3 Executive Lessons from Top Business Leaders

The Washington State University Carson College of Business offers an executive-level Master of Business Administration program (EMBA) designed to help students reach the C-suite. Here, working professionals can learn more about high-level strategic decision making and executive leadership than they might experience while in the office.

This said, the best EMBA students use lessons learned both inside and outside the classroom when pursuing their careers. To become an executive, EMBA students should look at current business leaders' development for both inspiration and information. Here are 3 lessons from some of today's greatest executives that can help EMBA students meet their ambitions:

1. Follow the small details and be open to change

The story: Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks Coffee Company, is often regarded as a paragon of ethical leadership. One lesson to take from his success is that ethical practices can lead to global success, but there is another, less-often discussed message as well: the importance of noticing small details.

This advice stems from the beginning of Schultz's involvement with the coffee chain. Before he joined Starbucks, Schultz worked for the Swedish household products company Hammarplast. While reviewing order sheets, he noticed a small Seattle retailer was ordering an unusual amount of drip coffee makers—more so than Macy's, in fact. Schultz flew to Seattle to see what was going on and discovered Starbucks. The passion for coffee he saw was so compelling that he fought for a year to get a job there, persisting even after the owners turned him away. The rest of the story is common knowledge: Starbucks grew to be one of the largest coffee providers with, according to Forbes, a market capitalization of $84.6 billion as of May 2017.

The lesson: Curiosity and attention to detail can take a person from average employee to executive leadership. Following one's passion is often a gamble, but it can be an extremely lucrative decision in the long run.

Curiosity led Schultz to create the world’s most famous coffeehouse chain.

2. Stick to your approach to leadership

The story: Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook knew he would be highly scrutinized when he took predecessor Steve Jobs' position, but he still found the intensity staggering. Cook was consistently compared to Jobs, and many were doubtful of Apple's ability to remain at the top of the market under its new leadership.

This perception was partially because of Cook's different approach. Fortune once compared the two styles, noting that where Jobs was more withdrawn and insular, Cook was outgoing and progressive. While Apple's former CEO was relatively private and stood against acquisitions, corporate philanthropy, and selling to corporations, its new one purchased the audio company Beats for $3 billion, and regularly advocated for human rights. Furthermore, Cook's efforts have consistently paid off. The company's stock went from $54 to $126 between 2011—the year of Cook's appointment—and 2015. Analysts also suspect the release of the iPhone 8 will result in Apple becoming the first company to reach a $1 trillion market cap, according to MarketWatch.

The lesson: Great executives have their own leadership styles and don't submit to pressure to perform any other way. While Cook's strategies are incredibly different from Jobs's, they are no less strategic, well-informed, and successful.

3. Ensure company efforts align with the spirit of the brand

The story: When the luxury market rapidly expanded during the 2000s, the British fashion brand Burberry should have prospered. However, the company only grew at 2 percent per year. Meanwhile, Burberry competitor Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy had almost 12 times the British company's revenue. Burberry recognized it was quickly losing its place among luxury retailers.

Enter Angela Ahrendts; she became Burberry's CEO in July 2006 and immediately identified two challenges in their luxury retail space:

1. The brand wasn’t compelling enough to buy, even for Burberry employees. When the company's top managers from around the world attended London for the first strategic meeting since Ahrendts took the position, she noticed none of them wore the brand's iconic trench coat. If managers with great company discounts didn't wear Burberry coats, she questioned, why would consumers pay full price for one?
2. The brand's luxury status was fading. At the time, Burberry had 23 licensees and sold a wide spectrum of products, from kilts to dog leashes. Ahrendts knew she needed to take action and fix the brand’s image, or else the company's aura of exclusivity would be lost.

After identifying these two challenges, Ahrendts noted that Burberry needed consistency, so her first steps were to identify brand elements that no longer matched its core. Her initial actions included:

• Appointing a young designer named Christopher Bailey as the new "brand czar" and informing the company's worldwide production outlets that all designs were to go through him first.
• Closing a factory in New Jersey so all the company's products would be authentically British.
• Reinstating the company’s focus on returning to its legacy trench coats, a decision she knew was necessary when she saw a Hong Kong design director working on a line that contained almost everything except the weather-resistant outerwear.
• Restructuring the company almost completely, eliminating the Hong Kong design team and moving some of the American team to the U.K.
• Re-evaluating the roles of certain department heads, particularly those of the different clothing segments.
• Onboarding necessary corporate players like a chief supply chain officer and a head of planning.
• Shifting the company's entire marketing efforts to millennials.

Ahrendts' decisions stirred controversy within the business, among the public, and even in the legal sector. Yet her massive disruption was worth it: The brand's iconic status was restored. Additionally, as the BBC reported, increasing demand among Chinese consumers currently boosts the company's sales.

The lesson: Executives must focus on the ideals that made their business successful. By diverting too far from their origins, businesses can lose their standing in the market, threatening their financial futures. Ahrendts' actions were drastic but necessary to restore the Burberry brand.

Ahrendts’ major changes brought success to Burberry.

Learning at the executive level

Schultz, Cook, and Ahrendts had decades of combined leadership experience that drove them and their companies to success. Following in their footsteps and becoming an executive leader takes more time and knowledge than most business positions, but an online EMBA from The Carson College of Business can make the journey easier.

Recommended Readings:

5 Ways the World’s Top CEOs Maintain Their Work-Life Balance

5 Top Trends in Executive Development