Matthew T. Phillips

Creative Business (Charlotte Saturday MBA Class of 2014)

Charlotte Saturday MBA Graduation Celebration, Class of 2014
Bank of America Auditorium, Charlotte, NC

There is ample evidence in the world—frankly, there’s ample evidence on any newspaper front page—that those of us who claim the noble profession of business have lost control over the way we are perceived. This is related to a key difference between people who approach the world with a desire to create and those who approach the world out of a calling to manage. One is not better than the other. Both categories of people have opportunities to be leaders and to rise to esteemed positions, but the way they see their work in the context of society can be quite different.

Creativity looks like play, and it’s counterintuitive that play is productive. But a recent study by psychologists at San Francisco State University found that workers who regularly engage in creative activity were rated 15-30% higher on performance rankings. Even after accounting for differences in personality and training, those who engaged in creative activities came up with better solutions to work problems.

Most people—even most educated and thoughtful people—look at business students and practitioners and assume that we are driven by an interest in managing as opposed to creating.

Creative Leaders

There are counterexamples, and the list includes some of the most respected executives in American business: people like Steve Jobs, John Mackey, folks closer to home like Krispy Kreme’s chairman Jim Morgan, and historic figures like Walt Disney. Some of these essentially creative leaders were entrepreneurs who created something from nothing; others breathed new life and, of course, creativity, into existing businesses.

A couple of years ago I read Walter Isaacson’s fine biography of Steve Jobs back-to-back with Neal Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney. They were both creative geniuses in the traditional sense: Jobs with technology and Disney with entertainment. But they were also creative business leaders. They had reputations as difficult bosses, but in their wake they left people who had risen to the strongest and most impressive versions of themselves. They both despised management, and frequently succeeded because they created so much value that their lack of management skill became inconsequential.

Perhaps none of us will create a consumer technology or entertainment empire, but I believe that, even if you wouldn’t have said it precisely this way, when you chose to get your MBA at Wake Forest, you were looking for a pathway toward being a creative leader — not just a better manager. That’s part of studying business in the midst of a liberal arts university: we tend to see the world as a place of creation, not just understanding.

Being a creative business leader doesn’t require sitting at the top of an organization, either. It is a mindset that can add value at all levels.

Being a Creative Leader

Developing Teams and People

Of course one of the most creative things a leader can do is working to develop individuals and teams of people.

Many of us tend to attribute our achievement to individual ability: frequently the ways we measure performance only encourage that. And early in a career, developing one’s self rightly takes priority. The transition to developing others is a tough one. I can’t count the number of times I’ve detected nervousness on the part of a prospective student about the team emphasis in this program, and I think it often springs from the concern that the idea of developing as a team is comparatively foreign.

I wish I had great advice to offer, but this is a growth area for me, so I need to learn along with you – or perhaps from you. During the past two years, you have honed your skills as developers of one another’s talent. It’s the secret to this program: we put together a bunch of people who have relatively narrow but deep experience and then ask you to address problems that require much broader ability. In the process of creating solutions and opportunities for others, you’ve also created broader competencies for yourselves, and there’s no doubt of the value.

Working Without a Net (Ethics)

Being creative in leadership is inherently riskier for the leader because there’s no standard operating procedure. When you’re creating something new, you can’t look to see how it was created last time.

We know this to be particularly true when it comes to ethics. It probably came as a surprise to you when Pat Sweeney taught ethics as an essentially creative act. Being ethical—and especially leading ethically—is about understanding the context, gathering data, choosing the right frameworks for a solution, and then communicating that solution effectively. Creativity is the most critical tool in the effort.

Working without a net is the most challenging part of working creatively. Ethics is an important example because it highlights the risk: when we face leadership without a net, we are often tempted to freeze. But unlike in tort law, failing to act doesn’t mean you’re safe: all too often it means that you miss an opportunity to create a more ethical environment.

Enabling Flourishing in the Community

When we really get it right, the holy grail of leading creatively is that we increase the value experienced by the community around us. Put a different way, we enable those around us to flourish.

To some extent, this is aspirational: it feels a little pie-in-the-sky. But we are obligated toward this aspiration.

When we talk about business in our society, we argue occasionally over whether business professionals are supposed to maximize profits for owners or make decisions according to the interests of a variety of stakeholders. But we agree that the goal is to create value. If business enterprises, taken together, don’t create value and enable flourishing in the community, then the most cynical protester is right: we’re just lining our own pockets.

I don’t think it’s very often that mechanical management enables flourishing. It is, rather, an essentially creative act. It requires leveraging the disciplines of business from a broad perspective. “Business as usual” cannot be our goal: business is a means through which we enable flourishing.

Flourishing and “Pro Humanitate”

This goal of creating flourishing is at the core of Wake Forest University. The seal on your diploma and on your medallion bear the University’s motto, Pro Humanitate. Adopted in the early 20th century, the motto doesn’t mean “do nice things for other people,” or even just “for humanity.” In its full context, the motto was originally meant to convey the idea that our mission is to use what is distinctive about ourselves—our particular identities—in order to become more fully human and to flourish… and to help others along in that journey.

This graduation ceremony, then, is not just an occasion to mark the end of your graduate study: it marks a begun (or, hopefully, renewed) commitment to enable flourishing: to engage in business as creative professionals. I commend this commitment to you as a challenging obligation and a lifelong aspiration.

Please know, on behalf of my faculty and staff colleagues, you are now alumni of the Wake Forest University School of Business, and so we are working alongside you in that lofty goal.

In this, as in all things, this shall ever be your community: we stand ready to challenge and support you, and we are grateful for the ways you challenge and support us too.

Congratulations, and thank you.