Several times each year, the Wisconsin School of Business invites business leaders to share their experiences with students, faculty, staff, and alumni through the Weikel speaker series. This academic year, the Weikel has brought us some seriously impressive business leaders spanning public and private sectors with a broad range of backgrounds. Because of this diversity, we get to hear unique—and sometimes differing—perspectives on how to be a great leader, carve a path to the C-suite, and measure personal and professional success (hint: there’s no one way to do any of this).
Our most recent speaker, Aaron S. Williams, is an alum of the Wisconsin School of Business and of The Consortium, which aims to increase diversity and inclusion in business schools across the United States. Currently, Williams is executive vice president of government relations and corporate communications at RTI International. In his career, Williams has worked all over the place, literally and figuratively. He’s been in government, nonprofit, and corporate environments; he’s worked in Minnesota as a General Mills product manager; he’s served in foreign services in Latin America and South Africa; he’s volunteered in the Dominican Republican as a member of the Peace Corps. He’s even worked with Nelson Mandela. So you could say that he has a well-rounded perspective on what it takes to be a leader. What I found interesting was that, throughout all of these varied experiences, Williams has found a few key traits that all great leaders share. They:
- Are superb listeners. They don’t just appear to be listening—they internalize what they hear.
- Walk the talk. They have a vision, and they do whatever they can to bring their vision to life.
- Have your back. If you fail, great leaders don’t throw you under the bus. They help you learn from your failure.
- Are very, very secure. When faced with a challenge, leaders must believe in themselves and their vision.
- Hire people who disagree with them. Great leaders welcome diversity of thought.
Throughout the night, we heard time and time again that the differences between leading in a business vs. government vs. nonprofit setting aren’t actually as stark as we may think. Rather, the skills we build at the Wisconsin School of Business are transferable across sectors. Williams was a fitting speaker for our final Weikel of the year because he really exemplified what we can do with our MBAs and, more importantly, how we can use our skills to contribute to the greater good.