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CEO class gives undergraduate students access to business leaders

Stuart Siegel, chairman of S&K Famous Brands, teaches a session of VCU's School of Business' CEO class.

Photo by Thurston Howe
Stuart Siegel, chairman of S&K Famous Brands, teaches a session of VCU's School of Business' CEO class. Photo by Thurston Howe

Douglas Rogers had already settled his schedule for the spring semester when he was invited to enroll in the CEO class in the School of Business at VCU.

Rogers, a finance major with a concentration in risk and insurance studies, had been selected for the CEO course – a course unique in the country for the access it gives undergraduate students to business leaders – based on recommendations from faculty members. However, the class conflicted with a core course Rogers would need to graduate, meaning he would have to make up the class over the summer. Still, Rogers did not hesitate – he jettisoned the core class and signed up for the CEO course.

“This is such an amazing opportunity and I didn’t want to miss it,” Rogers said.

Rogers is one of 15 seniors in the course, which is available by invitation-only to the top students in the School of Business. As its title suggests, the CEO class focuses on the roles, responsibilities and experiences of business executives. In a twist students find thrilling, the lectures and class discussions are engineered by real-life executives rather than professors.

This year, 16 executives – carrying titles such as CEO, president, chairman and vice chairman – will meet with the students for separate, two-and-a-half hour sessions. The class, which meets once a week, typically features an opening address from the visiting executive ranging from 15 minutes to 45 minutes and a lengthy question-and-answer session. The setting resembles a boardroom more than a classroom, helping create the environment of colleagues in a conversation rather than an instructor lecturing to students.

The result is an energetic – and invariably nonlinear – dialogue between a seasoned executive and a premium crop of ambitious, talented students. The far-reaching discussion often flows in surprising directions, inspiring the day’s speaker as well as the students.

“I leave there every year just walking on air,” said Fenton Hord, president and CEO of Stock Supply Co., who estimates he has been participating in the CEO class for 25 years, minus a few years when the course was not offered. “I don’t know what it is about young people, but it’s a very gratifying experience for me to talk with them in that setting. I look forward to it every year.”

Students are no less sanguine.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of chance,” said Brandon Anderson, an information systems major, who notes “those guys on the Apprentice would kill each other for the chance to sit in front of different CEOs for 16 straight weeks.”

Students enrolled in the course are required to extensively research each executive and his or her company and prepare a list of questions before each class. Charles Gallagher, the director of the Virginia Family and Private Business Forum at VCU and the organizer for the CEO class, said he is frequently surprised at the willingness of the executives to answer all manners of questions.

Similarly, Tom Snead, who recently retired as the CEO and president of the Southeast Region for WellPoint, Inc., parent company of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Virginia, said he’s taken aback each year by the insight and level of research evidenced in the questions. It’s difficult not to respond when that sort of care and preparation takes place, he said.

“The students are very comfortable asking questions, they’re very comfortable being curious, so you want to reward that,” Snead said. “Every time I’ve done a class it has just been terribly open and fun. We’ve had a lot of laughter and some serious moments, too.”

Rogers said the executives’ willingness to recount their personal histories proves as helpful as their trenchant observations on the machinations of the business world.

“You get a great idea of what it took for them to get where they are today,” Rogers said. “I thought there would be one sort of template. But it’s seemed to be different ways for everybody. Everyone seems to have taken their own path.”

Bringing top business executives down off the mountaintop lies at the heart of the course’s purpose, Gallagher said. In that sense, Anderson said the course has been a revelation.

“The CEOs have not been as uptight and distant as you maybe would think they are if you were to never talk to them,” Anderson said. “They’re not just guys in suits sitting around making decisions. They’re very available. You can talk to them. They’re never condescending at all.”

Gallagher said the more students see the executives as individuals and not just figures, the more they begin to envision themselves in the same roles.

“Students see these very successful people and they see how they got to where they are and they start to think, ‘I can do this, too. I have the skills and the ability to be really successful in the world of business,’” Gallagher said.

Both Snead and Hord said misconceptions about top business executives run rampant. Hord said company CEOs have received some bad press in recent years, but “the greater majority of business people that rise to manage companies are good, honest people who do their work for the right reasons.”

And leadership skills are far more important than superior intellect, Snead said.

“A lot of folks think CEOs know everything and it’s exactly the opposite,” Snead said. “Our job is more direction, getting people in the right job to do the right thing, building good teams. The business world is so complicated today that no human being I know could really know everything about their company. That’s why each year I harp on the key to your success will be your ability to work with people.”

Gallagher hopes the CEO class helps executives of prominent companies see the promise of VCU’s student body. The students in the course are nominated by faculty members and interviewed by Gallagher before being invited to join the class. Gallagher said the students’ performance during the executives’ visits are typically impressive, and it has not been unusual for students to receive job offers.

Snead and Hord each said their respective companies have hired a number of VCU students over the years. Snead, a VCU graduate and member of the VCU Board of Trustees, has a particular affection for the school’s graduates.

“We’re always very pleased with the students we hire,” Snead said. “They are hard workers, second to none. They don’t expect anything to be made for them, and they don’t think the world owes them anything.”

Anderson clearly made an impression this semester on Michael Fink, the president and CEO of Fink’s Jewelers. Anderson sent Fink some notes on his company’s Web site after Fink’s appearance at the CEO class. Fink called Anderson to discuss the notes and forwarded them to the company’s vice president of information systems, who also called Anderson to talk about them. In appreciation for his input, Fink gave Anderson 15 percent off the purchase of a new wedding ring.

“That was a great experience for me,” Anderson said.

Despite the immense popularity of the CEO Class with both students and executives, Gallagher said he does not know of another college program like it. Rogers said that surprises him.

“I feel bad for all those other universities out there who don’t have an opportunity like this,” Rogers said.