Voices of Industry: Executives Talk Business Education, Leadership, and the Workforce

Voices of Industry: Executives Talk Business Education, Leadership, and the Workforce

Two top executives at innovative companies share their thoughts on how business education impacts industry—from their education and careers to today’s job seekers to the future of marketing.

At the recently held CMO Club Summit, an annual event for chief marketing officers worldwide to learn about and share the latest ideas in marketing, we caught up with top executives from Cree and Indeed.com in an ongoing effort to connect business practice with business education to explore education, training, and development. We asked Betty Noonan, CMO of technology company Cree and former executive at Fortune 500 companies, and Kevin Walker, senior director of field marketing at Indeed.com with years of experience as a marketer at Dell, how business education impacts industry—from their own education and careers to today’s job seekers to the future of marketing. See what they had to say about the most valuable part of their business education, learning to lead from an individual to a team mentality, and the importance of cross-functional skills in new graduates, among other perspectives.

In thinking about your own business education, what aspects of it did you find the most valuable in helping you achieve the position you’re in today?

Betty Noonan: Certainly the basics of my business education provided the foundational elements necessary to enter the workforce. But what made my experience stand out was team projects, internships, and other learning opportunities that put me directly in the situations I would be facing after graduation. Leadership skills are also hugely important, and I know most business schools today teach leadership, which was not the case when I got my master’s. And there is no substitute for hard work. While not part of the curriculum, both hard work and ingenuity are the biggest factors that helped me succeed in both business school and my career. On the flip side, no one taught me how to be the only female executive on the team, and that is a reality that many women will face. No one taught me how to deal with life-work balance choices, and that is a reality for women in the workforce today; it’s also an opportunity for business schools to be inclusive of all students and scenarios.

Kevin Walker: By far, the most valuable skill I learned while at Booth was critical thinking. Certainly, I left with lots of frameworks, models, and subject matter understanding, but it has been the ability to apply these concepts to a variety of real-world challenges that has helped me most in my career progression.

What does it mean for you to be a leader in your industry/organization?

Noonan: Functionally, being a leader in my current role as CMO has a lot to do with leading culture change and developing empowered teams. The CMO role can shift with the challenges the company faces and the strategic direction it chooses. As we continue to scale a technology startup we have well over 6,000 employees, and the culture needs to change to scale to the next level.

Walker: When I left business school, I thought I could do it all myself. I think many of my classmates had the same perspective. The leadership breakthrough for me was the moment I realized that I am only as strong as the weakest link on my team. As a leader, my job is to make those around me as strong and successful as I can. Once I went from focusing on my individual output to my team’s output, things got a lot easier for me and my impact was much greater.

What are the top talent and leadership skills you look for in business school graduates applying for jobs at your organization?

Noonan: Utility players. I need people to come in the door with cross-functional skills. With technology so pervasive in the marketing function and beyond, I think this need will grow. For example, in a tech company the skill set is unique in that a combination of engineering skills plus business skills would be ideal. Product management or product marketing functions are so critical to companies like mine, yet we seldom find the right combination of skills coming out of business school (or conversely engineering programs) to do these jobs. We often have to create the cross-functional skill set. Other powerful combinations might be computer science and business education; social marketing, data science, and communications; or journalism, graphic design, and business skills. Another aspect of today’s marketing function is creating content that tells stories to build a brand. I find it puzzling that the school system continues to have the communications function in a separate school.

Walker: I find many of the resumes for business school graduates look very similar, so in some way, I’m looking for individuality to come through in a resume. At Indeed, we’ve done quite a bit of research around what makes someone a “transformational talent.” As a result of that research, I spend most of my time in interviews looking for the five key markers of transformational talent: problem-solving, drive, self-direction, strategic thinking, and initiative.

What are some areas where applicants are commonly deficient? How might business schools address those deficiencies?

Noonan: More cross-functional graduates with lots of real-world experience are needed. Business schools need to ensure their students are receiving these experiences prior to going on the job market. Further, teachers of marketing courses must themselves stay on top of emerging trends in marketing technology so their students can also benefit from that knowledge.

Walker: I think many business school students think the fact that they have an MBA will make them stand out. In reality, it’s often the ticket to entry, especially in the context of MBA recruiting. Often, especially at schools that leverage business case learning, an MBA education is based on a historical perspective. With the speed at which technology is impacting business today, some of the challenges that come from cases that are only a few years old would be solved in a much better or different way using the technology of today. Students should spend time keeping up with trends while in school, especially when the peers they left at the office are observing these trends in real time on the job.

What are some of the biggest disruptors to the workforce, and how can business schools help address those challenges in preparing future leaders?

Noonan: Four to five generations working together is unprecedented in modern history and requires significant flexibility in career development and supporting services. Millennials are already changing the workforce. Around 80 million of them are entering the workforce now and in the next few years. They have very different expectations than prior generations, and if they don’t find what they want in company A, they are likely to leave for company B.

Work styles work will continue to be more collaboration based, leveraging technology and virtual simulation. While the return to an office-based working environment is a trend, it’s a key driver to this dynamic. More informal, agile decision-making will continue to increase in the work environment. Additionally, the average worker will seek multiple career experiences beyond traditional step-up progressions. Development opportunities, reporting structures, compensation models, and benefits will need to factor in these dynamics more so than today.

Walker: It’s definitely technology. Whatever your concentration is—whether it’s finance, marketing, or general management—technology is playing a larger role. As a result, organizations are changing, as well. Because of technology and automation, business leaders will need fewer people to achieve their business objectives, and will likely do so at a much faster pace than their predecessors. Business schools should help prepare students to work, and then lead, in this new reality.

A decade from now, what sort of impact will technology have on marketing jobs?

Noonan: As they have for the past 10 years, marketing roles will need to continue to evolve as technology shifts. Look at what virtual reality is doing today to change the environment. This constant change and evolution isn’t new to the marketing function. Business schools need to keep up with the technology, even though it’s moving at a faster pace, to ensure their graduates enter the workforce prepared.

Walker: Every company, if it hasn’t already done so, is becoming a digital version of itself. As marketers, we are seeing more tech skills becoming part of the tool kit—email marketing, social media, content marketing, mobile marketing. All of these important channels require some technical knowledge in order to be successful.

In 10 years, the amount of data and the speed at which that data is processed will fuel an extremely personalized experience for consumers. Marketing in this world of hyper-personalization will be drastically different than it is today. I could guess at what that will look like, but I’d surely be wrong.

Betty Noonan, CMO of Cree, headshot Betty Noonan is chief marketing officer at Cree, Inc., a technology company with a passion for what’s next. She has served more than a decade in an executive marketing capacity for Fortune 500 leaders, including serving as chief marketing officer for Panasonic Corporation North America and vice president of global marketing for Eastman Kodak Company.

Kevin Walker, Senior Director of Field Marketing, Indeed.com Kevin Walker is senior director of field marketing at the global job search website Indeed.com, where he leads a global field marketing team, which covers demand generation, technology partnerships, marketing events, and product evangelism. After earning an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Walker worked for seven years as a B2B marketer at Dell.