observing the actions of others they admire and how their own decisions might help guide their actions.
Take, for example, the distribution and responsibility for your own work product as an individual and the work performed by others on the team you may have recently assumed responsibility for leading. One day you are focused on the work assigned to you as an individual and the next day you take on new responsibilities as the manager of others and their work product. How do you assign work? How do you manage the optimal execution of those work assignments? When do you step in to revise and when do you “simply” recommend changes for your new team to execute themselves?
That sounds a lot like a robust endorsement of mentorship. Can you speak a bit about the importance of mentors and where soon-to-be graduating students and newly hired professionals should look for guidance?
I’m in the camp of those who believe that everybody needs mentors and that you can’t have enough of them. Where to look? Seek out the people that you feel are doing it well, people that you admire or people that – when you look at their career path you think – “that's someone I’d like to emulate or model myself after.”
And then reach out to them. Directly. Lay out why you’re asking them to help guide your just-launched career. You may be surprised at how willing these people will be to return the favor of mentorship they’ve likely benefitted from themselves.
Finally, you are serving as a judge for the Tiger Cage finals, Auburn’s entrepreneurship contest for early-stage venture funding. What insight would you offer to those who are attempting to start their own businesses – those who have what they feel is a unique new business opportunity that warrants a unique, yet-to-be-considered approach?
I’d again turn to what’s common to all these laudable entrepreneurial objectives – raising money. No matter what the particular sphere of business you’re engaged in, if you are planning to start a new business, be prepared to spend more of your time on fundraising than you’d planned. Chalk it up to the price you have to pay to do what you love – pursuing your passion.
Dennis Weese is a Limited Partner at Thayer Ventures, a venture capital fund focused on technology companies in the travel and hospitality industries and Chairman of the Board at West Point Optical Group, LLC, the largest Pearle Vision franchisee operating 82 stores in ten states. He previously held the position of President of IXS Coatings from 2015 to 2020 and was President of NYSE-listed Cash America for six years prior to that. Dennis has effectively led teams through turn-arounds and significant organizational changes with a passion for mentoring employees and serving customers.
Dennis earned his BS in economics from the United States Military Academy at West Point and his MS in Business Management from the University of Central Texas before earning his MBA from Harbert.