The Power in Authenticity

Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding believes strong values and collaboration will help business be a transformational force.
July 28, 2015

A life-sized cutout of DC Comics hero The Flash streaks across the wall of Dean Bill Boulding’s office. It’s a fitting mascot for the marketing and leadership professor, who is at ease with the lightning speed of cultural change and impervious to the frictions that mire leaders in the past. Since taking the helm at Fuqua in 2011, Boulding has become the school’s philosopher coach, an approachable yet erudite presence with a mission to promote a purpose-driven model of business leadership.

“Business will be the transformational force of the twenty-first century,” Boulding likes to say. As globalism creates a more interdependent world, he believes nation-states and political leaders will prove to be less effective than business at solving the complex problems of our time.

“If you think of any challenge that affects the human condition, anywhere in the world, there will be a business entry point for the solution,” he says. “We can use business as the platform for driving positive change—on health issues, our energy future, the environment, bringing people out of poverty—you name it. Business is the connective tissue around the world.”

To prepare for this future, Boulding says industry leaders must redefine business competence around strong values and collaboration. Organizations that commit to making a difference can better drive innovation, ambition, and yes, profits, he says. But first, the greater business community must clear one major hurdle: trust. The hard truth is that today’s business leaders are stuck somewhere between politicians and ambulance chasers in the public’s imagination.

The CNBC Corporate Perception Indicator found that athletes and entertainers are almost twice as respected as CEOs. According to the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer, less than onefifth of the public believes that business and government officials will tell the truth when confronted with difficult issues. And the news from Duke’s own CFO survey shows the disruptive impact of this trend: Nearly 60 percent of U.S. CFOs say lack of public trust has harmed the business environment.

“We must take responsibility for this gap by creating leaders who are trusted and credible to drive positive change,” says Boulding. The strategy he envisions to bridge the gap? Make like The Flash and leave your comfort zone in the dust.

“When I think of ethics, I think of leaving things better than you found them,” Apple CEO Tim Cook M.B.A. ’88 told a packed Geneen Auditorium at his twenty-fifth Fuqua reunion. Cook had taken the stage with Boulding to discuss their shared vision of values-based leadership. “To me that goes to how you work with suppliers regarding labor questions,” Cook said, “to the carbon footprinting of your products, to the things you chose to support, to the way you treat your employees. Your whole person fits under that umbrella."

That’s not a hard sell to Fuqua students. The school’s M.B.A. Association drew up a common definition of what it means to be a member of Team Fuqua. They came up with six “paired principles” that reflect the values connecting students, alumni, faculty members, and administrators to each other and the larger world: authentic engagement, supportive ambition, collective diversity, impactful stewardship, loyal community, and uncompromising integrity. Together, says Boulding, these ideals are “the guardrails around how we want to interact with each other.”

Adopting these principles would go a long way in helping institutions regain the public’s trust. Gone is the leadership paradigm that prizes narrow self-interests above sustainable business practices. Boulding cautions, though, that ethics and values must not be mere talking points. Their power lie in authenticity.

“If leadership is not authentic, then employees will not be willing to represent themselves fully or honestly,” he says. “The best leaders have the courage to encourage authenticity in both themselves and others.”

There’s a saying at Fuqua: “To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together.”

Collaboration has always been at the heart of Team Fuqua, and for good reason: It’s a learned skill. When Lenore Patel M.B.A. ’09 met her first Fuqua C-Leadteam, she quickly saw the challenge awaiting them:“We were storming and not norming,” she laughs, “all of us striving to do well, but totally dysfunctional as a team.” Their first presentation was a train wreck, but eventually the jockeying for power eased, and they learned to listen to one another and focus on a shared goal.

Boulding believes the most effective collaborations come from embracing the ambition of others. A top-down leadership model relies too heavily on one person’s brilliance, all the while silencing new ideas. “I’m always going to put my money on someone who can unlock the potential of a group, rather than a single individual,” he says.

Recruiters see Fuqua students as exceptionally good at working with others in this way, which is part of the reason Bloomberg Businessweek says the school ranked number one in its latest ranking. Brian Lange M.B.A. ’05, a former corporate recruiter for GlaxoSmithKline who is now leading the marketing group at Advance Auto Parts, says Fuqua culture requires collaboration. “The flat organizational experience of Fuqua, where everyone is addressed by their first name, from the multimillionaire to the janitor, is based on approachability, and that sharpens an important collaboration skill: emotional intelligence,” says Lange. “On a team, people can tell if you’re not being authentic, and they won’t want to work with you. You can’t make it through Fuqua without understanding that piece.”

Patel finds the teamwork strategies hard-earned at Fuqua central to her work as assistant vice president of diversity and inclusion at Moody’s. The more diverse the group, the more a supervisor needs to be willing to step outside his or her comfort zone. “It’s the best way to learn and grow as a leader,” she says.

“Our natural reaction is: Let me surround myself with people who act like me, look like me,” says Boulding. “Everyone talks about collaboration, but what people mean in practice often looks more like cloning than real collaboration.” Research often shows that diverse teams will outperform homogenous teams, yet instinctive reactions persist.

Teaching students how to replace their flock-together mentality with inclusion is both a formal and informal part of the Fuqua curriculum. The school’s Association of Women in Business (AWIB), for example, has launched a male ambassadors program to bring men and women together to discuss gender issues in the workplace.

“If we can talk honestly about our different experiences, instead of creating further separations, everybody benefits,” says codirector Matthew Pilnik M.B.A. ’16, who is one of twenty men in the group. Discussions range from microaggressions in the workplace—male coworkers golfing together; women finding themselves the note-takers in meetings—to the unconscious biases that affect salary negotiations.

Using what he learned in his market intelligence class, Pilnik and his AWIB colleagues relaunched a gender-perceptions study last year to gauge biases, experiences, and concerns among students. “Surrounding yourself with people just like you may be efficient— you can get a lot done when everyone’s in agreement,” Boulding says. “But you never tap into the power of innovation.”

No less than the most profitable company on the planet ascribes to the collective diversity model. “We want diversity of thought. We want diversity of style,” Cook told Businessweek. “We want people to be themselves.”

Cook’s comment affirms Boulding’s ideas about the importance of authenticity. A master of operations, Cook has been known to pull up a chair with employees eating lunch in the cafeteria and to meet directly with investors. And in the ultimate act of authenticity, the notoriously private Cook revealed that he is gay, the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to do so.

While the general public may continue to doubt that industry leaders have moral compasses, Boulding says there are plenty of executives guiding the way for more enlightened leadership—there are even a few, he jokes, who didn’t attend Fuqua. He singles out Sam Allen, CEO of John Deere, who speaks of using his corporate platform to eliminate hunger, and Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox, praised for her candid and inclusive leadership style, as examples of business leaders who fit this new mold. What they share with Cook and other Fuqua alumni is an expansive, forward-thinking, and holistic view of their organization’s purpose.

“Building trust with your employees, customers, and suppliers— one that is authentically meaningful in the world—creates an invaluable loyalty that’ll make even shareholders happy. And that’s just good business,” says Boulding.