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A balance in and out of academia

Submitted by on Wednesday, 12 November 2008No Comment
A balance in and out of academia

Dr Thomas Robertson is dean of Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. DAVID GEMMELL caught up with him in Cape Town earlier this year to find out how he copes with the demands of academic life.

Q: What brings you to Cape Town?

A: Every year Wharton Business School hosts Global Alumni Forums to learn about emerging parts of the global economy. This year the forums will be held in Peru, Lima, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and this one in Cape Town. We have roughly 250 graduates attending, which is really satisfying from a personal point of view, as I catch up with people that in some cases, I haven’t seen for ages.

Q: I note from your business card that you are very well qualified. Given that you are in Academia are you still studying?

A: No I’ve passed that stage. I think without even trying, because of the nature of the job, you are always learning, but I don’t actually study for qualifications any more.

Q: What time does your day start?

A: I get up at about six. Half the time I’m travelling which doesn’t lend itself to a routine, and the other half when I get up I try and go for a run. I usually run a couple of miles or about 25/ 30 minutes; I generally make it three times a week.

Q: What do you do for breakfast?

A: For the most part I don’t eat stuff like bacon and eggs and fried food and I try and stick to cereal – something simple, and I suppose healthy. With the amount of travelling I do it isn’t always easy as some of the hotel breakfasts can be quite tempting, but I’m pretty good about it.

Q: Are you quite health conscious about your diet?

A: I try to be reasonably health conscious – although I’m not doctrinaire about it. I generally avoid red meat – I try and stick to fish and fowl. But I do probably drink too much coffee and I have a couple of glasses of wine most days.

Q: Given that you drink too much coffee, do you sleep well?

A: I do. I do sleep well. If you’re working hard I guess you sleep well. I don’t worry about things too much during the night, which I’m sure helps. Also I don’t drink any coffee after about 4.00 in the afternoon.

Q: What would your death row meal be?

A: (Smiles) Believe it or not I would be happy with a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee. I suppose breakfast is as good a time as any to go (laughs).

Q: Have you had any major health scares?

A: Yes I had optic neuritis, which is a viral infection that causes inflammation of the optic nerve that may cause a complete, or partial loss of vision and it can be correlated with multiple sclerosis. It turned out it wasn’t. But apart from that, no real scares.

Q: What depresses you?

A: I’m very involved with my family so I get depressed if anyone in my family is ill or having unpleasant issues – fortunately I don’t have that problem at the moment. Zimbabwe depresses me – though it probably depresses everyone (smiles). The state of world affairs; although I’m not sure it depresses me, but it certainly concerns me.

Q: How do you deal with stress?

A: For the most part I deal fairly well with stress. But occasionally I get blindsided where I think I’m coping just fine and then all of a sudden I can’t think what’s wrong with me, because I am all stressed out or not getting enough sleep, whatever. But when that happens I try to have a regular day, eat the same things, have a couple of glasses of wine in the evening and have a nice routine, get plenty of sleep, all of which I think definitely helps. And I try to keep at my exercise, because that relaxes me and I think it is important to take regular vacations and desensitise.

Q: What is a vacation for you?

A: I go skiing for a week once a year; and then we try and fit in a beach holiday, last year we went to Nantucket, but I don’t lie on the beach very well. I’m good for about an hour on the beach (laughs). I go running on the beach and I play tennis.

Q: Are you a good skier?

A: I don’t think I’m good at anything, but I ski; I get up to the top – although that’s easy (laughs), and I can get down. So I’m a competent skier, but I’m not sure how ‘good’ I am.

Q: Are you capable of doing black runs?

A: I prefer not to. I can, but you are putting yourself at some risk and although I’ve only hurt myself once; you don’t really want to hurt yourself. So I prefer blue runs. We usually go to Vale, but last year we went to Aspen and I’ve skied Europe – Chamonix – quite a lot. It is, as you probably are aware, very good exercise and because you have to concentrate on the skiing, very therapeutic.

Q: One of my previous subjects, Saki Macozoma, expressed the view that business is basically common sense; if you don’t have common sense an MBA is not going to make a huge difference. What’s your comment on that?

A: Common sense certainly helps. But business can be fairly complex and you can benefit from simulated experience in a business school, where you learn a set of technical skills in terms of things like finance, risk management, marketing, whatever. But I think it would be inefficient to pick up those skills on your own. Maybe you could do it – but it would be inefficient. I think it’s important to know and have the language of business and have the technical skills of business. The other major thing that a business school does is put you with peers who usually have a few years work experience – the average age of MBA students at Wharton is 28 – so they have worked for 5 or 6 years and that experience can be shared. Also we use case studies some of the time and simulations other times, which means you can have the benefit and experience of making decisions which aren’t going to do any damage while you are learning.

Q: What’s your view, when it comes to inherent business skills, of the nature vs nurture argument?

A: It always comes up as an issue and it always comes up in relation to leadership in particular. You could be a successful business person based on nature, without any formal business skills, but ultimately you need the nurturing so you can fit into the conventions of business, which is inevitably fast paced and doesn’t necessarily have the patience to wait while someone learns the formal practises of business. The best students we get are the ones who have intellectual ability, but also have the skills which very often are nurtured, to enable them to take the point of view of ,’the other person’. I don’t think you can be a leader if you can’t take the point of view from the other side. Because otherwise you will charge ahead and no-one will follow, which applies just as much in business. I’m not sure if that answers your question, but there will always be an argument about the role of nature and the role of nurturing, not only in business, but in many other aspects of personal development.

Q: If you could choose to be stranded in one place in the world where would it be?

A: London – because of the richness of the environment and the culture, the theatre. It is a very civilised place. I really enjoy London.

Q: What would your fantasy other job be?

A: In my next life I would like to be a professional football player.

Q: American football?

A: No soccer. I follow the English game. For a while now I have supported Chelsea. I lost interest in Manchester United when the American’s bought them (laughs). Oh, and I also like Arsenal a lot.

Q: Who from the whole of history would you like to sit next to on a long flight?

A: Winston Churchill; I think he did a remarkable job guiding the UK, and in some way the free world, through World War Two. Margaret Thatcher sitting on the other side would be interesting and of course I would like to have a chat to George Washington.

Q: Tell me something about you that no one else knows?

A: When my kids were at college I used to watch whatever sports they were doing, lacrosse, or football or swimming and one of the advantages of being an academic, especially before I was Dean, was the flexibility of the hours. But for everyone else it was quite suspicious how I could always be there and I think they all thought I didn’t have a job (laughs).

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