In Good Company

Tim Cook’s guru Bill Boulding: It’s all about values and decency

Fuqua school dean says age of rapid change has made responsibilities of leadership much more complicated

What do you talk to a management guru whose star pupils include Tim Cook of Apple and Melinda Gates of Microsoft, or more accurately, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation?

It is a question I pondered as I prepared to meet Dr Bill Boulding, Dean of Duke University's famous Fuqua School of Business and the don who extended the school's Continuing Education branch to Brazil, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, India and of course China, where it operates a campus in collaboration with Wuhan University called Duke Kunshan University.

Business management used to be one of those courses that engineers and finance whizzs signed up for as a surefire ticket to a six-figure starting pay in consulting, a Fortune 500 company or Wall Street. In the days when the mythical Gordon Gekko of Wall Street popularised the mantra "Greed is good" it sometimes symbolised a life of buttoned-down shirts, tassel loafers and cut-throat competitiveness among peers. And if you were in investment banking and celebrating deals, US$8,000 (S$10,800) blown on a single bottle of vintage Petrus blithely signed to an expense account.

So I asked Dr Boulding what it takes to get into business school these days and what a person ought to know when he leaves school, having spent about US$66,000 a year on tuition alone.

Test scores do matter for getting in and that hasn't changed, he says. But Duke has also learnt to use Big Data to mine elements of long-term leadership in candidates that aren't quite captured by IQ tests and quantitative measures.

What you put into the student, however, is what has changed dramatically. No longer can MBA grads add value to companies merely with their smarts in finance or marketing, skills that have been "routinised". The real value add is leadership quality based not just on foundational knowledge and critical thinking ability but more importantly, being able to draw the best from others, and revel in the diversity that forms the breeding ground for innovation. At Duke, they call it Supportive Ambition.


Dr Bill Boulding says the hierarchical top-down model is out of date. “Now, insights come from every direction.” PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

So, there is IQ and EQ, which is emotional quotient. But there is another dimension, says Dr Boulding. To be credible as a leader people have to believe you care about them.

"Back in campus I did an interview with the CEO of Mastercard and he mentioned something else as important too - DQ. As someone who played sports I instantly thought "dis-qualification" but he said it meant Decency Quotient. That is tremendous insight. You have to care about the people and the world around you."

I ask about Duke's experience with Singaporeans, whose numbers in colleges abroad are vastly out of proportion to their population. There are apparently 400 Singaporeans that are Duke alumni, mostly from the Fuqua school.

"This country is a hotbed of innovation, starting from the top level of government. That permeates the Singapore ethos and so benefits Duke to have them in the programme," he says.

It has become a cliche to say that we are in an age of rapid and massive change and I wonder how that is impacting the science of management.

Dr Boulding says it has served to make responsibilities of leadership much more complicated. For instance, if you cannot understand the millennial mindset you make yourself irrelevant to the new generation of talent.

  • Boulding and Fuqua school

  • THE DEAN

    William "Bill" Boulding is the Dean and J.B. Fuqua Professor of Business Administration at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University. He is 62 years old.

    Dr Boulding received his BA in Economics from Swarthmore College and his PhD in Managerial Sciences and Applied Economics from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

    Dr Boulding's research interests lie at the intersection of management, marketing and strategy. He serves as a member of the World Economic Forum's Council on Values. He is also a board member on the Graduate Management Admission Council, which is the organisation that administers the GMAT examination.

    An avid basketball fan, he is married to a landscape architect. His son works for a healthcare investment fund while his daughter is finishing an undergraduate degree in applied psychology.

    THE SCHOOL

    Fuqua School of Business is the business school of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

    It offers a variety of executive education programmes, including Master of Business Administration (MBA), Global Executive MBA and Cross Continent MBA.

    It has more than 21,000 alumni across the world.

    Fuqua was named third ranked business school in the US by Bloomberg BusinessWeek. It is ranked 13th among business schools worldwide by The Economist. Started in 1969, it was renamed Fuqua School of Business after a US$10 million endowment from businessman and philanthropist J.B. Fuqua.

Likewise, it used to be that the older and experienced shared their experience with juniors. But today, that cohort is at risk of being out of touch with the way people connect and work.

"You've heard of value mentoring. Now, leaders are recognising we need reverse mentoring. The hierarchical top-down model is out of date. It is a fundamental shift in mindset. Now, insights come from every direction."

What about factors of production then? Traditional economics taught us these were land, labour, capital and entrepreneurship. Are there new factors coming into view in the days of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Dr Boulding says in the modern era the new element is knowledge.

"Information is not the same as knowledge," he says. "We now have the opportunity to harness knowledge with people. With artificial intelligence and machine learning and all that, we are both in an exciting and terrifying time. The trick is to retain human judgment as we harness those forces. We have to be careful we do not outsource our higher order intelligence."

At the headquarters of networking giant Cisco recently, a management expert was asked if people would start preferring to work for robots. After all, machines could be expected to be more rational than humans with their likes, dislikes, whims and fancies. The answer at Cisco was: human beings, with all their faults, would be better strategic thinkers.

Dr Boulding goes along with that view, adding that he'd also challenge the fundamental point that machines are more rational.

"The point is, there are biases written into the algorithms that run the machines," he points out. "Machines don't break rules but that's what judgment is about: How to do something in a different way."

He cites Duke's famous basketball coach Mike Krzyewski, who also coaches the US national team. "Coach K says we don't have rules, we have standards. Likewise, I don't want to outsource human judgment to machines. It is the thing that makes us special."

So, who are the business leaders he admires most? Not surprisingly, he trots out the names of Apple CEO Tim Cook - the man who runs the most valuable company in the world which also happens, unsurprisingly, to be among the top 10 hirers of Fuqua alumni - as well as Gates Foundation's Ms Gates.

Both are former students of his - Ms Gates getting her MBA in 1987 and Mr Cook an Executive MBA the following year. He brings up their names not so much for their commercial successes as the values they embody.

"The thing that connects them is they understand the value of people, the role of humanity," he says. "They are doing things at incredible scale. As leaders, they have become part of something bigger."

Outside the US he mentions Mr Paul Polman of Anglo-Dutch firm Unilever as someone with a great sense of purpose and deep values.

As he has grown older, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Melinda's husband, has been voicing increasingly sceptical opinions of the direction of capitalism whose heart is free enterprise. So too, lately, has the economist and thinker Jeffrey Sachs.

Dr Boulding stoutly defends capitalism, saying no other economic model comes close to having improved the lives of so many people. But he also acknowledges that we've come through an era where capitalism has been misused.

Misappropriation of capital has led to examples of extreme wealth, he says, adding that companies that practise it will not be sustainable in the long term.

"Gordon Gekko was a fictional character. I don't believe the intent of capitalism is to propagate that greed is good. We need leaders to get the existing model to work better. Having said that, I believe the majority of CEOs are doing what they do because they see an opportunity to improve lives. I am optimistic about the quality of leadership we see in the (corporate) world today."

That said, Dr Boulding says he would like to see less of a wage gap between the bottom decile and top management.

He also sees it's not healthy for companies to hoard cash. They must plough their money into investments that spur economies, while governments have the responsibility to provide the right climate for investment. Ultimately, he says, the purpose of the innovation that's fuelling these huge profits must be to benefit society.

Married to a landscape architect, Dr Boulding is the father of two children. His son works for a healthcare investment fund and his daughter is finishing an undergraduate degree. The business school don has a peripatetic existence, clocking thousands of miles every year as he travels to Duke centres around the world, meeting alumni and addressing conferences.

I mention to him that it is often said that the price of success in many a trade is the banishment from it. Good surgeons become hospital superintendents who thereafter perform fewer operations, good reporters become chief reporters who do more news managing than their core skill, reporting. The list is endless and the price has been paid time and again.

So, does he miss teaching?

Dr Boulding laughs at the query.

"In many ways I get to have that experience because I give so many talks and meet incredibly interesting people around the world," he tells me. "What I do not get, and do miss, is the sustained engagement with students. Of course, if you ask them if they miss me, the answer would be totally different!"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'Tim Cook's guru: It's all about values and decency'. Print Edition | Subscribe