Advice from the Top

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Pictured, L to R: Anne Mulcahy, Tom Kallish, and Denis Nayden

Three Outstanding CEOs Share Business Insight, Success at ‘CEO Evolution’ Program in Stamford

Be a coach, be a leader, be a taskmaster—but don’t ever be a jerk.

Establish a strong network, but if you need additional help, reach out and ask for it. Even strangers can be strong allies.

Don’t plan your career path so rigidly that you miss out on new and amazing opportunities that can enhance your future in ways you never imagined.

That was some of the advice that three exceptional CEOs shared at the second annual “CEO Evolution’’ June 15 at the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus. The program, attended by almost 200, was presented by Citrin Cooperman, the University of Connecticut School of Business and the Fairfield County Business Journal.

The panel included: Anne M. Mulcahy, chair of the Board of Trustees for Save the Children and former Chair and CEO of Stamford-based Xerox Corp.; UConn alumnus Denis J. Nayden, ’76, ’77 MBA, managing partner of Oak Hill Capital Partners and former chair and CEO of GE Capital, and Tom Kallish, CEO and Founder of Tommie Copper apparel, a three-year old business with a million customers, which he created after suffering a life-threatening water-skiing accident.

The trio discussed what made them successful, their views on mistakes and fear and how they think millennials will shape corporate America. Mark L. Fagan, managing partner at Citrin Cooperman, moderated the discussion.

Mulcahy led one of the biggest corporate comebacks in history when she saved Stamford-based Xerox from bankruptcy in 2000. Inspired by a conversation with business icon and investor Warren Buffett, she said she focused on two constituents: her 60,000 employees and her customers.

Mulcahy talked about managing during a crisis and how focus and clarity, good communication, and the ability to make quick decisions are crucial. She discussed how 57 of 58 creditors were willing to work with the company to avoid bankruptcy and about asking banker Sanford “Sandy’’ Weill, a complete stranger, to intervene on her behalf and help her get the remaining bank on board. When no one else would lend to Xerox, Nayden and the team at GE came through, she said.

“You’re too humble,’’ Nayden told her at the conference. “You were decisive and tough, you changed the whole dynamic of the company.’’

Meanwhile, Nayden talked about managing GE Capital’s 20 companies in 35 countries with 90,000 employees and $555 billion in assets.

“It’s important to decide what the most important things are, to communicate regularly, to keep it simple and be consistent,’’ he said. “You have to have a capable team. There’s no way that one person can know what’s going on every single hour all around the world. You’re depending on your team all the time.’’

Kallish talked about a near fatal accident that occurred to him in his mid-50s as he was training for a national water skiing competition. Although diligent about safety, he and his crew failed to notice a massive log just below the surface. Skiing at about 75 miles per hour, he hit the debris and “the bottom part of my body broke in half,’’ he said. His injuries were so severe he destroyed one knee and damaged the other, had three rods inserted in his back, lost all his teeth and was blinded in one eye. He endured eight operations and the pain was excruciating.

A high school dropout, Kallish has been a prolific reader and knew that copper had healing benefits. He had a copper sleeve created for his knee and his pain diminished substantially. The experience led to the creation of his compression apparel company that is a proprietary fabric which is infused with copper and zinc.

When it comes to your business’ success, you have to take on a pit bull mentality, he said. “You bite and you don’t let go,’’ he added.  Kallish said a mentor once told him “never be scared to make the [tough] call. Most people don’t have the guts.’’

When asked by an audience member about what they credit for their success, the three panelists had vastly different responses.

“For me, it was not being obsessed with success,’’ said Mulcahy. “I’ve been called the ‘Accidental CEO,’’” she said, smiling. “I tried to focus on the current state of things and not always worry about the next promotion. Plan your career around what you love to do, what you’re passionate about, and what you enjoy. Open your mind to possibilities that come along and don’t think you have to stick with a rigid career path.’’

Unpleasant bosses are a fact of life, she said she tells her adult sons. Be resilient, keep laughing and get through it.

Nayden said his success is the result of hard work.

“I’m Irish and I have a streak in me that never gives up,’’ Nayden said. “No matter the assignment I was asked to undertake, I wanted to do it better than anybody else. I wasn’t the smartest guy on the block, but I worked harder than anybody.’’

Kallish, who bought and sold his first company at 23, said the difference between a good idea and a great idea is the commitment.  “I believe that fear is the single thing that holds people back,’’ he said. “Fear is 99 percent delusion and 1 percent reality. Don’t let it hold you back from being great.’’

All three panelists admitted to making many mistakes during their careers.

Kallish said they are inevitability. The key, he said, is to recognize them and correct them quickly. For instance, if you have a rogue employee, get rid of him or her quickly.

“Don’t confuse being decisive with being reckless,’’ Nayden said. “Great CEOs and leaders have to be risk takers. I am a hard-headed Irishman. To my employees, some days I’m like a father, a counselor or a task master. But don’t ever be a tyrant. Don’t try to be the smartest person in the room. It takes a lifetime to build a reputation, and a second to destroy it!’’

All three panelists said the millennials are changing the workforce because they are high energy, expect to be involved in decision making from day one, and are technology geniuses. Mulcahy predicted that millennials’ commitment to entrepreneurship, social responsibility and a work-life balance will restructure companies.

While Nayden agreed, he said not to believe that work-life balance diminishes the importance of diligence. “Don’t ever forget, you better have passion and you better work hard.’’

“Culture is so important,’’ Kallish said. “The work force is changing and talent has a choice. We all want to wake up every day and love our jobs. Being philanthropic is a serious part of our lives.’’

Mulcahy agreed that employees, particularly millennials, want to feel good about their company and be proud of it. She sees that powerful draw at Save the Children. “If you don’t feel inspired about your work and mission, then I don’t care what you’re paid, you’re not going to stay.’’

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