A class taught by top CEOs

Author: Carol Elliott

As a former chief executive of American Airlines, Tom Horton has quite a story to tell.

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After all, he became CEO on the day that American’s parent company, AMR, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011. Horton subsequently led the company through a very successful restructuring and turnaround, which culminated in the 2013 merger with US Airways, creating the world's largest airline.

But on Sept. 4, 2015, as he stood before an auditorium packed with University of Notre Dame business students, details about the merger weren’t part of his main message.

Instead, he talked about humility.

Humility, stressed Horton, who stepped down from American in 2014, is vital to strong leadership. It signals recognition that your successes are owed to the gifts and opportunities that God provided, as well as the efforts of others. Strive to do great things, recognize the people around you, be optimistic, employ your talents to your greatest extent.

But beware of pride, he warned them in words reminiscent of Proverbs 16:18, because it will lead to failure.

The message was a surprise. One Notre Dame MBA student commented that he expected to hear about mergers and airfares, and was impressed to hear instead a top executive speak about faith and integrity.

Horton’s first-person account of the life and career lessons he learned along his path is just the sort of messages the CEOs routinely deliver during Boardroom Insights, a signature speaker series of the Mendoza College of Business that is also a one-credit course. The annual fall series brings in some of the world’s top executives, who discuss diverse topics ranging from trends in their industries, to career experiences, to leadership insights as observed from their front-row seats to events that shaped global business.

In addition to Horton, the 2015 Boardroom Insights features Under Armor CEO Kevin Plank, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan and KPMG International Global Chairman John Veihmeyer, as well as chief executives from Land O’Lakes, aerospace corporation NORDAM and global health-care company Baxter International.

During the lectures, the executives also answer questions put to them from students during Q-and-A sessions. Many students also have additional opportunities to meet with the executives in small-group settings, such as a lunch following the lecture, where they can ask questions, network and discuss their own career plans.

During the lunch with Horton, for example, students heard a first-hand account of the unfolding of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and what it was like for the then-CFO Horton to grieve for the terrible loss of life while facing drastic operational decisions.

Past Boardroom Insights speakers have included Mary Dillon, CEO of Ulta Beauty; Jean Case, CEO of the Case Foundation; Emil Brolick, CEO of Wendy’s, and many others. In addition, executives often serve as guest lecturers in Notre Dame MBA classrooms and clubs, offering additional opportunities for networking and recruiting.