Business leaders in top management positions, commonly referred to as the C-suite, shared their experiences facing complex, dynamic challenges in the workplace and the factors influencing their decision-making process during an eight-week online MBA course offered at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Tammy Beck, associate professor of management, invited the leaders to teach through example in Introduction to Business Strategy (GRBA 808), one of the core courses in the highly-ranked, high-return-on-investment MBA@Nebraska program.
“C-Level executives have extensive experience and hard-earned knowledge relevant to MBA students about industry, career development and leadership. They shared practical examples of how strategic issues are handled, which provide a richer understanding of the business world and complements the theoretical foundations presented in the course readings and management tools,” said Beck.
Two of the guest speakers in the course — Janet Barnard, '86, from Atlanta and Jeff Noordhoek, '88, of Lincoln — shared about leadership, decision-making and why they wanted to spend time with MBA@Nebraska students.
As CEO of Nelnet, Noordhoek leads the executive team in the development and execution of corporate strategy and is responsible for Nelnet's financial performance and growth. He also directly leads the Nelnet Diversified Solutions loan servicing division and is focused on the acquisition and development of talent across the enterprise. He said many great mentors helped him during his career so he agreed to take part in the strategy course to pay it forward.
“The number one thing a strategic leader should do is stay utterly adaptable. The world is changing at such a rate with technological advances that are unprecedented in history. Leaders must constantly adapt, or they will be struggling to catch up with the world. Adaptability is not the turtle that will outpace the hare, it's the chameleon that will,” said Noordhoek, who graduated from Nebraska with a business administration degree before earning his MBA at Boston University.
Noordhoek previously served as president of Nelnet, senior vice president of National Education Loan Network, Inc. and vice president of Union Financial Services, Inc. He also served for seven years in various capacities for State Street Capital Corporation.
“In tough times or when leaders don't know exactly what to do, they should fall back on their core values and let those values guide them. For Nelnet, those values are: 1. A relentless focus on the customer as the top priority, 2. Making the company an awesome place to work for our associates because our people are our company and we want them to love their work and align with our purpose, 3. Diversify and grow, and we have put our eggs in different baskets to protect ourselves from unknowable catastrophic events, 4. Communicate openly and honestly with all of the constituencies which include all of the various stakeholders, and 5. Give back to the communities in which we live and work. Great corporate citizens are critical to communities and the success of those communities,” he said.
When Barnard, executive vice president and chief people officer at Cox Automotive, started her career, she didn’t realize the importance of hearing from experienced executives and didn't reach out because she thought they wouldn’t have the time to help her.
“It’s important to me for students to know that those of us who have been through decades of hard knocks want to help them be better prepared for the unexpected and build resilience. It's so important in the business world today," said Barnard, who leads all human resource functions, including corporate and field operations, total rewards, employee and leadership development and organizational effectiveness.
Prior to her current position, she served as president of Cox Automotive Inventory Solutions, where she directed several groups at Manheim, a subdivision of Cox Automotive, and engaged in transforming the company’s core auction business to incorporate an expanding digital, mobile and inventory solutions strategy. She led the industry’s largest wholesale auction network in North America, consisting of nearly 130 traditional and mobile sites.
“In my 20s, I owned and operated a farm with my husband, which failed during the savings and loan crisis in the ‘80s. When things got really tough in my business career, I would always look back on those days and tell myself, 'It will never be worse than that.' It gave me the strength and courage to get through those times. Having a major failure when you’re young in business, while not fun, is one of life’s greatest teachers, but you also have lots of time to make up for it and still do great things,” said Barnard.
The Diller High School graduate, who earned her undergraduate accounting degree at Nebraska, said business associates would often comment on her Nebraska work ethic. After working all over the country, she stated that the "roll-up your sleeves to get the work done" mindset has great value in business.
"I’m always amazed at how so many talented people are hesitant to make a move or make a decision for fear of things not working out or for fear of being wrong and making a mistake. My final advice is to not be afraid. If your gut tells you this is something you should do, then go for it. Few things in life are irreversible," she said.
Beck said the wealth of knowledge shared by Barnard; Noordhoek; Bill Nunez, vice chancellor and CFO of finance and administration at Texas Christian University; and other leaders helped the MBA students gain a better understanding of how business decisions are made and what factors influenced them.
A manager of data and analytics at ExecOnline, Tyler Foley of Virginia Beach, Virginia, took the course before graduating in May. He found the best insights from the C-suite leaders to be about keeping focus.
“Each speaker had a very different journey to their positions, as we all do, but each shared a similar message of a future state,” Foley said. “Where will this company end up, how will I get there and why am I doing this? That was something that really stuck with me, and I keep in mind on a daily basis."
Learn more about the MBA@Nebraska, how to apply and the higher post-graduation salaries alumni earn at: business.unl.edu/mba.
Published: August 16, 2023