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Wharton Leadership Conference Finds Success from All Backgrounds

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The Wharton Leadership Conference at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School was held in late June and featured a number of leaders from different backgrounds and industries. From academia to NASA to professional sports, 11 figures spoke to an audience of eager business minds about the many pathways that can lead to successful leadership.

Peter Cappelli, the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, helped organize the event, and was one of the speakers at this year’s conference. An acclaimed economics scholar, researcher and author, much of Cappelli’s work centers around the employee-employer relationship.

Speaking with Clear Admit, Cappelli remarked about the diversity of the speakers’ backgrounds, saying, “I think the balance of topics was interesting–some personal and inspiring stories, some social impact, some leadership in the midst of physical danger, and of course business leadership.”

Shortly after Cappelli and Michael Useem, the Faculty Director of the McNulty Leadership Program at Wharton, welcomed attendees, IBM Senior Vice President of Human Resources, Diane Gherson spoke. Her brief presentation, entitled “Making Change Happen Through Agile Leadership,” left an impression on Cappelli, who said, “Gherson’s talk I thought was a great description of how businesses can do things in a really different way.”

During her 13-year tenure with IBM, Gherson’s knowledge of talent acquisition and development earned her accolades, including recognition from HR Executive, which placed her on the list of the “2015 Fifteen Most Powerful Women in HR.” In her speech, she emphasized securing premiere talent and focusing on individual development: something Cappelli has championed even before her appearance at the event. In a 2016 Human Resource Executive Online story, he spoke glowingly of the IBM veteran’s focus on the experience of each individual employee, rather than “the past ideal of treating everyone equally.”

Representatives from Pespi Co., Progressive Insurance, and Accenture Strategy followed Gherson’s presentation about how to individually change the business formula. After a short presentation on what to make of Generation Z—the generation following Millennials—from Accenture, the day’s events took a different turn, starting with Brett Brown, perhaps the most popular person on campus that afternoon.

Since 2013, Brown has been the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. Speaking on the eve of the June 22 NBA Draft, in which the 76ers held the first overall pick, one could expect Brown would be fairly busy. But he seemed effortlessly calm in the midst of the pressure. Brown shared stories of his time at Boston College, traveling the South Pacific, and his tutelage under San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich—one of basketball’s most respected thinkers and leaders. A particular point that Brown made was that the term “culture” is one of the most-abused terms in sports reporting, being referenced ad nauseum by local and national sports media while the 76ers struggled through difficult seasons. The goal to find “keepers” during the NBA Draft, as he says, meant a lot of losses accrued under his watch, which only added to the loud criticism of the team’s “culture.” Yet after years of struggles, a confident Brown assured the audience that he was “more comfortable in my career than I’ve ever been.”

As unique as Brown’s background may be, many business leaders go through strikingly similar times during their careers, wading through difficult periods only to flourish in the end through perseverance.

Brown was followed by former NASA Chief Astronaut and U.S. Naval Captain Chris Cassidy, as well as Jeff Mason, President of the White House Correspondents’ Association and reporter with Reuters—two men who are certainly familiar with difficult times. Just weeks before his Wharton appearance, Cassidy had concluded his two year tenure as NASA’s Chief Astronaut. The role, he explained, required him to take on the high-pressure responsibility of managing astronaut safety and resources. Since stepping down from the role on June 2, 2017, he has returned to his previous role with NASA as a traditional astronaut.

Mason, who has worked with the White House Correspondents’ Association since 2008, has been working through the drastic transition from President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump, the latter of whom was the focus of his presentation, “Leadership of the White House Press Corps and the Times of Donald Trump.” From forging his career in Germany and Belgium in the mid-2000s, to working with former White House Speaker Sean Spicer, Mason’s story stood out during the event as one of the more evolving career arcs. He noted that prior to his decision to run for the role of of President of the White House Correspondents’ Association in 2014, he didn’t have the faintest hint of who would actually become the U.S. President by 2016. Despite his initial surprise at how the election turned out, Mason told the audience that access to the president had not entirely changed during the seemingly tumultuous transition, despite the clear tension between the administration and the press.

While most of the attendees could relate to some of the trying life experiences shared, the audience skewed towards more senior leaders. This may have been the overall target for the June event, but Cappelli believes younger leaders should have plenty of reasons to attend in the future.

“People earlier in their careers could probably make more use out of stories and examples of leadership,” he says, “simply because they have more time to use them.”

“When was the last time you stepped away from your day-to-day job to get a new perspective and learn from the experience of others? Probably a long time, so why not take a day and do it now?” he asked.

Matthew Korman
Matthew Korman is a contributing author and editor for Clear Admit. Since graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism and political science, Matthew has worked with numerous academic institutions, in addition to roles as a music industry writer, promoter, and data analyst. His works have appeared in publications such as NPR and Sports Illustrated.