UAB business class is lesson for students and CEOs

Strategic-learning class puts CEOs in front of students and vice versa; discussion topics include failure and dating.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB) Strategic Leadership through the Eyes of the C-Suite course, which welcomed nine CEOs to speak with students during the fall semester, might be more aptly named Strategic Leadership from the Mouth of the C-Suite.

John D. Johns, president, chairman and chief executive officer of insurance company Protective Life, opened the final session of the semester telling UAB Collat School of Business students emphatically, “Cheap is not a strategy!” He explained that, much like dating, you want customers to like you for you — so they will not chase competitors that drop prices.

“I agree with the fact that the big picture is based on the customer, and some people take it for granted that customers are always going to be there,” said Jit Patel, a senior honors student majoring in business administration who is enrolled in the course. “If you’re not thinking about the people, you’re not going to be successful.”

Johns doubled the value of his strategic session when he introduced Carolyn Johnson, Protective Life executive vice president and chief operating officer. While she and Protective have had many successes, Johnson offered unique advice.

“Fail fast, often and forward,” she said.

Johnson told the students that successful leaders do not go from Point A straight to Point B. They meander through the process, learning as they go from their mistakes. When an experiment fails, they learn and quickly move on. It is a lesson she stressed, because she worries about the future.

“Generation Y grew up in a time where everybody gets a trophy, everybody succeeds and everything is all right. Failure is something they need to learn because that is how you get a lot of the rich experiences in life and in business. It is really bad to fail big, but you are going to make mistakes in business. So fail fast, learn from it, and then grow.”

“Generation Y grew up in a time where everybody gets a trophy, everybody succeeds and everything is all right,” Johnson said. “Failure is something they need to learn because that is how you get a lot of the rich experiences in life and in business. It is really bad to fail big, but you are going to make mistakes in business. So fail fast, learn from it, and then grow.”

When Johns and Johnson finished their presentations, they did not head back to their offices. Instead, they sat down in the front row and listened to a presentation about Protective Life from UAB students Zach Clark, Jayne Ivy, Josh Mattos, Ross Morgan, David Osborne and Evan Rhodes. The students did not deliver a “This is Your Life” puff piece.

Johns and Johnson, whose company has for many years been among the largest companies headquartered in Alabama based on market capitalization, listened to a comprehensive Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis, about their firm. The students asserted that, like many life insurance companies, Protective Life had an “inability to connect with customers.”

2012 C-Suite class participants

Jeff Rosenthal, CEO, Hibbet Sports
Tom Broughton, CEO, ServisFirst Bank
Richard Marchase, Ph.D., interim-president, UAB
Ed Aldag, CEO, Medical Properties Trust
Stan Starnes, CEO, ProAssurance
Grayson Hall, CEO, Regions Bank
Paul Earle, COO, Colonial Properties Trust
James McManus, CEO, Energen

The students also gave the executives recommendations on how to improve their company’s strategy. That’s right — students told the CEO and COO they needed to do two things to be better: Target specific demographics with products bundled as a package, and use mobile apps to leverage push/pull advertising strategies. This is a strategy where consumers use applications on their phones or tablets to pull information about a product or service, while the seller is pushing it toward them on those devices at the same time.

“It is a pleasure and privilege to meet with and present to CEOs, and I believe they appreciate hearing an honest opinion,” said Patel. “They are not going to get mad at you, and you don’t have to worry about getting fired for speaking up because you do not work for them. At least not yet.”

“I was a little nervous at first, because nobody likes to have their weaknesses pointed out,” said Johns. “But I thought the students were spot on with their recommendations. We did not emphasize in our presentation the work we are doing to use non-traditional media as a way to stimulate interest in our brand and product. We have a lot of activity going on in that area, so they were intuitively right about that as an opportunity.”

The strategic learning course, created by former UAB School of Business dean Bob Holmes, Ph.D., and retired professor Eddie Friend, is taught by Stephen A. Yoder, J.D., assistant professor in the Department of Marketing, Industrial Distribution and Economics, and Harlan Sands, J.D., UAB’s vice provost for Administration and Quality Improvement. Yoder believes it says a lot about a CEO, and in turn their company, when the leader will give his or her valuable time to a group of students to teach an invaluable lesson.

“The most powerful way to learn is by watching someone else explain it and then thinking, ‘what would I do if that were me,’” said Yoder. “Our students will remember these classes, where they met CEOs of large, complex organizations, a lot longer than anything they will read in a book.”

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