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Alumni offer view from the top

July 15, 2007
Back when he was still collecting a paycheck from Pepsi-Cola, Craig Weatherup was known to start days at 5:30 a.m. in some company break room, having a cup of Joe with forklift drivers or vending-machine mechanics.

In those days, you might find Weatherup delivering cases of pepsi to a local supermarket, crawling around in slime under a nightclub bar to hook up a beverage dispenser or bouncing down the road in the cab of a Pepsi big rig.

These aren't exactly the type of duties one expects to be performed by a guy with a B.S. in accounting, which is what Weatherup earned at ASU in 1967.

"If you aren't in touch with people at the front line of your business, I don't think you will be very effective as a leader," Weatherup says.

This observation is one bit of advice he offered when ASU Magazine queried alumni executives for tips on reaching the tope of the corporate world and leading successfully. Below, you'll find three chief executive officers, a chief financial officer, the president of a major league baseball team, and an independent publisher all weighing in.

Talking to these people is like reading a primer in career management and business leadership. Regardless of company size or industry, recurrent themes emerge, and common steps to success prevail.

Among the refrains you will hear from people at the tope is this. "I've been very lucky."

Doug Ducey, CEO of Cold Stone Creamery, says his first bit of luck was working for what he called the world's best Anheuser-Busch distributor while he studied for the finance B.S. he earned in 1986. The job he held gave him top-tier experience and confidence. "When you're selling beer in college, everybody says 'yes,' so you think you're good at sales," he jokes.

Ducey's next lucky break was landing a job from Proctor & Gamble, fresh off the ASU campus, and being charged with selling Folders-brand coffee to restaurateurs. At the same time, Folgers held a 51 percent market share for residential use. Placing the coffee in eateries, he says, was easy.

Ducey's first quarterly sales objective was 40 accounts. He sold 400. Somehow, "luck" doesn't quite explain such achievement.

Indeed, Ducey credits that job with giving him "a lot of responsibility at an early age. It was great training and preparation for what I would go through at Cold Stone"

Again and again, executives report that one of the keys to success is jumping in feet-first and getting as much experience as you possibly can, as early as you can.

Flo Eckstein earned two degrees: a B.A. in English from the University of Arisona, followed by a Master of Social Work at ASU. The latter degree she completed in 1976. Then, she spent 14 years working in social services before buying the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix from her parents and jumping into life as a newspaper publisher.

"I had no business background, and that has been my biggest single challenge" as a business owner, she says.

On the job and as the boss, Eckstein had to learn how a business functions financially, how to hire staff, woo advertisers, sell subscriptions, pay vendors and make payroll. "It's been an education," she says.

That would be a good thing in Weatherup's view. He considers "breadth" an essential for effective leadership, and he defines it in terms of both business experiences and "breadth of humanity - experiencing, friends, community, faith and organizations."

According to Weatherup, "breadth is central because it is the foundation for judgment, wisdom and intuition - all the things you have to draw on as CEO when there are no facts, or the facts are in conflict, or nobody wants to make the decision."

Mary Hentges, chief financial officer at PayPal, earned her ASU accounting degree in 1981 and, although she originally aimed for a partnership position in public accounting, she eventually moved into he corporate world. Why? "So that I not only would be viewed as a finance and accounting expert, but also as someone who could eat their own cooking," she quips.

Broad abilities, she says, are what companies look for in their leaders. She also encourages those reaching for the top to have peripheral vision focused ont he skills and needs of colleagues in other functional areas around the company. That way, "When you take on a C-level role, you can feel like you have a broad enough skill set to perform well," she notes.

Along with jumping into projects and opportunities with gusto, most C_level types believe in goal setting.

Take Aaron Matos, for instance. He earned his business-management degree from ASU's West campus in 1995, but he was already aspiring to the top job before he finished school. At age 19, Matos wrote down on a piece of paper that he wanted to be a CEO by age 35. He made it.

In fact, he founded and is now running, an online employee-recruitment service that has average more than 100 percent compound annual growth for the last six years. "The reason we could do that is, partly, because we set out to reach a big goal. I think most people and organizations strive to do too little," Matos says.

Derrick Hall, president of the Arizona Diamondbacks, a major-league baseball club, was much like Matos in his unflinching pursuit of his career objective.

Hall's '91 B.S. from ASU was in journalism and broadcasting. While he did work in that field for a while, his ultimate ambition was to work for a major league ball club and, preferably, the Dodgers, his childhood heroes. Hall, who also has a master's degree in sports administration from Ohio University, achieved this goal of working for the Dodgers before switching to the D-backs.

To those seeking to move up, Hall say,s "It seems so obvious,b ut it's true. Number one: Establish goals for yourself. They should be achievable and realistic."

Cold Stone Creamery's Ducey might disagree somewhat. He admires business authors Jim Collins and Jerry Portas, who advocate "big, hairy, audacious goals."

Such thinking not only helped Ducey rise to the top of his company, it also has impelled the company forward. In five years, Ducey grew his company from 74 stores to 1,000. His next brass ring? To have Cold Stone be the number-one ice cream brand in America by December 31, 2009.

Regardless of the size of the goal, leaders know they can't reach their objectives alone. Hence, rallying employee forces is one of the biggest, most important challenges business leaders face.

Both Weatherup and Ducey laud "inverted-pyramid" organizational structures where leaders are at the bottom of the corporate structure, not the top.

At Cold Stone Creamery, Ducey says ice-cream lovers are at the top of the pyramid, franchises come next, and headquarters staffers exist to serve those franchises and make them successful at serving ice-cream lovers.

For many of the years that Weatherup ran Pepsi-Cola, front-line workers - people who actually interfaced with customers - topped the inverted pyramid while Weatherup, the CEO, was at the bottom.

"I believe in 'servant leadership' to the nth degree," Weatherup says. You only generate loyalty "if you genuinely care about the people who work for you and with you," he adds.

PayPal's Hentges names a similar concept, authenticity as vital to leadership success. "If you're not authentic, if people don't see the consistency in you in terms of what you're saying and who you are more broadly in life, they won't believe or trust you," she says.

Asked for the top tip in running a successful business, both Hall and Hentges say that a key to leadership is leading with integrity and allegiance to your own values.

"When people are in a position where they are compromising themselves or their values, they'll never be satisfied even though, from an outsider's view, they may be at the top," Hentges says.

Hall's very visible decisions as the head of a baseball club make him particularly susceptible to public scrutiny and displeasure. He has experienced both.

One of the gutsy decisions he's made this year is changing the D-backs team colors. "The easy move would have been to stay with the status quo," he recalls. Fans wrote letters of concern. Some were downright irate that Hall dared to change the colors their ballplayers had worn when the D-backs won the World Series in 2001.

"We had purple and teal uniforms," Hall says. "Those were once popular colors, but they're trendy. We went with a color that will stand the test of time. It's a red."

As luck would have it, the fans may be seeing red, but they're OK with it. "Now that fans have seen the new uniforms, they agree with the move. They understand it.," Hall says. He adds: "You have to stick with your principles and what you think is right. You can't just go with the popular movement. In the long run, if you have a plan, it's going to work out."

Of course, you must be able to articulate your plan. This is something Eckstein, Hall, Matos and Ducey each said.

As Hall put it, "You have to be able to express your direction - your vision - in a way that motivates the staff to jump on board and follow suit."

Another must for business success: hiring the right people.

"Character is something that can't be taught," Eckstein notes. She looks for people who have the same work ethic she has and who are happy working in a team environment. "Not everyone is and, at a newspaper, everything calls for teamwork."

Matos - whose entire business is about helping other businesses connect with the right employees - says, "Hiring the right person is about more than a resume or what that person has done. We hire for attitude and train for skill."

Education and training are great but, like most people, leaders often learn their most valuable lessons the hard way.

Weatherup, for instance, values failure because, "Failure is a fabulous way to build judgment, wisdom, instincts and intuition."

In fact, he remembers good-natured boardroom banter where Pepsi chiefs would poke fun at each other's flubs as a means of teaching co-workers to value the lessons learned from mistakes and, thereby, encourage risk-taking.

"I'm very much in the camp that you try not to fail anymore than you have to, and you try not to make the same mistake twice," Weatherup says. "But, taking risks is critically important to development as a leader. And you won't take risks unless you value failure."

Eckstein's transition from social worker to publisher was a risk in itself. She found that establishing a network of advisors and mentors was critical to her own development as a successful businesswoman. "I've really had to go out and seek them," she says. To her credit, she's joint businesswomen's networking groups, as well as sought help from other independent publishers around the country. Knowing when and who to ask for help is critical, she says. So is listening to the advice you receive.

Along with mentors, experiences is a great teacher. Ducey says he learned some of his most valued leadership lessons long before he was a manager, starting with his days as treasurer of his fraternity at ASU.

"There were certain things I had to achieve in the fraternity,b ut I didn't have any power over anyone, so I had to persuade them to do things that needed to get done," he recalls.

That sounds much like any manager's challenge, regardless of corporate rank or title.

"Leadership is an enormous privilege given to you by the people you lead," Weatherup concludes. "If you don't understand that, you probably won't make it. Even if you do make it, you'll be far less effective, and you'll enjoy it a lot less."

--Betsy Loeff is a freelance writer living in Golden, Colo.